The Carolingian Renaissance

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The Preservation of Knowledge as Rome Fell

As the Roman Empire became Christianized, some conflicts between Greco-Roman culture and Christian values became apparent. Examples of this were some instances of immoral behavior in the classical literature and some elements of the Aristotelian Cosmology. But in general, Christianity embraced and attempted to assimilate and harmonize this heritage with its fundamental principles. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), an influential theologian, recognized that scientific studies could be used to improve Christian life, and thus could be seen as a work of charity: “For as we ought not to neglect the heavens, and earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them, and honor God’s works instead of God: but to reap what advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers [1]." This harmonization effort, however, was disrupted by the chaos resulting from the barbarian invasions, as Rome fell first to the Visigoths (476) and then to the Ostrogoths (493). The Western empire was gradually dismembered among the waves of invaders.

Some degree of civilization was preserved in the center of the Western Empire, in the city of Rome and its environs. Some Roman officials contributed their services to the new barbarian rulers, helping to restore some order. Another thread of culture survived through exile and refuge. A number of monks from the European continent escaping from the barbarians emigrated to the isolated haven of Ireland. The Irish monasteries became important study centers, and the copying of classical manuscripts was a well established practice at these centers. This cultural flourishing at the Irish monasteries declined after the destructions by the Viking invaders in the eight century, but their contributions were able to survive through the educational and missionary activities of the Irish monks, and they had a significant influence on the English church [2].

The Franks

The Franks were one of the many barbarian groups that had invaded the western Roman Empire, settling in what would become France and sections of Germany. Pippin became king of the Franks in 755, with the support of  Pope Stephen II (752-757), who viewed the military power of the Franks as protection against the Lombards, who controlled most of Italy. Pippin and his son Charles, known as "the Great," (Charlemagne) protected the popes against Lombard attacks. In 774, Charlemagne took full control of Northern Italy from the Lomabards.  Charlemagne significantly expanded the frontiers oh his empire, which came to include France, Germany, Catalonia in Spain, and Northern Italy.

Charlemagne, Alcuin and the Love of Learning

A number of factors came together to make possible the cultural rebirth in the reign of Charlemagne, but there is general agreement among scholars that the primary force propelling this process was his personal initiative [3]. The first cultural step that Charlemagne took was to lure scholars to his court. Peter of Pisa, Paul the Deacon, and Paulinus of Aquileia came from Italy, Agobard and Theodulf from Spain, and Alcuin from England. Alcuin reflects on this in a letter to Charlemagne:

Happy is the people ruled by a good and wise prince, as we read in Plato’s dictum that kingdoms are happy if philosophers, that is lovers of wisdom, are their kings, or if kings devote themselves to philosophy. For nothing in the world can be compared to wisdom... I know it was your chief concern, my Lord David [his nickname for Charlemagne, relating him to the good biblical king], to love and preach it. You were eager to encourage all to learn and stimulated them by rewards and honors, and you invited lovers of wisdom from different parts of the world to help in your plans. Amongst them you brought me, the least of the servants of wisdom, from the remotest part of Britain [4].

Alcuin was born of a noble Northumbrian family about 732. He received his education at York.On the death of his teacher Aelbert, he was given charge of the cathedral library at York, then one of the best libraries in the West. During a trip to Italy, Alcuin met Charlemagne, who convinced him to come to his court. Alcuin directed a “palace school” from 782 to 796 at the court of Charlemagne, and he passed on to his pupils the love of learning that he had received from his teachers. His own love of learning was fully integrated with his religious vocation: “How pleasant life was when we sat among the writings of the wise, surrounded by a wealth of books and the worthy thoughts of the fathers, lacking nothing we needed for the religious life and the pursuit of knowledge! [5]"

In 796 Alcuin was seeking to return to monastic life, and Charlemagne obliged by appointed him as Abbot of Saint Martin at Tours, and from there he continued his partnership with the king in the cultural enrichment of the kingdom:

I, your Flaccus [Alcuins’s nickname, from the Roman poet Horatius Flaccus], am busy carrying out your wishes and instructions at St. Martin’s, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning, beginning to feed others on the fruits of grammar, while to some I propose to reveal the order of the stars, like the painted roof of a great man’s house. I become many things to many men, in order to train many for the advance of the holy church of God and the honor of your imperial kingdom, that the grace of Almighty God may not be idle in me nor your generosity unavailing [6]."

At Tours, Alcuin began the process of developing the art of copying manuscripts into a science. A more practical writing style was perfected, materials were carefully selected, and binding techniques were improved. Alcuin maintained personal poverty in spite of the king's generosity, preferring to use the resources available to him for furthering learning with the purchase of books and the support of monastic students. He did not seek ecclesiastic power, remaining a deacon until the end of his life. He died simply on the feast of Pentecost in 804 [7].

In 787, Charlemagne published a legislative letter, entitled De Litteris Colendis in 787, which has been called “the foundation charter of the Carolingian renaissance.” This letter, which was to be circulated to all bishops and abbots, states:

Be it known, therefore, to your devotion pleasing to God, that we, together with our faithful, have considered it to be useful that the bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favor of Christ to our control, in addition to the order of monastic life and the intercourse of holy religion, in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observance of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly [8].

An order to establish schools was more specifically stated in another letter in 789. These prescriptions had tangible results. At least fifty monastic and cathedral centers in the Carolingian empire have left some record of their educational contributions [9].

Carolingian Society

In his identification with biblical kings, Charlemagne took seriously his role as protector of the weak and the guardian of public order. He condemned the hoarding of agricultural products and speculation, defined just prices, and set standards of measure [10] There were crop failures and a serious famine from 793 to 794. In order to reduce distress, Charlemagne ordered in 794 that grain be sold from the royal domains at a reduced price.  In 805 he forbade the exporting of grain outside the Empire and ordered all those that held lands in benefice from the king to feed the hungry in their estates [11]. Charlemagne’s legislative letters also strove to protect the common people from the great landowners.

Church institutions were given a special responsibility to help the needy. Charlemagne wrote in 789: “Let there be hospices in different places for travelers, places in monasteries and clerical communities to welcome the poor [12]." Alcuin enjoined one of his monastic disciples: “Be as a father to the poor and unfortunate, humble in service and generous in giving, that you may receive their blessing [13]."

Note: For a more detailed version of this material see: Alfredo Romagosa, “The Carolingian Renaissance and Christian Humanism,Logos, Fall 2003, pp. 136-149.

[1] Gregory of Nazianzus, “The Panegyric on St. Basil” in A Select Library of  Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1890-1900), vol. 7, 398.

[2] Pierre Riche, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West (Colunbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 373-374.  

[3]Pierre Riche, The Carolingians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 4.

[4] Alcuin of York, Alcuin of York- His Life and Letters, ed. Stephen Allott (York, England: William Sessions Limited, 1974), 83-84.

[5] Ibid., 131.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Andrew Fleming West, Alcuin and the Rise of the Christian Schools (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909),  87.

[8] Laws of Charles the Great, ed. Dana C. Munro (Philadelphia: Department of History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1900),  12-15.

[9] John J. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance” in Warren Treadgold, ed., The Renaissances before the Reniassance (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1984), 72.

[10] Pierre Riche, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne (Philadelphia:University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978),  120-122.

[11] David Nicholas, The Evolution of the Medieval World (London: Longman,1992),  166.

[12] Riche, Daily Life,  270-271.

[13] Alcuin of York, Alcuin of York- His Life and Letters, 136.