The Carolingian Renaissance

by S.W. and D.F.

During the eighth century, continental Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, a period marred by nearly constant warfare, widespread economic strife, and a lack of acceptable education within the secular world. There was, however, one oasis in this desert of ignorance. The court of the Frankish king, and later emperor, Charlemagne became a haven for many of the greatest minds of the day, and brought about vast changes in the education of the populus. This period of immense social reform came to be known as the Carolingian Renaissance after Charlemagne, the man who served as the impetus for this important time in the development of the European culture.

In 768 Charles the Great, later known as Charlemagne, ascended the Frankish throne following the death of his father Pepin III. According to Heer (1975), Charlemagne saw the throne as his by divine right, giving him not only total control over the people, but the responsibility to uphold the ideals of the church as well.

Heer (1975) states:

Pepin the Short's use of the title 'king by the grace of God' foreshadows this new attitude. There is no sign that Pepin was conscious of the political and theological implications of the phrase; for him it was probably nothing more than a political convenience. For Charlemagne, however, the idea of divinely sanctioned kingship expressed the king's central role in creating the Christian empire. (p. 155)

Charlemagne's image of himself as a religious leader as well as a secular one led to some of his earliest educational reforms. According to Dahmus (1968):

The letters he received from monasteries which should have been penned in quite scholarly Latin, he found full of grammatical errors and "uncouth expressions. Hence we begin to fear," he explained, "that being too little skilled in writing, there might also be far too little wisdom in understanding the Holy Scriptures." He accordingly issued instructions to the bishops and abbots of his empire that they improve and expand their schools and libraries, and that they keep these schools not entirely to themselves but open them to the sons of the laity who had no intention of becoming monks. And "let them learn psalms, notes, signing, computus, grammar, and let the religious books that are given them be free of faults because often some desire to pray to God properly, but they pray badly because of faulty books." (p. 206, 207)

Charlemagne's revival of learning did not, however, end with his subjects. Charlemagne himself carried a love of learning and a desire to extend the education he had received as a boy in the court of his father. Heer (1975) describes the knowledge Charlemagne acquired both as a boy, and later as a king:

[Charles'] native tongue was the popular Latin, but Charles also knew German and spoke and read classical Latin, the language of the administration and the church. As a mature man he learnt Greek and studied the Latin classics. He never learnt to write very well, although he had a tablet which he would often produce in an idle moment, to practice forming his letters. He knew enough arithmetic to reckon up accounts if necessary, which was as rare a skill as literacy, and he developed this interest later in life as well: astronomy came to fascinate him., and he would make invovled calculations of the course of the stars. (p.21)

Charlemagne's quest for knowledge and love of education was helped along by, and in fact let to, probably the most important aspect of the Carolingian Renaissance, his court of scholars. At the beginning of Charlemagne's reign, the only European nation which could boast any kind of great scholarly community was England, with great teachers such as the Venerable Bede setting the stage. The court of charlemagne would, before the end of his reign, rival that of England, wih Charlemagne's personal tutor Alcuin leading the way.

Born in York and a protege of one of the followers of the Venerable Bede, Alcuin met Charlemagne at Parma in 781 and the king saw in him a man who could serve his needs as teacher and mentor to those in his court. Alcuin proved to be just the man for the job, as stated by Bullough (1965):

Evidence of originality in his writings is hard to find and he cannot be numbered among the more creative of the scholars who gathered around Charles, except perhaps in the field of liturgy. He had instead a rare gift for friendship, which was not broken when personal contact stopped but was maintained and even strengthened--like all true Christian relationships--by prayer as much as by correspondence; and he never forgot what he had learned from his teacher at York "one learns in order to teach." Hence he was a transmitter of the learning of greater minds than his own, skilled in bringing out the best in his contemporaries and in inspiring the younger generation to rise to greater heights than their masters. Such was the impact on those he helped to educate in those years that for three-quarters of a century men were proud to remember they were pupils or pupils of pupils of Alcuin. (p. 102)

In order to educate the younger generation of courtiers, Alcuin develped a series of treatises on a variety of topics. These works often took the form of dialogues, between teacher and student, and later between Alcuin and Charlemagne himself. One such writing, as quoted by Bullough (1965), includes this dialogue on the subject of justice:

C. Expound the nature of justice. A. Justice is a state of mind which assigns to each thing its proper worth. In it the cult of the divine, the rights of mankind, and the equitable state of the whole of life are preserved. C. How is justice that proceeds from customary use maintained? A. By contract, by equity, by judgment by law. C. I would like to har more about these also. A. Contract is an agreement between persons. Equity is that which is fair to all. Judgment is what is established by the opinions of a prominent man or of several. Law is right written down for all the people to know what is their duty to avoid and maintain.(p. 103)

Via these dialogues Alcuin was able to convey complex ideas in simple terms, making them more understandable for his pupils.

The Carolingian Renaissance brought about through the instigation of Charlemagne and carried out by the teachings of Alcuin impacted European learning for many years to come, and did not die with the men who began it. According to Bauml (1969), the movement went on without them:

Intellectual and artistic activity continued after Alcuin's and Charles' death. It was carried on largely by scholars and artists whose cultural descent can be traced, however indirectly, to Alcuin and his fellow scholars at Charles' court, such as Paul the Deacon, author of a History of the Lombards, the Latinest Peter of Pisa, Theodulf, poet and bishop of Orleans, Angilbert, another poet and archbishop of Lyons,. and Charles' biographer Einhard.

These men would lead the Frankish empire, and all of Europe, into a new era of learning and culture.


This page was created by S.W. and D.F., 5/21/97, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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