A classic episode about one of the greatest periods of learning, construction & art in European history.
54 – The Carolingian Renaissance
Introduction: What is a Renaissance?
The word ‘Renaissance,’ which is French for ‘rebirth,’ immediately inspires visions of beauty, renewal and a flowering of culture. It also refers to people regaining their lost heritage, specifically that of Classical Rome. When people think of the Renaissance they usually refer to the explosion of art and science that began in Italy during the 14th to 17th centuries. However, modern historians recognize that there were multiple ‘renaissances’ in Europe, the very first of which began in the Frankish Empire.
Historians have long abandoned the term ‘Dark Ages’ to refer to the early medieval period. Yet, the 3rd to 8th centuries which encompassed the Late Roman Empire and the early post-Roman kingdoms, were a less remarkable period than that of the High Roman Empire. During this period there were far less monumental construction projects and cities declined, as did the overall population of Europe. Literacy and artistic production faltered. Less industry and unstable borders meant less trade, meaning people’s lives were more insular. The Roman Empire’s failure meant that Europe was stumbling forward into a new era while other areas developed extensive networks for cross-cultural exchange, as was the case with the Islamic Caliphate.
The period of relative European stagnation ended under Charlemagne’s reign. Charles the Great deserves his moniker for the cultural achievements he sponsored which were far more important than even his staggering military accomplishments. King Charles of Francia sponsored architects, educators, painters, poets and theologians more than anyone since the High Roman Empire. During his reign the Carolingian Empire produced tens of thousands of books. In terms of architectural achievements, Charles funded a building frenzy that meant architects could experiment with new techniques as they created monuments which lasted for centuries if not millennia. Charles sponsored education, and under Alcuin of York teachers adopted the Seven Liberal Arts. The Seven Liberal Arts became the foundation for European learning and the first universities that emerged during the 11th and 12th centuries taught them. Charles sponsored astronomers to chart the heavens and determine the correct holy days. During his reign, Charles adopted a relatively obscure dating system which dated events based on those years before Christ, or BC, or those occurring during “the year of our Lord,” in Latin Anno Domini or AD for short. While the Franks did not invent this system, Charles popularized it across Europe. Charles’ patronage of poets expanded Francia’s literary traditions, leading to whole new styles of expression.
Charles’ reign, and the continuation of his programs under his descendants, remade Western and Central Europe. Before Charles, this area was a technological, artistic and economic backwater compared to the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. The Carolingian Renaissance uplifted Western and Central Europe so that it was on the same playing field as its rivals. For all these reasons, this was one of the most important long-term developments in European history.
Before we jump in, we have to talk about the concept of the Renaissance. Historians first used the term ‘Renaissance’ in the late-19th century when talking about the Italian Renaissance. They proclaimed that the Italians rediscovered lost innovations from the Roman Empire. Modern historians now recognize that most of the innovations that occurred during the period were new. Much of the art and architecture emulated Rome and used Roman motifs, but the real importance was in new discoveries by Da Vinci and the other masters.
The Carolingian Renaissance has many similarities with its equally important, though more famous, counterpart. Poets at Charles’ court repeatedly hailed his empire as Rome reborn. They described his rule using the terms ‘renovatio’ and ‘repatrio,’ which are the closest Latin words to the French ‘Renaissance.’ The Roman Empire lingered in people’s minds as the standard with which to judge all countries. The poets compared Francia to Rome and the Pope crowned Charles the Holy Roman Emperor because those were the greatest honorifics they could give. But the Carolingian Renaissance was not a mere rediscovery of Roman achievements. In every way the Franks pushed boundaries in the arts and sciences. While the literal word means ‘rebirth,’ every renaissance is actually a period of incredible new discoveries.
But don’t tell that to Charles. In a supreme case of irony, the man mostly responsible for Europe’s march forward was trying to move it backward. Charles had one overriding program for his empire: uniformity. He wanted to bring his people together under one law, language, bureaucracy, calendar and religion. He patronized artists to copy Roman-style and priests to enforce strict doctrinal Roman Catholicism. But the artists experimented with new techniques and the priests developed their own theological ideas. Essentially, Charles Mr. Magoo’ed his way to a golden age. Oh wow, is that reference too old? Someone message me what the Zoomer equivalent to Mr. Magoo is. But be sure to telegraph it to me because apparently I’m old!
In many ways Charles did revive the old Roman system. He created an enormous political unit with a highly-literate bureaucracy, mobile army and well-kept roads and canals. City populations grew well beyond those during the Merovingian period. Industry and craftwork soared. Widespread cavalry and local defenses decreased banditry and protected travelers. A unified navy in the western Mediterranean repulsed Islamic pirates. The Frankish Empire’s military and bureaucratic functions operated much like the Roman Empire, though these facilitated the cultural growth of something entirely new.
Chapter 1: Writing
Few things have ever been as important to the tide of history as the expansion and dissemination of the written word. It may not seem remarkable to us since writing is everywhere, but just consider that one person could have complex thoughts, convey them in symbols and other humans thousands of years later could look at them and have near-similar thoughts. This incredible invention has only been a part of the human experience for less than 1% of its time on Earth. Yet, in hardly any time at all, transmissible knowledge through writing enabled humanity to dominate their planet and travel beyond it. In our modern society it’s easy to see how important writing is to societal development. During his reign Charles expanded literacy, probably moreso than any previous European leader. Yet, Charles wasn’t looking to the future. He expanded writing as a way of returning his lands to an imagined godly past.
Well before the advent of Christianity, European leaders were expected to look after their people’s spiritual well-being. The Gauls had druids while the Romans had priests to their various gods. The most-powerful Roman priest was the Pontifex Maximus. There was no clear division between secular and religious offices, and aspiring politicians took up the title Pontifex Maximus, including Julius Caesar and his heir Augustus. For three-and-a-half centuries Roman Emperors held the title. Even during the Christian period, Roman emperors hosted church councils and synods.
Secular leaders’ power in religious affairs declined in the post-Roman kingdoms. The native Gallo-Roman priests jealously guarded their spiritual power as the ‘barbarians’ assumed political power. The Merovingians sponsored religious buildings and festivals as a means of acquiring religious authority, but their power in this field was limited; so limited that Frankish kings like Clothar were excommunicated…though in fairness he deserved it. Oh, boy did he deserve it.
In 751 Pepin overthrew the last Merovingian king and started a new dynasty. He relentlessly propagandized against his predecessors who he claimed were sinful and corrupt. By the time his son Charles came to power there was an overwhelming sense that Francia, and especially the church, were horribly corrupt. Saint Boniface claimed that priests regularly committed adultery and ignored their oaths and duties to God. Moreover, since there wasn’t a strong king to enforce church dogma there was religious disunity. Priests developed theological ideas and since the later Merovingians rarely called ecumenical councils or synods these went unresolved and regional churches ideologically drifted from others. Theological differences spilled over into political chaos since bishops ruled over bishoprics and powerful cities. If one bishop adopted a radically different idea about the Eucharist or transubstantiation than his neighbor that could lead to conflict, even violence.
Charles took up the traditional role of secular and religious leader responsible for harmony within his realm. As he did, he looked backwards at a mostly imaginary past of Christian unity. Once he became King of the Lombards he used his position to transfer religious books from Italy into Francia where they were copied and disseminated in an attempt to standardize religious belief and practices. In 779 Charles turned his ideas into law when he issued The Capitulary of Herstal. The capitulary created a strict hierarchy with clerics subordinate to bishops and then archbishops. Monasteries had to have written rules which they followed without exception. Law courts had to dispense justice more dutifully, which necessitated a greater understanding of law texts.
Ten years later Charles issued the sweeping Admonitio generalis in which he states his right to oversee his people’s morality. Under his leadership the Franks would be a new chosen people, a new Israel, led by an anointed king. In this new kingdom priests had to live exemplary lives so as to set good examples. Bishops must oversee priests’ conduct during baptism, mass and singing of psalms. Furthermore, bishops must not “dare to innovate,” and priests were forbidden from introducing anything new in their sermons. In the words of Dr. Giles Brown, Charles ordered priests to preach, “The Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed stressing the nature of the Trinity, the meaning of the Incarnation, the threat of judgement and the promise of resurrection, warnings against mortal sins…the need to love God and their neighbor, about faith and hope, humility and patience, chastity and continence, goodness and compassion.” Through all these acts peace and concord would “bind the Christian society together and create an environment in which salvation may be won…conversely the corpus Christi is rent asunder by sin.”
To achieve unity of thought, all priests had to have access to the right Christian texts, alongside the ability to read them. Charles ordered that all priests be literate. Monasteries and churches had to set up schools, which taught writing, grammar, musical notation, singing and computation. Charles further wrote in letters to high-ranking clergy that ecclesiastical communities must teach literacy to all people in the community who could learn it. Finally, Charles sponsored churches and monasteries to construct and maintain scriptoriums, places where monks, priests or nuns copied books.
Bookmaking was a difficult process, especially since Europeans no longer had access to a steady source of papyrus after Egypt fell to Islamic forces. Instead, the Franks had to use parchment, which meant their books were vastly superior to their predecessors, though it took more work to make. Parchment was almost exclusively sheepskin. To make parchment a tanner had to take sheepskin with the wool and hair still on it and steep it in a lime solution to loosen hair and fat. Then the tanner squeezed and wrang the skin, while scraping hair and loose skin off. Then the tanner stretched it across a frame to dry. When dry, the tanner scraped it with a half-moon knife, which required great skill so as not to puncture or damage it. After that, the skin was cut into appropriate sizes. This made manuscripts much more expensive than papyrus-based scrolls, but these works were more durable. Parchment’s durability, combined with the bookmaking boom in the Carolingian Renaissance are the two major reasons why 7,900 European books or book fragments from the 9th century remain intact to this day, as opposed to 1,900 books from all previous eras combined.
Charles’ reforms led to an explosion of writing. During the 9th century the Carolingians produced 100,000 books. The population of the Frankish Empire was around 10 to 20 million, meaning that there was 1 book for every 100 or 200 people. This might not seem like much, but it was an incredible feat at a time when a scribe could only copy about ten pages a day. Wealthy people owned the vast majority of books, but less well-off people could still access them. Families and communities were close-knit and people shared books, or read them to others, so literacy wasn’t just confined to manuscript-owners. Churches maintained libraries and priests could read to their communities and use the books to teach reading as well. Libraries cataloged their books and compared their holdings to other libraries. When one library had a book that another didn’t have the library would request the book, copy it and return it. This empire-wide book exchange meant knowledge passed from one corner of the realm to another as libraries loaned manuscripts to each other. Aside from religious people, lay craftsman and notaries got into the bookmaking business leading to even more publishing.
The majority of copied works were Christian or Classical Greco-Roman texts. Scribes copied the Bible, or parts of the Bible, often the Psalms or the Gospels, alongside commentaries on it. The Franks also copied classic Greco-Roman texts, which they viewed as masterworks of logic and Latin, even if they were written by pagans. But writers produced books on every topic imaginable: there were books on estate management, warfare, medicine, mathematics, cosmography, music, building, geography, astronomy, law, agriculture, history, prayer books, liturgical books, hymnals and the psalms. Yet, the Franks didn’t just copy old works but developed their own ideas, leading to a plethora of new concepts that were quickly disseminated throughout the empire. Everyone who could afford a book wanted one, and scriptoriums were always busy producing copies of old works or newly-written books for their clients.
As scribes wrote out their works they also experimented with new writing techniques. Classic Latin text was difficult to read, to put it mildly, and writers across Western Francia tried to simplify it. The monks at Corbie radically changed the Merovingian script by, get this, putting spaces between words, and by introducing miniscule letters, where before all words were written together and in all capital letters. Renowned Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York admired Corbie’s style and promoted spacing and miniscule at court while developing it further. As the most important teacher at Aachen, Alcuin taught the next generation of leaders his new style, later known as Carolingian miniscule. Charles promoted the style, and since scriptoriums were in constant contact with each other Carolingian miniscule rapidly became the new standard across the empire. I don’t think I even have to explain how remarkable an improvement this was over previous writing. Each word became its own distinct entity. Meanwhile a mix of miniscule and capital letters separated sentences from each other. Now, every bit of text could make sense in itself, and a person wouldn’t have to read long stretches of letters and have to separate words and sentences from each other.
One major reason why bookmaking spread so much is that Charles valued books. Running a scriptorium was a mark of honor, equal to being a notable at court. In fact, in Charles’ world, court was like a great train station linking the empire together and shuffling people across it. Scholars from all across Europe went to Aachen to perfect their craft, at which point Charles gave them positions across his empire. In 796 Charles made Alcuin, a personal friend and the most esteemed scholar of his time, abbot of Marmoutier Abbey in Tours. This was not a decline in favor, but an excuse for Alcuin to spread his knowledge to a city hundreds of miles from the capital. Nearly every major scholar that spent time at court was sent out to somewhere across the empire to elevate minds across Charles’ vast realm.
Chapter 2: Education
I’ve mentioned Alcuin of York frequently in the past few episodes. He’s a fascinating figure. He was born 735 in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in the town of York. He rapidly developed a reputation for brilliance in all of his endeavors, with a particular skill for classical learning and education. In 781 King Elfwald sent him to Rome to petition the pope to make York an archbishopric. On his way back he met King Charles of Francia at Parma and decided to join his court at Aachen. In 782 he became the lead teacher for aristocrats and the royal family and reinvented European education.
First, a little background, and as usual we have to go back to Rome, because all roads lead there, even metaphorical ones. In Classical Greece and Rome formal education was organized into two programs: the trivium, or three-subject program, and the quadrivium, which had four subjects. Students first learned the trivium’s subjects which were: grammar, rhetoric and logic. These three subjects formed the basis of learning, as they taught how to use language, think logically and persuade others. This last part was very important as Greco-Roman political culture centered around debate. Furthermore, science as we know it had not been invented yet. The closest thing the ancient Greeks had was ‘natural philosophy.’ The Greeks observed nature but their empirical experimentation was limited. In lieu of experiments, philosophers tried to use logic to understand nature, and had to present their ideas to others in the form of debate. Without verifiable facts, or even Wikipedia, the Greeks’ worldview was often determined by who won an argument. Thus, the trivium taught logic and verbal reasoning.
When a student completed the trivium they moved on to the quadrivium. The quadrivium was a mathematical program split between: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Students learned how to use math abstractly with arithmetic, how to calculate real-world problems with geometry, learn musical notation and composition, and calculate the positions of celestial bodies. The quadrivium wasn’t nearly as important as the trivium for daily life and was generally reserved for scholars.
Classical education shattered with Rome. Incoming ‘barbarian’ aristocrats learned Latin and logic but institutions for learning fell into disuse and education became semi-formal at best. Yet, Roman knowledge did not wholly die out. As the Germanic invaders tried to claim Rome’s political legacy they began to revive its educational system. In the late 7th and early 8th century a Northumbrian monk known as the Venerable Bede, recreated the classical education programs, which he dubbed “the seven liberal arts,” and gave them their names, as the Classical Greco-Romans didn’t actually use the words trivium or quadrivium. Oh, and while he was at it, Bede wrote a history of the English people using a dating system which divided years into two groups: Before Christ, or BC which counted backward, and Anno Domini, “The Year of the Lord,” or AD, counting forward. The dude did a lot. But his ideas were largely confined to a few monasteries and churches in Northumbria, until Alcuin of York took them to Aachen.
Alcuin established the first formal school to teach The Seven Liberal Arts for the numerous aristocratic families at court. Alcuin justified and reimagined the classical education program using Biblical terms. He claimed that pursuing knowledge was the way to learn more about God and through the seven liberal arts a student could see God’s handiwork in the physical world. Alcuin claimed that the trivium was essential for understanding the Bible, especially because his version of the trivium emphasized logic over rhetoric. Conversely, the mathematical quadrivium had limited uses: arithmetic for officiates, music for liturgy, astronomy to read the divine plan in the movement of celestial bodies, while geometry was rarely used, except by architects and a few other professions. But even if he couldn’t sell higher education, he ensured that anyone who could afford proper schooling learned the basics of Latin and logic.
Scholars from across Francia, the British Isles, Italy and beyond travelled to Aachen and lesser courts to learn the seven liberal arts, in one of the most important revivals of education in history. Formal schools developed around courts which also hosted debates. Meanwhile informal schools spread as lesser scholars became tutors.
The expansion of learning markedly improved bureaucracy. Far more people could write in Latin and could more easily communicate with other members of the empire. Uniform legal language meant laws could become more standardized. In 802 Charles gathered his dukes and counts and had them read their laws which were compiled and amended for a new Salic Law.
Education also led to new ideas about the past, which Dr.s Matthew Innes and Rosamond McKitterick refer to as, “an historical revolution in both the range and quantity of historical writing produced, and reflects a qualitative change, with the written word superseding memory as a definitive means by which society recalled and recorded its past.” Before the 9th century there were very few books relative to the population, and oral history dominated people’s understanding. After the Carolingian Renaissance the past was recorded, dates were fixed and events became facts.
All this had a profound effect on historiography. Before the 9th century history was dominated by three major traditions: the classics, the Bible and Christian historiography. The most popular Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides analyzed a political situation and told a story. The Greco-Romans focused on war and politics, centering around great figures while society, the economy, culture and religion had little place in their narratives. The Roman historians like Livy, Tacitus and Suetonius, wrote about important events in their annals and even invented speeches for their leaders to deliver at dramatic moments, almost like in a play. The Greco-Romans believed history served a moral function and should be used as such. History was not so much about facts as it was about using the past to critique the present.
Christian history sought to align the past with Biblical tradition and recount moral instruction. Christian history focused on beliefs, struggles against persecution, wars against paganism, conflict with the devil, acts of God and miracles. It focused on the masses, rather than the powerful, and usually didn’t limit itself to one country. To Christian writers the past was recorded to make sense of people’s identity, promote a particular ideology and explain history as a salvation story, by which a sinful people comes to Christ.
Frankish scholars used these styles while innovating with new ones. Einhard broke with tradition and wrote a secular history of Charles. New modes of writing biographies, annals and epic poems, challenged historical narratives. Moreover, the sheer number of new histories exploded. The Carolingians sponsored official histories to justify their actions, annals to recount notable events in their reigns. They also developed lengthy genealogies. Charles traced his lineage to the Merovingians and all the way back to Aeneas of Troy, as the Franks claimed descent from the Trojans, making them cousins of Romans. It wasn’t just the royals who sponsored histories. Noble houses recorded their histories for prestige. Bishoprics recorded miracle stories and the lives of notable holy people. Genealogies were widely popular as people sought to connect themselves to some greater past.
In all these ways, Charles’ educational programs set the basis for European education, administration, chronology and historical writing for centuries to come.
Chapter 3: Poetry
Charles loved to compare himself to two great Biblical kings: Josiah and David. Josiah was a moral leader who uplifted his people out of wickedness, as Charles did with his church reforms. Meanwhile, David was God’s warrior; a conqueror who slew giants and smote Israel’s enemies. But David was also a musician and a poet. In fact, David wrote at least 73 of the 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms. Charles admired David, but he could barely write, and by all accounts did not have a poet’s soul. To make up for his artistic shortcomings, he sponsored poets from all over Europe. Each brought their unique styles to his court where they experimented with novel modes of expression. The poets wrote about everything from contemporary events, remembrances, musings on life and court, and numerous other topics. The conglomeration of poets at Aachen formed a golden age of poetry and laid the foundation for the epic poems of knights and ladies during the chivalric period three centuries later.
When Alcuin wasn’t educating spoiled brats from wealthy households he wrote poetry which regularly described life at court, or Charles’ deeds. Otherwise, he praised his lord for his godly conduct, Solomon-like wisdom and his graciousness. But when he wasn’t earning his daily bread by endlessly complimenting the king, he usually wrote about the magnificence of Christ and his divine plan.
But Alcuin could do more than praise his earthly benefactor and heavenly savior. Perhaps his best poem was on the destruction of the Lindisfarne monastery in England by a band of Vikings. The work is both powerful and sorrowful as he laments the fragile nature of life. I won’t read all 12 pages of the poem, though an excerpt should be enough to convey his literary genius and his profound pain at the slaughter of his brothers near his home in England:
After the first man had left the gardens of Paradise
And entered the lands of misery, needy and banished,
In burdensome exile he and his children began to pay the penalty
for the wicked act of treacherous theft he had committed.
Human life passes rapidly through many sorts of disasters
And every man has had different kinds of days.
In the course of fate sadness will be mixed with joy;
No one has firm control over delight.
No one has had success every day,
No one has perpetual happiness.
Nothing remains eternal under the tall dome of the sky,
All things change at different times.
One day smiles, the next laments for a catastrophe,
No stability is granted by a token of luck.
Unkindly chance always throws sadness and prosperity together,
As the sea waves return with their ebb and flow.
Soft daylight gleams one moment, then comes the darkness of black night;
Spring blossoms with buds whose beauty winter destroys.
The heights of heaven are picked out with fine stars
Which the rain clouds suddenly snatch from view,
and the burning sun hides too in the middle of the day,
when the south wind thunders with watery torrents from high heaven.
Lightning most often hits the loftiest hills
And flames usually strike the tops of the woods:
In this way greater ruin most often comes suddenly
To great things by chance and by ill fortune.
Everywhere the world, doomed to perish, teaches this lesson,
it flourishes with wealth and is lost in the seas.
Through the four corners of the earth you can now witness
the collapse of kingdoms foretold by the words of the prophets.
Not everything was glory and sorrow, and one poet from Spain added levity to Aachen. Theodulf was a Visigoth from Saragossa who fled from Islamic invasion and made his way into southern Francia. He became a fixture at court and often wrote humorous and absurd poems. One of Theodulf’s poems details the trials and tribulations of a judge. The poem begins with everyone in town trying to bribe the judge for favors. Next the judge has to perform his duties while suffering a terrible hangover which causes him to belch and have terrible indigestion. Finally, Theodulf’s judge must resist the temptations of his wife, who tries to sway him to do her bidding. The poet compares the wife’s kisses, caresses and signs of affection to an enemy on the battlefield trying to break through defenses. Only by dawning armor and remaining stone-faced can our judge hope to stand against his terrible foe!
Theodulf also has a funny poem about a soldier whose horse is stolen. One day while campaigning with his fellows a Frankish warrior discovered his horse was missing. The infuriated man returned to camp where he shouted that whoever stole his horse must give it back immediately otherwise he will do what his father did in Rome. The other soldiers assume that the man’s father raided Rome during the wars and so in terror they returned the horse to him. When the soldier’s anger abated the other men asked what his father did in Rome. The soldier replied that when his father was in Italy he lost his horse and had to carry his saddle on his back, bridle in his teeth and bags on his hips and walk the whole way to Rome.
Theodulf prized absurdity and allusion in his works, and could mix humor with mourning in fantastical narratives as was the case with his masterpiece The Battle of the Birds, which is short enough to recount in full.
There is a place at the very edge of the region around
Toulouse and Cahors: both districts end at this place.
In that spot is a field whose borders are enclosed by woods
and men live not very far away from there.
Many birds filled that place in a great throng,
and on the plain settled the many winged creatures
which live in streams, woods and wilderness
and are accustomed to make their nests in the cliffs.
Their food, song, colours and manner of flying are different,
as are their feathers, talons, beaks, habits, regions, and tasks.
Some had come from the west, others from the east,
and you would think that both sides had war-standards of their own.
They settled in battlelines on either side of the fields,
leaving an amount of space between them…
Meanwhile, a few birds flew back and forth,
each side completing its exchanges with the other.
That these missions of peace achieved nothing is plain from the way
in which things turned out: after them a mighty war was declared.
Just as long ago emissaries rushed between the Carthaginian
and Roman peoples until they joined a pitched battle:
so the birds, after they had finished flying about on either side,
rushed furiously into the fray with all the force each side could muster.
On both sides the troops of birds were eager to do battle:
Wing clashed with wing, cohort with cohort.
Their forces differed in strength but their intentions were identical:
With the greater troop desired was the smaller one’s object as well.
They had no need of a chariot, no need to make use of horses,
they did not touch steel, no arrows flew about.
In place of helmets they had crests; instead of spears, beaks and talons,
and in lieu of a clarion, each bird sang its song.
Their light wings served as shields, their little feathers as daggers,
and their delicate plumage did the work of a breastplate.
When the sixth day of their meeting had passed,
from both sides they rushed headlong into battle.
They tore at one another everywhere with blows and bites,
and both sides waged war with fierce determination…
As acorns tumble in autumn from the oak trees
and full-grown leaves fall when the frost comes,
so the army of birds was cut down and died on that spot,
the enormous mass of their corpses covering the earth.
Just as the smooth threshing-floor is filled with grain in summer,
so that field was filled with birds who had been slaughtered…
News of the event was spread abroad, people came and were amazed,
marveling at the limbs of the different birds lying there.
Mancio the bishop himself came from the city of Toulouse,
and the common people asked whether these birds could be eaten:
‘Take what is allowed, leave what is not,’ he said.
They loaded their wagons with birds and each man returned home.
On its surface, the poem is an absurdist, comedic tale of a battle between birds. Theodulf humorously compares the beaks and talons to spears, swords and daggers, bird’s crests to soldier’s crests, and their preening patterns to culture. But beneath this simplistic façade there is deep meaning, and his poem satirizes the inanity of the human condition, and the self-destructive nature that leads men to slaughter each other.
Theodulf begins by saying that two armies gathered between Toulouse and Cahors. This is probably a reference to Islamic armies on one side, which raided up through the center-west on their way north, and the Franks on the other. More evidence of this comes when Theodulf says the spot once held a battle between Romans and Carthaginians. The Franks, Visigoths and other Germanic invaders viewed themselves as the inheritors of Rome; the Franks even promoted the myth that they were cousins to the Roman people through their joint-ancestor Aeneas of Troy. Meanwhile the Carthaginians were a darker-skinned people from northern Africa whose armies moved through Spain and attacked Roman lands in what was Gaul. Thus, Theodulf uses allegory to retell the conflict between the European Christians and the Arab and African Muslims, a conflict that was dear to his heart since it forced him into exile when Saragossa fell.
Both sides send out emissaries to negotiate peace, but these are inevitably futile. Differences in plumage, beak curvature and nesting patterns are enough to justify irreconcilable hatred between these two flocks. No doubt this caused some chuckles at court, since to many people a bird is just a bird. We all know that a hawk and a tiny sparrow won’t like each other, but who thinks there is conflict between starlings and chickadees, or morning-doves and jackdaws? To us those minor differences go unnoticed, and it would be silly to think that birds so similar would fight one another. Yet, the birds in the poem aim to annihilate each other simply because the other side was slightly different. Clearly, Theodulf mocks the idea that humans who are so similar should fight and kill each other over petty differences.
In the end both sides exterminate each other and their bodies litter the ground. Afterwards a bishop arrives at the scene and tries to make sense of the situation but cannot. Why these creatures, who seem identical, would mercilessly destroy each other, defies reason. Then villagers get permission from the bishop to collect the dead birds to eat. This last part is a brilliant inversion of reality. In a normal battle two armies of humans destroy each other and flocks of birds arrive. They do not understand why we fight, they only know that there is food and they eat the corpses of the fallen. Theodulf inverts this by having the uncomprehending humans eat the birds’ corpses. Once they finish nothing is left of the flocks and the conflict is forgotten.
Theodulf’s masterpiece showcases a brilliant poet confronting his own sorrow. Just as Alcuin lamented the Viking attack on his countrymen in England, so too does Theodulf mourn the violence between Christian Europeans and Arab/African Muslims that drove him from Spain. Alcuin responded to melancholy by writing a tragedy about the frailty of human life in the face of inevitable forces of destruction. Theodulf turned his despair into absurdity and satirized all humanity, both Christians and Muslims, as equally driven to destruction for inane reasons.
Like most poets at Aachen, Theodulf depended on Charles for patronage, and he wrote of the king’s glory. In one surviving poem dedicated to the Frankish king he says:
The entire world resounds in your praise, my king;
however much it says it cannot say all
If the Meuse, Rhine, Saone, Rhone, Tiber and Po
could be measured, then praise of you is measurable too.
Limitless is your praise, and unlimited it shall remain
So long as the world is traversed by man and beast.
Incapable though I am of expressing it fully in careful speech,
My lowliness is loth to mute your might…
The sight of you is more brilliant than thrice-smelted gold,
and he who can always be near you is fortunate indeed,
who can gaze upon your forehead, so worthy of its weighty crown,
which throughout the entire world has no peer…
Chest, legs and feet: nothing in Charlemagne is not worthy of praise.
All is in beautiful health; all is radiant and lovely.
Not his best work, but hey, you gotta make a living somehow, right?
What was so remarkable about courtly poetry at Aachen was its cosmopolitan nature. Poets from across Europe brought with them their own styles, and subject matter that reflected their cultures’ values. During the reign of Charles’ grandson Lothar a number of Irish monks travelled to the Frankish capital as they fled Viking raids. The Irish must have seemed a queer bunch to the Franks. The Irish generally lived simple lives, and there were no sizeable cities. Monasteries were spartan and life was simple. Conversely, opulence and grandeur typified the lives of Frankish aristocrats. Yet, to the exiled teacher Sedulius Scottus Ireland’s natural beauty was superior to the emperor’s glory. He praised his patrons’ dwellings since that’s what they wanted to hear, but he used nature as the measure of beauty, through which the Franks could only imitate. He wrote,
Although the rainbow graces the starry regions,
its arc curving in the high heavens wet with dew,
four-coloured, its saffron step leaving its imprint
and reflecting the glittering rays of the sun,
a second rainbow- if I may say so- glitters splendidly,
its many different colours changing in your house.
The colour first in order is a brilliant gleaming gold,
then follows a vivid green in its spring-time finery,
A choice scarlet glows, wondrous to see,
and a smiling sapphire spreads its beauty to the stars,
above and below a brilliant transparency shines
reveling in its likeness to the blueish-green sheen of the sea.
The vast majority of poets were men, but there were women poets as well. The most famous was Dhuoda, a Gascon princess with Basque origins. She is most famous for her 73-chapter book Liber Manualis, a guide to life for her son. She also wrote poetry, praising God and wishing for her child’s well-being.
What began under Charles continued long past his reign. Poetry blossomed in Europe unlike any time since the High Roman Empire. For six hundred years, the cold Continent had never known that such passions could bleed into ink, form into words, enliven in verse and both terrify and uplift the human soul. Even after his empire fragmented these linguistic traditions lived on and the poets formed the languages of the former empire, notably Old French in the west and Old German in the east.
Chapter 4: Music
Charles’ greatest ambition was uniformity across his vast empire. Yet, he failed at every turn as artists, scholars and theologians developed their own styles. Of all his failures, none were so complete as with music. Ninth cent. historian Notker recounts:
“Charlemagne, who enjoyed divine service so much that he never wearied of it, prided himself that he had achieved his object of making all possible progress in the study of letters. He was, however, greatly grieved that all his province, regions and cities, differed in the sacred liturgy, and particularly in the modulations of the chant. He therefore asked Pope Stephen III…to send him some monks who were highly skilled in church singing. The Pope…dispatched to him…from his own apostolic see, a dozen monks well trained in chanting…When the time came from for these monks to set out from Rome…they plotted among themselves to see how they could vary the ways of singing and so prevent the Franks…from ever achieving uniformity. When they reported to Charlemagne they were received with honor, and they were apportioned out to a number of very famous places. Each in his own appointed locality began to chant with as much variation and as incorrectly as he knew how, and did all he could to teach others to do the same. Charlemagne, who was certainly no fool, celebrated the feast of the nativity and of the coming of Christ at Trier or at Metz one year, and with great insight and attention to detail came to follow and understand the style of singing there; and the following year he took part in similar solemnities at Paris or at Tours, and there listened to singing which was completely different from what he had heard twelve months before…In the same way he discovered…that the monks whom he had dispatched to the other cities were all different from each other in their singing.”
Notker blames a conspiracy of monks for the discordant singing. More likely, these monks tried to teach different localities how to sing the proper way and each group of people sang in their own style. Probably even the monks preferred singing in different ways than their compatriots and when they were apart they pursued their own tastes. Instead of standardizing the liturgy, Charles midwifed a dozen new musical styles and laid the foundation for medieval choral singing.
It’s no wonder Charles wanted standardized music across his realm, as he understood its incredible power. Music was partly a political program as the Franks instilled a sense of continuity between themselves and the Roman Empire, and songs extolled godly virtue and the greatness of their leaders. Liturgical singing was an expression of unity as people came together, each knowing their roles.
Charles defeated armies and destroyed whole countries, yet he did not understand how powerful music was. The natural human desire for unrestrained self-expression was beyond anything he could constrain, and the Carolingian Renaissance became possibly the greatest period for musical development in the entire Middle Ages. As Dr. Susan Rankin notes:
“To this age belonged the invention of a detailed system of musical notation (some of the essential elements of which have remained in the western notational system ever since), the systematisation of modal behavior (literally the grammar of relationship between individual tones and groups of tones), the final shaping of a characteristic melodic dialect for an enormous melodic repertory, and the setting down in textual form of a theory of modes.”
While Charles wanted his people to copy the Romans, instead his musicians far exceeded them. This was an incredible feat given that the Franks had to invent musical notation, which was never a part of their culture and was a lost art in western Europe by the 8th century. There was musical notation in the Byzantine Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate and other places, but the Carolingian period popularized and partially standardized musical notation in the West. Although, no Frankish musical notation could be used to make an entire song, as pitch and other factors were taught orally. But musical notation allowed for complex melodies, rhythms, tempo, styles, emphasis on words and a whole host of instructions for songs.
Churches were in constant communication with each other and created hybrid styles of music. Peace within Charles’ realm meant pilgrims could travel to holy sites and pay homage at reliquaries. All the while, the faithful joined in singing, and an entire empire moved with song, ever-evolving, ever-changing. Here is an excerpt from a composition by Angilbert about the wars in Italy, recorded by Musica Medievale.
And here is a song mourning Charles’ death in 814, recorded by Sequentia.
Most Frankish music is lost to us, and what little remains is incomplete. We can only guess as to how these songs may have originally sounded, as musical notation did not encompass everything. Yet, from what exists it is clear that the Franks excelled in music. Unlike their other endeavors during the Carolingian Renaissance, this was not a pale reflection of glorious Rome, or even a good imitation. In music, the Franks surpassed their classical counterparts.
Chapter 5: Architecture
When the Franks first entered the Roman Empire they must have been astounded by the incredible monuments before them. Multi-story tenements, public forums, massive temples and churches, and techniques such as the arch and the dome were beyond them. Frankish dwellings were simple. Their largest buildings were long-halls, elongated structures where powerful leaders gathered their vassals. The Merovingians learned some building techniques from their Gallo-Roman subjects and made stone monasteries and churches, but these were crude compared to classical monuments.
Europe experienced a golden age of construction under the Carolingians. Charles alone built 16 large-scale churches or basilicas, 232 monasteries and 65 royal residences; by contrast every single previous Frankish king combined only made 29 royal residences; less than half of Charles’, far smaller and less opulent! Combine these projects with those of his aristocratic vassals’ and the Catholic Church and Charles’ reign produced more monuments than any European leader for centuries. The Frankish king wanted buildings made in classical Roman style, but his many architects experimented with new techniques and discovered new methods for building.
First, let’s talk about his palaces, which were largely concentrated on the Mosel, Meuse and Rhine rivers. While his capital was nominally at Aachen, the real capital of the empire was wherever the king was, and he moved from palace to palace while receiving guests into his glory. These estates were usually comprised of audience halls 30 meters long and 10 meters wide, a chapel and a royal residence. There were vast courtyards and most buildings were two stories tall. Porticos connected buildings while shielding their residents from the rain. Audience halls often fused Roman style with the Germanic long-hall. Primarily made of stone, the Franks imported marble for their chapels in emulation of Rome. These marble columns were often adorned with bronze railings usually of vine motifs.
Charles’ most extravagant palace was at Aachen. The palace was in a classical Roman grid style, with the royal residence dominating the northern wing and the chapel dominating the south. There was a barracks for the royal guards, administrative buildings and law courts on a west-east axis, with a monumental gateway as the entrance to the complex. The gateway opened to a large forum where an equestrian statue of Theodoric the Great stood, which the Franks took from Ravenna.
The true jewel of Aachen was the chapel, whose atrium could hold 7,000 people. From this open courtyard the king’s many subjects would look up towards the two-story building’s balcony where Charles could address his people as a Roman emperor would. Yet, this feature was also incredibly innovative, as it wasn’t just a simple façade, but a whole new creation: a westwork. A westwork was a monumental entrance for a multi-storied church, flanked by two towers and connected along most of its height. If you’ve ever stood in front of a great cathedral’s entrance you’ll know what I’m talking about, as the building’s soaring heights were made to turn heads backward and look up towards the heavens. Aachen’s chapel was the prototype for the westwork, perhaps the most defining feature of Christian churches around the world to this day.
This monument to God and Charles’ greatness had just as many innovations inside as outside. The chapel was a massive 16-sided building whose interior core formed an octagon. This had a tremendous impact on architecture as architects built more complex structures than the common rectangular longhouses or churches. The interior also employed transverse arches. Arches distributed the roof’s weight along the building’s walls, meaning that buildings with arches could have much higher roofs than those just using columns. Higher ceilings with fewer obstructions meant that more light entered the building, giving the interior an ethereal glow, which became even more pronounced with the fog of burning incense. Finally, the chapel’s arches were crowned by a dome containing a gold mosaic of Christ and the 24 elders of the apocalypse.
Wealthy patrons built their own unique chapels and residences. When Theodulf became a bishop he ordered the construction of a chapel at his villa at Germigny-des-Prés. This three-story chapel was as inventive as his poetry: it was cube-shaped with numerous domes sporting massive gold mosaics of angels and Biblical scenes. Barrel vaults stretched all across the ceiling. The high vaulting pushed the ceiling upward, providing heavenly light that glittered off the gold and illuminated the chapel and its artworks for an otherworldly feeling. At the royal monastery of Fulda, the monks built a chapel with two apses, or curved semi-circular domes with mosaics painted on their interior, which was very uncommon, since churches usually had only one. This experimentation actually angered the monks, who complained to Charles that they were tired of building unnecessary additions to their monastery. They claimed that excessive taxation ruined local peasants and urged their king to do things in moderation; something which he really wasn’t known for.
The Carolingians didn’t just copy late-Roman architecture but experimented. The Abbey Church of St. Riquier had many characteristics of a Roman basilica but it had a roughly triangular cloister that joined three churches. This probably symbolized the Trinity, and the Franks employed their traditional love of geometric forms in architectural design. Meanwhile, a church dedicated to the Twelve Apostles had a 12-sided structure.
Monumental church-building continued long after Charles’ death. In fact, the decades following his son Louis the Pious’ death were among the most creative in the Middle Ages. Saint-Germain at Auxerre began a novel construction in 841 in which two superimposed levels of vaulted chambers and passageways to create a many-roofed building that was continually reaching upward, allowing in more light. Over the course of this renaissance the Franks and their basilicas perfected symmetry on a grand scale as churches became increasingly complex, with long aisles and spectacular domes.
The Frank’s didn’t just build up; they delved into the ground as well. When Charles conquered northern Italy he visited Rome, and the Basilica of St. Peter’s, which was the first basilica west of Byzantium to have a crypt. Charles imported so many relics from Italy that the Franks needed more space to hold them, so architects across Francia dug under their churches to make crypts. It’s actually ironic when you think about it: before the Franks were Christianized their most notable cultural habit was elaborate gravesites, where the dead were buried with their possessions. The Catholic Church denounced these pagan practices and ordained simple burials. Yet, under Charles, the Franks championed a whole new way to bury the dead, as the relics of martyrs and church fathers were stored into the foundations of their churches. The abbot of Saint-Denis ordered the construction of the first outer crypt, which extends past a church’s apse, meaning its underground structure stretch beyond the aboveground building. This innovation spread across Francia and crypts were no longer confined to the shape of the churches above them and could take on whole new forms.
By 900 Viking raids and the collapse of the united Carolingian Empire ended monumental church-building. After 1,000 the successor states to the Frankish empire stabilized and a massive resurgence in church-building began. This period built upon the Carolingian churches and led to the Gothic cathedrals that we most associate with Christianity today.
Chapter 6: Art
The Frankish people were famous for their metalworking even before the fall of Rome. Once they settled in the West they learned Gallic traditions and became masters smiths, specializing in luxury items and goldsmithing. Yet, the Merovingian treasures paled in comparison to those of their successors. Einhard recounts that Charles commissioned tables made entirely of silver, with intricate engravings. One table’s surface showed the city plans of Constantinople, a masterpiece the Frankish King sent to the Pope. Another table for the city of Ravenna included a personification of Rome. Charles’ son Louis kept the most intricate of these. This third table included three concentric circles depicting the heavens and the Earth, and even including the orbits of the known planets. These priceless artifacts reflect the ethos of the time, as the Franks imbued every object with art.
Anything metal was engraved. Smiths embossed swords with the names of their manufacturers or owners. Armor contained stylistic patterns and designs to further separate wealthy lords from their vassals who wore less specialized gear. Churches traded their wooden doors for bronze, with magnificent designs, such as snarling lion-heads at the Aachen chapel.
Aside from metal, the Carolingians were obsessed with precious stones, and created magnificent works, such as a still-surviving golden ewer studded with sapphires. During Charles’ reign Carolingian artists mastered an art that had been lost since the fall of Rome: crystal-engraving. The Romans had known how to take rock crystal, usually quartz, and engrave portraits of their loved ones on them, but this knowledge was lost. Through a process of experimentation engravers revived this complex art.
First, engravers placed a crystal in a vice-like object. Next, they placed sand on the area they wanted to cut, then ran a saw over it. The friction between the crystal, sand and saw was what cut the crystal, as metal alone was too weak. Assistants continually poured water on the crystal so that it wouldn’t crack from the heat. Once it was formed, the engraver rubbed it with sandstone until it was the shape they wanted. Then the crystal was polished. Next came the engraving. The engraver would sketch a design on the surface. Metal couldn’t scratch a crystal’s surface; only diamond fragments could, so engravers used diamond splinters to cut into the crystal. Once the sketching was done the engraver would use a rotating drill made of iron, and through abrasion engraved the crystal. Then the crystal received a final polish.
Carolingian aristocrats bought crystals as soon as they hit the market. Everyone wanted to be part of this revival of Roman fashion. The only difference between Roman and Carolingian crystals was that the latter normally depicted Christian motifs and Frankish symbols. So many Franks made and bought crystals that they probably became more skilled than even their classical counterparts.
The other Roman-era luxury item that everyone wanted was ivory. Charles kept good relations with the Abbasid Caliphate, by trading slaves from eastern Europe in exchange for ivory, usually from elephant tusks. The Franks carved ivory into scenes from Biblical stories, notable Classical events or battles from their own history. The Franks largely copied the Byzantine style, since they were far more acquainted with the material.
Manuscripts were the most distinctive Carolingian works of art, as they combined metalworking, gem-cutting and ivory-crafting on their covers. Yet some of the best work was in the interior. First scribes created sweeping calligraphy with beautiful, decorated letters. Additionally, scribes illustrated book interiors, depicting scenes from the Bible, Frankish history or whatever topic the book detailed. In the hands of a talented scribe each page became a work of art. Perhaps the best example of this was the Utrecht Psalter, which was possibly commissioned by Ebbo of Reims and came into the possession of Charles the Bald. The manuscript contains 166 incredible illustrations correlating to the Psalms and other texts. These illustrations had an incredible impact on Western European drawing, particularly in England where they were regularly copied.
When people think of the Middle Ages, especially the Early Middle Ages, they imagine a society that is dismal and drab. This idea has been amplified by the false conception of the Dark Ages, which overvalues the Late Roman Empire and undervalues the early post-Roman kingdoms. The Frankish Empire under King Charles was anything but drab and dreary. The Franks imbued art into every part of their lives to the extent that they could. Villas had beautiful tapestries hanging on the walls. The richest Franks bought jewelry with precious stones and engraved crystals. Manuscripts were often covered in gold or ivory and precious stones. Clothing was colorful and Franks developed new fashions as diverse peoples came and went from court. Tables, cutlery, doors, all bore artistic marks. Even lesser nobility had some access to art, usually with illustrated manuscripts. Art and beauty were part of everyday life.
The Carolingian Renaissance was one of the most important periods in Western and Central European history. The Franks created or advanced societal trends that formed the foundation for much of European society and later world society. When we look back on the achievements that Charles and his people accomplished it is absolutely astounding. During this period Europe experienced the greatest expansion of literacy up to that point as church schools taught all levels of the nobility, notaries, scribes and others how to read and write. Increased literacy led to a boom in all forms of knowledge and made Western and Central Europe competitive with the Byzantines and the Arabs, whereas in the preceding century the Franks were clearly inferior to their eastern counterparts. Alcuin of York pioneered miniscule letters and spaces between words; two innovations that changed writing as we know it. Today, most written materials utilize the techniques pioneered by Carolingian miniscule. Alcuin also codified Bede’s Seven Liberal Arts into an educational program and developed formal schools to teach them. Later scholars took Alcuin’s program and formed the first European universities specifically to teach complex versions of the Seven Liberal Arts. Much later on the European system of universities developed and expanded until every higher institution of learning on Earth has largely adopted the European model. Charles sponsored scriptoriums across his empire that perfected the art of bookmaking. Books written on parchment became popular items and collecting books became a hallmark of European culture. The abundance of histories, from official histories of the monarchs, church histories, biographies, annals and genealogies meant chroniclers examined history as never before. Writers reconsidered their historical origins, the development of society and their place in a greater world, all of which expanded their conceptions of the past beyond the simplistic morality tales of the Greco-Romans and early Christians.
Charles also adopted and promulgated an obscure dating system using BC and AD. Today, every country on Earth uses the BC-AD calendar except for the Islamic World, India and a few others. Even East Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan use the Gregorian calendar with BC-AD for daily use, while maintaining their traditional calendars for cultural purposes. This system was little known even within Europe before the 8th century, but Charles promoted it within his empire and this eventually became the world’s most-used dating system.
The abundance of poets from across the empire led to a golden age of emotional writing. So often when we think about great countries or empires, we imagine the military and infrastructural necessities to keep them together. We so often forget that these are empires of people with emotions who need to believe in the justice and purpose of their countries. Alcuin of York and Theodulf of Saragossa could bond over mutual attacks against their own homelands, while praising the security that the Franks offered. Scholars from across the empire could come to Aachen and connect with like-minded people who extolled the glory of a revived European empire, united in faith by a powerful and godly leader. These poets laid a much-needed emotional foundation for supporting Charles and his endeavors and spread them far and wide. Moreover, these poets perfected their languages and developed what became Old French and Old German.
I don’t even think I need to explain how important the Franks’ additions to music were. The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “without music life would be a mistake,” and for many people music is the best part of living. The Franks literally reinvented musical notation in the West after it had been lost for centuries. They then developed numerous complex liturgies, songs and other outpourings of overwhelming sentiment into harmonious sound. The musical notation the Franks developed and semi-standardized impacted Western and Central European notation, until now it is the world standard.
Carolingian architects expanded what was possible for Western and Central Europeans, as they reached up into the sky and down into the earth. Extravagant chapels with barrel arches opened up their interiors to sunlight that shined on gold-painted mosaics within stunning domes. Crypts extended into the ground even past churches’ ground levels, imparting new techniques for foundation-building. Yet, the most noticeable feature of Carolingian architecture was the westwork, enormous facades between two towers that imparted grandeur on all who saw them. All these styles reimagined what a holy place should look like, and inspired new modes of building. When the Gothic architects built their cathedrals, they drew upon countless examples from Carolingian structures.
Artists created a world of beauty not seen since the High Roman Empire. The Franks mastered metalworking as no European ever had. They rediscovered Classical techniques for ivory-cutting and gem-crafting and applied Christian motifs for new styles. Scribes put masterpieces to pages and influenced countless generations through calligraphy and illustrations.
The Carolingian Renaissance changed the course of European and world history. The avalanche of learning and innovation meant that Western and Central Europe were near-equals with the Byzantine and Islamic Empires in artistic and scientific endeavors, whereas before Western and Central Europe were a backwater of divided kingdoms. The impact of this period cannot be understated though at the same time we must recognize that there were drawbacks. Nearly all the breakthroughs that occurred impacted a slim majority of the population. Most of the population was barely literate, if that, and many were impoverished. In fact, excessive taxation to fund all these projects often outweighed the benefits of internal stability and trade. There’s even evidence to suggest that the average peasant ate less food under Charles than during the Merovingian period because of all this taxation, very little of which ever went to famine relief, because Charles was far more concerned with building monuments to his own greatness. Likewise, much of the accomplishments I listed seem greater in retrospect because of developments that Charles could not control. If European countries hadn’t exploded in power after 1500 then the European calendar, education system, musical notation and other innovations, probably wouldn’t be the world’s standard systems. After all, China, India, the Caliphate and other regions developed their own cultural practices which were just as good or even superior to Frankish developments. The fact that Frankish innovations became more influential has more to do with power relations than the superiority of European culture.
Another thing we must note is that Carolingian innovations didn’t arise out of nowhere, and Charles and the Franks can’t take all the credit for them. The Seven Liberal Arts came from Bede and Alcuin, both Northumbrians. While some western monasteries developed miniscule scripts, Alcuin developed the Carolingian miniscule. The BC-AD dating system was invented by Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor, and later adopted by Bede before the Franks popularized it.
Finally, many developments were already taking place before the Carolingians. Bookmaking with parchment occurred in the 4th century. The Merovingians had a well-established poetic tradition, which the Carolingians no doubt drew inspiration from. Many artistic and architectural techniques originated in Byzantium. I don’t think I even have to mention how large Rome loomed in the Frankish consciousness as Carolingian technological and aesthetic breakthroughs were often just rediscoveries of Roman knowledge.
Despite all these legitimate criticisms we can still easily list the Carolingian Renaissance as a world-changing historical period, and Charles’ reign as a particularly glorious era. Medieval historians remember him as Charlemagne, Charles the Great, for his impressive military conquests, as he literally redrew the map of Europe and created the greatest European empire in five hundred years. Yet, his role in the Carolingian Renaissance is well and above his greatest achievement. Charles midwifed Europe. He patronized and promoted nearly every advancement in European society west of Byzantium. He maintained peace within his borders, allowing for sustained growth, gathered the greatest scholars and artists of his time together in one place, then sent them throughout the empire to spread their knowledge to his people.
It’s difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of historical figures because so often we have to measure their accomplishments versus the opposition they faced. Augustus is often held up as the gold standard for effective leadership, and classicists often repeat his saying, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Too bad Charles wasn’t known for his pithy statements because he could have retorted, “I found Aachen an empty field and made it the capital of Europe.” The Frankish Empire paled in comparison to the High Roman Empire. Nothing Charles or his immediate successors built matched the Colosseum. But Augustus inherited an empire that spanned the Mediterranean Sea with only one rival power even close to Rome’s might. Starting with Charles Martel, the Carolingians united a broken and divided people, founded a new dynasty, conquered enormous territories, destroyed hostile countries, confederations and empires all along their borders, and uplifted European culture from a relative low-point to near-equity with the great empires of its age. Even as we dismiss the notion of a European dark age, we can acknowledge that post-Roman Europe was in a state of fragmentation and relative stagnation, as unstable polities, lack of resources and limited travel decreased the rate of scientific and artistic progress. The fact that the Carolingians, particularly Charles, catapulted Europe from relative backwardness to vibrancy is astounding, and it is why he is the most important political figure in European history since Augustus and will remain so until Napoleon.
Charles’ empire wouldn’t last long after his death, but the technological and artistic achievements he sponsored created a ripple effect whose impact is with us to this day.
[Postscript]: I guess the moral of this story is: if you’re wealthy find an artist or innovator and support them. If you think my Mickey Mouse as Robespierre episode was art, then toss a coin to your podcaster.
Peter Godman, Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, 1985.
Geneva Kornbluth, Engraved Gems of the Carolingian Empire, 1995.
Charles B. McClendon, The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe A.D. 600-900, 2005.
Ed. Rosamond McKitterick, Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, 1994
Marilyn Stokstad, Medieval Art, 2nd ed., 2004.
Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-850, 2003.
Music excerpts from Musica Medieval and Sequentia. Please support the artists. Their use in this podcast is protected under 17 US Section 107: Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair Use.
[Note: Carolingian scholars and their posts with scriptoriums]:
Ricbod and Adalung Lorsch
Alcuin St. Martin’s, Tours
Angilbert St Riqiuer
Arn St Amand and Salzburg
Einhard St. Wandrille
Theodulf of Orleans Fleury, Orleans and St. Aignan