Carolingian Renaissance

The revival of learning in Charlemagne's reign (768-814) which lasted until the Norse invasions. Charlemagne's empire was the first attempt at unified government since the Roman Empire's collapse and was represented as its re-creation. Charlemagne wanted a literate clergy so that it would succeed and endure, hence his attempt to revive the ancient learning. Though functional rather than creative, the renaissance checked ignorance and illiteracy and preserved the classics for future generations. Charlemagne's concern to continue the ancient classical culture had a significant difference-it was to be Christian. As Alcuin* put it in a letter to him, “If your intentions are carried out it may be that a new Athens will arise in `Francia', and an Athens fairer than of old, for our Athens, ennobled by the teachings of Christ, will surpass the wisdom of the Academy.”

Charlemagne drew upon contemporary scholarship. From Italy he brought the grammarian Peter of Pisa and the historian Paul the Deacon. From Spain came the Visigoth Theodulf, poet, man of letters, to be bishop of Orléans. Principally he drew upon the flourishing Anglo-Saxon culture resulting from the fusion of Irish and Benedictine monasticism in Northumbria under Bede, bringing Alcuin from York to become head of the palace school at Aix-la-Chapelle and chief organizer of the renaissance. The latter had three aspects: (1) measures to preserve literacy. Alcuin established a standard spelling throughout the empire, and developed a clear script in the beautiful Carolingian miniscule which was responsible for some of the finest medieval manuscripts; (2) schools established at monasteries (e.g., Tours, Fulda, Fleury) and cathedrals to give wider education; (3) content of education. The old Roman system was mainly rhetorical and literary. Alcuin constituted the curriculum from the seven liberal arts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music) as laid down by Boethius and Cassiodorus.

Capitularies* issued by Charlemagne from 787 gave effect to these measures. Though the movement ended with the empire's collapse, it rescued culture from extinction and set it upon an educational foundation which survived to form the starting-point of the eleventh-century renaissance.

M. Deanesley, A History of the Medieval Church, 590-1500 (1925); R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe (1957); G. Leff, Medieval Thought (1958).