Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance

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by J.B. Bury
n the history of ideas the Carolingian Renaissance stands out as a period of intellectual and cultural revival in Europe occurring from the late eighth century, in the generation of Alcuin, to the 9th century, and the generation of Heiric of Auxerre, with the peak of the activities coordinated during the reigns of the Carolingian rulers Charlemagne and Louis the Pious


n the history of ideas the Carolingian Renaissance stands out as a period of intellectual and cultural revival in Europe occurring from the late eighth century, in the generation of Alcuin, to the 9th century, and the generation of Heiric of Auxerre, with the peak of the activities coordinated during the reigns of the Carolingian rulers Charlemagne and Louis the Pious.[1] It formed one of three medieval renaissances identified by medievalists. The sense of renewal in a newly stabilized society was galvanized by an elite group of scholars gathered to the court of Charlemagne. With the moral betterment of the Carolingian renaissance reached back for models drawn from the example of the Christian Roman Empire of the 4th century. During this period there was an increase of literature, writing, the arts, architecture, jurisprudence, liturgical reforms and scriptural studies. Charlemagne's Admonitio generalis (789) and his Epistola de litteris colendis served as manifestos. The effects of this cultural revival, however, were largely limited to a small group of court literati: "it had a spectacular effect on education and culture in Francia, a debatable effect on artistic endeavors, and an unmeasurable effect on what mattered most to the Carolingians, the moral regeneration of society," John Contreni observes.[2] Beyond their efforts to write better Latin, to copy and preserve patristic and classical texts and to develop a more legible, classicizing script, the Carolingian minuscule that Renaissance humanists took to be Roman and employed as humanist minuscule, from which has developed early modern Italic script, the secular and ecclesiastical leaders of the Carolingian Renaissance for the first time in centuries applied rational ideas to social issues, providing a common language and writing style that allowed for communication across most of Europe.

Sir Kenneth Clark was of the view that by means of the Carolingian Renaissance, Western civilization survived by the skin of its teeth. The use of the term renaissance to describe this period is contested[4] due to the majority of changes brought about by this period being confined almost entirely to the clergy, and due to the period lacking the wide-ranging social movements of the later Italian Renaissance.[5] Instead of being a rebirth of new cultural movements, the period was more an attempt to recreate the previous culture of the Roman Empire. The Carolingian Renaissance in retrospect also has some of the character of a false dawn, in that its cultural gains were largely dissipated within a couple of generations, a perception voiced by Walahfrid Strabo (died 849), in his introduction to Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, summing up the generation of renewal:

Charlemagne was able to offer the cultureless and, I might say, almost completely unenlightened territory of the realm which God had entrusted to him, a new enthusiasm for all human knowledge. In its earlier state of barbarousness, his kingdom had been hardly touched at all by any such zeal, but now it opened its eyes to God's illumination. In our own time the thirst for knowledge is disappearing again: the light of wisdom is less and less sought after and is now becoming rare again in most men's minds.

The lack of literate persons in eighth century western Europe caused problems for the Carolingian rulers by severely limiting the number of people capable of serving as court scribes. Of even greater concern to the very pious rulers was the fact that not all parish priests possessed the skill to read the Vulgate Bible. An additional problem was that the vulgar Latin of the later Western Roman Empire had begun to diverge into the regional dialects, the precursors to today's Romance languages, that were becoming mutually unintelligible and preventing scholars from one part of Europe being able to communicate with persons from another part of Europe.

To address these problems, Charlemagne ordered the creation of schools. A major part of his program of reform was to attract many of the leading scholars of his day to his court. Among the first called to court were Italians: Peter of Pisa, who from 776 to about 790 instructed Charlemagne in Latin, and from 776 to 787 Paulinus of Aquileia, whom Charlemagne nominated as patriarch of Aquileia in 787. The Lombard Paul the Deacon was brought to court in 782 and remained until 787, when Charles nominated him abbot of Montecassino. Theodulf of Orléans was a Spanish Goth who served at court from 782 to 797 when nominated as bishop of Orléans. Theodulf had been in friendly competition over the standardization of the Vulgate with the chief among the Charlemagne's scholars, Alcuin of York. Alcuin was a Northumbrian monk and deacon who served as head of the Palace School from 782 to 796, except for the years 790 to 793 when he returned to England. After 796, he continued his scholarly work as abbot of St. Martin's Monastery in T

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Meet the Author


Bury was born and raised in Clontibret, County Monaghan, where his father was Rector of the Anglican Church of Ireland. He was educated first by his parents and then at Foyle College in Derry and Trinity College in Dublin, where he graduated in 1882 and was made a fellow in 1885, at the age of 24. In 1893 he gained a chair in Modern History at Trinity College, which he held for nine years. In 1898 he was appointed Regius Professor of Greek, also at Trinity, a post he held simultaneously with his history professorship.[1] In 1902 he became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University.

At Cambridge, Bury became mentor to the great medievalist Sir Steven Runciman, who later commented that he had been Bury's "first, and only, student." At first the reclusive Bury tried to brush him off; then, when Runciman mentioned that he could read Russian, Bury gave him a stack of Bulgarian articles to edit, and so their relationship began. Bury was the author of the first truly authoritative biography of Saint Patrick (1905).

Bury remained at Cambridge until his death at the age of 65 in Rome. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.


Bury's writings, on subjects ranging from ancient Greece to the 19th-century papacy, are at once scholarly and accessible to the layman. His two works on the philosophy of history elucidated the Victorian ideals of progress and rationality which undergirded his more specific histories. He also led a revival of Byzantine history, which English-speaking historians, following Edward Gibbon, had largely neglected. He contributed to, and was himself the subject of an article in, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. With Frank Adcock and S. A. Cook he edited the Cambridge Ancient History, launched in 1919.

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Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
DbMcCoy 10 months ago
This is a publication that in no way deals with the Carolingian renaissance. Furthermore,it's simply a hodgepodge of oftentimes unrelated material. Besides being filled with unrelated material, the material that is pertinent is presented in such a disorganized fashion , it's impossible to make sense of. By and large, a reader will gain nothing from reading this short e-book.