So the Roman Empire fell and Europe was an ignorant backwater in which nothing of any cultural note happened for about a thousand years until the Italian Renaissance brought about a renewed interest in the Classics of Greece and Rome, right?
But Charlemagne didn’t create culture out of nothing. True, the great works of Classical literature, philosophy, and science born in Greece and Rome were almost lost. The vast majority of the population of Europe were agrarian folks who didn’t have time for deep thought. These works weren’t gone, however. They just needed to be retrieved and disseminated.
There’s a book that I’ve never read but have always wanted to called How The Irish Saved Civilizationby Thomas Cahill. It’s about what happened to the intellectual wealth of Rome when the Empire fell. Short answer, it went north. Many of the greatest scholars and artists of the very early Medieval period were Celtic monks. In Irish and Northumbrian monasteries the art of the book both preserved the great works of the past and gave rise to the beautiful art of illuminated manuscripts, such as The Book of Kells and The Lindisfarne Gospel. In these early Medieval manuscripts we can see a blending of cultures, Latin words in Celtic uncial script decorated with geometric patterns reminiscent of Byzantium and animal figures resembling those of Scandinavian people. It’s easy to look at these books and think “Wow, that’s pretty”, but what makes them truly remarkable is the concentration of cultures that they contain.
So how did the lands of the Celtic people suddenly become epicenters of culture? As with so many things in the Early Middle Ages, it comes down to the efforts of individuals. Even when Britannia was still under Roman rule there was a strong push to Christianize the land. Waves of dedicated monks made it their home. One such monk was St. Benet Biscop, who lived in the mid-seventh century. Benet Biscop did two things that make him a truly remarkable figure of history. First, as a strong supporter of the Benedictine monastic tradition, he brought the Roman ceremonial forms to Britannia. This provided a solid, uniform system that kept the Church there organized. Second, he made four trips to Italy in his lifetime and every time he went he looted, pillaged, and absconded with books, paintings, relics, and everything else of intellectual importance that he could get his hands on. Naughty? Maybe, but he rescued a lot of vital stuff from turbulent Italy and gave it a home in nice, safe Britain. He also set the monks of Britain and Ireland to the task of copying, preserving, and learning what all those treasures held.
By the time Charlemagne took the crown of the Frankish Kingdom in 768, Northumbria was widely regarded as a center of learning. So when Charlemagne brought together the finest minds and most learned men throughout Europe at his court in Aachen it was no surprised that he imported a Nortnumbrian, Alcuin, to head the palace school.
Alcuin became one of Charlemagne’s most trusted advisors. Although Historians disagree on whether Charlemagne could read and write or not (I personally think that he could, but that’s a long story), there was no doubt that Alcuin instructed him personally in all things religious, philosophical, and literate. Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne, instructing him in the political and religious ideals of a Medieval ruler still exist. Perhaps one of the things that enabled Charlemagne to conquer so widely and maintain his power so explicitly is that he was an educated man with a plan instead of a solely military leader.
Alcuin was also the architect of the efforts I touched on in last week’s post to bring literacy back to all of the religious houses of the Frankish Kingdom and later the Holy Roman Empire. This was more important than just copying manuscripts and painting pretty pictures to go with them. Remember that the Frankish Kingdom stretched from the Pyranees to the borders of Byzantium, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. In every locality the people spoke their own dialects. Aristocrats from different parts of the kingdom couldn’t understand each other. But thanks to the likes of Alcuin all learned men were fluent in the Latin of the religious texts they copied and studied. The Roman Empire may have been long gone, but Latin still brought people together. Ideas were exchanged in Latin. Latin was the glue that kept the Middle Ages together.
The reign of Charlemagne really does represent a turning point in the history of the world. The Carolingian Renaissance, the name given to this revival of knowledge, art, and culture brought about by the reforms Charlemagne instituted and the work done by the likes of Alcuin, set the stage for one of the most culturally significant periods in European history. Without the organization of the Church and the creation of centers of learning that would, by the year 1000, become the university system, some of the most world-changing advancements, advancements that are grossly ignored by people of the modern world, would never have been able to take place.
But more about that next week.