The Carolingian Renaissance is the name given to the revival of classical learning and culture that occurred during the late eighth and ninth centuries, a period that roughly corresponds to the rule of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne (768–814) and his successors during the Carolingian dynasty.
Prior to Charlemagne’s ascension to the throne, the Merovingian dynasty had established a court school (known as the scola palatina) in order to prepare young Frankish nobles for their future political roles. Literary education remained, however, the responsibility of the monastic and cathedral schools.
Charlemagne vastly increased the responsibilities of the palace school, which became an important repository of learning and a center of educational reform. He also issued a series of royal decrees calling for the general improvement of all schools throughout the empire. To help him in these efforts, he recruited the English monk Alcuin of York (c. 730–804) to become head of the palace school in 782.
With Alcuin’s guidance Charlemagne initiated a generalized reform of the church. This bold venture began with the moral and intellectual schooling of the monastic and secular clergy. The famous edict of 785, known as the Epistola de litteris colendis (Epistle on cultivating letters), called for the clergy to study Latin to understand Christian doctrine. Charlemagne voiced his disapproval that many written communications received from his monasteries contained grammatical errors and uncouth language.
Once they had mastered correct Latin syntax and style, he noted, the clergy must teach all those who were able and willing to learn. In 789 the Council of Aachen reinforced that each monastery and abbey ought to have a school. Charlemagne sought to make education available to all children throughout his territories, whether they intended to enter the cloister or not. The rise of Latin literacy among the lay population attests to the success of these efforts.
Charlemagne also understood that his clergymen could not become effective preachers if they did not have access to authoritative, reliable copies of the Holy Scriptures. He commissioned Alcuin to ensure that every monastery and church receive a copy of the Vulgate that was free from scribal errors. The copying and distribution of basic texts placed new pressure on the manuscript scriptoria (or “copying rooms”).
In an effort to harmonize the quality of preaching, Charlemagne commissioned Paul the Deacon (c. 720–799) to compile sermons for all the feast days. These were to serve as models for the local priests to implement and rework. Emphasis was also placed on monastic reform. In an effort to enforce the Rule of St. Benedict, Charlemagne ordered that an error-free manuscript of the Rule be brought from Monte Cassino in Italy, and that copies of it be distributed to all of his monasteries.
The school curriculum, inspired by the writings of Augustine of Hippo, focused on a close study of Christian doctrine and classical authors, which served as models of good style. Students studied and learned the Psalms and were initiated—through works like Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Mercury and Philology (fl. 430), and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (c. 615–630)—to the seven liberal arts.
Special attention was given to the three arts belonging to Boethius’s trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. More advanced students were also introduced to the scientific arts of the quadri vium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony (or music).
Ferrières gained renown for its meticulous study of classical literature; the schools of Laon and Fulda were centers of biblical exegesis; St. Wandrille surpassed all others in the study of music; Tours and Reichenau were famous for their copying and editing of manuscripts. Approximately 70 schools—located throughout Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, and northern Spain—have left us some record of their activities during the ninth century.
Charlemagne’s library included works of Horace, Lucan, Terence, Statius, Juvenal, Tibullus, Claudian, Martial, Cicero, Servius, Sallust, Virgil, Macrobius, Ovid, and Priscian. Abbots in the provinces could enrich their collections by ordering copies of books in the palace library, or in other surrounding monastic and cathedral libraries.
Alcuin believed it was important to make manuscripts easier to read, by adopting punctuation and adding spaces between words. Furthermore since writing materials were scarce and expensive, developing a clear and compact script was a high priority.
Medieval scribes had inherited several scripts from the Romans, such as rustic capitals, uncial, half-uncial, and cursive. Rustic capitals are frequently found in inscriptions and law codes. The script consists of large, narrow capital letters placed side by side. Uncial and half-uncial used more rounded letters.
All three of these scripts were cumbersome and occupied a large amount of space. In an effort to make the most out of an expensive sheet of parchment (sheep’s skin) or vellum (calf’s skin), legal documents and business records were generally written in cursive hand, which was particularly difficult to read.
Irish bookhand, for example, was a beautiful and elaborate script, but it was difficult to write and the letters remained very large. In the 770s, the monks of Corbie—a sister-establishment of Luxeuil, the Irish abbey founded in the sixth century by St. Columba—developed a compact, rounded, regular and very legible script, which became known as “Carolingian minuscule,” because of its small size.
Alcuin immediately introduced the script to the palace school and scriptorium, where it was used to copy the Bible, writings of the church fathers, and classical works. Carolingian minuscule quickly spread throughout the empire. During the 20th century, it continued to survive as the standard typewriter font, and it forms the basis of the Times New Roman computer font.
Carolingian scholars did not limit themselves to copying manuscripts. They also composed their own works: textbooks for the study of the liberal arts, biblical commentaries, dictionaries, glossaries, bilingual word lists, compilations, spelling handbooks, commentaries, and summaries of ancient works. An impressive body of hagiographical literature (such as saints’ lives) also dates from the Carolingian revival.
Numerous political and historical writings inspired by classical models have survived, including Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne (based on the Lives of the Twelve Caesars) and Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards. Carolingian authors like Walafrid Strabo (c. 808–899), Sedulius Scottus (fl. 848–874) and Lupus of Ferrières (c. 805–862), wrote more than 3,200 pages of original Latin poetry.
Although men remained the most active players in the Carolingian Renaissance, study programs for women were implemented in female monasteries, and women played an important role as teachers outside their religious communities. A female hermit educated St. Wiborada, and in the early 840s a woman named Dhuoba composed a Liber Manualis (a sort of grammar book) to instruct her son, William.
The granddaughters of Judith, second wife of Louis the Pious, inherited part of their father’s library; female monasteries—like Chelles, Jouarre, Säckingen, Remiremont, Herford, Poitiers, Soissons, Essen, and Brescia—had their own scriptoria.
Irish scholars (known as the scholastici) also played an important role. Toward the end of the ninth century the monk Notker—a teacher, scribe, and librarian at the Irish monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland—commemorated their influence in a famous anecdote. Two Irishmen, he claims, went to the court of Charlemagne and so greatly impressed the emperor that he extended his patronage to them.
Einhard confirms that Charlemagne “held the Irish in special esteem.” After Alcuin’s retirement from public life to the monastery of Tours, an Irishman, Clement, became head of the palace school. The lasting relationship between Carolingian monarchs and the Irish continued long after Charlemagne’s death, under Louis the Pious, Lothair II, and Charles the Bald (who becomes the patron of the famous Irish scholar John Scotus Eriugena).
Under Charlemagne and his descendents, the Frankish court became a center of interaction between scholars and poets from all over Europe. The influences of the Carolingian Renaissance continued to be felt well into the 10th, and even into the 12th century, as the cathedral and monastic schools continued to teach a curriculum based on the church fathers, the Latin authors, and the liberal arts.