Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Carolingian Renaissance

The slow-motion collapse of the Roman Empire over several decades in Britain and Gaul threatened to leave chaos in its wake. Roman rule had both its advantages and disadvantages, but it had at least provided stability and enough social structure to allow education to grow.

When the Roman ceased providing some measure of government in Gaul, it became clear that the Gauls could not generate social institutions strong enough to allow for robust cultural production. By the time the Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D., a new social structure emerged under the Merovingian king Childeric, who had been on the throne already since 457 A.D.

The Merovingians, a Frankish dynasty, moved into Gaul after the Roman collapse left a power vacuum in the region. The Franks eventually minted the realm’s own coins, codified the legal system, and freed the area from the last remaining practices of human sacrifice by introducing the ideas of Jesus.

The Carolingian dynasty, which took over the Frankish kingdom in the 700s A.D., built upon and continued the Merovingian cultural achievements. Increasing literacy was a priority for the Carolingian monarchs, who were, like the Merovingians, Franks.

With literacy came philosophical thought and an exploration of the Greco-Roman classical heritage. Monks and the earliest scholastic philosophers assembled large libraries. Historian Thomas Woods writes:

The result of this encouragement of education and the arts is known as the Carolingian Renaissance, which extended from the reign of Charlemagne through that of his son, Louis the Pious (r. 814-840). Perhaps the central intellectual figure of the Carolingian Renaissance was Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon who had been educated at York by a pupil of the Venerable Bede, the great saint and ecclesiastical historian who was one of the great intellects of his day. Alcuin was the headmaster of the cathedral school at York and a deacon who would later serve as the abbot of the monastery of Saint Martin’s at Tours. He was tapped by Charlemagne himself in 781 when the two met during Alcuin’s brief trip to Italy. In addition to his knowledge of a variety of subjects, Alcuin also excelled as a teacher of Latin, having absorbed the successful techniques of his Irish and Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Teaching the Germanic people grammatically correct Latin - a difficult skill to acquire during the unsettled sixth and the seventh centuries - was an essential element of the Carolingian Renaissance. Knowledge of Latin made possible both the study of the Latin Church fathers and the classical world of ancient Rome. In fact, the oldest surviving copies of most ancient Roman literature date back to the ninth century, when the Carolingian scholars rescued them from oblivion. “People don’t always realize,” writes Kenneth Clark, “that only three or four antique manuscripts of the Latin authors are still in existence: our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne, and almost any classical text that survived until the eighth century has survived until today.”

In the past, historians had not realized the full impact of the Carolingian Renaissance, and had assumed that people in the early Middle Ages were unaware of most Greco-Roman literature. Discoveries have shown, however, that the ability to read both Greek and Latin was not rare during the Carolingian era.

The monastery at Corvey is one example: this shining example of Carolingian architecture contains a wall mural, painted in the 800s A.D., which depicts a scene from Homer’s plots. This proves that not only were Greek works known at that point in time, but additionally that they were widely known. To paint an image like this inside a church was to give it maximum publicity.

Another example is the career of the scholastic philosopher Johannes Scotus Eriugena, who was born sometime after the year 800 and died sometime before the year 900. He was invited into Frankish kingdom, in part because of his excellent knowledge of the Greek language and of the classical Greek texts. He was part of a larger effort by the Franks to spread the study of Greek grammar and literature throughout central Europe.

In sum, the Franks under the Merovingians began to fuel an energizing of culture. Under the Carolingians, this impetus led to a full-blown explosion, not only of Greek and Latin culture and text, but also the foundational steps leading to modern mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

To be sure, the real birth of mathematics, chemistry, and physics - in the modern sense of these terms - would not take place until the High Middle Ages, sometime after the year 900 A.D.

The emergence of, e.g., the University of Bologna - the world’s first true university - around the year 1088 A.D., was based upon the intellectual groundwork laid earlier in the medieval era during the Carolingian Renaissance.