Essay: Cultural and Construction History of the Carolingian Renaissance

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Carolingian Renaissance was a period occurring in the late 8th and 9th centuries characterized by a revival in an interest in intellectual and culture development. The leadership of Carolingian rulers, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, spear headed this interest (Trompf). The movement itself was an isolated event and did not incorporate all of Europe. It was limited to the confines of the royal court and monasteries but was important nonetheless as the movement was responsible for the preserving of existing knowledge and the copying of ancient manuscripts for future generations. The movement also resulted in the establishment of a strong learning environment in monasteries throughout Europe and the adoption of Latin as a common language as a form of communication. By adopting Latin as a common language, communication between differing cultures and society was made possible and the exchange of ideas became possible. Although this increased interest in learning and culture was limited to the royal court and monasteries, it did establish the basis for all future intellectual pursuits throughout Europe.

II. Culture

The fall of Rome had a tragic and long-lasting effect on Europe. The center of power and influence was transferred to the East where the Byzantine and Islamic civilizations were prospering while in Europe society was struggling. In a period known commonly as the Dark Ages, most of Europe was engaged in an endless series of wars and the virtual disappearance of any urban life. For most persons living in Europe in the period between the fall of Rome and the emergence of the Frankish Kingdom finding protection and security were primary concerns and learning and cultural affairs were inconsequential.

The chaos that developed in Europe following the fall of Rome began to dissipate as the German Franks began expanding their influence on the continent (Wickham). The Franks first established themselves in Western Europe when a young Frankish king, Clovis, assumed the throne in 486. Similar to what happened in the eastern end of the old Roman Empire with Constantine, Clovis also converted to Catholicism after ascending to the throne and proceeded to go about attempting to convert the rest of his empire. Clovis turned the focus of his wars from acts of aggression into holy wars and, in the process, the Frankish Kingdom became closely aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. This alignment would become closer through the ensuing centuries to the point where the Kingdom would become known as the Holy Roman Empire.

Clovis' death would result in his Kingdom falling apart for a period of time but the influence of the Franks on politics and society would remain strong and when Charlemagne came to power in 771 the process of building the civilization that would dominate the European continent until the Renaissance began. The magic of Charlemagne's reign and the years hence that became to be known as the Carolingian Renaissance was the stability that it finally brought to the continent (Barbero). The years of barbaric attack and cultural uncertainty were over as Charlemagne successfully merged elements of the old Roman rule with Germanic customs and laws (Dutton). Like Clovis before him, Charlemagne was devoted to the Roman Catholic Church and imposed its theology on his subjects. Under Charlemagne, the class system that would dominate European society throughout the Middle Ages was organized. The class system was divided into essentially three classes: 1) the peasants or serfs; 2) the nobility; and, 3) the clergy (Kreis). This system worked effectively throughout Europe for hundreds of years and provided society with the protection and security that was lacking for so long following the fall of Rome.

When Charlemagne came to power the majority of society was uneducated. Due to the style of life that most individuals were living there was little time available for things outside maintaining basic sustenance. Even the nobility, which was responsible primarily for fighting the King's battles, was lacking education and would be considered, by modern standards, crude individuals. Only the clergy possessed any semblance of education and this was very rudimentary. The wisdom of Charlemagne, however, was recognizing where the strength of the system was and he placed the responsibility for establishing a new source for learning and culture on the shoulders of the clergy (Contreni). The clergy, which included both priests and monks, were only marginally better educated than the general public in Charlemagne's time but Charlemagne realized that this marginality was important. Charlemagne was extremely devoted to the expansion of new ideas and the preservation of old ones and he worked diligently to make sure that the clergy became actively engaged in the learning process. Having studied the languages of Latin and Greek, rhetoric, logic, and astronomy he felt quite comfortable in the presence of educated men.

One of the educated men who played a significant role in the formation of Charlemagne's empire and contributed greatly to his educational system was the Anglo-Saxon, Alcuin (Lorenz). Alcuin was responsible for designing the learning curriculum for Charlemagne's palace school in Aachen that led to the course of study that trained the empire's clergy. It was Alcuin who was responsible for the formation of the curriculum that would characterize the basic outline for liberal arts study well into the 20th century. Under Alcuin's guidance, liberal arts study consisted of courses in grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music (Cantor).

Alcuin's curriculum was quite sophisticated for its time and likely far more complicated than necessary to prepare the clergy for copying manuscripts but Charlemagne was determined to have an educated clergy and encouraged Alcuin to devise such a curriculum. As a result of Alcuin's efforts the clergy in Charlemagne's empire were able to engage themselves in the process of copying and editing manuscripts in an effort to save the information that had been handed down through the centuries and were in danger of being destroyed. In addition, Charlemagne and Alcuin were also responsible for developing a new system of writing that made the reading of the ancient manuscripts much easier to read. Prior to Charlemagne, manuscripts were prepared without use of punctuation, clear separation between words, and the exclusive use of uppercase letters. Under Charlemagne's guidance, a new script system was designed, indentified as Carolingian miniscule, which used lower and upper case letters, punctuation, and separation between letters (John). The new script system made reading of the manuscript much easier. The system designed under Charlemagne's instruction is remarkably similar to the script that is presently used.

When Charlemagne ascended to the throne there was no uniform method of communicating among European cultures. Latin had been used but through the years the language had been allowed to fall into disuse and confusion reigned as colloquialisms had developed that contributed to confusion and poor translations (Chambers). To eliminate these confusions, Charlemagne proceeded to actively develop a standardized form of Latin in an effort to improve communications among the different peoples of Europe (Stewart).

Charlemagne's accomplishments in the areas of learning and scholarship were commendable but his accomplishments were largely limited to the areas around his royal court at Aachen. Although he tried to extend the spirit of learning throughout his empire doing so proved to be more difficult than he imagined. Overcoming the effects of several centuries where intellectual and cultural affairs were virtually ignored, it was nearly impossible for effective change to be accomplished on a wide scale basis. The intent of Charlemagne and the other Carolingian rulers was to improve overall level of learning throughout the Holy Roman Empire but, in reality, only small changes occurred in the exterior regions of the kingdom.

III. Science

As has already been noted, Charlemagne was deeply devoted to the concept of learning. This devotion extended to the area of science but it must be understood that science in the 8th century meant something much different than it does today. In the 8th century, the Roman Catholic Church dominated much learning and any ideas that approximated scientific thought was looked upon as superstition and deemed as heresy. Because of this influence, the field of science in Charlemagne's times was limited to the field of astronomy (Rand).

Charlemagne studied astronomy and was familiar with its uses and terminology. He would have liked for the study of astronomy to be pursued throughout his empire but the level of education was so poor as to make such study difficult (Eastwood). In an effort to promote the study of astronomy, Charlemagne maintained a program of restoring and building new schools throughout his kingdom. Like he had done in his program for educating the clergy, Charlemagne built these schools so that they would be under the authority of a nearby monastery, cathedral, or a royal court (Butzer).

The deplorable state of generalized education in Europe in the 8th century and the powerful influence of the Roman Catholic Church made any study in the area of science difficult but Charlemagne was determined to make sure that the overall literacy improved throughout Europe during his reign. Toward this end Charlemagne attempted to have… [END OF PREVIEW]

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