Carolingian Renaissance: Discoveries and Rediscoveries

Carolingian Renaissance: Discoveries and Rediscoveries

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Charlemagne's reign corresponded to an intellectual awakening of the West, the beginning of a period commonly known as "Carolingian Renaissance ". When we usually think of the term "Renaissance" in history, we immediately think of Leonardo da Vinci, Italy, Florence or the discovery of America. But this period of history is a renaissance among many. Humanity is a phoenix, it dies and is reborn from its ashes. The rediscovery of ancient civilization and ancient authors is the soul of this present resurrection.

The Carolingian renaissance

The Carolingians form a dynasty of Frankish kings. They are the direct heirs of Charles Martel (690-741) who restored Frankish unity. However, his work remained unfinished. Although having propagated the Christian faith, Charles Martel plundered the Church by depriving it of its means to accomplish its mission. The first of the Carolingian kings is the son of Charles Martel, Pépin le Bref (715-768). He ascended to the throne in 751. But it was especially between 768 and 814, under the reign of his son Charlemagne [1] (742-814), that the Carolingians reached the peak of their cultural and territorial influence.

On Charlemagne's death, the Carolingian Empire extended from Saxony to Navarre and from Neustria (north-west France) to Carinthia (present-day southern Austria). After many difficulties in maintaining the shared empire, the Carolingian dynasty disappeared at the end of the 10th century after the death of Louis V. The Carolingian dynasty fell into the middle of the High Middle Ages. Moreover, when the dynasty disappeared, the High Middle Ages faded and gave way to the central Middle Ages. While the term "Middle Ages" today evokes a dark period in history to many, the reality is quite different, especially during the reign of the Carolingians. We are witnessing the rebirth of a hegemonic empire in Europe.

Educate above all else

The dissemination of the Christian faith is essential for the Carolingian kings. To do this, a major school policy will be rigorously pursued, especially under the reign of Charlemagne. The primary purpose of the schools is to train a clergy who, in turn, will be able to best supervise the faithful. This policy will result in an important multiplication of books and schools. The result will be quickly visible and will form a unified but above all brilliant European culture. In 789, Charlemagne enacted a law, the Admonitio generalis [2] , in which it is written:

“[...] that the priests attract towards them not only the children of servile conditions, but also the children of free men. We want schools to be founded where children can [learn to] read ”

The text also requires every bishop to open a school. Monasteries are popping up all over the place and delivering two distinct kinds of teachings. One part of the monastery trains future monks and the other part trains young lay people who want to learn the Latin language. The educational model is directly inspired by Antiquity. There are two levels of teaching: trivium consists of Latin grammar and rhetoric, the quadrivium is a higher level that teaches math, arithmetic, and music. All this training is based on the seven liberal arts [3] which will form the basis of school and university culture throughout the Middle Ages.

This dynamic teaching requires an increased production of books, thus the production workshops will multiply mainly in the north of the Loire and in Burgundy. In the 8th century, the tiny caroline which is easier to read and write than the Merovingian lower case. It will be taken up again in the 15th century by the humanists who preferred it to the tiny Gothic.

In the heart of the empire, between the Loire and the Rhine as well as in the north of Italy, impressive centers of study appeared around the 9th century. Large monasteries or cathedrals bring together schools, scriptorium and libraries. The Royal Court is also an important vector of culture. Charlemagne brought together in Aix the greatest scholars of the time, all from the four corners of Europe. Thus a clever mix of cultures and influences takes place. Latin is the language of use at the Court, we write poetry there, we write the reforms of the empire ...

Cultural production

One of the main goals for the Carolingians is above all to bring Latin back to the fore. To do this, it is necessary to return it to its most classic shape by ridding it of faults accumulated over time. The literati of the Court work day and night on this ambitious task. Liturgical texts are translated or retranslated. We rediscover the Greco-Latin culture and save entire sections of ancient culture. Suddenly, as you translate, you quickly become able to create in turn, drawing inspiration from texts from antiquity.

Many poems, biographies, moral treatises will appear, such as the famous From rerum naturis by Raban Maur. All this common culture, founded on the rediscovery and the putting into practice of Latin culture, is placed at the service of the Christian faith and aims to ensure its dissemination. We are witnessing the real birth of a unified European culture.

Carolingian art

The spread of Christianity and the growing importance of religion in society has brought about a real flourishing in the arts, especially in architecture. Under the reign of Charlemagne alone, the monasteries grew like mushrooms, there were more than two hundred of them as well as many churches. New architectural forms appear such as crypts or towers. We are also starting to decorate the interiors more richly. The Byzantine techniques encountered in Italy gave new ideas to the craftsmen who set out to produce numerous frescoes and other gold-ground mosaics. Goldsmiths serve religious objects, the Bibles are covered with gold and silver. Generally speaking, the books are now adorned with magnificent golden illuminations.

The Carolingians rediscovered an ancient world while reappropriating it to better serve the Christian faith. The Carolingian renaissance will have marked its time but also history, in the broad sense. In the 15th century, humanists like Erasmus would draw inspiration from the Carolingians and their ability to discover. So rebirths inspire rebirths ...

[1] Charlemagne (742/814): Son of Pepin the Short, he reigned over the Carolingian Empire from 768 until his death in 814. Crowned emperor in Rome in 800, he is the most eminent member of the Frankish dynasty to which he gave his name, although he was not the founder: the Carolingians.

[2] Admonitio General : Chapter formed by Charlemagne in 789, it consists of 82 articles concerning the religious, intellectual and moral fields. Charlemagne addresses all his subjects and prescribes his duties to each.

[3] The Seven Liberal Arts : Taught since Antiquity, Charlemagne brings them back to light and qualifies them as "Grammar speaks, Dialectic teaches, Rhetoric colors words, Music sings, Arithmetic counts, Geometry weighs, Astronomy takes care of stars ”.


- The Carolingians: A family that made Europe, by Pierre Riché. Plural, 2012.

- Ambitions and limits of cultural reforms in the Carolingian era, by Philippe Depeux. PUF, 2002.

Video: The Collapse of the Carolingian Empire - Echoes of History - Extra History


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