A Western Renaissance
by Nick Needham
Western Europe in the eighth century was dominated by what historians call the “Carolingian Renaissance.” Not to be confused with the later fifteenth and sixteenth-century Renaissance, the eighth-century variety got its name from the ruling dynasty of France, the Carolingians. At first they were the hereditary mayors of the French royal palace, enjoying real power under the figurehead monarchy of the Merovingians. The most famous of the Carolingian mayors was Charles Martel (690–741) — Charles “the Hammer,” so named for his decisive military victory over the Spanish Muslim armies. It is often forgotten that for much of the medieval period, Spain was Islamic. A Muslim army from Africa had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711, and by 718 had conquered almost the whole of Christian Spain. The Muslims then pushed on into France. However, in 732 at Tours (or possibly, Poitiers), they were met by a French Catholic army. Here, Charles Martel crushed the Muslim forces, which permanently halted the Western progress of the Islamic Empire. The French drove the Muslims back into Spain, and there they stayed for the next 700 years, until they were finally expelled back into North Africa in 1492. Martel had saved Europe for Christianity.
Martel also gave strong support to the Christianizing of pagan Germany. This was undertaken by a veritable flood of English missionary monks, the most famous of whom was Boniface (680–754). For the next three hundred years, the monasteries in this area were the life-giving centers of Christian religion and culture in Germany.
This alliance between the Carolingians and the papacy in evangelizing Germany grew stronger after Martel’s death in 741 and the accession of his sons Carloman and Pepin to power. Martel had placed Carloman and Pepin in a monastery in their youth, where monks had raised them to have a genuine concern for the welfare of the church. Now that they shared the throne of France, they invited Boniface to help them reform her church. Since Boniface acted as the pope’s representative, these reforms strengthened the bond between France and the papacy. Carloman became a monk after Boniface’s reforms were completed, leaving his brother Pepin as sole ruler of France.
Yet in theory, Pepin was still only the mayor of the palace, the chief servant of Childeric III, last of the feeble Merovingian kings. The fires of ambition danced in Pepin’s heart; he felt that he, the real ruler of France, should wear its royal crown. So Pepin obtained the support of pope Zacharias, and in 751 deposed Childeric. Then Boniface, again acting in the pope’s name, crowned Pepin king of France — the first of the great Carolingian royal dynasty. This was the first time a pope had claimed that his apostolic authority involved the right to sanction the dethroning of one king and his replacement by another. Pepin rewarded the pope by invading the Lombard kingdom of Italy in 756, which had been threatening Rome. Pepin gave all the Lombard cities he had captured to the pope. This action, known as “the donation of Pepin,” created a large H-shaped set of papal territories across western-central and north-eastern Italy — the “papal states.” The popes from then on would be secular rulers as much as spiritual leaders.
When Pepin died in 768, his two sons Charles and Carloman succeeded him as joint rulers of France. Carloman died in 771, leaving Charles as sole ruler. He reigned for the next forty-three years (771–814), and created the first great Western empire since the fall of Rome in 410. He is called “Charles the Great” or Charlemagne (from the Latin magnus, “great”).
Charlemagne is one of the truly colossal figures of European history. He has been called the “Moses of the Middle Ages” because he led the Germanic peoples out of the wilderness of pagan barbarism and gave them a new code of civil and ecclesiastical laws. His biographer, Einhard, tells us that Charlemagne was a physical giant of a man, sober and simple in his private life, a just and generous ruler, an affectionate father, and highly popular with his subjects. He had a keen probing mind, a sincere devotion to the Christian faith and the Catholic Church, and a burning sense of personal mission from God to unite the Western nations into a Christian empire.
We could spend much of our time telling the story of Charlemagne’s wars, which finally broke the back of pagan power in Germany. However, it is more profitable to consider his role in cementing France and Germany together with the glue of a new Christian culture. Charlemagne’s chief religious advisor, the English monk Alcuin of York (730–804), was central in this. Alcuin was head of York’s cathedral school before entering Charlemagne’s service in 782. For the next twenty-two years he acted as the schoolmaster of the Carolingian empire. The most cultured man in Western Europe, Alcuin was (among other things) a Bible commentator, textual scholar, liturgical reviser, defender of orthodoxy, reformer of monasteries, builder of libraries, and learned astronomer. Alcuin’s main contributions to the Carolingian Renaissance were as follows:
Language. Alcuin reformed spelling and developed a new style of handwriting called “Carolingian miniscule,” on which our modern printed letters are based. Carolingian scholars revived the Latin language, refined it, and taught it to all educated people. It became the international language of Western civilization. Whatever their native tongue, all educated Westerners could speak Latin.
Literature. In the days before printing was invented, monks had to copy books by hand. Charlemagne’s army of monk-scholars made numerous copies of ancient writings. Most of our surviving texts from ancient Greece and Rome have come down to us from Carolingian copies. Alcuin oversaw the establishment of monastic libraries throughout Charlemagne’s empire where these books were copied and stored. In this way the Carolingian Renaissance helped to preserve and transmit to the present the knowledge and culture of the past.
The Bible. Alcuin revised the text of the Latin Bible and established a standard edition of Jerome’s Vulgate.
Education. Charlemagne took a strong personal interest in the spreading of education. He ordered bishops and abbots to set up schools for training priests and monks. He decreed that every parish should have a school to educate all the male children of the neighborhood. He founded his own royal academy in Aachen, which Alcuin presided over and which encouraged the study of logic, philosophy, and literature.
Many of Charlemagne’s church advisors saw the wide extent of his kingdom as a re-creation of the Roman Empire in the West. This led to Charlemagne being recognized as “emperor of the Romans” in the year 800. On Christmas day that year, while Charlemagne was kneeling at the altar in Saint Peter’s Church in Rome, receiving communion, pope Leo III produced a crown and placed it on Charlemagne’s head. So was born the “Holy Roman Empire.” Leo’s crowning of Charlemagne signified that he was not simply king of France, he was also the heir of the old Roman emperors; the one in whom the Roman Empire had been reborn; the supreme ruler of the Western world.
Charlemagne’s exalted view of kingship, however, brought him into serious conflict with the papacy. We can grasp Charlemagne’s concept of his own position from a letter addressed to him by Alcuin:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ has set you up as the ruler of the Christian people, in power more excellent that the pope or the emperor of Constantinople, in wisdom more distinguished, in the dignity of your rule more sublime. On you alone depends the whole safety of the churches of Christ.”
Throughout his reign, Charle-magne acted consistently on this theory of “sacred kingship,” regarding himself as the pope’s superior even in doctrinal matters. We can see this clearly in two matters. First, the West’s response to the iconoclastic controversy was framed by Charlemagne, rather than the pope, in the so-called Caroline books (“books of Charles”), written with the help of his religious advisors, especially Alcuin. The Caroline books tried to steer a middle path between the Eastern advocates and enemies of icons. Secondly, Charlemagne also sanctioned the insertion of the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, over the head of pope Leo III’s opposition, so that the creed now read that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and from the Son.” The Eastern church protested passionately at this unilateral alteration of an ecumenical creed by a Western emperor, but to no avail. It was to have fateful consequences, contributing to the eventual break-up of East and West into separate and mutually hostile churches in 1054.
The relationship between Charlemagne and the papacy, then, was uneasy. The creation of the Holy Roman Empire paved the way for the fierce conflicts between popes and emperors in the later Middle Ages. The papacy stood for the great spiritual principle of the freedom and independence of the church from state control. However, to secure that independence, the popes wanted to place the state under the control of the church. On the other hand, Charlemagne and his successors saw themselves as “sacred kings,” the divinely chosen rulers of a Christian empire, responsible to God for its spiritual as well as secular welfare. The pope was, to them, nothing more than their chief spiritual advisor. So long as church and state were united, and seen as two aspects of a single Christian society, the possibility of religious and political conflict between pope and emperor was all too real.
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