Historians often use the term ‘renaissance’ to describe the intellectual life of the eighth and ninth century Carolingian empire. It was during this time when there was a revival of interest in classical and pagan literature; of course, this would be greatly different from the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th century, which saw pagan literature as possessing a Humanist value which would cause you to be a better person. Carolingians, meanwhile, simply used pagan literature as a means to an end—to improve their skills so as to better read the text really worth reading, the Bible.

Though Reinhardt, Charlemagne’s contemporary’s biographer, likely exaggerated Charlemagne’s intellectual accomplishments, it is true that Charlemagne championed the Carolingian Renaissance (though it would not be until Lewis the Pious in which this Renaissance reaches its high point). Part of this support came from Charlemagne’s practical expectations; previously, St. Augustine made a distinction between pagans and Christians by arguing that whereas pagans worshipped God(s) due to the expectation of immediate benefits, Christians worshipped due to his Goodness. Charlemagne rejects this distinction because divine comprehension was something Charlemagne believed; to put it another way, if God cannot understand your prayers, then you are in trouble. During Charlemagne’s time, there existed a lot of confusion over which versions of the Bible were more correct. What pushed a lot of this confusion was textual degradations over time; scribes would forget, omit, or amend certain words or passages when transcribing and that would affect the ability to understand God’s will and for God to understand you in turn. Additionally, as early as the fifth or sixth century, continental Europe’s Latin had evolved into the Romance languages. Problem was that everyone speaking these languages thought they were speaking Latin when they were not speaking Latin; indeed, the only ones who were speaking Latin were the Anglo-Saxon monks who didn’t revert into their vernacular when reading from Latin texts. So it is this fear of religious malpractice which propels Charlemagne to support the two major goals of the Carolingian Renaissance: (1) uninformed and accurate texts of the Bible, Rule of St. Benedict, and of prayer books; (2) the elevation of education within the empire (ideally, everyone, but specifically of priests and holy men).

Beginning sometime in the 780s, Charlemagne’s court school, helped by the numerous scholars which Charlemagne attracted, starts to become an intellectual center of Europe. Though many important intellectual figures migrate to Charlemagne’s court, the leading light(s) of the court school, and of the Renaissance itself, are Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks. Aquin of York, meanwhile, is perhaps the most important Anglo-Saxon figure in this school and is responsible for setting the course and agenda of the school itself. (Another difference between the Carolingian and Italian Renaissance is that while in the latter, it is mostly secular intellectuals leading the movement, here we see laymen leading the movement.)

Because Charlemagne was always campaigning against pagan societies, the court school was always on the move as well. Naturally, this made it difficult for the scholars to get much work done. So as Charlemagne grew older and campaigned less, the school truly started to develop. While this court school would remain relatively rooted in Charlemagne’s favorite home, there would appear other secondary centers advancing the Carolingian Renaissance as well, centers which often appeared on the fringes of the empire (usually in Germany); why is due to the spreading of Christianity into formerly pagan areas. Charlemagne needed new priests and bishops to man these areas, and so he often turned to the court school figures to take charge of these secondary schools.

One result of the Renaissance is that book production increase many times over. Because Charlemagne was focused on eliminating as many inferior copies of important Holy texts as possible, he commissioned school court figures a mammoth undertaking—scour monasteries all over the empire and date each copy of each holy text; then, with that done, track down and correct as many errors as possible before making a final master copy which is as faithful as possible to the oldest known version. Of course, as this undertaking was achieved, copies of this new master copy would need to be disseminated throughout the empire to replace those old, inferior copies. One estimate puts the number of these new copies at around fifty-thousand. Copies which were made by hand.

In addition to this massive restoration and distribution of texts, an important goal for the Renaissance was to standardize grammar, spelling, and pronunciation; if this could be done, then textual recognition during the transcription process would be dramatically reduced as people would be able to reliably identify passages and recite said passages during services and prayers.

So it is in this context that pagan literature is studied—as a means to an end.

All of this focus on textual reproduction required great linguistic skills. Skills which would not be possible if Carolingian scholars did not practice with masterfully crafted Latin texts, then the new versions which they reproduced, would not be up to snuff. So they reproduced an addition sum of pagan texts, using them as a study tool to improve their Latin and as a reliable benchmark for what proper Latin actually constituted. It was not expected by Church authorities for the academic to enjoy these texts or to take anything away from them, but simply use them to become a better Christian by proxy.

In 789, Charlemagne orders that every monastery offers educational courses to the clergy. Education, from how to chant to seasonal computation, was important and helped in the linguistic skills needed to reproduce texts and hold religious services. However, what it interesting about Charlemagne’s order is that though the effect is primarily aimed at the clergy, this education is open to anyone, clergy or not. And though this part of the order was not followed through by too many bishops—due to resource constraint and belief on focusing on those children which will become monks—it nevertheless exists as a indicator of the sort of society which Charlemagne sought to create.

Even so, in terms of the practical effects, the only discernable changes enacted by these orders happened at the highest levels of the clergy. Efforts to educate local priests, though, did lead to (unfunded) standardized testing, the idea being that local priests would need to answer a series of questions to demonstrate their mastery of religious material if they wanted to be a priest. Such lists of questions, of course, are a wealth of information about life at the time and a Godsend for historians trying to puzzle out the standards (both practical and idealized) which the Carolingians were trying to impose.

Parish priests were little better educated at the end of the ninth century than they had been a century earlier. It would be hundreds of years before significant progress is made in their education level and Latin comprehension. Many bishops, though, being trained by Charlemagne’s court and Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks increased their Latin comprehension and lived lives which were in accordance with canon law. Gone are the days of incomprehensible Latin and decadent pseudo-aristocratic lifestyles.

It was the Carolingians who recognized what went wrong with texts after the Romans. Namely, that after the Roman Empire’s collapse, the Barbarian successors did not use punctuation or spaces in their writing, and they simply wrote a single, continuous strip of words. There is no logical stopping point in these Barbarian scripts. They also lacked upper-case and lowercase letters. Needless to say, Barbarians also lacked punctuation (no spaces between letters makes this irrelevant). Complicating matters further, handwriting differed throughout Europe, and to the point where one would not be able to read something written in one part of Europe if you originated from another. Obviously, all of these factors made reading and copying a laborious affair.

Carolingians revolutionized writing: they put spaces between words, differentiated between upper and lower case letters, utilized a rudimentary form of punctuation, and developed a clear and uniformed version of handwriting (called Carolingian Minuscule). Unfortunately, all these efforts to rescue Latin backfired and the Carolingians ended up killing the language; misconstruing the evolution of Latin for its decay, Carolingians opened up a chasm between Latin and the Romance Languages which Latin evolved into, making everyone aware of the fact that Latin is now the language of the educated elite. Once this distinction became clear, there was little hope for its long-term, widespread survival; people become aware of what they are speaking and thus we see an awareness of how the languages interact (for example, as early as the 9th century, after Latin and the Romance Languages are known, we see documents being written in the Romance Languages without any pretense to Latin and we also see a translation happening between Latin and the Romance Languages). As such, Latin dies out as a common language in favor of what everyone is presently speaking.

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