Edward L. Cutts (essay date 1882)
SOURCE: “The Revival of Learning” and “The Ecclesiastical Work of Charles” in Charlemagne, E. & J. B. Young and Co., 1882, pp. 306-36.
[In the following excerpt, Cutts explores Charlemagne’s encouragement of learning and examines his religious policy, edicts, and controversial theological decisions.]
THE REVIVAL OF LEARNING
The feature of Charles’s character and work to which the historian naturally turns with the greatest sympathy is his love of learning and the wise and strenuous encouragement of it from which dates the revival of letters in Europe.
The elegant culture of which the letters of Sidonius have given us so charming a glimpse, had long since died out of the countries between the Alps and the English Channel. The Imperial schools, which we have seen still existed in the towns of Gaul in the time of the grandsons of Clovis, had fallen into neglect and decay. If the Frank conquerors had gradually progressed from their original barbarism, the civilization of the conquered race had gradually deteriorated in the midst of perpetual war, until at last, about the time of Charles Martel, the whole people had reached the lowest point of civilization to which Gaul had sunk since it learnt the language and the manners of Rome.
Letters had taken refuge in the monasteries; but the monastic schools did not fulfil the place of the old Imperial schools. Pagan literature was very naturally disliked and discouraged by the Church, and the schools of the monasteries took a narrower range.
The advantages of learning were indeed recognized by the Frank princes from the first, and Clovis, and his sons and grandsons, encouraged some of their young nobility to qualify themselves for high places in the State and in the Church. No doubt Pepin and Carloman, with the assistance of Boniface, in regulating and reforming the Frankish Church, did something to encourage learning. Pepin, we have seen, had the Italian scholar, Peter of Pisa, at his court as tutor to the young princes and the young nobles of the court. But the adoption of general measures to revive learning throughout the kingdom was the work of Charlemagne, and is one of his best claims to the gratitude of posterity.
It was about the year 780 that he induced an eminent Lombard scholar, Paul the Deacon, to take up his residence at his court, and to undertake the instruction of all who chose to attend his lectures. In the following year he met with the scholar whose name is more especially associated with that of Charles in the revival of learning.
It was at Parma, during Charles’s expedition to Italy, that a group of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics were introduced to him, who had been to Rome to fetch the pallium for Eanbold, the newly elected Archbishop of York. Chief of them was Alcuin, who held the honourable office of master of the schools of York, in which he had succeeded the new archbishop.
The schools of Britain and Ireland had at this time a considerable reputation. The school of York was one of the most famous of them. Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Abbot Adrian, the companion of his labours, were both men of considerable learning, and they had taken pains to establish schools in England. Bede (673-735) had gained for himself and for the Northumbrian schools a European reputation; Egbert, his scholar and friend, had maintained the high character for learning of the school of York; Egbert had been the master of Elbert, and Eanbold the new archbishop, and Alcuin, had been school-fellows under Elbert. When Elbert succeeded Egbert as archbishop, Eanbold succeeded Elbert in the schools; when Eanbold was in turn raised to the see, Alcuin succeeded him as scholasticus; so that Alcuin was a scholar of great reputation, and in a position in which he might naturally expect to succeed in his turn to the see of York. The school of York had maintained the Roman traditions derived from its founders; it taught the theology of Augustine and of Gregory the Great, and it regarded Rome as the mother of Western Christendom.
In the scholasticus of York, King Charles recognized the kind of man he needed to take the lead in that revival of learning on which he was intent. Alcuin listened to his proposals, and agreed to accept his offers, provided that when he reached England, in discharging his embassy, the archbishop and the Northumbrian king should give their consent; and in 782 Alcuin took up his residence at the court of the King of the Franks, as master of the Palatine school. The king gave him two abbeys to afford him an income—one near Troyes, and another, Ferrieres, in the diocese of Sens—and no doubt he cared for the well-being of the houses from which he derived his emoluments; but his duties were the teaching of the Palatine school, and the promotion of education throughout the Frank dominions. The king at this time was forty years of age, the scholar was forty-seven.
It was a strangely wandering life which was led by the court of the great Charles. Wherever the military or political affairs of his wide dominions made it necessary for him to fix his residence for a few months, thither his wife and children, his counsellors and secretaries, in short, his whole court, accompanied him,—now in Saxony, now in Aquitaine, now in Lombardy, now on the banks of the Rhine.
The duties of the master of the Palatine school were very much the same as those of the master of any of the great schools of the period. He was a professor, who delivered public lectures. But seeing he was here the sole professor, he had to lecture on all subjects which he desired that his pupils should learn.
Charles himself had a great thirst for knowledge, and a great desire to encourage learning. He frequently set the example of attending the master’s lectures, and such an example was sure to be followed by all who desired to stand well with the king. Still more frequently in conversation he availed himself of the great scholar’s supposed capability of solving all questions on all subjects. We take leave to quote a few paragraphs, which place the scene vividly before us:1—
We find Charles and his courtiers plying the Vates from across the Channel with innumerable questions, often blundering strangely and misapprehending wildly, but forming a circle which even at this lapse of time it is impossible to contemplate without interest. The monarch himself, in the ardour of a long unsatisfied curiosity, propounding queries on all imaginable topics; suggesting, distinguishing, objecting, disputing;—a colossal figure, gazing fixedly with bright blue eyes on his admired guest, and altogether a presence that might well have disconcerted a less assured intellect. Alcuin, however, holding fast by his Boethius, Cassiodorus, and Isidorus, is calm and self-possessed; feeling assured that so long as he only teaches what ‘Gregorius summus’ and ‘Bæda venerabilis’ believed and taught, he cannot go very far wrong. Around him, as the years went by, he saw successively appear the three royal sons, born in rightful wedlock: Charles, the future ruler of Neustria and Austrasia; Pepin, the acknowledged lord of Italy; and Lewis, who almost from his cradle had worn the crown of Aquitaine,—the graceful young athlete and mighty hunter, his mind already opening to that love of learning which, through all the good and evil of his chequered life, he cherished so fondly in his later years. There, again, was Charles’s much-loved sister Gisela, Abbess of Chelles, who from her girlhood had renounced the world, but whom the fame of the great teacher drew from her conventual retirement. Thither also came the last and best-loved of Charles’s wives, Liutgarda, of the proud Alemannic race, hereafter to prove among the firmest of Alcuin’s friends; and the royal daughter, Gisela, whose parental affection held her too dear for the proudest alliance. There, too, was Charles’s son-in-law, Angilbert, chiefly distinguished as yet for his fondness for the histrionic art, but afterwards the saintly Abbot of St. Riquier. There, too, were the royal cousins, the half-brothers Adelhard and Wala, whose after action shook the whole fabric of the Carolingian Empire. There, too, was Riculfus, destined ere long to fill the chair of St. Boniface and rule the great see of Mayence; Eginhard, the royal biographer, the classic of the ninth century; and Fredegis, Alcuin’s youthful countryman, poet, and philosopher, not always faithful to his master’s teaching.
It appears to have been a frequent affectation in mediæval times for distinguished men to assume a literary or historic alias; and to this custom we must attribute the fact that Alcuin usually in his correspondence addresses the members of this circle under another name. Charles’s second name would seem to have really been David, and this fact may account for the assumption of scriptural names by some of his courtiers. Pepin was Julius; Gisela (the sister), Lucia; Gisela (the daughter), Delia; Queen Liutgarda was Ava; Adelhard was Antony; Wala, Arsenius; Eginhard, with reference perhaps to his destined state avocation, was Besaleel; Riculfus, Flavius Damoetus; Rigbod, Machairas; Angilbert, Homer; Fredigis, Nathanael.
There appears, however, little to support the popular idea of a regular Athenæum, or academy of adult members of Charles’s court.
For the first five years after Alcuin’s arrival (782-787) the mind of the king was occupied with the wars in which he was incessantly engaged; but when, in 785, Witikind laid down his arms and embraced Christianity, Charles had more leisure to turn to the designs of peace. During his residence at Rome, in the winter of 786-7, Charles had secured in the capital of Western learning several teachers of repute, whom, on his return, he distributed among the principal Frank monasteries to aid in the work of educational revival. Shortly after he issued the famous capitulary of a.d. 787. The copy which has been preserved is that addressed to the Abbot of Fulda:—
Charles, by the grace of God King of the Franks and of the Lombards, and Patrician of the Romans, to Bangulfus Abbot, and to his whole congregation, and to the faithful committed to his charge:
Be it known to your Devotion, pleasing to God, that in conjunction with our faithful we have judged it to be of utility that in the bishoprics and monasteries committed by Christ’s favour to our charge, care should be taken that there shall be not only a regular manner of life and one conformable to holy religion, but also the study of letters, each to teach and learn them according to his ability and the Divine assistance. For even as due observance of the rule of the house tends to good morals, so zeal on the part of the teacher and the taught imparts order and grace to sentences; and those who seek to please God by living aright, should also not neglect to please Him by right speaking. It is written, ‘By thine own words shalt thou be justified or condemned;’ and although right doing may be preferable to right speaking, yet must the knowledge of what is right precede right action. Every one, therefore, should strive to understand what it is that he would fain accomplish; and this right understanding will be the sooner gained, according as the utterances of the tongue are free from error. And if false speaking is to be shunned by all men, especially should it be shunned by those who have elected to be the servants of the truth. During past years we have often received letters from different monasteries, informing us that at their sacred services the brethren offered up prayers on our behalf; and we have observed that the thoughts contained in these letters, though in themselves most just, were expressed in uncouth language, and while pious devotion dictated the sentiments, the unlettered tongue was unable to express them aright! Hence there has arisen in our minds the fear lest, if the skill to write rightly were thus lacking, so too would the power of rightly comprehending the Holy Scriptures be far less than was fitting; and we all know that though verbal errors be dangerous, errors of the understanding are yet more so. We exhort you, therefore, not only not to neglect the study of letters, but to apply yourselves thereto with perseverance, and with that humility which is well pleasing to God, so that you may be able to penetrate with greater ease and certainty the mysteries of the Holy Scriptures. For as these contain images, tropes, and similar figures, it is impossible to doubt that the reader will arrive far more readily at the spiritual sense according as he is the better instructed in learning. Let there, therefore, be chosen for this work men who are both able and willing to learn, and also desirous of instructing others; and let them apply themselves to the work with a zeal equalling the earnestness with which we recommend it to them.
It is our wish that you may be what it behoves the soldiers of the Church to be,—religious in heart, learned in discourse, pure in act, eloquent in speech; so that all who approach your house in order to invoke the Divine Master, or to behold the excellence of the religious life, may be edified in beholding you, and instructed in hearing you discourse or chant, and may return home rendering thanks to God most High.
Fail not, as thou regardest our favour, to send a copy of this letter to all thy suffragans, and to all the monasteries; and let no monk go beyond his monastery to administer justice, or to enter the assemblies and the voting-places. Adieu.
This capitulary appears to have been issued from Augsburg, where he had just received the submission of the rebellious Tassilo.
It was probably some time after this that Charles sent round to the Churches a homilary or collection of sermons, corrected by the hand of Paulus Diaconus (at that time probably engaged in teaching at Metz), accompanied by the following instructions:—
Desirous as we are of improving the condition of the Churches, we impose upon ourselves the task of reviving with the utmost zeal the study of letters, well-nigh extinguished through the neglect of our ancestors. We charge all our subjects, as far as they may be able, to cultivate the liberal arts, and we set them the example. We have already, God helping, carefully corrected the books of the Old and New Testaments, corrupted through the ignorance of transcribers. And inasmuch as the collection of homilies for the service at Nocturns was full of errors … we have w illed that these same should be revised and corrected by Paul the Deacon, our well-beloved client; and he has presented us with readings adapted to every feast-day, carefully purged from error, and sufficing for a whole year.
Two years after the appearance of the famous capitulary of 787, Theodulphus, Bishop of Orleans, one of the Missi Dominici, and who appears to have succeeded Alcuin, on his retirement to Tours, as a kind of “minister of education,” addressed a document to the clergy of his diocese, which appears to have been widely adopted in other dioceses, in which he describes study as “a means whereby the life of the righteous is ennobled, and the man himself fortified against temptation.” In this, he requires his clergy to open schools in every town and village of his diocese, and to receive “the children of the faithful” for instruction, demanding in return no payment, though permitted to accept a gift spontaneously offered. Theodulphus himself was one of the cluster of learned men about the Frankish court. The library of his cathedral was famous for the number and beauty of the manuscripts he had gathered together. He has left us one monument at least which has in our days, in a translation, obtained a new popularity—the hymn “Gloria Laus et Tibi Honor”—
“All glory, laud, and honour To Thee, Redeemer, King,” etc.
In the year 795, the abbacy of Tours became vacant. It was, perhaps, the wealthiest of all the preferments in the wide dominions of Charles. The Archbishop of Toledo, in a controversy with Alcuin, made it a subject of reproach, that as Abbot of Tours he was the master of 20,000 slaves—the serfs upon his wide domains.
Here Alcuin continued his labours as teacher. He sent some of his monks to England to bring back books for the abbey library. Scholars flocked to him from all parts of the Frankish dominions, and many from his native England. He continued to correspond with the king,2 and continued to exercise a great influence on the literary progress of the kingdom.
He was immediately succeeded in the mastership of the Palatine school by Witzo, who had accompanied him from York; and he, after a short time by Fredegis, another scholar of York. But within about two years there arrived from Ireland two men, in secular learning and in the Sacred Scriptures incomparably learned,3 named Clement and Albinus, and they seem to have eclipsed Alcuin and his disciples in the regard of Charles.
The scholars of the Celtic school seem indeed to have had some advantages over the scholars of the school of York. We have seen that Alcuin and his school walked along the narrow path of Augustinian...
(The entire section is 7256 words.)