The Renaissance of Charlemagne

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The Renaissance of Charlemagne

A New Roman Empire.

Charles the Great, king of the Franks and emperor of the Romans (742–814), presided over a cultural revolution known as the Carolingian Renaissance. ("Carolingian" is the adjective derived from the Latin form of Charles, Carolus.) He would do more for the preservation of Roman plays and the promotion of medieval theater than any other person, before or since. Ruler of a territory that included much of present-day France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Italy, Charlemagne (as the French would call him) knew that governing his vast empire would be easier if the many different people who inhabited these lands had a common culture. In addition, therefore, to promoting peace within the empire's borders, he promulgated new laws and codified old ones, established procedures for the administration of justice, and encouraged the conversion of the many pagan tribes in his domain to Christianity. To aid in this task, he also embarked on a series of church reforms. The papacy of his time was weak, and it was Charlemagne's political and military power that provided the channels through which the doctrines and ideals of Christianity could be disseminated. This was the beginning of the politico-religious entity that would later be known as the Holy Roman Empire. And more than law or justice, more than the development of bureaucratic institutions, it was liturgy—the theater of worship—that would help to bring the disparate peoples of Europe together to form an entity known as Christendom.


introduction: St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354–430), was the most important theologian of the early Christian Church. Born in the Roman colony of North Africa, in the small town of Thagaste, he was educated in Carthage and Rome, where he became a successful teacher of rhetoric. During a stay in Milan, he encountered its bishop, St. Ambrose (c. 339–397), under whose guidance he first began to investigate the claims of Christianity. He eventually converted, but not before living a full and varied life, described in his Confessions.

The spectacles of the theatre ravished me, for they were filled with representations of my own miseries and were the kindling that ignited my fires. Why is it that a person should want to suffer pain in such places, by watching sorrowful and tragic things—things which he himself would never wish to suffer? And yet he wants to suffer from them, to feel sorrow as a spectator, and let sorrow itself become his pleasure. What is this, but a strange madness? For the more anyone is excited by such things, the less capable he is of governing his emotions. For when he himself suffers it is misery, and when he is compassionate for others it should be called mercy; but what kind of mercy should there be for made-up characters and scenarios? The person in the audience is not called upon to relieve, but invited only to grieve; the more he sorrows, the more he approves the performance of the actors in these scenes. And if the misfortunes of these people, whether they are long dead or purely fictitious, happen to be acted in such a way that the spectator is not saddened by them, he walks out, disgusted and critical. But if he is forced to be sad, he stays attentive and weeps, rejoicing.

source: St. Augustine, Confessions, c. 390. Translation by Carol Symes.

The Unifying Force of Religion.

Christendom was a spiritual empire whose borders coincided, roughly, with the secular empire of Rome, and whose unifying power is expressed in the name of the Roman Catholic Church, the "universal" church (from the Greek adjective katholicos) established in Rome. It was under Charlemagne's patronage that the many disparate rituals, prayers, ceremonies, and music developed by individual Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire were eventually brought together to form a cohesive liturgy. Some of these rituals, like the solemn performance of the daily Mass, were almost as old as Christianity itself. Others, like the annual feasts commemorating significant episodes in the life of Christ (his Nativity at Christmas, his resurrection at Easter) or honoring the deeds of the saints, were later additions, often in response to the needs of recent converts. The observance of Christmas on 25 December, for example, was tied to that date in order to coincide with the winter solstice and the celebration of Yule, which was sacred among the pagan peoples of northern Europe because it marked the darkest day of the year and the subsequent return toward light; thus, the symbolism of Jesus' birth and the rebirth of the sun reinforced one another. By contrast, Easter continued to be a "moveable feast," whose date was not constant from year to year, but was instead tied to the dating of Passover, which was calculated according to the lunar calendar in use by the Jews, rather than the solar calendar that had governed the reckoning of time in the territories of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the English name of the most important feast in the Christian calendar, Easter, has nothing to do with Christ, but is the name of the Saxon fertility goddess, Eastra.

The Contributions of Monasticism.

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great (540–604) had begun laying the groundwork for Charlemagne's later program of liturgical reforms. Under his direction, the musical sequences that accompanied the recitation of the Psalms and other biblical verses were brought together into a corpus of melodic material that is commonly called Gregorian chant. Like the Mass, many of these chants were very old. Others had been composed to support the expanded services of the newly legalized church in the fourth and fifth centuries, notably under Ambrose, bishop of Milan (c. 339–397), the mentor of St. Augustine. Still others were the artistic product of the monasteries that were being founded throughout Europe, and which would be the recipients of Charlemagne's generosity. The Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–543), which provided the basic guidelines for monastic life in much of Europe—and which is still in use in modern Benedictine monastic houses all over the world—had instituted an elaborate schedule of daily worship called the opus Dei, "the work of God." The phrase indicated that it was the special job of monks and nuns to pray continually for the welfare of Christendom. At seven intervals throughout the day, and once in the middle of the night, the monastic choir would perform the office (from the Latin word for "duty," officium), each segment of which involved the chanting of the Psalms, singing of hymns, recitation of prayers, and reading of Scripture. This program of prayer was, in many respects, inherently dramatic; the selection of Bible passages, the choice of the music, the display of certain ornaments and colors, and the wearing of special vestments (ceremonial costumes) all contributed to the theatrical expression of devotion to God. The very calendar of the church was theatrical, turning the cycle of the seasons into a year-long drama which re-enacted the stages of Christ's mission on earth and showed the continual workings of God in the world by commemorating the deeds of holy men and women.

Charlemagne's Achievement.

Charlemagne's contribution to the theatrical innovations of the early Middle Ages was material, in several senses. By financing churches and monasteries throughout his domain, he helped to enrich the celebration of the liturgy and to make Christian worship an increasingly attractive interplay of music, light, color, and ceremony. But even more importantly, he ensured that the rituals and chants of the early church would not be forgotten, collecting the scattered manuscripts and oral traditions by which they had been conveyed and having them copied and disseminated throughout his realm. These new manuscripts, many of them beautifully decorated with colored inks and gold leaf (the brightness of their pages gives the impression that they are "illuminated") were written in a script that was also new. Called "Carolingian minuscule," it abandoned the laborious square capital letters that had been in use since antiquity in favor of a rounded hand that was easier to write and to read, the ancestor of modern typefaces like those in printed books. Finally, the scribes of Charlemagne's court developed a system of musical notation, which operated like a recording device, enabling the transmission of music through writing (rather than by word—or song—of mouth). In addition to preserving and augmenting the unique heritage of early medieval Christianity, the artists and intellectuals of Charlemagne's court devoted themselves to preserving and honoring the classical age, especially the legacy of Rome. The universal language of Western Europe was still Latin, the language of the Romans, but that language was rapidly becoming specialized, a language of scholarship and worship. It was no longer the language of conversation, prayer, or writing. It was only one of many European languages, some derived directly from Latin (the "romance" or Roman languages of French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Romanian, Portuguese, Occitan), others rooted in Germanic or Celtic dialects (Anglo-Saxon or Old English, Gaelic, Breton). These vernacular or "native" languages were much more widely spoken than Latin, and in the centuries after the death of Charlemagne they would become literary languages in their own right.

Preserving the Past for the Future.

The Carolingian Renaissance is so called, then, because it suggests a "rebirth" of interest in the past, and a desire to emulate the literary and artistic forms of that past. Not surprisingly, one of the most compelling aspects of the Roman past was its theater. In scriptoria ("workshops for writing") throughout Charlemagne's realm, scribes and illuminators turned out hundreds of lavishly illustrated manuscripts of Roman plays, especially the comedies of Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, c. 190–158 b.c.e.), which were among the entertainments that had made so indelible an impression on St. Augustine. Of course, Carolingian scribes also preserved other classical texts, not just plays: the poetry of Vergil, Catullus, Horace, and Ovid; the speeches and letters of Cicero; and the histories of Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus. Hence, most of what is known about Rome is known because of the work of the copyists who saved the endangered texts of antiquity from oblivion. The surviving knowledge of Greek drama, on the other hand, is attributed to the Greek-speaking heir of the Roman Empire, Byzantium, where Constantine had founded his new capital of Constantinople in 325. The knowledge of Greek was unavailable to the people of medieval Western Europe. Thus, it was not until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 that the tragedies and comedies of the Greek dramatists became accessible to the West, helping to fuel the artistic endeavors of another Renaissance.


Andrew Hughes, "Charlemagne's Chant or the Great Vocal Shift," Speculum 77 (2002): 1069–1106.

Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, England, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Leo Treitler, "Reading and Singing: On the Genesis of Occidental Music-Writing," Early Music History 4 (1984): 135–208.

see also Religion: Early Latin Christianity in Northern Europe ; Visual Arts: The Carolingian Restoration of Roman Culture

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The Renaissance of Charlemagne

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