Carolingian Reform

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An effort made during the period extending from about 740 to 900 by the Carolingian rulers and their supporters to strengthen ecclesiastical structures and to revitalize spiritual life in the Frankish kingdom. In its early stages the reform movement was spearheaded by the Carolingian rulers, who recruited important elements of the episcopacy and the monastic world to support reform. With the passing of time royal leadership of the reforming effort became less prominent, especially when royal power began to decline after the death of Louis the Pious in 840 and the agreement reached by his successors in the Treaty of Verdun of 843 to divide the Frankish empire into three separate entities. Thereafter the reforming effort was led by bishops whose concerns tended to be local. The reform movement began as an effort to correct conditions afflicting the Frankish church during the later Merovingian period, including corruption, ignorance, and immorality within the clergy, the widespread survival of pagan practices, diversity in liturgical practice, and the massive seizure of church property. Under the influence of more sophisticated concepts of the nature of society and its governance and of expanding intellectual horizons generated by the carolingian renaissance, the movement took on new dimensions that moved it from an emphasis on what contemporaries called correctio (correction) to a concern for renovatio (renewal).

The original model for the correction of the Frankish church was drawn from the missionary effort that unfolded on the eastern frontier of the Frankish kingdom in the late 7th and early 8th centuries under the leadership of Anglo-Saxon monks. The most influential figure in that missionary field was boniface, who between 718 and 741 succeeded in winning numerous converts in Hesse, Thuringia, and Bavaria. Boniface established a solid ecclesiastical organization built around a series of newly established bishoprics, including Salzburg, Passau, Freising, Würzburg, and Erfurt. Supporting this diocesan structure were several newly founded monasteries (the chief of which was Fulda), which served as educational centers training a disciplined, literate clergy to continue missionary work, to occupy the key positions in the emerging church organization, and to take up the pastoral work required to sustain effective Christian life. Always mindful of the way in which Christianity had come to England in the time of Pope gregory i (the great), Boniface constantly turned to Rome for authorization to act and for guidance in the substantive aspects of his work; clearly he sought to create a religious establishment that would be subordinate to Rome.

Carloman and Pepin III. During the period of their joint rule as mayors of the palace, carloman and pepin iii launched a reforming movement intended to embrace the entire Frankish kingdom. Due primarily to the initiative of Carloman, whose portion of the Frankish kingdom faced the missionary frontier, the Frankish rulers turned to Boniface, who in his capacity as papal legate was given a key role in directing the assault on corruption in the Frankish church. The program was spelled out in a series of synods held in the 740s whose enactments were given the force of law by the rulers. Drawing on experiences in the missionary field that program emphasized bringing order to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, improving the education and the conduct of the clergy, suppressing paganism, and safeguarding ecclesiastical resources. In its initial stages it contained elements which envisaged a goal dear to Boniface: the creation of a Frankish church subordinate to Rome. But that dream met considerable resistance in Francia. With the abdication of Carloman in 747, Boniface lost his prime supporter, and his influence on the Frankish reforming activity gradually eroded until finally in 753 he returned to missionary work in Frisia, where he met a martyr's death in 754. Leadership of the reform movement devolved on Pepin III, king of the Franks after 751, and his Frankish advisers, the chief of whom was chrodegang, bishop of Metz. During the remainder of his reign, Pepin III was a strong promoter of reform down lines defined in the acts of the early synods, but he proceeded in a way that left no doubt that reform was a royal undertaking intended to achieve ends that would strengthen royal authority.

Charlemagne's Reform Efforts. As was the case in most aspects of Carolingian society, charlemagne gave new energy to the reform movement and expanded its scope in significant ways. The quickening and broadening of reforming activity were in part consequences of his conviction that he as ruler was personally responsible for shaping the spiritual life of his subjects in a way that would assure their salvation, a responsibility that greatly increased matters about which the king must be concerned. No less important was a firmer grasp of Christian traditions that resulted from the cultural renewal patronized by Charlemagne. That backward look led to an expansion of the norms used to guide the correction of the religious establishment and the addition of new elements to the reforming agenda. As a result, from its early stages the Carolingian reform movement was marked by a spirit of restoration in religious matters rather than by a spirit of innovation.

The particulars of Charlemagne's reforming program were set forth in a barrage of ecclesiastical legislation which was circulated in conciliar enactments and in capitularies carrying the force of law. Exemplary of the first were the acta of the Council of Frankfurt in 794 and of the latter were the Admonitio generalis of 789 and the Capitularia missorum generalis of 802. Much of this legislation emerged from royal assemblies and synods in which lay and ecclesiastical potentates were called upon to weigh and find solutions to the problems facing the Church; their expanded participation in deliberations on religious matters meant that reform became a central matter on the political agenda of the kingdom. The reforming legislation focused on a variety of topics: the reestablishment of the metropolitan structure; the definition of episcopal power and responsibility; the extension of the parish structure; the improvement of the intellectual and moral life of the clergy; the protection and enlargement of ecclesiastical resources, including the imposition of the tithe; the standardization of liturgical practices; more effective pastoral activity aimed at deepening knowledge of the faith and raising the moral standards of the laity; the destruction of pagan remnants; and the improvement of the physical facilities related to religious life. As Char-lemagne's reform program unfolded it began to reach out in new directions. The duties of royal subjects were increasingly given a positive turn that equated acceptable civic behavior with the practice of Christian virtues conducive to peace and concord as well as simply refraining from sin. Safeguarding doctrinal orthodoxy became a matter of royal concern, as witnessed by the effort reflected in a statement entitled the Libri Carolini, prepared by theodulf of orlÉans on orders from Charlemagne to define the orthodox position on iconoclasm, even to the point of correcting the papacy, and in writings by alcuin commissioned by the king aimed at exterminating the heresy of adoptionism not only in Francia but also in Spain. Establishing the norms which defined morality and doctrinal orthodoxy increasingly drew the intellectual establishment into the reform movement.

Charlemagne took significant measures to make his program effective. Enforcement of reforming legislation was made the responsibility of all public officials, but the chief burden fell to the bishops of the realm. The missi dominici were charged with seeing to it that all responsible parties knew about the reforming legislation and that each did his part in enacting the program. But Charlemagne was not content merely to command reform by fiat. He sought to provide the tools that would supply the substantive components required to deepen spiritual life. Reforming clerics, such as Alcuin and Theodulf, were given crucial positions at the royal court from which to give visibility to the religious component to royal policy. Reform concerns became a criterion in determining fitness for appointment to the office of bishop or abbot and for monitoring their behavior. The ruler took the lead in increasing the number of schools dedicated to elevating the educational level of the clergy to the point where bishops and priests could adequately discharge their pastoral functions. The royal court concerned itself with providing books crucial to spiritual formation, including a correct version of the Bible, standardized guides to the performance of the liturgy, penitentials, homilaries geared to instruction of the laity, and collections of canon law. Frequently, the papacy was asked for guidance in these matters and often responded with copies of key liturgical works and canon law collections; notable examples of such works were Sacramentarium Gregorianum (Hadrianum) and the Dionysio-Hadriana provided by Pope Adrian I. As a consequence, the Carolingian reform movement took on a strong Roman complexion, without however extending to the pope a directive role in shaping it. As the Carolingian Renaissance took shape, reforming leaders came into possession of a wide range of scriptural commentaries, theological texts, church histories, canon law collection, and hagiographical texts that provided an enriched understanding of what Christianity was and how to live the Christian life. That heightened awareness was reflected in reforming legislation, in textbooks compiled by masters in episcopal and monastic schools to educate the clergy for pastoral duties, in homilaries to aid priests in improving their sermons, and in compendia (florilegia ) compiled to provide exampla useful in guiding Christians in understanding how they should behave and what they should believe. In brief, during Charlemagne's reign an infrastructure began to be shaped to turn reforming commands into effective actions aimed at redirecting the lives of all Christians.

Louis the Pious and the Height of Reform. The Carolingian reform movement reached is greatest intensity during the first fifteen years of the reign of Louis the Pious (814840). Louis himself had a strong commitment to improving the ecclesiastical establishment and deepening spiritual life. He surrounded himself with clerical advisers deeply committed to reform; the most dedicated of these advisers was a monk, benedict of aniane, who until his death in 821 played a decisive role in shaping Louis' religious program. In general terms, Louis' reforming effort followed the basic lines set down by his father. Under the influence of benedict special attention was given to monastic reform. Important legislation enacted in 816 and 817 sought to require the adoption by all monasteries of the benedictine rule, slightly modified to fit a new age. An effort was also made to impose on all canons who served in cathedral chapters a form of common life outlined earlier by Bishop Chrodegang of Metz. However, in important ways reform under Louis the Pious went beyond that promoted by Charlemagne. Advocates of reform increasingly insisted that affairs in a true Christian society must be conducted in a way that not only recognized that spiritual matters constituted an autonomous realm in human existence but also that spiritual affairs must take priority over secular concerns. In the minds of the most dedicated reformers guiding Louis' reform, it followed from these premises that spiritual leaders must guide the Christian community and that secular leaders must defer to their opinion in shaping policy and must accept clerical judgment of their suitability to rule. Within this ideological framework religious reform took on a particular political coloration; reform became a means through which actions must be taken to maintain the unity of the Christian empire that Charlemagne had founded. The reforming party became a unity party. The implications of reform oriented in this direction were so threatening to many interests in Louis' realm that a reaction set in which had major implications not only for the reform movement but also for the political regime that the Carolingians had fashioned.

After the Treaty of Verdun. The Carolingian reform movement took on new complexities after the death of Louis the Pious in 840 and the signing of the Treaty of Verdun of 843 which divided the Carolingian empire into three independent kingdoms. The reforming effort lost its chief animating force: a single king mandating the improvement of religious life. The sons of Louis the Pious, especially Charles II the Bald, continued to support reform as defined by their predecessors, but their conflicting political concerns and their declining power and resources limited their effectiveness. The burden of reform increasingly fell on a shrinking number of archbishops and bishops who out of memory of the past and of personal conviction felt a compulsion to use their offices as a means of improving Christian life. Their reforming actions, often summarized in episcopal legislation and capitularies, echoed the goals of Pepin III, Charlemagne, and Louis the Pious: strengthening ecclesiastical organization; improving the quality of the clergy; organizing more effective pastoral activity; protecting church property; standardizing the liturgy; and improving lay morality. Concerns about protecting the Christian community from heterodox views remained a matter engaging reformers, as evidenced by the major theological disputes over the nature of the Eucharist and predestination involving such luminaries as paschasius radbertus, hrabanus maurus, gottschalk, hincmar of reims, and john scotus erigena. The reforming bishops of the later Carolingian era continued their search for instruments and techniques that would serve to deepen understanding of the faith and of the moral obligations attached to being a Christian. They often called on theologians, scriptural exegetes, moralists, hagiographers, and historians produced by the Carolingian Renaissance, especially in monasteries, to provide the guidance in gaining a better understanding of Christianity.

But it was a losing cause for these reformers. Their ability to act collectively was limited by lack of institutional structures embracing the entire Christian community in the West and by the increasing political fragmentation of the late Carolingian world. Some hoped perhaps that the bishop of Rome, widely accepted as the titular head of the Church, could provide unified leadership in inspiring and guiding religious reform. Pope nicholas i (858867) certainly acted on occasion as if he were ready to play that role. But in examining his career in detail it seems clear that he was more concerned with defining ecclesiastical jurisdictions than with deepening spiritual life. In fact, some evidence suggests that by the last half of the 9th century the Carolingian reform effort had become a movement centered on establishing the legal bases that defined jurisdictions within the ecclesiastical structure. Nicholas I's letters to various ecclesiastical and lay leaders reflected this preoccupation. So did the actions and the writings of one of the most ardent reformers of the 9th century, Hincmar, archbishop of Reims, who seldom missed an opportunity to remind those whose lives he touched, including the kings, bishops, priests, and assorted members of the laity, of his legal right to judge their behavior and of their obligation to accept his authority. The collections of canon law of the era, including especially the famous false decretals of pseudo-isidore, gave major attention to jurisdictional relationships within the ecclesiastical establishment and between the clergy and lay leaders. Reform had become a matter of defining the proper structure of the Christian community rather than of seeking ways to enhance spiritual life.

The End of the Carolingian Reform. So by the end of the 9th century the Carolingian reform had run its course. Developments were afoot pushing the Christian establishment toward a condition not unlike that existing at the time the reform began. There existed no single figure who could spur all western Christendom to seek renewal along common lines; the last Carolingian emperors were shadowy figures, and the papacy was increasingly victimized by local Roman potentates. Bishops became progressively intertwined in feudal arrangements which demanded their concentration on secular affairs. Private churches controlled by powerful landowners produced a new crop of uneducated priests who were ill equipped to provide effective pastoral care. Church property increasingly fell under the control of laymen or secularized clergymen who exploited it for private gain. Viking and Magyar raids took a heavy toll on the monasteries, which had long generated materials invaluable in defining Christianity and deepening its spiritual components. The Frankish church drifted toward the chaos of the feudal age to await a new monasticism heralded by the founding of cluny in 910 and a revitalized papacy which together would generate from within the Church itself the gregorian reform of the 11th century,

Despite is ultimate end, the Carolingian reform was of great historical significance. It did much to define the norms upon which later reforms would be built. In large part those norms resulted from a recovery of the heritage of the early Church and its redefinition to fit the needs of a society influenced strongly by Germanic institutions and customs. To the degree that it encouraged the reestablishment of contact with a more intellectually sophisticated past and the appropriation of the intellectual and artistic treasures of that past, the Carolingian effort to correct and renew Christian life played a prime role in establishing the foundations for the future cultural life of western Europe. It also made considerable progress in establishing a uniform pattern of worship across much of western Europe. That common ritual in turn produced ways of marking the fundamental events in human life reaching from birth to death, thereby creating powerful social bonds extending across the entire Christian community; and it generated modes of expression in architecture, art, and music that became powerful forces undergirding a common Christian culture. Furthermore, the reform effort played a major role in giving permanent form to an organizational structure based on a system of dioceses and parishes that allowed the Church to play a significant role in shaping ordinary life in the West and in creating a consciousness of the Church as a self-defining corporate entity capable of determining its own destiny. The Carolingian reformers promoted missionary activity that greatly reduced the remnants of paganism existing in the world the Carolingians inherited, substantially expanding the boundaries of western Christendom and marking the initial stage in the transition from a western European world under siege to one of growing influence. Although the Carolingian reform has sometimes been criticized for its failure to deepen the piety and the knowledge of Christian teaching and morality among the mass of common people, there is some evidence suggesting that ritual life was changed, that the basic tenets of the faith were better understood, that the sacramental system was more widely observed, and that Christian regulations pertaining to such matters as marriage, burial, oath-taking, and criminal behavior were observed more carefully. While the task of fully Christianizing western European society lay in the future, the Carolingian reform marked a significant preliminary step toward that end.

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[r. e. sullivan]

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Carolingian Reform

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