The Carolingian Renaissance: Graeco-Roman Influence, Popular Education, and a Reconfigured European Identity in Manuscript Illumination


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Charlemagne Equestrian Statue (left), Charlemagne Golden Reliquary (center), Charlemagne’s Throne (right)

By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

By its very definition, a renaissance is a “rebirth.”  Yet the person who coined the term – Giorgio Vasari – did so in an environment in which the contributions of preceding generations were viewed with skepticism at best and disdain at worst.

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Franceso Petrarca (left) and Giorgio Vasari (right) / Wikimedia Commons

The Italian renaissance grew from the desire spurned by Petrarch and friends to revive the classical Graeco-Roman world that they felt had been relegated to forgotten history by the Gothic barbarians of what they termed the “Dark Ages.”  Though the classic renaissance they engendered centered in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was certainly meritorious of significant adulation and left an indelible mark upon the world, even Vasari’s use of rinascita was new only in print.  It is vital to remember that neither the idea nor the process of a cultural rebirth was an innovation of his age.  Every period of human history that saw significant improvements and innovations in the arts and sciences as well as other areas would certainly fall under the definition of a societal and cultural rebirth absent the formal word for it.

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Merovingian Kingdoms before Charlemagne (left), Merovingian to Carolingian Expansion (right) / Wikimedia Commons

  • Conquests of Clovis – 481-511 CE
  • Continuing Merovingian Conquests – 531-768 CE
  • Conquests of Charlemagne – 768-814 CE

The Merovingian dynasty between the fifth and eighth centuries has traditionally been given little credit for its own progress in the cultural arena, discussion of which has long been overshadowed instead by the focus on its exertions of power and the seemingly tacit acceptance that it played only a minor role in Western European history.

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Northumbria c.802 CE (left), Lindisfarne Gospels Folio 27v Matthew Incipit (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Across the Channel, another rebirth arose in the Northumbrian Renaissance, most specifically evidenced in the stunning illuminated manuscripts issued from the monasteries in which it began.  But each of these, either alone or combined, were but a stepping stone to a largely unified European continent.  It was at this time, long before the likes of Vasari and Petrarch waxed nostalgic for a Rome they never knew, that a force emerged to create a distinctly “European” identity – one that retained (and in some cases revived) much of the cultural and social influence of Rome while wedding it with their modern environment.

The titanic contribution of the Carolingian Renaissance to the reconstruction of the pieces of the Roman Empire into a newly structured and largely, though not entirely, unified Western Europe is evident in that which serves as the most reflective mirror of any culture – its art and architecture.  Artistic and architectural advancements of the era, particularly in illuminated manuscripts, signaled the emergence of the power of Western (or Latin) Christianity and the decline of obstructive iconoclastic and other forces of Eastern Orthodoxy.   It was Charlemagne’s Carolingian Renaissance that sewed together a loosely knit European identity following the diffusion of the Roman Empire and its tenuous reinvention with a Christian foundation in Merovingian and Northumbrian awakenings.  It served as the springboard upon which the scattered vestiges of the Roman Empire were reconstructed into a generally coherent amalgamation of distinct communities that developed separate cultural identities and created an environment in which Charlemagne’s fierce dedication to learning and the progress it engendered would result in building the foundation for the progress that would follow.

The period of Merovingian rule established a powerful central Christian base of authority and administration – a strong base that would prove vital to fortifying an environment in Western Europe that was ripe for Charlemagne to nurture a new empire.

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Pepin the Middle (left), Charles Martel (center), Pepin the Short (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Charlemagne’s empire was secured by his great-grandfather, Pepin the Middle, in 687, and passed down through his grandfather Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer), and finally his father, Pepin the Short, until he was vested as its ruler upon becoming King of the Franks in 768.  Though he is often recognized as the founder of the Carolingian Empire, the groundwork had been solidly laid in the preceding century by his forebears.  But it was Charlemagne who, more than his predecessors, placed an extraordinarily amount of both emotional and financial capital in education.  Learning, he believed, would obviously allow even greater works to be created and structures erected.

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Palatine Chapel Exterior (left), Charlemagne’s Throne in the Palatine (center), Charlemagne’s Casket (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the Palatine Chapel (or Charlemagne’s Palace) that was begun in 792 and completed in 805 – only five years after his crowning as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 CE by Pope Leo III in a symbolic gesture of church authority – still stands as a tribute to the renaissance that he would engender.  The central monument of the Carolingian Renaissance, it perhaps appropriately became his final resting place.  Important to note is this early attempt to revive, at least in name, that which had seemingly been dispersed to the winds – the glory that was Rome, six centuries before Petrarch attempted to relegate those of this era to insignificance and expressed a great sympathy for advanced minds who were unfortunate to live in an age surrounded by darkness and ignorance.

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Lindisfarne Gospels – Folio 27r Matthew Incipit (right), Folio 139r Luke Incipit (center), Folio 26v Matthew Cross-Carpet Page (right) / British Museum

To be sure, the Northumbrians previously had certainly produced wonderfully illuminated manuscripts in monasteries that were also devoted learning centers.  But they were reserved for the ecclesiastic component of society, and those who ruled the British Isles were not interested in education but were concerned with the more pressing needs of averting invasions and civil discontents.  It was under the Carolingians that, for the first time in Western Europe since the fifth century, learning became more popular among at least rulers and nobility, and artistic and architectural achievements once again began to flourish.  It was perhaps the single most important era of the medieval period that stood in stark contrast to any attempt to call the Middle Ages “dark” in any sense of the word.


Carolingian scholars and their peers were keenly aware that the centuries following the hemorrhage of the Roman Empire in 410 by Alaric and the Visigoths, in 455 by Geiseric and the Vandals, and finally in 476 by Odovacer and the Goths with the removal from power of the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus, were certainly dimly lit.  But they recognized the importance of the contributions of Charlemagne to the resurgence of learning and scholastic progress.

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Letter of Lupus Servatus to Einhard, from Sevati Lupi Epistulae, c.830 CE, Translation from Stofferahn, Steven A.  “Knowledge for Its Own Sake?  A Practical Humanist in the Carolingian Age.”   Larry Swain, ed. The Heroic Age:  A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe 13 (August 2010).

You are looking at a passage of a letter written by Lupus Servatus, a Benedictine Abbot of Ferrières Abbey in Loiret, France and a member of Charlemagne’s court, to Einhard C.830, the last sentence translated as, “…for within your memory there has been a revival of learning, thanks to the efforts of the illustrious emperor Charles to whom letters owe an everlasting debt of gratitude.”

Lupus acknowledged that the works of ancient writers and the teaching of them had fallen into a state of neglect, yet here he praised the efforts of Charlemagne (Karolum) for the resurgence of scholastic interest.  At the time, collections of letters (such as this in Lupus’ collection Servati Lupi Epistulae) were regarded with the same respect as full-length books in modern times.  It is important to note Lupus’ use of the plural “litterae” (letters).  He was not referring to his present letter to Einhard but was instead giving credit to Charlemagne for the revival of letter-writing – of scholastic interest and achievement – in general.

The advances made in manuscript illumination in the Northumbrian Renaissance were not achieved in a vacuum.  Travel, pilgrimages, and conquests had since antiquity served as routes of not only goods but also of cultural exchange.  Such intercultural exchanges of knowledge and information led to the single most important manuscript produced in the Carolingian period – the Liber glossarum.

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Liber Glossarum, c.800-825 CE / British Library

Translated from Latin – “liber” meaning book and “glossarum” meaning gloss, later glossary – was literally a “book of words.”  The Librer glossarum was a massive scholastic undertaking at the time – the most massive of the Early Middle Ages – written in alphabetic encyclopedic format, going beyond the mere definition of words instead to the introduction and explanation of topics.  This more than anything else signified Charlemagne’s dedication to a more educated populace and his desire to put to text those aspects of society, government and religious belief that he believed defined the empire his ancestors had created and that he continued to maintain and expand.

Equally important to the concept and content of the manuscript was the introduction in such texts of an entirely new script.  Charlemagne’s attempt to broadly expand literacy created the need for a script that would be universally used and clearly legible.  Carolingian miniscule was consequently developed by Alcuin of York – invited by Charlemagne to be the leading scholar and teacher of the Carolingian court – to accomplish this in two primary ways.

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Book of Durrow Folio 86r Mark Incipit – Insular Gaelic (left), Book of Kells Folio 309r Gospel of John – Uncial (center), Burney Script Folio 27 – Carolingian Miniscule (right) / British Library

First, the cursive Northumbrian Insular Gaelic style was retained but reduced in size so as to allow for economy of space.  Manuscripts were growing in length, as attested to in the Liber glossarum, and the more that could be fit onto a page the better.  Parchment and vellum were painstakingly produced and never wasted.  Second, the use of capital letters and spaces between words and sentences here finally made an appearance.  Medieval Latin arose to continue the combination of the “language of Rome” with the vernacular.  Scripts in preceding centuries during the Roman Empire and later into Northumbrian styles were either so large as to allow for only a limited amount of information or lacking capitals and spaces in a manner that made legibility exceedingly difficult.

Alcuin’s introduction of Carolingian miniscule and its subsequent universal adoption furnished a giant leap forward in early medieval society.  The Northumbrian and Uncial styles influenced Carolingian miniscule in the sense that Alcuin intimately knew the changes that needed to be made in his own native Insular Gaelic script and the Uncial script that was more closely associated to and the immediate forerunner of the miniscule he would create, and eventually the influence was reversed as the scriptoria of the Britain finally ceded to complete adoption of the new script and abandonment of that which they had long used.


Carolingian Empire During and After Conquests of Charlemagne /

The Carolingian empire may never have reached the shores of England in conquest, but its influence certainly spread far beyond its own borders even well after its destabilization and ultimate dissolution.  Charlemagne believed that education was the key to the empire’s survival, and he knew that it would be vital to enlist the aid of the clergy were its spread to be successful.  He issued an edict that all cathedrals and monasteries would provide education free of charge to any boy who wished to pursue it and proved his ability to do so.   Thus began for medieval Europe the initial tentative steps to universal education with a script that provided vital characteristics of legibility for greater ease in both teaching and learning.

Manuscripts – literally “made by hand” – were quite likely the greatest artistic representations of not only the Carolingians but of virtually any society that produced them.  They contained not only the textual information on their pages but also served as miniature examples of the architectural, sculptural and other artistic styles and motifs of the cultures in which they were designed.  But the art and architecture of all civilizations and empires has also been a pictorial representation of that culture’s ethos.

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Ebbo Gospels from Rheims Scriptorium – Matthew (left) and Mark (right) / Wikimedia Commons

While Charlemagne in many ways longed to revive the classical world, his influence also created an environment in which the heroic ideals of the Graeco-Roman age were set aside as a newer more humanistic ideology rose to the fore.   The human aspect of Christ came to be focused on more heavily and the temporal world less denigrated.  The depth of the schism that had divided East from West grew as the Carolingians continued to create a distinctly European culture.  Humanism would not be nearly as preponderant as it was in the later Middle Ages, but the first steps had been taken, again following on earlier classical implications of the like of Cicero.  In the case of the Carolingians, perhaps inevitably given the development of the Alcuin’s miniscule from Roman Uncial as well as Charlemagne’s attachment to classicism, these styles and motifs were Romanesque – “Roman-like.”  In the ancient world, sculptures were often an integral part of structures.


Porch of Maidens, Athens Acropolis / Wikimedia Commons

The tradition of architectural sculpture was prominent from antiquity forward.  Perhaps the greatest and most popular example was that of the Erechtheion Caryatid Porch, or the Porch of Maidens, built between 421 and 407 BCE in the Greek Acropolis using sculptures as columnar supports.  The structure served as a temple, and the sculptures were entirely “in the round” – full three-dimensional figures – that were intended to be viewed independently yet also were a vital part of the structure to support the roof.   Roman architecture often copied that of Greece, but the sculptures employed in their structures moved away from serving a dual purpose of utility and decoration to being embedded in the structure itself as a symbol.  The purpose was no longer to support the building but instead to represent a narrative.

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Ari Pacis Augustus Senatorial Procession Frieze (left), Column of Trajan (center and right) / Wikimedia Commons

The Romans made extensive use of varying degrees of relief carvings to accomplish the task, either in high relief (as in the Ara Pacis Augustae) with the sculptures carved so extensively from the background as to seem nearly independent of it or in low, or bas, relief (as in the Column of Trajan) with images carved so as to only slightly elevate from the background.  The Early Middle Ages saw the reemergence of the Roman style of architectural sculpture.  Prior to Charlemagne’s attempts to increase popular literacy, lay people would “read” not only paintings but also the walls and exteriors of the churches themselves.

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Vèzelay Abbey Tympanum (left) and Vèzelay Abbey Exterior (right) / Wikimedia Commons

A striking example of the continued influence of Graeco-Roman styles in architectural sculpture was the construction in the ninth century (final consecration in 879) of the largest Romanesque church in France – the Abbey of Vèzelay – in Yonne department, Burgundy.  As residents of this area in the Carolingian period entered the church, they could “read” the story, above the door on the tympanum in a combined high and bas-relief setting, of Christ commanding his apostles to go forth into all the world and spread and spread the Gospel word.

Charlemagne had brought from his travels to Rome many copies of early Christian texts so that local scriptoriums could copy them, and Carolingian manuscript illuminators in cooperation with other artisans either secular or clerical found a way to bring architectural sculpture into their realm as well, and here the Carolingian Renaissance found its own footing as art for art’s sake was used in conjunction with its narrative purpose – the marriage of aesthetics and utility.  The materials of course varied through each medium based upon that which was easiest to work with for the scope of the project as well as that which was most suitable.

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Codex Aureus Laurensius (Lorsch Gospels) from the Lorsch Abbey Scriptorium c.778-820 CE / Vatican Library

Instantly apparent on the Lorsch Gospels, created in the Lorsch Abbey Scriptorium in Lorsch, Germany, between 778 and 820, was the bas-relief style coinciding with the Romanesque architectural sculpture of the time.  Just as its larger cousins, such as the Vèzelay Abbey tympanum and influences from early Roman structures such as the Ara Pacis and Column of Trajan, contained narratives to be read, so too did this.  The front cover depicts Christ and the archangels treading on beasts, and the back cover contains the Virgin and Child with saints as well as the nativity scene.  Ivory was used to create both covers.

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Lindau Gospels front and back covers from Abbey of St. Gall Scriptorium, c.850 CE / Morgan Library and Museum

The Lindau Gospels, created in the Abbey of St. Gall scriptorium around 850, added to the Romanesque ivory bas-relief style inlaid gold and silver metalwork with precious gems.  This was well beyond any utilitarian sense of manuscript design.  But the material combination continued to grow.

Covers gradually become more ornate with gold, silver, ivory, stone inlays, etc. They were not utilitarian and did not contain a narrative, but they were also not “art for art’s sake” either.  Material has purpose.


Crucifixion Ivory Manuscript Cover, Wooden Inlaid with Large Stones and Gems, c.750-987 CE / Wikimedia Commons

The material used to create the manuscript covers became as important as the manuscripts themselves and the knowledge they contained.  The wooden portion of the covers was seen as representative as the cross, and the ivory carried the connotations of its white color as well as the political connections among those who could afford its use.  The stones as well attracted the viewer’s gaze, and all of the material together drew the eye through perspective to the center of the cover to ponder the death of Christ and the reason for the existence of the manuscript at all.  These materials drew the viewer to touch the manuscript – to hold it, read it, and learn from it.  And the number of those wanting to touch, and read, such manuscripts grew as quickly as they learned to read.


Utrecht Psalter, Verso 75, Abbey of Saint-Pierre, Hautvillers, c.820-840 CE / University of Utrecht

The Utrecht Psalter, for example, was written and illustrated in a manner much more appealing to a different audience.  Manuscripts had traditionally been produced for a clerical audience whose hierarchy had more conservative expectations.  The general populace would be more attracted to that with which they could more closely associate.  The Utrecht Psalter depicted a more free-flowing and free-minded approach in its illumination.  Produced in the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Pierre in Hautvillers, near Rheims, this manuscript was the Carolingian Empire’s most resounding example of text being produced for the general populace.


Codex Aureus of St. Emmarem, c.893 CE / Wikimedia Commons

Undoubtedly the most extravagantly decorated manuscript of the Carolingian Empire was the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram.  The manuscript cover is lavishly decorated with stones and gems along with heavy use of gold metalwork.  Perspective again draws the eye to the center to a depiction of Christ seated on a globe of the world with a book on his knee and a Latin inscription of John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No man cometh to the Father, but by me.”  The codex was donated to the St. Emmeram Abbey in 893 in Regensburg, a city in Bavaria, Germany.  It was in Regensburg  that a Christ in Majesty sculpture was inscribed with a direct connection between the material used to create objects and the nature of Christ, reading, “Because Christ was called a rock because of his unshakable divinity, it is appropriate to render him in a stone image.”  This extravagant codex was likely an appropriate summation of the importance the then-waning Carolingian Empire placed upon the distribution of knowledge.

More than anything produced by the Carolingians, the sheer number of manuscripts produced and the artistic complexity of their design spoke to the desire for education to become a common good and no longer merely the purview of the clergy and elite.  Charlemagne had inspired in Western Europe a new renaissance and a period of peace in the pursuit of a unified culture.  Though that unity would not ultimately be achieved, events such as the universal adoption of the miniscule script and a tacit understanding of manuscript materials and symbology, in conjunction with the foundation being laid for the schools and universities that would arise in the soon-to-come Gothic era, certainly represent a successful endeavor to create a larger self-awareness.

Charlemagne would in the following years be respected, admired, and even used by later rulers to justify their reign and importance – a medieval version of Augustus, who brought about the Pax Romana and whom later emperors would strive to mimic, though never quite achieving the glory that once was.  This early medieval ruler would engender a period of classical rebirth and usher in an era in which the scattered vestiges of the Roman Empire would finally coagulate into a people once again finding their footing and redefining themselves.  Though his empire would also disintegrate, it would do so in a manner in which the resulting nations would each develop a sense of unity and share an unspoken larger cohesion with their neighbors.

Following centuries would see the rise of Germany, France, Spain, England, and others, but the influence of the Carolingians would remain as each of these separately unified nations with increasingly literate and educated populations would as a whole, in perhaps the ultimate illumination, retain a singularly distinct “European” identity.



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