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Charles has become known as “the Great” for very good reasons. His long reign changed the face of Europe both culturally and politically, and he himself remained a prominent figure in the minds of the people during the Middle Ages as representing the ideal king.[1] We know so much about him because he became the subject of one of the first medieval biographies written by a layman, specifically one of his learned courtiers named Einhard. Einhard described Charles’ appearance and form of dress, his eating and drinking habits, his religious practices and intellectual interests, and many facts about his daily life such as his love of exercise, especially riding, hunting and swimming.[2] Charlemagne spoke and read Latin as well as his native Frankish, and he could even understand Greek and speak it a little. He also learned grammar, rhetoric, and mathematics from the educated clerics he surrounded himself with, and although hepracticed often, he never fully mastered the art of writing.[3]

His prestige increased when, in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans in return for his protection and restoration after Roman aristocrats tried to assassinate him the previous year. Many saw this moment as being sort of a revival of the Roman Empire, with Charlemagne as its new Christian Emperor. Certainly this event is important in the sense that it made evident the fact that the popes no longer could depend upon the Byzantine emperors in the east for protection against their enemies, and so the bishops of Rome had to turn to local powers like Charlemagne (and his Frankish ancestors previously) to be their military and political protection in the west. During the history of the Carolingian Dynasty, many reforms were put into place designed to reform both the education of local priests in the Carolingian Church as well as the education of the people of the realm. This came about as a desire of the Carolingian leaders of society to educate the clergy, who were barely literate, in order that they might better teach and shepherd the citizens of the realm in the ways of the Christian religion. It was no longer sufficient that the people be impressed by the sight of the clergy, but that they should also be instructed by the words they read and sang to them. They used as their example the biblical King Josias, whose reforms called the Israelites back into the proper worship of God.[4] The Carolingian Renaissance appears as a well-organized program that was very effective in achieving its goals. Librarians and teachers carefully built up the collections of their local libraries, treating their books like treasure and constantly seeking copies of works they did not possess. These libraries in turn supported schools, which during the ninth century offered sustained instruction for several generations of masters.[5] In 789, in response to the poor command of language among the people, Charlemagne issued the Admonitio generalis (Latin for ‘general warning’) for the administration of the Frankish church and clergy and decreed that schools were to be established for boys of all social classes.[6] This decree also expected every diocese and monastery to be responsible for the supervision of education and to have its own schools and establish a curriculum in the Liberal Arts for the children of freemen and nobility alike. Teaching children of lower classes was particularly successful. This curriculum was devised by Alcuin, a scholar and clergyman, who was one of Charlemagne’s most important advisors. Alcuin’s curriculum consisted primarily of the trivium – Grammar, Dialectic (Logic), and Rhetoric; and the quadrivium – Mathematics, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy.[7]

It is no wonder that with all of the reforms being put into place by Charlemagne that he was remembered for centuries in Europe as being the ideal king, generating legends and songs that bards would sing for years to come. There were few monarchs that could compare to his accomplishments, which he achieved thanks to the road that had been paved for him by his father and grandfather years before. The Carolingian Renaissance goes a long way towards dispelling the myth that the Dark Ages were filled with ignorant people who made no intellectual advances during this period in history. Charles was able to take a people who came from barbarian stock and impart within them a thirst for knowledge that allowed them to transcend their humble beginnings and create an empire that would lay the foundations for the Holy Roman Empire.


[1]. George Holmes, ed., The Oxford History of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2002), 93.
[2]. Ibid., 94
[3]. Ibid.
[4]. Rosamond McKitterick, ed., The New Cambridge Medieval History., vol. 2, C. 700-C. 900 (New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 710.
[5]. Ibid., 711.
[6]. Herbert Schutz, The Carolingians in Central Europe, Their History, Arts, and Architecture: a Cultural History of Central Europe, 750-900 (Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 2004), 149.
[7]. Ibid., 152

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