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Carolingian Writing

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the anniversary of the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD, when he had reigned as king of the Franks in Gaul for 45 years, and of the Lombards in northern Italy for 40. On Christmas Day of the year 800, he had been crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope St Leo III on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica, the event which marks the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. The last man so to be crowned, the Austrian Emperor Francis II, relinquished the title just over a millennium later, in 1806, a testimony to Charlemagne’s enduring legacy as one of the “Fathers of Europe”, as he was called by St John Paul II.

As a conscious imitator of the cultural achievements of the ancient Romans, Charlemagne is well-known for having done much to encourage learning within his domains, and modern scholars often speak of his reign and the decades that follow it as “the Carolingian Renaissance.” A letter composed in his name by the great scholar Alcuin of York, and addressed to the abbot of the monastery of Fulda, one of the great centers of learning at the time, is known as the “Epistula de litteris colendis – the epistle on the cultivation of letters.” In it, the Emperor states that “we, together with our faithful, have judged it to be useful that the bishoprics and monasteries … in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn … we exhort you not only to be attentive to the study of letters, but also with most humble mind, pleasing to God, to study earnestly, in order that you may be able more easily and more correctly to penetrate the mysteries of the divine Scriptures. … Such men truly are to be chosen for this work as have both the will and the ability to learn and a desire to instruct others. And may this be done with a zeal as great as the earnestness with which we command it.”

The scholars of the Carolingian period were very much concerned to pass on the literature of the classical world, and to facilitate that, they invented a new kind of script now known as Carolingian miniscule, which is much easier read than the scripts of the preceding Merovingian period. (Examples are given below.) An interesting twist comes with the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries. The humanist scholars of that era wrongly assumed that because the Carolingian lettering was so much clearer than that of earlier medieval writing, it must have come directly from the Romans whom they so much admired, or as one scholar puts it, “(they) thought they were looking at texts that came right out of the bookshops of ancient Rome.” They therefore deliberately copied it, creating a style known as “humanist miniscule”, an unknowing imitation of a later style in the mistaken belief that it was earlier, one of many such happy mistakes of the period.

An example of Merovingian script, ca. 650, a list of Epistle readings for the Mass.

A Carolingian Mass lectionary ca. 800.

An example of humanist miniscule from the very end of the 15th century. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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