• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Carolingian Learning


In the course of my own book, which touches on the fusion of Byzantine and Latin learning in the fifteenth century, I found myself attempting understand what Byzantium brought that was new to the Renaissance table.[1] Much of what follows below is an attempt to summarise which authors Carolingian libraries possessed, which disciplines were valued, what contributions they made to learning, and so on. Less to compare them to contemporaries in the Roman East than to take stock of the western canon up to the fifteenth century in order to highlight omissions on both sides, though mainly in the Latin world.[2]


It’s a stimulating exercise mainly because the discussion of knowledge in civilisations tends to be relative. The assumption is that the worst fate for books is to lay dormant or hidden; perhaps theories might hibernate or stall. Indeed, there lingers the Panglossian notion that erudition is like a phoenix: mostly indestructible. Yet what is being communicated below is an absolute loss of titles, authors and thoughts that had once been considered ubiquitous. Hence the crepuscular character of the period; a slice of time it was once fashionable to label a “Dark” Age; a shuddering, juddering halt from the Apollonian atmosphere of Antiquity.


What’s lost in this conversation is how incredible it was that the predominant Germanics (first Goths and then Franks) bothered to imitate and then resuscitate alien forms of learning that revolved around Mediterranean civilisation and its Latin in the first place. This translatio studii was the real miracle and, contrary to tendentious Enlightenment narratives, it was a wonder almost entirely worked by the Church.[3]


Though plenty of cultural nodes littered the Carolingian empire, there are extant book lists at only three cathedrals (Freising, Cologne and Wurzburg) and seven Frankish monasteries (St Gall, Reichenau, Murbach, Lorch, Fulda, St Riquier and St Wandrille).[4] Other significant literary signposts include manuscripts associated with luminaries such as Lupus of Ferrieres, Florus the Deacon and others.


The mainstay of Carolingian libraries were the books of the Bible (complete Bibles were known as Pandects), with commentaries by Jerome, Augustine, Origen, Gregory the Great, Fulgentius (the late fifth-century rhetor who knew Greek) and several other late Christian writers such as Rabanus Maurus (one of Alcuin’s protégés) following a close second.


During this period an intellectual movement that valued philosophy and the introduction of logic into theological discussion slowly developed. The writings of Boethius and Augustine were widely used to justify this, as was the Categories of Aristotle.[5] Other important texts included the Isagoge or Introduction to Aristotle’s Categories by Porphyry (translated into Latin by Marius Victorinus and by Boethius), Boethius’ two commentaries on the Isagoge and the Categories, Augustine’s De Trinitate, Book IV of Martinaus Capella’s De Nuptiis, Cassiodorus’ Institutiones and three of Boethius’ five Opuscula Sacra.


An Englishman, Alcuin, was instrumental in ensuring Boethius’ discussions of logic and the Categoriae Decem (cf. note 3) entered general circulation in the Frankish kingdom. Most of this influence emanated from his school at Tours rather than the court of Charlemagne, and his De Dialectica (a succinct manual on logic) was picked up by a troop of pupils that included Fridugis, Candidus, Ricbod and Amalar of Trier – though admittedly little direct continuity can be drawn between this school, John Scottus Eriugena and the school of Auxerre where philosophy and logic truly came into their own.


Eriugena (d. 877) blazed on to the Frankish scene rather abruptly as an Irishman who’d somehow mastered Greek, most likely at one of the Byzantine monasteries in Rome. His translation of Neoplatonic writings and Byzantine greats such as Maximus the Confessor, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite [6] and Gregory of Nyssa was remarkable enough, yet he also waded into philosophical controversies, taking on Gottschalk’s double predestination in De divina praedestinatione [7] and erecting Christianity on a Neoplatonic pedestal in Periphyseon.[8]


Not everybody could be a genius, however. Bread and butter figures such as Rabanus Maurus were often little more than compilers whose learning amounted to providing dossiers of learned opinions on given subjects. This was less because Dark Age folk were dense as mud and more because the spread of authoritative teachings (i.e. a greater understanding of the Scriptures) was prioritised over innovation, which could potentially depart from orthodoxy.


It was also a world that felt something like an “Age” had passed. Not in a morose sense but rather that what had been historically worthy needed rapidly marrying with a religion that looked forward to a (fairly immediate) Second Coming. Not least because early Christian thinkers didn’t develop in vacuum but a late antique world that needed decoding for a people whose horizons were mostly bounded by the Alps, Elbe and Pyrenees rather than Africa, Mesopotamia and Moesia.


In such a febrile atmosphere there was an appetite for expounding ancients like Virgil, building glossaries of obsolete words,[9] blending biblical and classical histories, and – in a world where knowledge was felt to be a fragile achievement – collecting and dissecting erudition in encyclopaedias.


Isidore of Seville was one of the first Christians to compile a summa of universal knowledge with the 448 chapters of the Etymologiae, as well as De natura rerum and Chronica majora. But many Germanics failed to identify with the classical past conjured by their elites and so Carolingian libraries included alternative throwbacks such as the old Saxon poem Heliand for instance, which (once stored in Mainz, it’s now Vat. Pal. Lat. 1447) provided a very Germanic account of the Gospel.


That’s not to say classical authors were ignored.[10] Lorsch contained the likes of Virgil, Cicero, Seneca, Persius, Juvenal, Pliny, Sallust and Aristotle. St Gall possessed Vegetius’ De Re Militari, Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae and Ps. Cyprian’s De duodecim abusivis saeculi, as well as Terence, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, Vitruvius, Lucan, Quintilian and Statius.[11]


These, however, were excisable pools of fat to the red meat of the Acts of the Apostles, Moralia in Job, the Homilies of Gregory the Great, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the letters and treatises of Jerome and Ambrose. Few of which could be read without first consulting school texts such as Cicero’s De Inventione and Rhetorica ad Herennium, Isidore’s Etymologiae, Alcuin’s abridgement of Priscian’s Grammar or Cassiodorus’ Instituiones.



Books exchanged between Carolingian libraries included copies of the Theodosian code, Plato’s Timaeus (trans. Chalcidius), Aristotle’s Categories, Marius Plotius on metrics, Cicero’s Tuscan Disputations, Suetonius’ Lives, Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights, Servius’ Commentary on the Aeneid, Statius’ Thebaid, Ovid’s Amores, Boethius’ De Musica, De Geometrica and De Arithmetica, the commentaries of Boethius on the Topica of Cicero, Jerome’s Quaestiones on the Old and New Testaments, the Chronicle of Eusebius (though Orosius and Jordanes also did the rounds) and Lactantius’ treatise De falso religione.


These were accompanied by contemporary works such as the Penitential of Halitgar of Cambrai, the weird and wonderful Cosmography of Aethicus Ister, the anonymous proto-Inferno Visio Baronti, Alcuin’s theological works, and the De institutione laicali of Jonas of Orleans.

Often ignored but important to the Carolingians were the Christian poets – writers such as Prudentius, Sedulius and Milo – glossed by students who applauded their syntheses of blunt Bible truths and the grandstanding rhetoric of the classical traditions.[12] Indeed, much learning in the period is scorned because it doesn’t appeal to the Renaissance impulse that reaches back, ad fontes, to the classical period. Instead, the Caroglingian scholar-monks such as Walafrid Strabo of Reichenau put their efforts into producing saints’ lives such as St Gall, St Blathmac and St Mammes.

Even today few would choose to include the commissions of Charles the Bald, for instance, in the annals of erudition. Yet the martyrology he sought from Usuard of St Germain des Pres, the Life of Mary of Egypt and the tale of Theophilus in Latin translation can all be counted as feats of scholarship.[13] As the intellectual mores of the Enlightenment slowly evaporate perhaps we can start to appreciate an Age that, like Bede, employed the force of its intelligence towards Christian goals.[14]


[1] Though we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking the Byzantines and Carolingians were hermetically sealed categories. Not only were there geopolitical overlaps in Dalmatia and S. Italy, but within Rome itself there were four or five Byzantine monasteries during the period.

[2] Byzantine contemporaries of the figures discussed here were scholars such as John of Sardis and Georgius Choeroboscus. They’re interesting mainly in demonstrating the bifurcation of the classical canon into Latin and Greek halves. Choeroboscus, for instance, deploying the likes of Dionysius Thrax, Apollonius Dyscolus, Herodian and Theodosius of Alexandria in his lectures in a way that would have been utterly alien to a Latin, as would many of the 279 books discussed by Photius (d.893) in his famous Bibliotheca.

[3] At its nascence, when Germanics were clearly inferiors in the power stakes, the Roman state did much to assimilate these peoples to a form of Romanitas. The miracle, however, remains that once the Germanics were supreme they volunteered to act as its proponents.

[4] The fate of the royal library of the Carolingians which, according to a capitulary of Quierzy in AD 877, was divided into three between Louis the Stammerer, St Mary’s monastery at Compiegne and St Denis, is unknown.

[5] Three Latin version of the Categories were available in this period: a close translation made of it by Boethius, a composite translation comprising the lemmata of Boethius’ Commentary, and a paraphrase known as the Categoriae Decum attributed erroneously to Augustine. It was from this last version that most Carolingian scholars knew the teaching of Aristotle.

[6] A text that Louis the Pious received from the Roman Emperor Michael II in AD 827.

[7] This argued that God’s nature was good and therefore that anything lacking goodness could not have its source in God. Sin was the perverse action of the human will; its punishment was knowledge of its distance from the good and therefore from God.

[8] A work which, with its central idea of procession from God and return to Him, continues to influence theologians today.

[9] Wicbod’s Quaestiones in Octateuchum, Laon 444, was a famous Greek and Latin glossary, for instance.

[10] Though almost none appear to have been copied in the eighth century.

[11] Most Carolingian libraries have been dispersed but the manuscripts at St Gall, Wurzburg and Lyons can still be seen in situ.

[12] Whereas the normal method of philosophical discussion in Alcuin’s time was excerption and compilation (with the selection of texts and the changes made to passages indicating the thought of the individual), during Eriugena’s life the glossing of texts became more mainstream.

[13] Interestingly, Faust – a man typically associated with the Western genius by thinkers such as Spengler – may have been modelled on the Byzantine cleric, Theophilus of of Adana, who made a pact with the devil to gain his ecclesiastical position.

[14] Talking of Bede, Anglo-Saxons brought with them a number of ancient codices such as the Laudian Acts, as well as works unknown or forgotten on the continent such as the poems of Porphyrius, the minor works of Tacitus, the histories of Ammianus Marcellinus and the De Architectura of Vitruvius; as well as importing English authors such as Bede and Aldhelm. Not that England can get too cocky. Charles the Bald’s son, Louis IV, was brought up in England where his literary education was neglected to such an extent that he knew no Latin.

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