Medieval Writing
Scribes and Libraries of the Carolingian Court
The significance of the king and emperor Charlemagne to the fostering and preservation of literate Latin culture at a time when it was struggling back across the landscape of early medieval Europe does not seem to be in dispute. While Charlemagne's court and chancery extended written culture beyond the monastic cloisters where it was confined in much of northern Europe, it was a collaborative endeavour with the church rather than a separate strand in the history of literacy.
bronze figure of Charlemagne

There is much written about Charlemagne and the Carolingians. Relevant to this discussion are F.L. Ganshot 1971 The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy London: Longman, J.L. Nelson 1996 The Frankish World: 750-900 London: Hambledon Press, and for a more general view with yummy illustrations F. Heer 1975 Charlemagne and his World London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson. Particularly relevant to the study of Carolingian books are De Hamel 1986 and Bischoff 1994. Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne exists in several editions. Mine is a very pretty edition from the Folio Society, London from 1970.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France has produced an exquisite exhibition of Carolingian books, Trésors Carolingiens.

The image of the man as portrayed by the sources of his time is dualistic. The man of action galloping out to subdue enemy after enemy to expand his realm, and being portrayed in terms befitting a Roman Emperor until he actually represented himself as one, contrasts with the pious lover of learning who worked to reform the practices of the church and revive the literate culture of Classical Rome. These two aspects combine to produce a pretty powerful image. However, his legacy in history and legend cannot be put down just to medieval spin doctoring.
Carolingian soldiers
Charlemagne, Pepin and scribe
At left, a Carolingian manuscript depicts mounted soldiers armed with lances and shields going to war behind a standard bearer (St Gall, Bibl. conventuelle, ms.22). At right, a 10th century miniature depicts Charlemagne giving counsel to his son Pepin, king of Italy, while a scribe records proceedings (Modena Cathedral Archives, Cod. ord. 1. 2., f.156.)
While many authors have made much of Charlemagne's love of learning and his desire to reinvigorate literate Classical culture, Christopher De Hamel (De Hamel 1986) paints a picture which places books within the framework of conquest and redistribution of wealth which allowed the Carolingian realm to exist. Alliances of fractious noblemen were held together through the redistribution of conquered lands and booty. The wealth of the kingdom was invested in treasure. De luxe manuscripts lavishly decorated with gold could be seen as part of this national treasure, conferring prestige to their owners, and distributed in exchange for loyalty. The use of gold in prestigious Carolingian manuscripts has been attributed to Byzantine influence, apparent also in the painting style of miniatures and Carolingian architecture, but that does not preclude a social significance particular to Frankish culture.
gold mosaic
Lavish gold decoration on the mosaic ceiling of the ambulatory vault in Charlemagne's Palatine Chapel at Aachen.
book cover Some especially lavish manuscript books of the era demonstrate the fondness for extravagant and expensive decoration in their covers. The example at left combines the use of precious materials in the form of ivory, gemstones, enamel and gold with the religious imagery of the crucifixion. The image projected is that of a reliquary which contains, not sacred bones, but sacred words. Treasure had its symbolic value in the church as well as in the world of secular power.
Jewelled and ivory cover of the Metz Evangelary (Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. Lat. 9383).
The most expensive and decorative volumes are those most likely to survive over many centuries, while the more humble books used regularly for religious practice or scholarly learning are more likely to be worn out or lost. An assessment of the value placed on literate culture in the Carolingian court and a reconstruction of the literary works contained and copied there involves a great deal of historical detective work. Very many works which owe their survival to copying by court scribes or by scribes in monasteries with close associations with the court are now known only from later copies, and in many cases very much later copies.
While the concept of expensive volumes as booty and bribes fits well with the image of kingdoms led by belligerent barbarian generals trying to keep their supporters on side, the greater valuation of literate culture suggests further aspirations. Carolingian literate culture was also concerned with standardisation and the reintroduction of order to the practices of church and state.
Charlemagne had a court library, which was reportedly dispersed at his death. He also had a chancery producing official documents. The court library and its scribes evidently worked collaboratively with monastic libraries and scribes. Outside the court, some survival of Roman law and practice was probably represented by notaries and scribes who were continuing the traditions of the past, but the survival of their output is very limited. Much has to be learned through deductive methods.


Scribes and Libraries
Authors, Scribes and Libraries

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 17/5/2007.