Charlemagne and the  Carolingian spiritual renaissance


The 'Barbarian' king who more than any other left his mark in the European heritage is undoubtly Carl,  who was called "Magne" (The Great) for his great political, military, legislative  and also spiritual vision. After the dark centuries  of the late Roman Empire and of the barbarian invasions, a great monarch came, comparable to great Byzantine emperors, like Theodosius or Constantine for breadth of mind. He pursued a policy of close co-operation with Roman popes, subjugating and converting German populations, like the Saxons, to Christianity. Carl's work aimed to unify the territories of the former Western Roman Empire and to rule them completely (religion included). He meant a union which was to be political, religious, legislative, cultural, social, monetary (it was the last time, before the present Euro). His dream was so great and so important for the new Roman-Germanic people, that he stood as a point of reference for the monarchs who followed on the throne of the Empire. He was the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which he founded in the Christmas night of the 800 A.D. (1200 years ago), when he was crowned by Pope Leo III in Rome.


Charlemagne in a  Durer's print


With the Admonitio generalis of the 789,  he wanted to standardize the religious rules. He did so in liturgy, with the application of the Benedictine rule to all monasteries, with a uniform revision of the Bible, with the training of the clergy. To carry out these reforms he summoned the best intellectuals of the age to his Court in Aachen. They were Theodulf, Paulin from Aquileia, the Longobard Paul Deacon, and, above all, Alcuin from York. This great English reformer was a figure of fundamental importance  in the rescue and recollection of ancient knowledge and in its transmission  to future generations, through the practice of amanuensis writing in the Benedictine monasteries. The desire to uniform and codify the Catholic faith had some practicals outlets, whose consequences are still present also in our culture and our Christian faith :

1) Unanimity of writing, with the creation of  the Carolingian writing , still present in our modern print characters like "Times New Roman", and the invention of the modern puntuaction marks, like the question mark;

2)Unanimity in the compilation of the Bible : as a result there are the splendid exemplaries of the Bible of Alcuin  ( thirty, approximately);

3)Unanimity in Liturgy, with the application of the Roman Canon and the Liturgy of the Hours for the whole clergy, the obligation to read and write in Latin, and the adoption of the Benedictine rule in all the monasteries of the Holy Roman Empire;

4)Unanimity of faith: Charlemagne condemned iconoclasm  (the refusal of the images) approved in the Eastern Empire, and personally required   the admission of the Procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son ( Filioque). The highest result of this theological work were the Carolingian Books , the  most negative  was the Byzantine Schism (867).

5)Unanimity in the method of theological study, based on three points: reading of the Bible, study of the Fathers and the old philosophers, application of the liberal arts, specially  trivium: dialectics, rhetoric, grammar. This methodology was to mark  the development of medieval theology for a long time.

Three great spiritual and intellectual figures of the age correspond to the three emperors that followed one another on the throne: Charlemagne and Alcuin , Ludwig the Pious and the Blessed  Raban Maurus, Carl  the Bald and Johannes Scotus Eriugena. They were foreigners (an Englishman, a German and an Irishman). They connected philosophical knowledge to the religious faith, according to  Eriugena's principle: " true religion is  true philosophy and true philosophy is true religion" ( De praedestinazione, I, 1). Therefore, not only were Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church rediscovered, not only "medieval fathers" like St. Gregory the Great and St. Isidor of Seville, but also pagan philosophers like Plotinus or Proclus, and a great and unlucky Christian philosopher, Severinus Boetius .


Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus                                                              The Carolingian writing



The main characteristic of Carolingian spirituality is the recovery of  Greek-Roman knowledge and  culture, especially the one received positively in the works of the Fathers of the Church, transmitted through the obscure but precious work of copyst monks. The Carolingian spirituality emphasized also the monastic and essentially mystical character of Christian life, inherited from St.Gregory the Great. The Christian is called to a progressive deification (theosis), fighting the worst passions and instincts, and mystically joining God . The Revelation has been put into effect in Jesus Christ, while the supreme spiritual head of the Christian people is the Roman Pontiff. The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire is to militarily protect the people of God. Therefore, the theory of the two swords (the spiritual one and the secular one) is at work. Charlemagne writes to the Pope, in the Caroline Books:

" with the help of the Divine Mercy, our function is to defend the Church of Christ against the attacks of the pagans and the devastations of the infidels, to give it the acknowledgment of the Catholic faith as a defence,  outside and inside. Your function is to raise your hands towards Heaven, like Moses, and help our fight. With your prayers and with the guide and the grace of God, may the Christian people  bring back victory from everywhere"

Another characteristic of Carolingian spirituality is the stress placed on the dignity of man. With the aid of Revelation, men can obtain a true knowledge of God, though in an imperfect way. Thus, Charlemagne puts the accent on the importance of clergymen's instruction, morals, pastoral ability. These are to be obtained with prayer, spiritual combat, but also humanistic culture and    acquaintance with the Latin language. Significantly, love for literature and desire of God become the cornerstones of Benedictine spirituality, which is to find its definitive European  achievement under the Carolingians, with the fundamental work of Saint Benedict d' Aniane. Charlemagne is, therefore, rightly considered "a father for Europe", both from a political and a spiritual point of view .


                                               Gospel  of  Charlemagne




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