Posts Tagged ‘Charlemagne’

Carolingian Miniscule

July 14, 2014

It is still widely believed that Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages, around AD 500-1000, was an intellectual wasteland, a dark age in which the vast majority of the people were illiterate and ignorant. During this dark age the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans was completely forgotten by the barbarians who overthrew the Roman Empire, and what learning did survive was ruthlessly suppressed by a Catholic Church which worshiped ignorance and superstition. I have attempted to correct these misconceptions in previous posts by writing a little about what historians of the period have to say.

You may be surprised to learn that one of the greatest advances in transmitting the written word from the invention of the printing press all the way back to the invention of writing itself occurred during the so-called Dark Ages. This would be the development of the script called Carolingian minuscule. What is Carolingian Minuscule? In a sense, it is what you are looking at now. That is to say, our modern system of upper-case and lower case letters along with punctuation like periods and commas are derived from Carolingian Minuscule.

The alphabet we use in English comes from the Latin alphabet which the Romans used. They adapted their alphabet from a version of the Greek alphabet, which the Greeks had adapted from the alphabet invented by the Phoenicians. All of these ancient alphabets had only what we call upper-case or capital letters and no punctuation.


This is a little hard to read. Around the first century AD scribes began to experiment with various forms of cursive writing. Some of the Latin letters, when written quickly with a pen, began to resemble the letters we know as lower case letters. These scribes also developed simple systems of punctuation to indicate pauses when reading aloud. There was no difference in meaning between upper case and lower case letters. The differences in the shapes of the letters were simply the result of the handwriting of the individual writer. There was no consistent use of punctuation. As Christianity grew in numbers and influence, there was more interest in creating some sort of system of punctuation to help the reader when reading the Bible or other religious texts aloud during services. There was also a great need for more texts to be copied and any way of increasing the speed of making copies was appreciated.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the experimentation in developing various scripts continued in the monasteries, particularly in Ireland and England. The native Celtic languages of the Irish monks were quite unlike Latin and they felt the need to make the Latin texts they studied and copied easier to read. This, these monks introduced the idea of putting spaces between words. They also started to use different marks to indicate differing lengths of pauses, something like our periods, commas, semicolons, etc. On the continent, the monks and scribes of the Merovingian Franks also used a wide variety of scripts. Because these scripts varied from region to region and even from monastery to monastery and still didn’t have any consistent system of using upper and lower case letters or punctuation, writing in Western Europe was still a mess. These various scripts were not as clear and legible as they might have been and reading and making copies was still something of a chore.

Austrasia, homeland of the Franks (darkest gre...

Austrasia, homeland of the Franks (darkest green), and subsequent conquests (other shades of green). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was the king of the Franks from 768 to 814 and the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800-814. His father Peppin had deposed the last of the Merovingian kings of the Franks and Charlemagne had united the Franks and conquered most of Western Europe, including what is now France, Germany, northern Italy, and a part of Spain. Charlemagne was no mere warlord, though he was fond of fighting. He was aware that education and culture had degenerated badly in his Frankish realm since the fall of the Roman Empire and he was determined to do something about it. He reformed the administration of his empire and put it on a more professional level than it had been for centuries. He introduced new coinage with improved trade and stabilized the empire’s finances. He was a pious Christian and tried to reform the Frankish clergy. Although Charlemagne himself was illiterate, he knew the importance of literacy for administration and established schools to educate the young. He himself attempted to learn to read and write. He had some success with reading but he started too late in life and was never able to learn to write. Since there were few teachers available among the Franks, Charlemagne sent abroad for teachers, particularly from the British Isles. The chief of these teachers was a monk from York named Alcuin.

Minuscule caroline

Minuscule caroline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

York had become a center of learning in England and Charlemagne was eager to hire Alcuin to improve the palace school which had been used to train royal princes for rule. Alcuin introduced a liberal arts and religious curriculum at the palace school and gathered scholars  at Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen in the hopes of establishing another center of scholarship in Francia. He also helped to create the new, clearer, more legible script that came to be known as the Carolingian minuscule. This new script included letters with uniform rounded shapes to make reading and copying easier along with clear distinctions between capital and lower case letters, spaces between words and sentences and a standardized system of punctuation. As a result manuscripts produced in any part of western Europe could be read by a scholar in any other part of Europe. Because the letters were smaller, yet more legible, more words could be fitted on a page, thus conserving valuable parchment or vellum. Under Charlemagne and Alcuin’s guidance, scribes made new copies of every Latin manuscript they could find with the result that if a manuscript or book written in Latin managed to survive into Carolingian times, there is a very good chance that a copy made during that time survives today. In other words, if it were not for the reforms in writing that took place in the middle of the Dark Ages, most of the literature from the Roman Empire would have been completely lost.

Carolingian minuscule was adopted throughout Charlemagne’s empire and its influence survived even after his empire fell apart during the reigns of his grandsons.  Over time this script developed into the Blackletter script which was used in Germany until the twentieth century. Italian humanists came to believe that this script was barbaric and “Gothic” and looked back to the original Carolingian minuscule as the way that properly civilized Romans wrote, believing that the Carolingian manuscripts were original Roman texts. The humanists went on to develop new scripts based on the Carolingian minuscule and when printing was invented, printers used these scripts as models for their typefaces. So, if you can read this, be sure to thank Charlemagne and the medieval scholars who invented our modern letters and punctuation.

Charlemagne. Painted in the year of 14. This i...

You’re welcome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Christian Dark Ages II: The Early Middle Ages

June 28, 2014

In the previous post, I wrote against the all too widely held belief that the Middle Ages, that period of time between around AD 500-1500 was a Dark Age of ignorance, poverty, and religious fanaticism. No historian has held such a view for more than a century or longer, yet the idea of the Dark Ages still has many followers, mostly, it seems by anti-Christian polemicists eager to revive the outdated trope of an eternal war between science and religion. Since the Middle Ages were a very religious period of time, there could have been no scientific advances. Thus, there are quotes like the ones I copied from an atheist.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

And Ayn Rand.

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Along with this picture


In my previous post, I hope I showed that the High Middle Ages, from AD 1000-1350, were far from being a dark age. The High Middle Ages were, in fact, among the most dynamic and brilliant in human history. What of the period before the High Middle Ages, the Early Middle Ages from around 500-1000?

The Early Middle Ages could more justly be called the Dark Ages. This was a prolonged period relative economic and cultural stagnation. There were immense dislocations during the fifth century, when the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed after the invasions and migrations of the Germans tribes and the Huns. Trade and urbanization declined as did education and literacy. It proved to be very difficult to maintain a high level of civilization in the face of incessant war. Still, when the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, and others settled down in the kingdoms they carved out of the Roman Empire, their kings invariably tried to restore Roman civilization with varying degrees of success. Then, when things began to get better, new waves of invaders, the Avars, Bulgars, Moors would disrupt things once more.

Europe, after the "fall" of the Roman Empire

Europe, after the “fall” of the Roman Empire

Under the Merovingian and Carolingian kings, the Franks conquered most of Western Europe. Their greatest king, Charlemagne, even tried, with partial success, to restore the Roman Empire in the West. He realized how far civilization had declined and set about trying to improve education and culture in his vast realm. This is the period known as the Carolingian Renaissance and it is thanks to efforts of Charlemagne’s scribes that many Latin texts survived from antiquity.  Unfortunately, Charlemagne’s empire broke up within a century of his death due to quarrels among his grandchildren and more invaders, this time the Viking, the Magyars and the Saracens.

In the East, the Roman Empire remained intact for two centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. They were hard beset by the Arab invasions of the eighth century. For a century, the Roman or Byzantine Empire, as it is often called in its Medieval incarnation, fought for its life against the Arabs fired with enthusiasm for their new faith of Islam and during this century, even Byzantium suffered from a relatively dark age. The Byzantines withstood the attacks, and incidentally saved Western Civilization just as it was beginning and after their borders were secure, around 800, the Byzantine Empire quickly recovered to become the most powerful and advanced state in Europe.

The history of the Dark Ages, then,was not the history of ignorant religious fanatics wantonly destroying knowledge and suppressing science. It was not a era of intelligence on strike. Rather, the Early Middle Ages were an era in which men worked valiantly in the face of seemingly insuperable difficulties to maintain some level of civilization. Christianity, far from suppressing knowledge and science, played a key role in the preservation of culture. Christianity is a religion of the book and therefore requires, at least in theory, a literate clergy. To meet this need, the Church established cathedral and monastic schools, which kept literacy alive even through the darkest periods. The expansion of Christianity into northern and eastern Europe spread literacy to hitherto illiterate peoples. Western Catholic missionaries taught the Latin alphabet to the Irish, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and eventually the Northmen. Eastern Orthodox missionaries introduced the adapted Greek letters that we call the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavs.

In western Europe, knowledge of the ancient Greek scholars was lost and few people could read any Greek.  In that sense the Early Middle Ages might be considered a dark age, yet there was a continuing Latin literary tradition. Contrary to what is still widely believed, there was no general decline in technology during the Early Middle Ages. In most respects there was a steady progress in technological innovation including some important inventions.  Such inventions included the moldboard plow, the horse collar, stirrups and horse shoes, the Carolingian miniscule, the three field crop rotation as well as increased use of legumes to replenish the soil. Better iron smelting techniques were developed and there was wider use of watermills. There was a decline in some areas, especially in architecture, mostly because the various successor states to the Roman Empire lacked the resources to erect large buildings or maintain extensive networks of roads.

To put the matter simply, there was no such thing as the Christian Dark Ages. Christianity did not cause a thousand-year dark age of ignorance and squalor. If it had not been for the advances made during the Middle Ages, it is likely that modern science would never have developed and it was not a coincidence that modern science developed in Christian Europe. Had it not been for the Christian Dark Ages, we would not be exploring the galaxy by now. Perhaps we would only be starting to explore the Earth.


December 30, 2011

Charlemagne was the single most influential ruler of the early Middle Ages. In his 46-year reign as King of the Franks and later the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, reformed the administration and laws of his realm, encouraged the works of the Catholic Church, and began an all too brief renaissance of learning and education. In a certain sense, Charlemagne could be considered the founder of modern Europe.

J. B. Bury’s Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance is a good history of the great king’s life and times. Bury goes into some detail concerning Charlemagne’s ancestors, rise to power, conquests, his administration of his empire, and his relations with other nations and powers, including the Muslims of Spain. Quite a lot of attention is given to Charlemagne’s often complex relationship with the papacy. For all of that, however, I must confess I was a little disappointed with this book. For one thing, Bury barely mentioned Charlemagne’s attempts at a revival of learning and culture. For another, I would have appreciated his extending his narrative down to Charlemagne’s son and grandsons. I don’t think the story of the Carolingian Renaissance is complete without relating the ultimate failure of his vision by the weakness of Louis the Pious and the contentions among the grandsons of Charlemagne.

Despite the weaknesses mentioned, I do recommend this book to any interested in the so-called Dark Ages.


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