What was the Carolingian Renaissance?

The Carolingian Renaissance is a term used to describe the cultural flourishing of Western Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries under the rule of the Carolingian dynasty.

Apr 6, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art

what was the carolingian renaissance


The term Carolingian Renaissance refers to the revival of learning during the reign of Charlemagne and under his successors Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald. Carolingian rule was based on traditional war leadership, alliance with the Catholic Church, and revival of the Roman Empire. It was a planned revival, unlike the Italian Renaissance, which was more of a spontaneous process that began in a couple of city-states. Secular figures patronized both, but the Italian Renaissance’s impetus was not the state. The Carolingian revival of Latin, classical literature, and texts were meant to help the state in its Christian and Roman mission. It was meant to restore and deepen the piety of the population, understand Christianity, and preserve knowledge.


Learning Before the Carolingian Renaissance

Ruins of Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini, ca. 1741, via National Museums Liverpool


There were other attempts at preserving the collective knowledge of ancient civilizations in Western Europe before Charlemagne. At the time of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, just like in previous centuries, the intellectuals of the Roman Empire were wealthy laypeople. Then from the 6th century onward, lay scholars disappeared, leaving the preservation of learning to the handful of clerics and monks.


The last grand intellectual figures of Roman classical culture were Boethius and Cassiodorus. Boethius was one of the last known secular intellectuals of the Roman world to translate ancient Greek philosophy into Latin. Before finishing the work, Boethius was executed by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric. By the time of Justinian’s reconquering of Italy, most preserved manuscripts were being held in Italian monasteries. Cassiodorus, who was a monk, made a connection between monasticism and the preservation of learning that characterized the Carolingian Renaissance. Cassiodorus’ contribution to the protection of knowledge is the organization of a library-like monastery in Vivarium and the notion that classical culture is necessary for Christian interpretation of the Bible. In his view, the ancient Liberal Arts, the foundation of the Carolingian educational program, became an aid to studying religious truth.


The Rise of Charlemagne & the Revival of Learning

Equestrian statuette of Charlemagne or Charles the Bald, 9th century, via the Louvre, Paris


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

After the death of his brother Carloman in 771, Charles (or Charlemagne), the son of King Pepin the Short, became the sole ruler of the Franks. Like his predecessors, Charles was a warrior-leader who waged wars and extended the borders of his inherited kingdom. Running this vast kingdom depended on a bureaucracy and clergy that needed a proper education.


The court of Charlemagne in the city of Aachen became a center of intense intellectual development. Charlemagne gave tremendous power, privileges, and wealth to people educated in classical learning. The purpose was to standardize education in the Church and make the Church and State function uniformly and with discipline. This standardization was meant to enforce the same church laws across the vast Carolingian Empire.


The preaching and missionary work the clergy did was thus coordinated and uniform. Ceremonies, rituals, and liturgies were supposed to be identical in all parts of the Empire, from Rome to Aachen to Barcelona. The notion leading the revival was forming an educational system that mainly clergy needed to receive. Therefore, the intellectuals of Charlemagne’s court and the architects of the Carolingian Renaissance were primarily concerned with clerical illiteracy. The priests needed to know how to read and understand Latin so that they could preach religious truths to their parishes.


The Carolingian Renaissance & Imperium Christianum

Plaque with Christ enthroned with two Apostles, 850–875, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


An essential part of the Carolingian Renaissance was the role Frankish monarchs played as Christian emperors. Charlemagne was the first to take up the title after his coronation in 800 in Rome. The Frankish ruling elite and the Papacy established an Imperium Christianum – the Christian Empire, modeled after Constantine’s rule between 306 and 337. Charlemagne saw himself as the new Constantine and contributed to the revival by writing Admonitio generalis and Epistola de litteris colendis, in which he outlined the cultural revival and church reform. The responsibility that an emperor had to fulfill was ultimately the salvation of all of his diverse subjects.


With the idea of a Christian empire taken into account, we see that Latin wasn’t revived for the practical purpose of having the same rituals throughout the Empire. It was accepted as the universal administrative language of the “New Israel,” the universal faith, and the language of the Bible. The Carolingian Renaissance as a whole was meant to serve a divine purpose in leading Christian people toward Salvation.


Educational Programs

Seven Liberal Arts by Francesco Pesellino, ca. 1450, via Birmingham Museum of Art


Charlemagne was interested in learning himself, and he gathered the scholars of the day to his court, who presented a curriculum that reshaped the kingdom and, later, the empire. A Christianized version of the ancient Seven Liberal Arts shaped the program of the revival. It was established by Alcuin, the lead intellectual of Charlemagne’s court, in accordance with Neoplatonic authors of Classical antiquity and confirmed by Martinus Capella, a 5th-century polymath.


The Liberal Arts were organized into the trivium – Grammar, Dialectic (Logic), and Rhetoric, and quadrivium – Mathematics, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. The Carolingian Renaissance valued the trivium more since it was considered to be more applicable to unlocking the mysteries of the Scriptures and the Will of God. In this sense, the study of Grammar enjoyed intellectual primacy and included the study of literature or “the science of the things said by poets, historians, and orators.”


Every diocese and monastery was expected to have its schools establish a curriculum in the Liberal Arts for the children of freemen and nobility alike. A more modest, rudimentary learning program existed for the lower clergy. They were supposed to be able to teach the Symbol, say Mass, give pre-baptismal instruction, and know and teach the Lord’s Prayer.


Books & Scribal Culture

Gospel Book, ca. 825-850, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


From the period between 550 and 750, two centuries before the Carolingian ascent, only 265 books have been preserved from Western Europe. From the second half of the 8th century, Carolingian scribes gathered texts to copy, mainly from Italy. Ravenna, Monte Cassino, and Rome provided papyrus texts, long since lost, reproduced in monasteries north of the Alps. Centers of learning and great libraries of the Carolingian dynasty include Aachen, Corbie, Tours, and St. Gall. So, by the end of the 9th century, well over 7,000 Carolingian manuscripts are preserved.


The Carolingians placed great emphasis on correct copies and authentic texts, which resulted in the preservation of much classical literature. Some ancient Roman authors, like Livy, and their texts are preserved today only thanks to the remaining Carolingian manuscripts. Amid the intense activity of copying manuscripts in the Carolingian scriptoria, Alcuin encouraged a new concern for clarity and the use of punctuation. This enabled the development of the new script, the Carolingian minuscule, that was clear, consistent, elegant, and easier to read and write.


The Intellectuals of the Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne receives Alcuin in 780 by Jean-Victor Schnetz, 19th century, via Meisterdrucke


The head of the Palace School in Aachen was Alcuin of York, a Northumbrian monk and abbot of Saint Martin’s Monastery in Tours. Over the course of his life at the court, Alcuin wrote tracts on everything from spelling to complicated questions about the nature of Christ’s relationship to God.


The Visigoth, Theodulf, was a poet and theologian of the Carolingian court. He was responsible for writing much of the Libri Carolini (“Charles’ books”), the Carolingians’ response to Iconoclasm. Also, he took part in condemning the Adoptionist heresy proclaimed by Bishop Felix of Urgell. He was central to all the reform programs of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, even though he died in disfavor in 821 for opposing Louis’ actions against Bernard of Italy, Louis’ nephew.


Paul the Deacon was a Lombardian monk and historian. His Historia Langobardorum (History of the Lombards) is the principal source of his people up to 744.


Einhard’s writings are the most important source of information on Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire as a whole. Vita Karoli Magni (Life of Charles the Great) was written around the 830s after Einhard left Aachen. In it, Einhard conveys gratitude for Charlemagne’s aid in his education. Despite being indebted to SuetoniusLives of the Caesars, Vita Karoli Magni was an innovative work of historiography. Einhard even played a role in the architecture of the royal palace at Aachen.


The Carolingian Renaissance in Art

Illuminations from the Godescalc Evangelistary, 781-783, via facsimilefinder.com


The illuminations of Carolingian manuscripts resulted from a synthesis of Roman, Insular, and Merovingian styles and techniques evolving over several centuries. The Palace School of Charlemagne and Charles the Bald were the most well-known Carolingian manuscript decoration centers. Other great book illumination centers were in Soissons, Rheims, Metz, Lorsch, and St. Gallen. Within a relatively short time, heavily influenced by the art forms of the Mediterranean cultures, Carolingian renovatio favored a shift to Classical styles. These styles promoted more anthropomorphic, representational, narrative, and message-oriented religious and political art as part of Christianization. It centered on the representations of the human effigy, especially that of Christ.


Art of the Carolingian Renaissance was marked by the adoption of ancient Roman architecture, especially the basilica-type building plan. The architectural revival brought two innovations that defined the development of future European architecture. One was the introduction of the symbolism of the transept, which integrated the cross into the linear design of the ancient Roman basilica. The earliest transepts appeared around 800 in Saint Maurice of Agaune, the cathedral of Cologne, and the cathedral of Besançon. The second innovation was the west front with flanking towers in the abbey of Saint-Riquier, which was the central element of later Romanesque and Gothic buildings.

Author Image

By Dusan NikolicBA History of ArtDusan is an art historian and graduate of the University of Belgrade, specializing in Byzantine church architecture with an interest in the history and creation of art. Formerly a museum worker, he spends most of his research and free time on interdisciplinary work between art history and psychology.