Kingship, reform, and the arts in the Early Middle Ages

Louis the Pious, ca. 826

Louis the Pious, ca. 826

I’ve been revising a section of my thesis where I discuss the main driving force behind the Carolingian Renaissance, and thought I’d share some of my findings/thoughts with you. The main driving force, if you were wondering, is correctio — the moral, religious, and legal reform not just of the ruling class but of the entire people. The idea is not Carolingian but Roman.

For examples of the Later Roman Imperial ideal of the princeps providing such reform, the laws in the Theodosian Code (culled from sources dating ca. 312-438) against pagans, heretics, and Jews serve as prime examples of what these emperors thought a good ruler should be up to — such laws are the stick that would promote religious reform, while the tax benefits given to orthodox/catholic clergy are the carrot. Another reflection of the good ruler’s commitment to healthy religious life is the long list of churches built and patronised by the emperors, such as St John’s Lateran and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (by Constantine) or Old St Peter’s Basilica (by his son, Constantius). The Theodosian Code is a tangible example of the secular aspect of correctio, since a ruler’s commitment to justice (iustitia) lies in the everyday as well as the sacred.

Hagia Sophia today

Hagia Sophia today

Justinian (r. 527-565) is one of our clearest examples. In the secular sphere, he sought out clarification and codification of Roman law in the Institutes and the Digest. He also sought to reintegrate the lost western provinces, not only seeking personal glory, but also following a vision that a good ruler should look out for the interests of his citizens — including those under foreign domination. In the ecclesiastical sphere, he rebuilt Hagia Sophia after its destruction during the Nika Riots as one of the greatest architectural achievements in world history. He also attempted to reconcile Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians through various laws and debates and the Second Council of Constantinople (553).

These Late Roman examples are taken up by their ‘barbarian’ successors. It was seen as good kingship not only to promulgate laws and rule by law, but also to strive for the moral and religious correction of the people. In the secular sphere, we get a few different ‘barbarian’ law codes beginning in the fifth century that help to establish rule by law.

Lindisfarne Gospels, opening of Matthew

Lindisfarne Gospels, opening of Matthew

Ecclesiastical reform takes different shapes in these new kingdoms. In Anglo-Saxon lands, it begins in the form of missionary enterprise, as, for example, King Oswald of Deira and Bernicia (Northumbria) inviting St Aidan to evangelise (see Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 3.3-5). In later years, we see Anglo-Saxon correctio in royal sponsoring of church buildings, church councils, monasteries, and monastic reform. King Alfred the Great sponsored correctio through the translation of ‘essential’ books into English and the training of the clergy in the liturgy.

In Visigothic Spain, St Isidore of Seville (d. 636) says that ‘he who does not correct does not rule’ (Etymologies 9.3.4); the Visigoths took this to heart, visible in the vast number of royally-sponsored church councils — eighteen councils were held in Toledo, seventeen of which come after the Visigothic conquest, the last held ca. 702 (Spain fell to the Muslims in 711).

In the Frankish lands which the Carolingians were to rule, early law codes exist such as the Lex Salica which dates to around the lifetime of Clovis I (r. 481-511), the Merovingian who united the Franks under his rule (through war, treachery, and assassination when necessary) as well as defeating his Arian neighbours and eventually ruling all of Gaul. Gregory of Tours, writing in the 590s, sees Clovis’ conquest of Arian Gaul as driven by Clovis’ religious correctio (see Historiae Francorum 2.37), and when the Burgundian Gundobad converts from Arianism to Catholicism, the bishop of Vienne counsels him not to keep his conversion a secret so that he may publicly encourage his people to religious reform and give them a good example.

However much Merovingians such as Chlotar II (r. 584-629, full power from 597) and Dagobert I (r. 623-629) may have sought correctio, the final decades of the seventh century were a time of cultural decline in Merovingian lands, and the effective power of Merovingian kings to bring about reform was rarely very strong. The results of their inability to produce real correctio in line with these ideals of kingship is visible in the paucity of manuscripts from this period generally as well as the number of reforming councils thought necessary by their successors.

The Carolingians officially supplanted the Merovingians with Pippin III ‘the Short’ in 751, although they wielded great power since Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel, who kept the Muslims out of France at the Battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in 732. Pippin and his brother Carloman were the secular sponsors of the evangelistic and reforming action of St Boniface in the 740s when they were still not officially kings — that is, they sought to fulfil ideals of kingly correctio before they had kingly authority.

Harley Golden Gospels, fol. 109r, from Aachen ca. 800-825

Harley Golden Gospels, fol. 109r, from Aachen ca. 800-825

But it is Charlemagne (literally ‘Charles the Great’, r. 768-814, sole ruler from 771, ‘Emperor’ from 800), Pippin the Short’s son, who takes things into high gear for the Carolingians. He sets about correctio in a big way — the secular law, ecclesiastical law, the activities and authority of his own royal representatives, the rights and privileges of monasteries and bishops, the text of the Bible, the text of the liturgy. All of these felt the touch of Charlemagne’s reforming zeal. He got Pope Hadrian I (772-795) to send him copies of canon law books and liturgical books, and the York ecclesiastic Alcuin, whom Charlemagne sponsored on the Continent, is associated with one of the major recensions of the Latin Vulgate Bible. The result is a proliferation of manuscripts of the Bible, canon law, and liturgy, as well as a proliferation of laws, charters, etc, so that everyone could have not only a copy but a correct copy.

Charlemagne’s success, in contrast to the Merovingians, lay in his own long reign of political stability, his own effective power to rule the Frankish lands, and his wealth. Charlemagne’s wars of conquest, especially the destruction of the Ring of the Avars in the 790s and the addition of their entire national treasury to his own, brought in the wealth necessary to fund the various aspects of correctio — an average manuscript can take 700 sheep- or goat-skins. Books are not cheap — and monasteries and cathedrals cost money, as well as the pay for the royal representatives and advisers. Without a vast treasury at his disposal, Charlemagne would not have been able to promote the reforms throughout his kingdom that occurred.

The knock-on effect of correctio, especially when combined with wealth, was the production not only of manuscripts, but of beautiful ones. And not only of manuscripts of the necessary texts for reform, but of classical texts. And not only of old texts, but of new compositions. The funding of the ecclesiastical realm meant the building of beautiful churches and monasteries and reliquaries and other forms of ecclesiastical art.

The Carolingian Renaissance did not die with Charlemagne — over 7,000 Latin manuscripts date to the ninth century. Only 2,000 exist from before then. This grand production was driven by the royal desire to rule well and make his kingdom better, not a dispassionate funding of ‘the arts’. But it did well — many texts that might have been lost were saved. Art and architecture took a new turn that would endure in Europe for a long time to come. All because kings wanted to make the world a better place.

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