Tag Archives: medieval philosophy

Seminar CVI: Carolingian men of the Word

As you’ll have noticed I make a habit of going to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, but I make a special point of it when someone I know from my host institution, wherever it be, is presenting, partly to show support but also because it’s sometimes the only time you get to hear them do their stuff.1 On this occasion, however, my affiliations were confused, because Laura Carlson, despite teaching at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, had also at this point just become Past and Present Fellow at the Institute, and it was in that capacity she’d been asked to speak on the 26th October 2011. I guess that insofar as I’m a regular at the seminar and a Carolingianist I’d have been going if she’d been coming from the moon. In fact, if someone from the moon was presenting I’d probably be there regardless of the topic. But, dear reader, I digress! Laura’s title was, “Creating a Christian Language: letter and spirit at the Carolingian court”.

First page of the book of Exodus in the Grandval or Alcuin Bible, British Library MS Additional 10546

First page of the book of Exodus in the Grandval or Alcuin Bible, British Library MS Additional 10546; click through for a fantastic illuminated page from it on the BL's site, but for reasons that will become clear I wanted some text

This was the first time I’d been to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar in exile, in parts of Senate House I’d never been to before, and it was also the first time I’d heard Laura present on the core of her research, so in both ways I got something of a shock. I’ve not had to think this hard to stay up with a paper since that Peter Sarris one of 2010. The experience of Laura’s style is not quite so much like being caught amidst a fifty-minute rockfall, but this was densely-packed stuff. What she was arguing was—assuming my notes were and are up to the job of preserving it, a very topical concern as you will see—that the collection of intellectuals whom Charlemagne kept around his court at the peak period of his reign collectively developed something like a new Christian philosophy of language. The highly international nature of the group partly forced such reflections upon them, but much more so did the reliance of their work, and Latin Christianity at large, on, well, Latin. This court group was, as readers of this blog will know by now, very concerned with the correctness of texts, which is understandable when you’re dealing with the supposed Word of God, and perhaps, if one follows certain arguments, when some of your scholars come from a background where the ruling powers of the day insist that they have a text that is more purely the Word of God, because God speaks in Arabic and the transmission of the Qu’ran is doctrinally understood to be perfect.2 Of course, the Christians were not and are not making any claims about God speaking in Latin, or even the writers of the actual Bible text, so problems of accuracy are inherent to the whole idea of Latin Christianity. But this kind of concern pushed these thinkers, and especially Alcuin as Laura set it forth for us, to worry about deeper issues: can written words in any language actually express the divine accurately? Even if they can, is the human reader actually up to understanding it correctly? And how does information pass from the eye to the inchoate mind anyway? When your understanding of human consciousness doesn’t involve electro-chemistry but does involve the idea of a separable, non-physical soul, this is an issue. The soul contains God and can presumably understand Him perfectly; but the body is not perfect, so if you need the body to partake of the Word, aren’t you in trouble from the get-go?3 And so on.

Now obviously this is partly grammar, because Latin grammar, even though pagan, became a tool that one needed in order to be able to understand both world and Word (since the two do not separate). But it’s also philosophy, because in order to explain how Scripture can save it was necessary to come up with a workable account of man’s ability to perceive God. For Alcuin, as Laura argued it, one important aspect of man’s unique rationality was his ability to perceive the abstract and communicate it; man can, that is, envisage things that are invisible. This is obviously relevant, and blurs the line between philosophy and theology a great deal, which allowed the people thinking about this to use Aristotelian categories, obtained largely via Augustine’s similar reflections, as a basis for breaking down man’s faculties for examination like this. The whole direction of thinking, thus, allowed these guys to reclaim and redirect pagan philosophy to a Christian project. With this work done, Hieronymian worries about being damned as a Ciceronian not a Christian could begin to recede: the explosive potential of Classical thinking for a Christian paradigm is defused and a text-based Christianity finally fully equipped to proceed into medieval Europe.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

As I say, this is harder than I usually like to think, though I did a bit of history of ideas stuff in my undergraduate years and can still do the dance up to a point. One point that looms large from my perspective, though, is what did Charlemagne get from all this? This is a live concern because it’s all too easy to envisage it in terms of the university and very current concerns about research and teaching, not least because Alcuin did teach this stuff: it’s concerns about what language actually does and how the understanding of it works that make dialogic question-and-answer topics like “what a ship is”, answered with “a lodging-house in any place”, anything other than smug and glib.4 This leads to a faintly sour tone in some of the writing on this kind of topic, like a cat playing up to visitors after its family have a child: here’s a patron who understands that governments should fund intellectual endeavour (or a cat) for its own sake, current paymasters please take note, etc. We have to think about it not in terms of our own funding cycles, relevant though it can be made, and more in the terms of Charlemagne’s priorities, which were, really, quite different.5

So, was the main point of having these scholars at court to train up a new generation of civil servant nobles all alive with imperial loyalties, and this stuff was the research he let the scholars do to keep them happy? Or, at the other end, was Charlemagne, whom his biographer pictures eagerly chewing down chunks of Augustine's City of God alongside his more corporeal food at mealtimes, also keen on sorting out and understanding this stuff?6 It was obviously to these scholars’ general interest to show the king as being concerned with these things, as it might encourage other kings to give them a job (a concern raised on this occasion by Susan Reynolds) but on the other hand we have substantial efforts to provide a standard Bible text (see first image) and a corrected liturgy that obviously required this kind of scholarly effort and which, if not as uniformly rolled out as we once thought, still had an effect. And of course there was masses of legislation that partook of this moral agenda of correctio and also comes from this general intellectual ferment, to the extent that scholars now hang arguments about its content off which of these scholars they think wrote it, though this does take us into rather more troubling concerns of who, if anyone, were the readers.7 Given that I work so far away from this court, both in space and time, I am naturally more interested in the reception than the generation of these texts, which were around in my area to be read in some cases, but papers like this remind me firstly that there is still a lot we don’t understand about their generation which may still be possible to work out, secondly that the people doing it were genuinely really clever and that being trapped into thinking of them as religion-constrained Dark Age mystics just isn’t going to help understand the Carolingian Empire and its effects on subsequent European civilisation at all, and thirdly that I think that, whatever my particular intellectual skills may be, they’re not up to doing this kind of work so I’m glad that Laura is.


1. Of course, that support can, as in this instance, be assuring a matter of assuring the speaker beforehand that we would be tallying all their uses of the word ‘epistemological’ to be used in evidence against them. But, you know, supportively.

2. By which I mean, more or less, those arguments set out by Yitzhak Hen in his article, “Charlemagne’s Jihad” in Viator: medieval and Renaissance studies Vol. 37 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 33-51, which really long-term readers may remember I had some issues with.

3. It strikes me now I’ve written that up that there’s some really messy implications for the Eucharist down this road of thinking, and in fact, for the whole question of the Word made Flesh. I suppose this is why we could have hundreds of years of bitter dispute about Christology, isn’t it.

4. This is from Alcuin’s “Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico“, usually known as the Disputatio Pippini because there’s really only so much of Alcuin’s style anyone normal can stomach. It is edited by W. Suchier in L. W. Daly & Suchier (edd.), Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi, Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 24 (Urbana 1939), pp. 137-143, and translated in full by Gillian Spraggs here. For more information see Martha Bayless, “Alcuin’s Diputatio Pippini and the early medieval riddle tradition” in Guy Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 157-178. I mean, it’s clever, encouraging, witty and affectionate, but I think it can still be smug and glib besides these other notable qualities, which is kind of how I feel about Alcuin in general, you’ll no doubt have noticed.

5. For a start, I imagine any cats around Charlemagne’s court had to justify their keep in terms of dead rodents, although they probably didn’t have to collect all their kills together and grade their bloody impact every five years.

6. Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1960), transl. David Ganz in idem (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 2008), III.24, relevant portion also in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. More generally on the Carolingian cultural project, try Giles Brown, “Introduction: the Carolingian Renaissance” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 1-46, and, really, the whole of that volume if you’re interested.

7. Hen’s “Charlemagne’s Jihad” an example, in as much as its argument hinges on the background he imputes to Bishop Theodulf of Orléans; for readership concerns Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779-829″ in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel & Peter Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12, Denkschriften der phil.-hist. Klasse 344 (Wien 2008), pp. 253-274.