charlemagne could not read or write -- 6/23/20

Today's selection -- from The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston. The "barbarians" who invaded Rome may have contributed to revitalization and innovation in reading and writing:

"The rumors from Rome of a 'barbarian invasion' turned out to be greatly exaggerated. There was, no doubt, a sporadically vio­lent rebalancing of power in the old western Empire, but historians have wavered on how to interpret events. Was it the inevitable overthrow of a decadent, decaying empire by vital, disciplined northern Europeans? Or had a sophisticated, civilized state been unjustly smashed to bits by brutish, warlike tribespeople?

Pope Leo crowns Charlemagne on Christmas Day   

"For a start, the roving Germanic tribes that supplanted Rome's incumbent elite were far outnumbered by the urban populations they found themselves ruling. And having settled among their new charges, the tribes' laissez-faire paganism withered in the face of a thoroughly Christianized Roman society. Within a century or two of their arrival, the incomers had largely converted to the religion of their vassals. Moreover, faced with the challenges of governing such a massive terri­tory, Rome's new tribal rulers were more or less forced to learn Latin, its lingua franca, ensuring that it carried on across Europe as the pre­ferred language of scholars, priests, lawyers, and civil servants. At the coronation in 800 of Charles the Great, the ruler of the (forcibly) united barbarian states that had formed in the ashes of the Roman Empire, an obliging Pope Leo III styled the new king 'Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire.' The new boss was a lot like the old boss.

"Politics, religion, and art flourished under Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, as the man and his kingdom are now called. Finding his Frankish compatriots lacking in intellectual vigor, the new emperor established a court of noted foreign scholars and tasked them with the modernization of his creaking realm -- and the members of the clergy, variously corrupt, illiterate, and ignorant, were not spared from Char­lemagne's reforms. Back in the sixth century, an influential Roman Christian named Benedict of Nursia had renounced his inherited wealth and developed a series of rules by which the righteous man might live. Along with admonishments on the value of honest work and the temptations of material wealth, Saint Benedict's rules prescribed daily readings of religious texts (three hours in summer and two in winter); recommended the cover-to-cover reading of a worthy book during Lent; and specified that a book should be carried at all times while traveling. Charlemagne firmly reminded his priests of these obligations, decreeing that all monasteries should keep their books correct and free from error, and made it clear that his clerical subjects would no longer be permitted to rest on their laurels.

"And so, at the stern urging of the Carolingian dynasty's greatest son, the monasteries of Europe became the last refuge of the book on a largely illiterate continent. Monks filled their libraries with tens or even hundreds of volumes (enough, at any rate, to supply their Lenten reading binge); they borrowed and copied books to expand their hold­ings and occasionally to sell to wealthy laypeople; and they made and circulated ad-hoc catalogues to make intermonastery borrowing easier to manage. As they did all this, the monks who wrote and collected books came to realize that it was important to illustrate them too. Two hundred years before Charlemagne, Pope Gregory had declared that 'pictures are books for the illiterate,' and, in a society where barely 1 in 7 laypeople could write their own name, he had a point. (Some hapless souls could not even hold a pen to mark their names with an X, and were invited to touch the parchment of a contract or deed to 'sign' it.) Ironically, Charlemagne himself could not read or write -- on sleepless nights he sat up with parchment and pen, trying over and over to mas­ter the letters of his name -- but he could at least gaze in satisfaction upon the magnificently illuminated manuscripts that now issued from monasteries across Europe." 



Keith Houston


The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 Keith Houston


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