94.10.02, McKitterick, ed., Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation

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Robin Chapman Stacey

The Medieval Review baj9928.9410.002


McKitterick, Rosamond, ed.. Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation. Cambridge: New York: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 1994. Pp. xvii + 334; 8 pages of plates.
Reviewed by:
Robin Chapman Stacey
University of Washington

Despite the vast number of books and articles that have been written about the Carolingians over the past several decades, they remain the quintessential enigma of the early medieval West. Some see them still as the fair-haired children of the barbarian world; others perceive them merely as the last gasp of a Late Antique social and political system destined to collapse entirely in the years after 950. Some stress religious uniformity, liturgical standardization and the unifying grandeur of imperial rule; others focus by contrast on the evidence for fragmentation, diversity, and regionalism in the construction of political identities. Perhaps what has emerged most clearly from all of these studies is the extent to which the answers arrived at reflect the questions posed. Those concerned strictly with the court and its inhabitants, with what Richard Sullivan has termed "a narrow, power-wielding elite" ( Speculum 64, 1989, p. 302), will of necessity reach conclusions different from those who look at things from the point of view of the majority of the population of the empire who did not participate in the court and did not share its cultural presumptions.

It will therefore come as little surprise that the collection of essays edited by Rosamond McKitterick, Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, partakes more of the "traditional" than of the "revisionist" point of view. Indeed, this book, which originated in a series of undergraduate lectures, might best be regarded as a sort of "state of the art" presentation of the manner in which scholars who remain (pace Fossier) dedicated to the "high culture" school of Carolingian study have refined and reshaped (but not retracted) their ideas in light of current work. It is beautifully, even lavishly produced, nicely written and accessible on a number of different levels. It is not a book that will radically reshape the field in any way, but it is a work that can be drawn on by students and specialists alike for information and ideas. What follows are short summaries of the papers of which it is comprised.

The book opens with a well-written introduction by Giles Brown. Brown argues that the intellectual platform of the Carolingians ought to be perceived within the context of similar educational reform movements of Late Antiquity. The Carolingians were not the first to link salvation tothe revival of learning and the restoration of moral order. However, their contribution was significant, for it was they who revived and attempted to put into practice such ideas after they had fallen into desuetude in the century between 650-750. Even more importantly, the Carolingians made available to the Church the financial and political resources necessary to implement a wide-reaching program of cultural revival and reform.

Brown's paper is followed by what is perhaps the most interesting and complicated contribution to the book, Janet Nelson's consideration of "Kingship and Empire in the Carolingian World." Nelson perceives the Carolingian period as crucial for the evolution of two different—and seemingly contradictory—attitudes towards kingship and royal rule. On the one hand, she argues, this period saw real advances in the legitimization and exercise of Frankish royal power (imperial power also—she has a very interesting discussion of the concepts of a "Rome-free" and a "Rome-oriented" empire). Concomitant with this development, however, was the evolution of "constitutionalist" critiques of royal power that in some instances verge on social contract and right of resistance doctrines. In her view, such critiques did not arise out of the weakening of centralized government and the devolution of powers formerly exercised by kings into the hands of local rulers. Rather, the impetus to define and limit appropriate boundaries for royal rule stemmed from a royal strength that aristocrats and ecclesiastics alike found potentially threatening.

Vivien Law's "The Study of Grammar" is also concerned with the Carolingian legacy to future generations. Law analyzes the approaches taken in the Carolingian world to the teaching of grammar, and discusses in some detail grammars and genres invented by the Carolingians which continued to be productive well into the late medieval period (the "parsing" genre is one such example). Also a crucial contribution was the Carolingian rediscovery of Priscian's Institutiones grammaticae and their early attempts to apply techniques derived from the study of dialectic to the study of grammar. Law argues that it was this early attempt to integrate dialectic and grammar that made possible the advances made in speculative grammar in the course of the thirteenth century.

Mary Garrison's essay on "The Emergence of Carolingian Latin Literature and the Court of Charlemagne (780-814)" is concerned largely with the Latin poetry created and performed in Carolingian court circles. Royal patronage was crucial to the promotion of Latin poetry because it brought together into the same environment a large number of talented, creative, and literarily competitive scholars who were then inspired to outdo one another in poetic production. In her view, however, these poetic compositions were not by and large intended to "last the ages," despite the rhetorical and often excessive claims made by their authors for poetry as a craft. Rather, they were very much a product by and for their own time: a reflection of the vitality, wealth, creativity and politics of the Carolingian court circle. Even those poems that consciously evoke the styles and characters of ancient Rome are designed to speak to concerns of the Carolingian present rather than to emulate an imagined Roman past.

The next essay, by Cyril Edwards, "German Vernacular Literature: a Survey," takes issue with the notion that a tremendous gap existed in the Carolingian period between popular and learned culture. His theme is the coming together of vernacular and ecclesiastical traditions in a manner that resulted in the composition of a significant (though not large) body of new literature. What began as an exercise in translating Christian prayers and texts into the vernacular developed over the course of the ninth century into an active collaboration between the Church and vernacular oral culture. New texts were composed, at least some of which (e.g. the Gospel reworking by Otfrid) probably had official ecclesiastical and perhaps even royal backing. However, this fruitful collaboration was not destined to last; the tenth century saw the virtual cessation of the composition of new vernacular material, a fact that Edwards attributes toa lapse in official patronage.

John Marenbon's study of "Carolingian Thought" challenges traditional assumptions about the derivative nature of Carolingian thought, and stresses instead its innovatory aspects. His discussion includes Eriugena, but is not limited to him; Marenbon's point is that many Carolingian intellectuals apart from Eriugena made important contributions to the fields of philosophy and theology. Especially crucial was the Carolingian revival of the study of logic. Whereas the ancients focused more on rhetoric than on logic, the Carolingians reoriented their priorities and in so doing laid the essential groundwork for their twelfth-century successors. Marenbon discusses Eriugena, but depicts him not as a solitary genius, a "man outside his time," but rather as very much part and parcel of the Carolingian intellectual context.

Innovation is also the theme of Matthew Innes and Rosamond McKitterick's essay on "The Writing of History." They argue that the Carolingian period saw what they term an "historical revolution" in the range and quantity of historical writing and in the role of the written word in recording the past. Not only did the Carolingians preserve and disseminate classical, biblical and early Christian historical texts, they developed new forms of historical writing that became extremely influential in the post-Carolingian period (annals are but one of the examples discussed). Much of the essay centers on the political aspects of the texts being produced, and on the role of the imperial court (particularly the courts of Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald) in promoting and propagating this literature. Carolingian political polemic was truly innovatory, they suggest, in successfully marrying the conventions of classical rhetoric with a Christian teleological sense of the past.

McKitterick follows her essay on historical writing with an article on "Script and Book Production." In this piece she examines a number of Carolingian innovations in the realm of script and book production, including the development of caroline miniscule and the adoption of a deliberately didactic layout for Bibles. She discusses in detail the mechanics of making a book in this period (e.g. where houses obtained their exemplars and materials) and how such practical considerations often led scriptoria to develop specialties in particular types of text: laws, Bibles for export, classical texts and the like. All in all, McKitterick argues, an "extraordinary degree" of cooperation and coordination was involved in Carolingian book production. The period was significant also in the importance it accorded literacy and literate means of communication: "Even if indirectly," she writes, "no aspect of Carolingian society was left untouched by the written word."

George Henderson's "Carolingian Art" is a useful catalogue cum brief discussion of many of the most spectacular examples of Carolingian art. He is primarily concerned with manuscript art, although metalwork and ivories also enter in; indeed, he is particularly articulate on links between manuscript and metalwork art. Insular art also exercised a significant influence on Carolingian art, he argues, as did the importation of early Christian works into the Carolingian world from Italy and elsewhere. The Carolingian period, especially after the addition of Italy to the Empire, saw the production of "official" Christian art on a large and lavish scale; in elegance and scope, Carolingian art ought to be considered the "first court style of medieval Europe."

Susan Rankin's article on "Carolingian music" stresses the political aspects of Carolingian musical reforms, including the elevation of Roman over Gallican chant, and attempts to standardize Roman chant throughout the Carolingian world. Extremely interesting is her discussion of the methods used by the Carolingians to bring about such uniformity in chant before the invention of musical notation, although she does then go on to talk in detail about the creation and uses of musical notation itself. Again, innovation is a key theme: Rankin points to two new types of composition, the sequence and the fully texted trope, both of which were designed to enhance certain parts of the Roman liturgy.

Carolingian Culture ends with a conclusion written by McKitterick entitled "The Legacy of the Carolingians," in which she identifies what she sees as the principal themes articulated by the essays in the book. Specifically, she rejects the revivisionist view of the Carolingian period suggested in recent work in favor of one which understands the culture as a culture: "richly variegated," but nonetheless a "coherent whole". Nor were the Carolingians as derivative as they are sometimes said to be. They were not mindless drones, following slavishly the examples left them by the past; indeed in many areas of intellectual life, they displayed considerable creativity, and many of their innovations were productive into the tenth century and beyond. Questions may remain about the durability of certain Carolingian achievements, but the year 1000 ought not to be considered as a cultural watershed. The legacy of cultural power and patronage bequeathed by the Carolingians to their successors was a foundation on which many would later build.

It is difficult to say whether this book will function similarly as a foundation for future work. Its themes will be familiar to anyone even minimally conversant with Carolingian historiography over the past several years, and it does not so much as refute the revisionist point of view as decline to engage it. Still, as an expression of current thinking about the high culture of the Carolingian court, it is well done. One can always read Fossier to redress the balance.

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Robin Chapman Stacey

University of Washington