In 780, Frankish King Charles might have been thinking about his realm’s long-term future and wanted to give his empire an intellectual foundation, one to associate Francia with ancient Rome and rival the Byzantines.
At that time, the man we today call Charlemagne had ruled for 12 years and had conquered Aquitaine and Lombardy. Although he was still warring with Saxon tribes, he had gained significant territory. The father of six (with No. 7 on the way) was 32, no longer a young man by medieval standards.
He and his queen, Hildegard, who was from a long-established, powerful family, started a journey to Rome, perhaps with empire-building on their minds, judging by what happened in Rome the following spring.
But first the royal family needed to spend the winter in Pavia. There, Charles might have met Paul the Deacon, a Lombard who wrote Historia Romana and other works and had taught in the overthrown court of Pavia, and Peter of Pisa, a deacon and poet who would later teach the king Latin grammar.
1499 depiction of Charles and Hildegard (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
When the Frankish royals resumed their journey in warmer weather, Charles met Alcuin in Parma. Alcuin, a Saxon from Britain, already earned a reputation as master of the cathedral school at York, and Charles invited him to lead the Palace School in Francia. Alcuin agreed, after he got permission from his superior upon his return to York.
In Rome, the pope anointed Charles and Hildegard’s three- and four-year-old sons as subkings, and their six-year-old daughter was betrothed to the child emperor of Byzantium. The Frankish king and the pope apparently discussed Charles’s uneasy relations with his cousin the duke of Bavaria, resulting in high-level diplomatic talks later.
After Easter, Charles and Hildegard returned to Francia in the company of intelligent men: Peter of Pisa; Paul the Deacon; Paulinus of Aquileia, who would later write about theology and play a role in converting the conquered Avars in the 790s, and Fardulf, a poet who in the 790s exposed a plot to overthrow Charles and was rewarded with the abbey of Saint-Denis.
Charles’s intellectuals would come and go in fulfilling their other roles, and his circle of scholars would expand to include other nationalities such as Theodulf, a Visigoth from Hispania and leading satirist, poet, author, and bishop of Orléans, and Dungal from Ireland. The circle had a few Franks such as Angilbert, Charles’s trusted aide, diplomat, poet, lay abbot of Saint-Riquier who would transform the place into a center for learning, and later almost-husband (technically a Friedelmann) of Charles’s daughter Bertha.
1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz of Charlemagne and Alcuin (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
These thinkers and writers were sometimes rivals who were not above teasing and sniping at each other in their poetry. But thanks to them and others, Francia produced more literary work than before.
Charles’s own education level in the 780s is unclear, but it was higher than most of his illiterate countrymen’s. Likely, his mother taught him his first lessons, and she hired a churchman to tutor him as he got older. By the end of his life, he could read but not write. He could converse in Latin in addition to his native Frankish and understood Greek better than he could speak it. He enjoyed the liberal arts ranging from literature to math to music and astronomy, studied philosophy, and had his sons and his daughters educated.
He never stopped learning, and in old age, he tried his hand at writing. He didn’t need that skill. He had clerks for that as did the rest of the nobility. But this hunger for knowledge might been another reason he recruited intellectuals.
Originally published on Unusual Historicals.
Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel
Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara
Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, edited with an introduction by Peter Godman