In the 4th and 5th centuries, during the Migration Period, the advanced culture of the Roman Empire faced disruption from the influx of so-called barbarian nations, who were unfamiliar with its civilization. Then, during the 6th and 7th centuries, Europe was divided into numerous small kingdoms — each one developing its own Latin writing style. This transition led to an overall decline in the cultural standards of the continent.

A map of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea showing the migration of barbarian tribes in the 4th and 5th centuries. The map is color-coded to show the different tribes and their routes. The map is titled “The Barbarian Migrations and Kingdoms AD 526”. The map shows the routes of the Goths, Franks, Burgundians, Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Huns. The map also shows the locations of the Eastern Roman Empire. The map is labeled with the names of cities, regions, and bodies of water.
The Barbarian migrations and kingdoms of Europe before the reign of Charlemagne, 526 AD

The Latin grammar of classical Rome had become distorted due to the multitude of local variations. Even though it was the same Latin language, a literate person from one part of Europe faced considerable challenges deciphering a text from another region. The diminishing number of literate people became a problem for both the government and the church.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Carolingian dynasty, especially under Charlemagne, not only enlarged the Frankish Kingdom territorially, strengthened it politically, and spread Christianity among the barbarian nations, but also acted as a promoter of education. Charlemagne’s reign was marked by a surge in literacy and culture in general. A reverence for the ideals of ancient Rome and a drive to restore literacy, culture, and art characterized this era, leading it to be called the Carolingian Renaissance.

This revival holds immense importance for the medieval West as it represents the “awakening” of culture and art that had been suppressed during the early Middle Ages. Unfortunately, this period was brief and came to an abrupt end following Charlemagne’s death, owing to the empire’s division and the incursions by the Normans, Hungarians, and Saracens. Nevertheless, this period was significant since it laid the foundation for medieval culture throughout Western Europe.

Developing a new script

Charlemagne assembled the most learned individuals of that time period, at his court, driven by a desire to restore the artistic values and literacy standards of ancient Rome. Thus, ancient Rome served as an ideal to strive for and a model of art, architecture, and philosophical writing.

Works of ancient scholarship were diligently transcribed. In fact, some of these works survive today solely because of these copied texts. The need to accommodate more text within the limited space of parchment led to the development of a new script – the minuscule. This script would later form the basis of today’s writing.

An illuminated manuscript page from a medieval book written in Latin. The page has a large decorated initial “L” on the left side with red, blue, and gold colors. The text on the page is written in black ink and is arranged in three columns.
Example of Carolingian minuscule, Gospel of Matthew, Legal History Sources

The development of the Carolingian minuscule and the new standards of readability that came with it marked a break with the past. Books in Europe were no longer like those of the ancient world, they became much more similar to the books we know today. Even more significantly, during that period, books gradually became standardized by having similar formatting and style throughout Europe.

A page from a medieval manuscript written in a Gothic script in black ink. The page is decorated with red and blue initials and line fillers. The text is written in two columns. The text appears to be in Latin. The page is slightly faded and has some stains and discoloration.
Text from a Carolingian gospel book written in Carolingian minuscule, Wikimedia Commons

Beautifying the capital

When Charlemagne became the heir of the Roman emperors, he had to accept the same responsibilities towards the church and Roman culture. He began to erect and decorate stone buildings, thus following the example of the first Christian emperors. The emperor brought bronze statues from Rome and placed them in the court that was created to reflect his personality. In 794, work began on improving his palace complex to make it fit for an emperor. 

Charlemagne’s palaces, churches, and monasteries seemed astonishing in their extravagance to his contemporaries. When compared to buildings of the previous period, Charlemagne’s constructions certainly looked extraordinary. However, Charlemagne’s churches and castles were in fact, modest in terms of scale, materials, and craftsmanship. Most Carolingian buildings were actually built of wood, and all of them decayed and eventually disappeared. Only some stone churches have been partially preserved. The best example is the Aachen Chapel, whose construction was completed in 805. It is today an integral part of the Aachen Cathedral, which was a project influenced by the St. Vitale Church in Ravenna.

A collage of two images showing the interior and exterior of the Palatine Chapel with gold and blue decorations.
Interior and exterior view of the Palatine Chapel, Aachen, Germany, Wikipedia

The material and technical resources of Charlemagne’s empire were still so limited that the Carolingians could not accomplish such a straightforward task as building a bridge over the Rhine river. A wooden bridge was built near Mainz. It stood for ten years, but soon burned down. Charlemagne’s wish to replace it with a stone bridge remained unfulfilled due to a lack of funds.

The role of religion

The epicenters of this cultural revival were monastic establishments. Carolingian Europe was covered with a web of cathedrals and monasteries. Carolingian abbots possessed vast estates, which made them lords over thousands of peasants. These monasteries received substantial contributions, presented as tokens of gratitude for the prayers they offered. Additionally, they were responsible for rallying the local nobility for military campaigns.

For the first time, the state and the church in the West worked together with the shared goal of converting all their subjects to Christianity. The main outcome of the Carolingian reforms, namely its promotion of literacy, is that Christianity, a faith dependent on scriptures, would henceforth always have priests and monks proficient in interpreting these sacred texts.

The role of Alcuin, Einhard, and other scholars

A medieval manuscript illustration of a group of people: Charlemagne, Alcuin and his assistant. The people are standing on a blue background with a pattern of blue flowers. The people are wearing medieval clothing, including crowns and robes. The people are standing in front of a castle-like structure with a flag on top.
Charlemagne with Alcuin – Les Grandes chroniques de France, The British Library

Charlemagne gathered numerous scientists, writers, and artists at his court. Alcuin, the main driver of educational reforms and the founder of the Palatine Academy, was particularly distinguished. Einhard, as scholar and Charlemagne’s biographer, deemed him the most learned man of his time. 

After joining Charlemagne’s court, Alcuin not only became the emperor’s primary educational advisor but also the tutor to his children. The textbooks he authored spanned subjects like grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, and drew from the works of Marcian Capella, Boethius, and Isidore of Seville. Written in the form of dialogues between teacher and student, these texts highlighted the limited knowledge base of even the most educated individuals of that time period. 

Alcuin also penned numerous language manuals, curated Charlemagne’s court library, and most significantly, produced a new edition of Jerome’s “Vulgate” (the first Latin translation of the Bible). This edition became the authoritative biblical text for the entire Western Church. He is also credited with standardizing the educational curriculum around the “septem artes liberales” (seven liberal arts).

On the first page, at the top left, Grammar is depicted punishing a student, with four other students appearing entertained by the scene. To the right, Astronomy is represented by an astronomer observing the sky, noting the Moon, Sun, and stars. Below, Arithmetic is shown with an abacus, and Geometry with a pair of compasses. On the second page, at the top, Music is depicted playing two instruments: her left hand is on a keyboard with assistance from a boy, and her right hand is ringing a bell. Below, on the left, Logic is teaching a student, while on the right, Rhetoric, with crossed legs, instructs two students.
“Septem Artes Liberales” (Seven Liberal Arts: Grammar, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music , Logic and Rhetoric), 1300, Rothschild canticles, Yale University

After leaving the court, Alcuin retired to the monastery of St. Martin at Tours, where he founded a transcription workshop – the scriptorium. Diligent copying works from 750 AD to 850 AD enabled the old writings to survive the ravages of the following centuries. Since they were written by hand on expensive parchment, these tomes were rare and very expensive. Their price was further increased by the decoration of these so-called illuminated manuscripts, which was a real art form in and of itself.

A medieval manuscript illustration with three figures. The figure on the left is Raban Maur. The figure in the center is Alcuin, a scholar and advisor to Charlemagne. The figure on the right is Otgar, the archbishop of Mainz from 826 to 847.
Raban Maur (on the left), with the backing of Alcuin (center), presents his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (on the right), Wikimedia Commons

Among the students of the court school was the aforementioned Einhard. His work, The Life of Charlemagne, reveals the imitative nature of Carolingian literature, despite its apparent qualities. Einhard drew heavily from Suetonius’s biography of Emperor Augustus. He not only copied its overall structure but also borrowed specific phrases and entire sentences. This lack of originality is similarly seen in other Carolingian literary works.

Adjacent to the two was Theodulf, the Bishop of Orléans, who humorously critiqued the court poets through his satirical verses. It’s also worth noting the intellectual Longobard, Paulus Diaconus, renowned for his History of the Longobards. Charlemagne brought him to the court for his expertise in grammar, Latin literature, the Greek language, and many other subjects.

Achievements of the Carolingian Renaissance

The educated members of Charlemagne’s circle claimed to have “restored” Latin learning. However, when compared with the humanists of the Italian Renaissance, the scholars in Charlemagne’s and his successors’ entourage seemed to give little regard to what is today viewed as the core of classical Greece and Rome. They identified themselves primarily as Christians, emphasizing their very limited interest in the “classical” world for its own sake.

After the death of Charlemagne, the power of the Carolingian rulers came down from its peak due to the constant conflicts of his successors. The Treaty of Verdun marked the abandonment of the idea of a unified state that represented the restoration of the Roman empire in the West. The heirs of Charlemagne did not have the fortitude to continue the policy of their famous ancestors, which was one of the causes of the eventual downfall of the Carolingian Empire.

Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious, treated ancient literature with the utmost contempt, saying that he neither wanted to read it himself nor did he want others to read and study the works of Roman authors.

An image of a medieval manuscript illustration of Louis the Pious. He is wearing a red cloak and is holding a cross and a shield.
Louis the Pious, illustration from 826 AD, Wikimedia Commons


Although the influence of the Carolingian Renaissance outlived Charlemagne, the reality is that the Carolingian cultural momentum reached its peak at the time when the Carolingian Empire began to fall apart in the 9th century. A high level of education and the publication of books required wealth and relative political stability. By the end of the 9th century, both elements were lacking.

The Carolingian reforms directly affected a small number of people while the majority remained illiterate. Priests were barely literate, while ordinary monks were only educated enough to perform divine service. However, the achievements of these reforms should not be completely ignored.

The Latinized West succeeded in re-establishing its links with the Roman legacy. This connection not only inspired but also spurred the West towards new endeavors. Finally, the Carolingian reform also led to the church’s exclusive control over education.

In reflecting upon the Carolingian Renaissance period, its contributions to education and cultural shifts, though varied in long-term impact, remain an integral chapter of Western history.

The Gospel Book, containing different accounts of Jesus' life. This particular Gospel Book, possibly crafted for a queen, showcases intricate painted designs specifically on the Canon Tables, which allow readers to cross-reference passages from the four gospels. The decoration, blending grandeur with whimsical touches, offers readers an experience akin to a captivating architectural journey.
Gospel book, Carolingian, 825–50, The Met