Johannes Fried, professor emeritus of Frankfurt University, authored a massive introduction to the Middle Ages called (unsurprisingly) The Middle Ages. It was translated into English by Peter Lewis in 2015 and published by Harvard University Press. If you are interested in medieval European history this is the book for you. His thesis is that the Middle Ages has been unjustly characterized as “The Dark Ages”. In truth, technological developments, new political theories, and religious and philosophical movements paved the way for the Renaissance.
The passage I am sharing with you today is about the West’s debt to the court of Charlemagne (Charles I), the son of Pepin the Short and the most celebrated leader of the Carolingian Empire. In the book blogging world we often overlook scribes and translators despite the enormous contributions they have made to preserving culture and nourishing reform movements.
In the late 8th century, there was a crisis in literary knowledge. Fried explains why and describes how Charlemagne addressed this crisis:
Officially, the comprehensive educational program of antiquity was never abandoned; nevertheless, the efficiency of the “private” education system, which was not in “public” hands – not least because of Christian misgivings about its pagan orientation – had declined sharply in the dark centuries of the Early Middle Ages, when sources were few and far between. Certainly, the Merovingian kings must have had a comparatively good literary education; the entire system had not collapsed by any means. And yet, there was no denying that knowledge and skills had dwindled and atrophied. Only under the Carolingian king Pepin and above all his illustrious son did a decisive move in the opposite direction begin. Here and there, ancient manuscripts with pertinent texts were still to be found, but it was a laborious task tracking them down, and then they required patient copying work to save them and once more disseminate the learning they contained. Despite the claims of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Roman antiquity is only visible to us nowadays through the lens of this early medieval interest, and the efforts of these Carolingian conservators.
As a rule, the material from which these old volumes were made was the comparatively cheap but less durable papyrus. Following the slump of scribal activity and papyrus production, the consequences were catastrophic. Even by the Early Middle Ages, the stocks of papyrus were in decline; in the late eleventh century, only the papal chancellery still had quantities of this writing material. The rest of the Western world had to make a virtue of necessity and switch over to the more expensive but more durable vellum. Apart from a very few exceptions, virtually no papyrus roll with a scholarly text has survived down the ages. Fire, water, rot, and mice took a heavy toll on the vital transfer of knowledge. The results can be quantified in terms of sheer numbers: of the sometimes enormous ancient libraries containing as many as an estimated one million books, absolutely nothing survives. If the contemporaries of the Carolingians had not undertaken a systematic search for ancient texts and manuscripts with an eye to copying them, and if they hadn’t used durable vellum in the process, most of the works of ancient, especially Latin, scholarship and literature would have been lost forever. No Cicero, no Quintilian, no Virgil, no Horace, no Ars amatoria, no Gallic Wars would have survived, let alone any of the ancient Christian authors. Charlemagne’s thirst for knowledge effectively saved these texts, indeed the whole of the Latin educational program of the Liberal Arts and their handbooks of the Mechanical Arts, as well as the unique splendor of Roman literature. In the absence of this, the late medieval Renaissance is unthinkable (52-53).
If there has ever been a reason to support humanistic studies, this is it!