Sunday, December 12, 2021

Charlemagne's "Mini-Renaissance"

The Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 7 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

Listen to the audio of this article!

For nearly three years, I wrote my columns the Shenzhen Daily in the form of dialogues between college students meeting in the "Common Room" of their dormitory. Usually there was one "international student" (from another country) and one American student who explained things to them--although sometimes, the international student did the explaining! I thought it might be fun to share one of these with you. In this conversation, a Chinese boy named Ming talks with an American named Mark.

Ming: Hi, Mark. Can I ask you a question about the alphabet we use?

Mark: Sure!

Ming: I've heard you call the way we write letters "the Latin alphabet." Does that mean we write like the Romans did?

Mark: Sort of. But of course, they wrote two thousand years ago, so there have obviously been a few changes.

Ming: For example?

Mark: Well, at some point Roman writing lacked J, U, and W. These were added later.

Ming: I see.

Mark: You know, before the ease and speed of modern communication, and even travel, there were many regional ways of writing.

Ming: So the writing in, say, France, might be different from that in Holland?

Mark: Yes, though in the period I'm talking about, those countries didn't exist yet.

Ming: Okay. But how did writing become standardized?

Mark: That happened under a man named Charlemagne, who was born sometime in the 740s and died in 814.

Ming: He was a French king, right?

Mark: Almost! He was King of the Franks, a more-or-less German-speaking nation which gave rise to what are now both France and Germany. In fact, at one point Charlemagne ruled over most of Western Europe, and laid much of the foundation for modern Western civilization. People call him "The Father of Europe."

Ming: Cool!

Mark: The name we call him, Charlemagne, is based on the French form of the words "Charles the Great," and spoken in Latin Carolus Magnus. So the way we write today is based on something called Carolingian script, which began to be developed in his time.

Ming: Amazing! What else did he do?

Mark: His rule was sort of a "mini-Renaissance," because he organized and promoted learning. This ended the early part of the Middle Ages--the part we call the Dark Ages--but there were still a few more centuries of the Medieval Period before the real Renaissance got started in Italy.

Ming: I see. So, how did he "promote learning"? Was he, like, a teacher?

Mark: No. Interestingly, Charlemagne himself couldn't read or write until he was a grown man--and even then he wasn't too good at it. One of his teachers said that, because "he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success."

Ming: That's too bad.

Mark: Nevertheless, he valued education. He brought a monk named Alcuin of York from England to his capital in Aachen, now in Germany, to organize his school and library.

Ming: Oh, I love libraries! So, he had a place where people could borrow books?

Mark: No, it wasn't that type of library. Actually, they called it a scriptorium. It's where they copied manuscripts, or hand-written books. That's how they used the new handwriting.

Ming: I see.

Mark: So, Charlemagne made the first steps toward a revival of learning, preserved a lot of Greco-Roman literature, and promoted a flowering of art and architecture. The Pope crowned him "Emperor of the Romans" in 800, the first to be recognized as such since the Western Roman Empire fell around three centuries earlier.

Ming: Wow! Thanks for teaching me about him, Mark!

Mark: It was my pleasure.

Europe around 814, when Charlemagne died. Note also the
Geats and Danes, featured in Beowulf, in the north.


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. civilization
  2. coronation
  3. dormitory
  4. emperor
  5. flowering
  6. foundation
  7. Greco-Roman
  8. Medieval Period
  9. revival
  10. standardized
  1. made the same for everyone
  2. the culture or society of a particular place, time, or group
  3. basis; groundwork; beginnings
  4. place where students or company employees sleep
  5. "king of kings," ruling over more than one country
  6. development; maturing; growth
  7. renewal; fresh start
  8. of the Greeks and Romans; classical
  9. another word for the Middle Ages, from the 5th to perhaps the 15th century (depending where)
  10. ceremony where a ruler is crowned

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What is our alphabet called? Where did we get it?
  2. What is our alphabet based on?
  3. Who was Charlemagne?
  4. How did Charlemagne promote learning?
  5. How did the Pope reward Charlemagne?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Did you ever think about where our alphabet came from? Do you know anything about other writing systems?
  2. Why do you think a king--who couldn't read or write for most of his life--was so interested in learning?
  3. Why was it important for Charlemagne's scholars to copy manuscripts?

1 comment:


    Vocabulary: 1. B; 2. J; 3. D; 4. E; 5. F; 6. C; 7. H; 8. I; 9. G; 10. A

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)
    1. We use the Latin alphabet. We got it from the Romans.
    2. Our alphabet is based on something called Carolingian script.
    3. Charlemagne was the King of the Franks.
    4. Charlemagne brought in Alcuin to organize his school and library; had manuscripts copied; preserved Greco-Roman literature; and promoted the development of art and architecture.
    5. The Pope crowned him "Emperor of the Romans" in 800. He was the first Roman emperor in around 300 years.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").