Yitzhak Hen - Roman Barbarians - Postcards from the Edges

March 2 2018

We have arrived at the last chapter of Hen’s book and the Early Middle ages. What led to Charlemagne’s Carolingian Renaissance (the first of three medieval periods of cultural renewal) - could it have been a horde of Barbarians?

Postcards from the Edges: A Prelude to the Carolingian Renaissance

*Player #1: the Lombard father-in-law *

In 756, Desiderius, the dux of Tuscany, becomes king of the Lombards. His strategy for maintaining his position is simple: one must marry his daughters wisely.

His oldest becomes an abbess of San Salvatore, a monastery formed by her parents (I’d count this as “married to God”), his daughter Adelperga marries the duke of Beneventum, his daughter Liutperga the duke of Bavaria and most important of all, his daughter Gerperga is betrothed to Charlemagne.

Desiderius had managed to attract various Lombaridan scholars to his court, which made it flourish with intellectual flair.

Why these Lombards decided to do their work for the king that destroyed their home is uncertain.

Player #2: the Bavarian troublemaker

Duke Tassilo III. of House Agilolfings was both cousin and brother-in-law to Charlemagne.

The Bavarian duchy had always been rather politically autonomous, despite being under the eye of the Merovingian dynasty. The Merovingians had decreed that only dukes from the House of Agilolfings can rule.

Despite this lingering shadow, Bavaria had created its own code of law, had formed independent alliances with Germanic groups and kingdoms and had initiated its own church reform.

Tassilo III. made sure his priests were educated and he established religious schools - a practice which appears to have influenced the Carolingians two decades later.

After breaking an oath (to fight), Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian I. punished Tassilo III. and seized his rights to the Bavarian duchy.

Player #3: the Byzantine glass-ceiling

Byzantium had been and is a great example of cultural patronage. Every Byzantine ruler attempted to be as cultured as Constantine the Great and his mother, Helena.

One of the most active patrons of culture was empress Irene.

She had married emperor Leo IV. in 769 and became empress regent for her 9 year old son, Constantine VI. upon Leo’s death in 780.

In 790, Constantine banished his mother from court to rule independently but it was soon clear that he did not have the skills required.

After seven disastrous years, Constantine was blinded and banished by supporters of his mother.

Irene took the reign.

The empress was a great iconophile and ended the ban on the display and veneration of icons.

Irene did exactly what was expected of an emperor - which bothered many who had been convinced that this is a purely male ability. Charlemagne also didn’t look quite as good next to a woman that he had to equal or outclass in culturedness.

Consequently, in 802 Irene was disposed of and then banished to the island of Lesbos, where she died a year later, aged 51.

Player #4: ex oriente lux?

In the Arabic world, Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid was making his mark.

Harun al-Rashid was meant to be an ally and friend to Charlemagne (probably to protect Frankish Christian pilgrims), but the interest was seemingly one-sided.

The Abbasid Caliph had come to fame as a sponsor of education and knowledge and his most prominent patronage was that of the translation movement.

He had translations made of Greek works into Arabic and set forth a wave of reignited interest in Greek philosophy and science which was to form the basis of the 12th century renaissance and the Renaissance proper.

Question 9 = Who influenced Charlemagne’s patronage? One of those listed? All of them? Someone else?

CONCLUSION of this book

The Roman world and its intellectual accomplishments did not simply disappear.

The world did not plunge into cultural darkness.

The cultural landscape changed but persisted via Barbarian rulers from Europe and North Africa, who paved the way for the elusive Carolingian Renaissance.