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Thoughts on Reading Alcuin's
Life of St. Vedastus

Back in the mid-19th century, Jakob Burckhardt wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, a book that so well suited an era that came to be dominated by the Spirits of Romanticism and Capitalism that the Middle Ages were long considered only as a superstitious, brutal, stagnant and authoritarian contrast to the enlightened, humane, adventurous, and free society of Renaissance Italy. Much of this view still lingers in popular speech and thought. Historians devoted to the study of Medieval society naturally rejected what they considered an invidious and ill-informed comparison, and pointed out -- among other things -- that the Italian Renaissance was hardly unique. The American medievalist, Charles Homer Haskins, published The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, in which he portrayed Europe in the 1100's as a vibrant, expanding, and tolerant society that compared favorably in most important aspects with fourteenth-century Italy. Other historians pointed to the era when the Carolingians ruled much of western Europe as still another "Renaissance."

There is a good deal to support such a characterization. The Carolingian rulers, from the Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel (died 741) through the Emperor Louis the Pious (died 841), expanded Frankish authority throughout most of western Europe (Muslim Spain was a notable exception), and brought a peace and security that marked an end to the turmoil that had begun with the Germanic invasions of the Western Roman Empire at the beginning of the fifth century (Alaric sacked Rome in 410). Moreover, the Carolingians appear to have been consciously trying to restore some of the cultural and economic greatness that they associated with the long-vanished Roman Empire. Each of the monarchs was careful to associate with himself one of the outstanding intellects of the period: Charles Martel's chief minister was St. Boniface; Charlemagne (died 814) brought in Alcuin to set up a school system, and to manage his administration; Louis the Pious worked with Benedict of Aniane to make Benedictine monasticism a progressive and civilizing force throughout western Europe; and even Charles the Bald (died 877), who ruled during the disintegration of the empire, had John Scotus Erigena to direct his administration and to help plan his actions.

The result of this steady collaboration of political and intellectual power permitted the Carolingians to bring about a rise in culture and learning far greater than the political bases of their power would otherwise have permitted. Pepin the Short, the Carolingian Mayor of the palace (died 768), had deposed the Merovingian monarch because central authority had declined steadily under the Merovingian kings as a result of their almost constant civil wars. They insisted on dividing the realm at the death equally among their heirs (the custom of gavelkind) and civil wars were the regular result. In his deposition of the Merovingians, Pepin gained the support and close cooperation of the Church, and this added to the Carolingians ability to bring about reforms. But, by and large, the Carolingians did not solve any of the basic problems of western Europe. There was still the great differences between the Latin and relatively urban South, with its princely bishops and need for a stable administrative system, and the Germanic and overwhelmingly rural North, with its missionary monks and need for well- defended frontiers. The Carolingians strained their resources in developing a military force capable of conquering and then holding their empire but lacked the foresight to see the growing menace of sea-raiders such as the Vikings and Saracens, and the power of the light cavalry of the Magyars. Most important, however, was the fact that they had not abandoned the institution of gavelkind that had led to the civil wars of the Merovingian era. Charlemagne ruled alone only because of the abdication of his brother, Carloman, and Louis the Pious obtained an undivided empire because of the untimely death of his elder brother. The unity of the Frankish Kingdom under its Carolingian rulers was accidental and lasted less than a century, from the accession of the Carolingians in 751 to the death of Louis in 841 and the division of the kingdom that followed.

Nevertheless, a great many reforms were effected during those ninety years, and the culture of western Europe advanced significantly. Part of this was by design. The Carolingian leadership thought of their realms as a united "Christendom," and they consciously attempted to model themselves on the Romans. Most of the Roman literature that has survived has done so because Carolingian officials gathered up all of the old manuscripts they could find and copied as many as they could. Since all books were hand-written in those days, it was important that these copies be readable, so the court scholars developed a simple and elegant form of writing that has persisted to the present day in the form of our lower-case letters. Other scholars tried actively to revive Roman literary models, as Einhard's Life of Charlemagne was written on the model of Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Charlemagne built his palace at Aachen (on the Rhine in modern Germany) on the model of the late imperial church in Ravenna (the last capital of the Western Roman Empire), and even brought Roman columns from the South with which to build it. The Latin spoke by churchmen, which had evolved without form or direction, was given a vocabulary and grammar that allowed it to continue to evolve as "Church Latin" to the present day.

One wonders what sort of a spirit motivated these men and where they thought that their efforts were leading. Quite simply, they believed that they were ushering in a new age. For centuries, people had looked about them for signs that the predicted end of time was at hand and the Day of Judgment was near. Most of the Carolingians had quite a different view of things. If you read Alcuin's Life of Saint Vedastus, carefully, you will find that Alcuin is telling you about his world, and you will be able to catch a glimpse of his confident and optimistic spirit.

Here are some hints to follow when reading.

1. Remember that neither Alcuin or anyone else knew much about St. Vedastus. Alcuin had been sent an old Life of the saint by the abbot of the monastery in which Vedastus was venerated, and Alcuin found the work badly written and "barbarous" -- by which we might suspect that it contained a number of more or less pagan legends about the hero. Alcuin knew a few things, and invented much of the rest, taking much of it from the Bible.

2. Vedastus has been an unlettered hermit, and Alcuin has always stressed the need for an educated clergy. He has to reconcile Vedastus's ignorance with his obvious importance.

3. Vedastus played an important role in the conversion of Clovis to Catholic Christianity rather than Arianism. This event was extremely important to Alcuin, since it more or less marked the birth of the Franks as a special people. Look to see what Alcuin thought had brought about this event and for what purpose.

4. Alcuin wrote this when he was an old man and had retired from public life (as much as he could ever really retire. He is looking back on his entire career.

5. Alcuin had spent his life among the physical, as well as cultural, ruins of the Roman world. The Carolingians were constantly reminded that the Romans had created things that they could not hope to equal. Alcuin, though, had developed an optimistic view of things and had to fit these signs of past greatness into his own belief that a new and greater age was dawning.

6. Big clue The key to understanding The Life of Saint Vedastus lies in Alcuin's account of Bishop Audomer's vision while standing on the ruined walls of Arras. Alcuin provides details intended to make his readers (whom he thought would know the Bible as well as he) think of a certain passage in the Bible. The passage is in the Book of Zechariah.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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