Im just back from a colloquium in Cambridge on La Culture du haut moyen age: une question delites? (programme here), which had a group of scholars (mainly Paris and Cambridge-based, but with a few outsiders like me as well) considering many aspects of elites and culture between late antiquity and the eleventh century. It was an interesting but exhausting time and Im only now trying to connect together some of the themes raised.
One of the things that did emerge was how different late antiquity (here taken to be the period up to about 600) and the early (Western) Middle Ages are with respect to culture. There was a long classical Roman tradition in which the political/social/economic/religious elite are either the cultural/intellectual elite themselves or at least their patrons. Those at the top are supposed to be educated in high culture and appreciate it and will lose social prestige if theyre revealed to be too ignorant. (This is actually a common phenomenon in many European and non-European societies for most of history. Its only really in the twentieth century that you can find much of a cultural/intellectual elite that doesnt rely on upper class patronage for support, but can make a living in other ways).
This Roman cultural system survived a number of shocks to it: the fall of the Roman Republic, the conversion of the Empire to Christianity and even (for a while) the political fall of the Western Empire. Men (and women) were still being educated in a traditional Roman frame of reference, even if the numbers were increasingly dwindling. Cassiodorus and some of his circle still seem very much senators in outlook, even if not in practice.
Culturally, the real changes from late antiquity are when a) the traditional schools disappear and b) literary education becomes optional for the lay elite. Education doesnt cease with the end of the Roman school, but a shared educational tradition is vital for perpetuating an intellectual elite and the new monastic and courtly routes to education probably didnt provide a critical mass of students in the sixth to eighth centuries. Its very difficult looking at what happens to lay culture in the post-Roman or sub-Roman world from the sixth century onwards, essentially due to a lack of sources. Guy Halsall, ‘Gender and the end of empire’, Journal of medieval and early modern studies 34 (2004), 17-39 argues for the adoption of barbarian cultural traditions by Roman men, based largely on archaeological evidence. Other than that, wed reduced to saying Oh, you can use Beowulf to study lay culture, which is a bit like trying to reconstruct US society from Hollywood films. (I do use heroic literature in my own research, but largely to explore moral attitudes, which I hope is less problematic).
So thats the end of late antiquity. At the other end of the process, institutional structures for monastic and higher-level cleric education essentially get re-established towards the end of the Carolingian period, with the development of networks of clerical and monastic schools, which are the basis for tenth and eleventh century Latin culture. Elite lay people reappear as audiences and sometimes authors of written cultural traditions in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (at least in Francia – Im aware of the problem that Im doing what one of the speakers of the conference did and treating Italy, Byzantium, England and Spain all as exceptions).
What this suggests is how much is up for grabs culturally in between these two periods: essentially in the late Merovingian/Carolingian era. Most of the papers at the conference were about this period and that actually makes quite a lot of sense: its when the relationship between elites and culture is being reworked. Its one of the few times when there is a question-mark about whether culture is really a matter of elites, and what/who those elites are going to be. As Ive already said, new monastic and clerical educational structures get put into place. I argued in my paper that part of the Carolingian reforms were an attempt to create a new educated lay elite that was also a moral elite, but that that was abandoned in the 840s. (This effectively meant that literary education remained optional for lay noblemen for another couple of hundred years). Meanwhile, the entire basis of literary culture was on shifting ground because of the evolution of proto-French and other proto-Romance languages. Im not yet sure how you can fit together these different developments (or indeed if you can), but it does suggest a key role for the Carolingian period in the development of medieval culture.