A History of the Carolingian Renaissance in five objects

I’ve just finished doing a bit of lecturing in Cambridge, which is a partial explanation of why I haven’t blogged much recently. For my last lecture, I’d been given the title ‘Carolingian Renaissance: correctio and reform’, and, inspired by the Radio 4 series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ , I ended up structuring it round five Carolingian cultural works. (In retrospect, I would have been better limiting it to four – if I ever do a similar lecture again, I’ll try and remember that). I was aiming for a balance of different artistic forms and a spread of dates and places. I also wanted to get in a range of potential audiences (reflecting the Carolingian interest in having an effect on the whole of society), and look at issues about the use of classical and Biblical models. My five works were the following:

1) St Gallen Stiftsbibliothek 558

I wanted to have something with sermons or homilies in, to reflect interests in Christianisation and preaching. I was originally going to have the Carolingian sermonary of Salzburg, which James McCune has done valuable work on recently, but I couldn’t find any images online. So this was a hasty substitute, chosen partly because it includes the text of Martin of Braga’s ‘On the correction of rustics’, which raises interesting questions both about the reuse of earlier Christian material and about the meaning of paganism to the Carolingians.

2) Paulinus of Aquileia’s planctus (lament) on the death of Eric of Friuli (Mecum timavi)
Despite my very sketchy knowledge of Carolingian music, I wanted to have a bit in there, and this seemed an obvious choice, given my interest in lay culture. I’ve read and written quite a bit about Paulinus and Eric, because of them being the author and recipient of the first lay mirror. There are also a couple of recent articles by Sam Barrett about settings of Paulinus’ poems to music, and I managed to find a clip of part of the planctus online (Click on ‘La produzione in latino). The only difficult bit for this section was that there wasn’t an English translation of the planctus text, so I had to cobble together my own, based on a partial French version I had.

3) The monastery of St Riquier

For this I drew on stuff I’d looked at years ago (back to my MPhil), based heavily on Susan Rabe’s book Faith, Art and Politics at Saint-Riquier: the Symbolic Vision of Angilbert. We’ve got an unusual amount of information about the churches at St Riquier – both excavations and Angilbert’s writings on the buildings and on liturgical practices there. So this was a way of bringing in architecture and the monastery as prayer machine (St Riquier was an early example of ‘perpetual praise’), and also connections with the populus as well, because Angilbert has a very revealing account of rogation processions and how people from the local towns of various social statuses are involved.

4) Dhuoda’s manual

Dhuoda’s manual is an obvious choice, because it allows thinking about lay intellectuals and about whether women had a Carolingian Renaissance. I also raised very briefly some of the issues about family consciousness and property that her manual illuminates. This is where I think having cut back to 4 objects would have been better, and allowed a bit more breathing space to look at this text.

5) The Lothar Crystal

This seemed another obvious inclusion, especially since there’s several recent articles on it in English, and the British Museum have highlighted it. It also gives a way into issues about kingship, and the use and adaptation of Biblical texts, as well as some pretty pictures.

If I did do the lecture again, I think I’d probably cut out the St Gall manuscript, and go with the planctus, St Riquier, Dhuoda’s manual and the Lothar Crystal. There are a few areas these still don’t cover – they don’t include anything about vernacular texts, and ideally I’d also want to go slightly earlier than 800 and slightly later than the 860s. But I’d be interested to hear any suggestions about a more representative or informative collection of 4 of 5 Carolingian objects to hang an overview on.


2 thoughts on “A History of the Carolingian Renaissance in five objects

  1. Indeed, not to be too Zaphod Beeblebrox but that’s such a good idea I may have to steal it. The adjustment makes sense, too; one manuscript is probably enough, although it would be tempting to use a Tours Bible if one were to keep another manuscript in, or one of Carine van Rhijn’s priest examinations if there are images of any of those. Drat it. My version of this could very quickly wind up being all manuscripts, and yet I occasionally claim to be interested in material culture. You can tell whom I was trained by…


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