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Rethinking the Carolingian reforms: the negotiation and exchange of knowledge

How are grand narratives dislodged? This was the subject of a workshop held in Hertford College, Oxford, on ‘Rethinking the Carolingian reforms: the negotiation and exchange of knowledge’, on 16-18 April 2018, the third in a series of workshops by a small group of mid-career scholars. Renaissance, renovatio, reform: all these words have been applied to the Carolingian period. More recently, the pendulum has swung in favour of the more contemporary terminology of correctio and emendatio. Yet all these terms are problematic in their own ways, as Carine van Rhijn’s paper clearly laid out. Renaissance and renovatio, both clearly signifying rebirth, recall Gibbonian approaches towards the ‘end’ and ‘decline’ of the Roman empire, thereby obscuring significant continuities; reform, meanwhile, is laden with post-Reformation import. Even correctio and emendatio, while contemporary, occur only rarely in the sources, and are invariably applied to individuals, as opposed to collectives – notably, they are never applied to Carolingian society in its totality. All of these terms, meanwhile, evoke the sense of a coordinated programme of intentional and directional change across all areas of society, an entity which we simply could not find in the primary evidence.

Instead, we found a general impulse to improve across all levels of society, and framed in explicitly Christian terms. In liturgy, education, theology, and in monasteries and in canonical communities, there was experimentation and adaptation, all with the shared goal of Christian moral improvement. Yet, save in the case of monastic and canonical ‘reforms’, there was little self-conscious identification of these changes, these improvements, with ‘correction’ or ‘emendation’; contemporary actors did not frame these undertaking in such terms, nor do they appear to have conceptualized them as a concerted programme. Such is the tenacity of grand narratives that we struggled to put a label on such attempted improvements before eventually realizing that the lack of a label, the lack of an easy summation or grand narrative substitute, is itself the point of our project.

This impulse to improve, and the concrete forms that it took, was not the result of purely top-down or bottom-up initiatives, but perhaps primarily the result of horizontal-ish interchange. People and institutions communicated with each other, whether sporadically or intensively; fine-grain differences in status, wealth, and cultural capital were operative, but by no means wholly determinative, in such interactions. In fact, as Giorgia Vocino’s paper argued, people and institutions with high cultural capital, while often effective at spreading such changes, were also likely to resist these ‘improvements’, whether out of personal or institutional pride or the simple efficacy of their own existing system. Eschewing models of centre and periphery, we found that these changes emanated from multiple centres, whose importance waxed and waned over time, and defined periphery not as a product of geography, but rather of people or institutions whose networks were restricted or limited in this period, e.g. female monasteries.

Unsurprisingly, given such a decentralized – or rather incredibly multi-centred – working model, the changes we were examined were varied, even diverse. Instead of looking for a change, or method of change, we found that we were looking for a variety of changes and methods, operating within a certain bandwidth. This bandwidth of acceptable change was surprisingly wide – so much so that, as Irene van Renswoude’s paper presented, an anonymous ninth-century author could write of heterodoxy as walking through the meadow rather than by the road: as long as one was moving towards charity and love, the route was acceptable, even if those wandering in the fields should be coaxed back to the roads. This led to the question of what was unacceptable, and why, the answer being often more related to method, character, or political circumstance than the content of changes introduced. Abandoning a model of ‘correct’ changes allowed us to be more inclusive in our vision of these changes, accommodating both the classically-inflected rhetorical flourishes of Einhard and Lupus and the less erudite poetic attempts of schoolmates at Wissenbourg, as detailed by Cinzia Grifoni, as part of a larger tapestry of improvement and change in education.

These changes, while intentional, did not have an end point in sight, save perhaps that of personal salvation; rather, they were an ongoing process, a Christian-inflected analogue of jihad focused squarely on the ongoing progress of the individual. Indeed, as many noted, the impulse towards Christian improvement is not unique to Carolingian Europe, but is inherent in early medieval Christianity more generally; what set Carolingian Europe apart is the matter of scale. Carolingians expanded, in all senses of the word: in terms of territory, extending into Saxony, Lombard Italy, northern Spain, and Brittany, and making contacts with the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates, Anglo-Saxon England, Scandinavians and Slavs besides; in terms of evidence, producing more and more of both coins and manuscripts, outstripping previous survivals by leaps and bounds; and in terms of personal and institutional networks, whose growth was both the result of, and itself a cause of, the expanding Carolingian polity and its increasing use of the written word. There was something clearly distinctive about the Carolingian world, even if that distinctiveness can be reduced to a simple quantitative leap.

As our workshop had such a strong historiographical angle, we asked Rosamond McKitterick, our group’s own Alcuin, to reflect on her 1977 seminal book, The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, which has been itself been so foundational to the study of these issues. In a fascinating talk, she situated the work in both its historiographical and autobiographical context, among other matters identifying the different constraints which manuscript scholars working in the seventies faced. Many members in our group work intensively with manuscripts, relying on digitized content alongside the Easyjets and Ryanairs of the world; scholars in decades past did not have such advantages. So too this type of intensive collaboration between scholars working in five countries, made possible by the sheer number of low-cost flights and through the constant contact which the internet facilitates, would not have been possible before, or at least not without a hefty budget. The type of discussions that this meeting sparked – after Rosamond’s keynote, after individual papers, and during and after the thought-provoking and insightful response delivered by Julia Smith and Elina Screen – would have been considerably more difficult to achieve in epistolary correspondence.

Collaboration is at the heart of our project, both at this stage, and at the next. At this workshop we presented in pairs, in closely-linked papers; we will be pursuing publication in an open-access journal, with a mixture of single-author and jointly-written articles. We are also exploring an array of other options to extend this fruitful collaboration into the future. And, as Carine kept remarking, this collaboration really has been fertile: two babies were born to project participants during the three-day workshop. Welcome to the world, Olaf and Thomas! Our thoughts were with you and your families throughout the workshop.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the organizations which funded this workshop and made such collaboration possible: the Society for the Study of French History, Hertford College, Oxford, the Royal Historical Society, Oxford History Faculty, and Oxford Medieval Studies at TORCH (The Oxford Centre for the Humanities).


Ingrid Rembold, Carine van Rhijn, Giorgia Vocino, Sven Meeder, Cinzia Grifoni, Kristina Mitalaité, Irene van Renswoude, Els Rose, Arthur Westwell, and, in absentia, Rutger Kramer, Steve Ling, and Ed Roberts