Thursday, May 03, 2007

medieval essay

The next significant evidence of the monastery is from the time of Charlemagne, which brings us back to the manuscript evidence. Another important detail of the manuscripts Koln 63, 65 and 67 is the notes on their title pages:


At the time the manuscripts were produced, around 800, Hildebald was the Archbishop of Cologne, and Charlemagne’s court chaplain. The Abbess at Chelles was Gisela, Charlemagne’s sister. The dates are unclear, but it is possible that Charlemagne’s daughters were also at Chelles at this point. This information suggests a high degree of interaction between Chelles and the royal circle and has a number of immediate implications. The money for materials to make three such substantial manuscripts (more than 800 leaves in total) probably came from the court. Likewise, it is possible that the exemplar for the manuscripts came from Charlemagne’s royal library. In broader implications the connection may offer an answer to the question of how these women learnt to scribe in such an efficient manner, and how they came to be educated to such a high degree. To do so we need to dig into the world of Charlemagne and his court.

Charlemagne was famous for his patronage of learning and the intellectual endeavours he instituted. He had the unwritten laws of the land and local folk lore collected and written down, and began a grammar of his language. However, the man himself could barely write. Einhard explains in his Life of Charlemagne that the king “always kept writing tablets and notebooks under his pillow in bed in order to practice during spare moments” but “he never became very accomplished in this art” (93). Despite this disappointment, he was a keen student and patron of the liberal arts. As Mayke de Jong puts it, he was a:

learned king who had surrounded himself with superb biblical scholars, such as Theodulf and Alcuin [. . .] These men worked within a authoritative mode of spiritual exegesis established by Augustine, Jerome, Abrose, Gregory the Great and Bede; in turn, they created a lively Carolingian exegetical tradition which last for at least three generations. (114)

Given the close ties between the court and the monastery, the King, the scholars around him and the literary and religious tradition they established help explain how and why the nuns at Chelles were able to scribe.

Charlemagne’s commitment to learning was manifest in the education of his children, both male and female. Einhard records that “he supervised the upbringing of his sons and daughters very carefully” (79-81). Their upbringing included instruction in “those liberal arts in which [Charlemagne] took most interest himself” (79). These arts would have included Latin grammar and literature, rhetoric and “philosophical works (such as the writings of Boethius), Church doctrine, patristic literature, and the Bible” (Firchow and Zeydel 131). Charlemagne’s daughters, as well as his sons, were equipped to deal with canon literature. Gisela, Charlemagne’s sister, was also part of this educational community. Alcuin, renowned teacher and man of letters, instructed Charlemagne and his family, which probably included Gisela. We also know that Alcuin exchanged letters with Gisela and her nieces after they entered the convent at Chelles. In about 800 Gilesa and Rotrud, one of Charlemagne’s daughters, “begged Alcuin to write them a commentary on the Gospels of St. John” (McKitterick, The Carolingians 226). The relationship between the court and the convent was a strong one, and the women involved were highly educated. Furthermore, they were educated by men who prized scribal activity. Alcuin felt that “the labour of the pen and of the mind which produced a book was worth far more than any other kind of labour” (150).


Anonymous said...

Thank you, most interesting. Makes one want to read more - well this one anyway.

JT said...

That must have been a wonderful essay!! I had to learn about Charlemagne when I did library studies, but I didn't know all that!!
There is a huge statue of him in the courtyard in front of Notre Dame!!
When you get a moment, you can email me your new addressn just in case I feel the need to send parcels!!

Anonymous said...



gtg said...

bbb - i can email you the full thing if you want. it gets a bit heavy in the bibliography. . .

jt - there ya go! don't say the internet never teaches you anything! will email new addy and go hassle res about current parcel.

grot - competent distinction? competent dodgy? credibly devilish?