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Alcuin and the 'New Athens'

Charlemagne may have been the first Holy Roman Emperor but what did he do to dispel the 'Dark Ages'? Mary Alberi looks at the work of his leading court intellectual, Alcuin, and how his hopes for a 'New Athens' in the Aachen palace school promoted the Carolingian Renaissance.

Charlemagne, king of the Franks (768-814), united most of western Europe under his authority during his long reign. His large and diverse kingdom – 'Francia' in Latin – was inhabited by different Germanic tribes and the remaining Latin-speaking population of the defunct Roman Empire. Religion was one of the main sources of unity within his kingdom, since all of his territories were either Christian to begin with, or were converted to Christianity after being conquered. As this meant that Charlemagne relied extensively on the Church to help him govern and to provide ideological justification for his power, it was in his interest to protect the Church and foster its well-being. One of his lasting achievements was ecclesiastical reform, which strengthened the Church's hierarchy and promoted the foundation of schools in cathedrals and monasteries throughout Francia. Reform, and his conquest of the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy in 772, brought Charlemagne into close association with the papacy. This alliance resulted in Pope Leo III's crowning Charlemagne emperor in Rome on December 25th, 800.

When Charlemagne undertook ecclesiastical reform in the 770s he inaugurated a cultural revival which historians call the Carolingian Renaissance. Defining its qualities has proved difficult, since the idea of a renaissance evokes images of rationalism, secularism, and revived interest in classical literature. While the Carolingian Renaissance displayed these qualities, its strongly religious character still predominated. This Renaissance existed alongside religious and cultural reform. Although both movements were intended to re-establish order in society after the political turmoil of the mid-seventh century, their scholarly emphases and techniques for achieving this goal varied.

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