August 2016

     If Charlemagne the Great had lived in the twenty-first century, it is highly probable that we would condemn his ideas about society and spirituality for their use of dominant force. Violent raids conducted by rebels throughout Europe during the Carolingian Empire proved that as far back as the ninth century, neither culture was ready to cast one spirituality aside for another.

     On August 15, 778, Charlemagne began a cultural revolution with Spanish art; splendid works of Moorish art and literature became known to all. That day marked a legendary Basque attack during the Iberian campaign at Roncevaux Pass, between the French and Basque border in Navarre, Spain. Although the Moors gave security to Charlemagne for military aid when the Umayyad, Abd ar-Rahmen, attacked in the Iberian Peninsula, he led an army against the Zaragoza Saracens via the Western Pyrenees, whereas the Austrasians, Lombards, and Burgundians moved along the Eastern Pyrenees to Zaragoza. Charlemagne was tricked; he underestimated the strength of his enemies as a political entity. The Muslim Basques attacked from behind to enforce a surrender. The Battle of Roncevaux may not have been as catastrophic as legend asserts, but the deaths of the count of Anselm and Roland inspired Einhard's courtly ballad, Song of Roland, in Vita Karoli Magni.

     A consequence of the cultural mergence of the powerful, intelligent Muslim Saracens with western civilization was Charlemagne's friendship with Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad, who gave the king a pet elephant. Ultimately, Charlemagne conquered Girona and when the Umayyads recaptured Barcelona in 799, the Muslims of Spain called on the Franks for military aid against Cordoba. The West asserted control of Catalan until the Treaty of Corbell in 1258.

     Another major conquest had been that of the Langobards, 773-6, in Friuli, Italy; it included a breathtakingly beautiful city, Como, which encompassed Italy's favoured route for commercial trade. The Lombard King Desiderius wanted land returned and irritated Charlemagne, who was married to the king's daughter. That conquest  coincided with a cultural revolution at Carolingian Court, where Lombard artisans used novel methods of working with metals, such as niello and inlay. A memorable way to teach aspects of Carolingian culture is to study its extensive use of procedure in manuscript and metalwork production.

     This king's personality reveals how people related to one another in the past, and which psychological dynamics were caught up in the socio-political movements of the times in the ever present struggle between east and west. Social values were evident in prized objects and buildings, educational themes, even the landscape that was manipulated to reflect ideal values of the Classical ages; most important, societies based on intolerance rather than acceptance collapsed.

     The ideal that compelled Charlemagne to aim for political unity was that of a unified spirituality; his tools were music, prayer, and image. As the Merovingian Franks, Charlemagne created laws that codified one tongue with Classical Latin. He merged Roman and Gaellic traditions of prayer into one spirituality, as the Codex Aureus of the Lorsch Gospels or Coronation Gospels, and Folio 72's  "Christ in Majesty." However, Charlemagne's thrust for political homogeneity was undermined throughout the Carolingian Empire by rebels like Gascony of France and Tassilo of Bavaria. Such a social studies theme corresponds units about world peace.

     As Charlemagne admired education, he promoted the liberal arts at Carolingian Court; illiteracy created a communicative obstacle he strove to overcome. Song, image, and legend best describe the Carolingian's communicative tools: plainchant and the Guidonian Hand, (Gregorian chant arose from a synthesis of Roman and Gallican chant), Lorsch Gospels, the Bayeaux Tapestry,and Song of Roland. Lorsch Gospels codified and merged the laws and language of Carolingian Franks with those of other cultures; they contain an image of the Ten Canons: John, Matthew, Luke, and Mark were harmonized into a single narrative.

     Lessons should meet specific level requirements. As the early middle ages was a time of increased travelling to far off places, stress was on sentimental, yet practical small items like amulets. Elementary students may focus on the function of visual culture in an illiterate society, as the illuminated manuscript and Guidonian Hand, distant friendships, or appearances of wealth in Byzantine enamel cloisonnè, inlay, filigree, niello, and portable products. A study of metal works can be followed up with an amulet design or sketch for an illuminated manuscript. Older students can focus on the psychological dynamics of Charlemagne's campaigns.  

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