The Cultural Legacy of Charlemagne

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

Charlemagne is the most famous ruler of the Middle Ages, and is credited with ending the Dark Ages through reform of education. At a time when most men were little more than 5 feet tall, his height of over 6 foot must have been commanding. His biographers record an intelligent, courageous, and resourceful man of great virtue, and an administrator determined to bring a just rule of law to all of his empire. He could read and speak Latin, but not write it, despite a considerable effort to do so, and therein lies our tale.

He was born in 742, the son of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, a kingdom which covered much of modern France plus portions of the Low Countries. Upon coming to the throne in 771, he started conquering surrounding territory, taking parts of Spain, Germany, and Italy. As a friend of the Christian church, he was made Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800, initiating the Holy Roman Empire. With his death in 814 the empire began to unravel, and before the century was out, it was chopped up into many smaller kingdoms. Although there was no legacy in his empire, (and after him, even the name "Holy Roman Empire" was a sham), there was cultural legacy in what has been called the Carolingian Renaissance, and also the Carolingian Reforms.

The problem had been the exclusive capture of literacy by the priestly class, and the habit of scribes to cram script together in a difficult-to-read mass so as to favor the artistic embellishment of the page. All over Europe, the secrets of composing this literature were reserved for religious initiates.

Frustrated at his inability to learn to write in the form it was being practiced, Charlemagne initiated reforms consisting of the following: placing an obligatory space between letters, a double space between words, and a triple space between sentences. There was to be an indent to start a paragraph, and marks (periods and commas) to reveal where the reader was to pause or stop. The question mark appeared at this time. Lowercase letters were invented so as to set off the capitals.

In concert with these measures, the method of drawing letters also changed. In a font called Carolingian miniscule, the letters became more clear by being more rounded, and flourishes and thickening of parts of letters were eliminated.

All of this seems obvious to us now, but was not obvious to scribes all over Europe which transposed writing in the cramped, monolithic style. The Carolingian reforms would open Europe once again to the learning which had disappeared with the Romans centuries before. It would also constitute the last major modification of the Latin alphabet, and would bring to a close the period known as the Dark Ages.

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