By Shari Boodts
Saint Augustine (354-430) is one of the most influential thinkers of the Western World. His answers to life’s profound questions shaped Western civilization to an unparalleled degree. How did the Middle Ages come to know this great Father of the Church? How did his large oeuvre survive the nearly sixteen centuries since his death? This is the seventh in a series that looks over the shoulder of medieval readers to discover how they shaped Augustine’s legacy, and created an image of the man that has endured to our times.
Conservative historians used to say that the reign of Charlemagne, from 768 to 814, was the time when Europe finally emerged from the Dark Age it had been flung into since the fall of the Roman Empire. While the notion of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages is – thankfully – no longer fashionable, the Carolingian Renaissance, its reform efforts, educational system, book production, continue to inspire. It will come as no surprise that Augustine was, once again, at the center of this intellectual riches.
In fact, it was, many stipulate, in this moment in time that Augustine truly attained his status as unassailable authority, a sainted, exemplary figure from a past more perfect that the present age. The Carolingians copied, read, discussed and generally liked Augustine a lot. This was definitely also true of the upper echelons of Carolingian society. Today, let us look at Augustine’s position at the very heart of power.
Charlemagne’s dinner entertainments
By 800, when he was crowned emperor, Charlemagne had conquered a realm spanning present-day France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, large parts of Italy and Germany, and a good chunk of Austria and Spain. He strove not only for military dominance, but put his exceptional organizational skills to work unifying and Christianizing the pagan peoples under his rule. Einhard, Charles’ biographer, gives us many intriguing glimpses into the emperor’s daily life, including his dining habits (ch. 24):
“While at table, he listened to reading or music. The subjects of the readings were the stories and deeds of times gone by; he was fond, too, of St. Augustine’s books, and especially of the one entitled The City of God.”
Charles may well have been fascinated with Augustine’s description of the ideal Christian ruler in book 5, the so-called ‘mirror for princes.’ But perhaps it was more than that. Some historians speculate that Charlemagne saw in The City of God the ultimate goal for his empire. While it remains doubtful whether Augustine ever envisioned a City of God on earth when he wrote his grand treatise, he could not control later readers’ interpretation of the work. Many readers saw a blueprint of the ideal Christian State in the City of God and sought to bring this vision to life.
If this was Charles’ aim, too, he soon realized he could use some help. So, when a brilliant man by the name of Alcuin of York visited the continent, Charles invited him to join his court.
Alcuin’s witty repartee
Alcuin of York may rightly be called one of the greatest men of the Carolingian period. As Charles’ right hand, he proved a formidable ally in realizing Charles’ ambitious goals in educational and Church reform. Alcuin was steeped in Augustine’s thought and writings, both directly and indirectly: it’s likely he brought a copy of Bede’s Augustinian compilation to the continent (which ensured its survival by the way, we have no insular copies left, only the continental branch of the manuscript tradition survived). However, while both Charles and Alcuin had a love for Augustine, they did not always agree about how to interpret him.
A decidedly black spot on Charlemagne’s record is the massacre of Verdin, where he ordered the killing of 4500 Saxon prisoners when they refused to convert to Christianity. Alcuin was not a fan of Charles’ endless military expeditions and vehemently opposed this ‘barbaric’ action in particular, saying that Augustine in his City of God advocated first and foremost for a peaceful realm. Charles, too, took recourse to Augustine, but read him differently. He believed Augustine was of the opinion that conversion through government coercion was better than risking eternal damnation.
The fact that Alcuin felt comfortable openly disagreeing with Charles is a testimony to their mutual appreciation of the other’s vision and capabilities. A further example of this easy bond is an exchange which allegedly took place, where Charles, after he had mastered the great works of Augustine and Jerome, exclaimed to Alcuin: “Why can’t I have a dozen or so scholars like that in my court?” To which Alcuin wittily retorted: “What!? God himself had only those two and you want twelve!”
Angilbert’s poetic bent
While less famous than the first two Carolingians in this article, Angilbert was prominent member of the upper circles close to the throne. Charles made him ‘primicerius’ to his son Pepin of Italy, a sort of private secretary, advisor and confessor. Later on, he became abbot of the important monastery of St Riquier where he executed an innovative and influential building program. Finally, just to show that celibacy among the clergy was apparently more a suggestion than a rule, he was involved in a romantic relationship with Bertha, Charles’ daughter, which produced two sons, one of whom, Nithard, would in turn become abbot of St Riquier.
Angilbert incorporated Augustine’s thinking into an esthetic philosophy that shaped his stance in theological debates and even his building program at St Riquier. More concrete, he had a manuscript copy made of Augustine’s treatise On Christian Doctrine, one of the staples of the Carolingian educational reform, which he gifted to Louis the Pious, Charles’ son and successor. The manuscript held a dedicatory poem by Angilbert. I give you a few lines from it:
Here glow the reverent dogmas of Augustinus Aurelius,
Which he set forth on teaching that nourishes.
These teach you many things, reader, because you seek honestly,
If you desire to unfold the sacred writings of the book.
Louis’ empowering penitence
Upon the death of Charlemagne in 814, his son Louis inherited the empire, becoming its sole ruler after – conveniently – the death of his older brothers. While his father is famous for bringing the whole of Western Europe to its knees, Louis the Pious, his son and successor, is famous for getting on his knees himself.
He did so twice, as a public penance before his bishops and his people, both for his own misdeeds and the lesser moments in his father’s career. To the first category belonged the fact that he had his nephew, Bernard, King of Italy, blinded for rising up against his rule. Bernard did not survive this brutality, something which heavily burdened Louis’ conscience.
Louis’ acts of penance took place at two of several Church councils, at Attigny in 822 and at Soissons in 833. These meetings brought together the ecclesiastical and lay elite of the empire to discuss issues of both Church and State. It is here, too, that Augustine played his part – one among several Church Fathers, it must be said. Used as an example of pastoral wisdom, invoked as an authority on dogma, or quoted as a historical source, Augustine’s name is scattered through the records of the Councils that took place during Louis’ reign.
Louis’ public penances caused quite a stir – it had been four centuries since the last time a Roman emperor performed this act. Ambrose of Milan, Augustine’s contemporary and mentor, presided over the last one, by Theodosius I, in 390AD. But, interestingly, these acts of humility do not appear to have diminished Louis’ power. On the contrary, he emerged stronger both times – the second time, admittedly after a brief period where he was actually stripped of his power and incarcerated. Still, he got back up, and reigned with a strong hand until his death in 840.
We will linger in the Carolingian Empire a little longer, because it was also home to the man who probably read more of Augustine’s works than anyone before him. His name was Florus of Lyon and next month I will tell you why he makes historians, philologists and paleographers giddy with delight.
A.D. Fitzgerald (ed.), Augustine through the Ages. An Encyclopedia, Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 1999
S.A. Rabe, Ex Patre Filioque: Saint-Riquier in the Carolingian Age (PhD dissertation), Loyola University Chicago, 1985
J.L. Timmerman, Beati Patres: Uses of Augustine and Gregory the Great at Carolingian Church Councils, 816-836 (PhD dissertation, University of British Colombia Vancouver), 2015.
Shari Boodts is Senior Researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, where she directs a European research project on Patristic sermons in the Middle Ages. You can learn more about Shari at her website or Academia.edu page.
Top Image: Charlemagne and Alcuin, painted 1830, at the Louvre