Thursday, April 06, 2006

Charlemagne and writing

Some of the scholarly chat programs on BBC4 radio have their own newsletters, as most media do nowadays. I enjoy downloading the latest In Our Time program each week and subscribe to host Melvyn Bragg's newsletter, where he adds his own thoughts on that week's topic and provides little scholarly nuggets that didn't make it into the show.

It seems a shame not to share some of them, so here's what his newsletter contained on the Charlemagne program.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated to read about handwriting and classical manuscripts. In her notes made for the programme, Mary Garrison told us that when Charlemagne started, the level of Latin learning was so low that he needed the English and Irish, who were not native speakers of Latin, to help with Latin texts and learning. They were the ones who said “this is how you spell it; this is how you pronounce it”. So there was a huge change in the literary record and the pronunciation. In terms of literacy (the schoolmasterly type) Charlemagne and Alcuin said you must put spaces between the words, you must use neat handwriting, you must spell things correctly. A new form of handwriting was introduced, and a new way of pronouncing Latin, which hastened the split between Latin and the vernacular – some people hate Alcuin for that reason. It was much as if you or I went to France and said any word that ends in ‘er’ where you would pronounce ‘a’ you now have to pronounce ‘ayr’. But this change in pronunciation is a big thing – it has to do with getting it right.

I was delighted to re-encounter Alcuin whom I first met 47 years ago at university and became reacquainted with when I wrote a novel set in the less & less called “Dark Ages”. The power of the few men who worked in Lindisfarne and Jarrow in the time of what could be called the Northumbrian Renaissance – the Lindisfarne Gospels, the works of Bede and then the passing on of learning to Boniface who became an advisor to Charlemagne’s grandfather and then to the great Alcuin himself. Again and again you find that if a cultural force is strong enough, it does not have to be particularly big to have a most tremendous influence. I always think there’s something romantic and even noble about these men, usually Celts, always monks, who took their learning and their Christianity deep into Europe after having developed it on islands around Britain.

This is some more information about Alcuin that I want to put your way. In fact, I think we should come back to him in a year or so and do a full programme on him. Julia Smith told us that Alcuin (735-804) was at the centre of theological debates at Charlemagne’s court about revising and editing new versions of the Bible. Alcuin had a vision that Classical learning composed the pillars that held up the temple of wisdom, it was a means to achieving higher ends. To this extent, he was especially passionate in advocating a return to Classical standards of Latin grammar and did much to train the successive generation of scholars in writing good Latin. Alcuin’s achievement in asserting a correct Latin was an impressive one, given that vast areas of the southern Carolingian empire (the North was German speaking) still spoke a romance Latin and considered themselves perfectly proficient (although of course theirs was a corrupt version). Alcuin succeeded in teaching Latin to these people as a foreign language, a language which many felt that they had been speaking since infancy.

His was not the most original of minds at court, but he had a beautiful skill for condensing complex patristic texts and summarising them in accessible form. He was adept at repackaging the thought of men like Augustine (theologian, 354-430), Jerome (theologian, 347-420), Ambrose (Bishop of Milan, 340-397) and Gregory the Great (Pope who lived 540-604); in mediating between the patristic thought of the late antique period and the less learned readers of his own day. Alcuin wrote digests, rather than commentaries, for it was generally assumed that most members of the church would not want to read the original works or be capable of doing so.

One discussion in the Green Room was what would have happened had Bede had assistance and, as it were, research scholars to work with him. Mary Garrison suggested that his work on tides, for instance, could have been developed to the advancement of science almost a thousand years before Newton! Some claim, but housed on Lindisfarne, he was well-positioned to watch and calculate the tides which sweep across the causeway and swirl dramatically around Holy Island.