The spread of Christianity in England & The Carolingian renaissance

After the Roman empire fell, a Germanic group called the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain and subdued a large part of it. They had committed great violence against the Catholic church in Britain, and as a result, the previous inhabitants, the Celts, became very bitter against them. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans, but many of the Celts did not want them to be converted, due to their hatred of them. Thus, if the Anglo-Saxons were to be converted, an outside force would be necessary.

Pope Gregory the great wanted to send missionaries to convert Britain, so he sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and several other monks and churchmen to evangelize among the Saxons. They approached King Ethelbert of Kent, one of the most powerful kings of England, and spoke of Christ to him. Ethelbert was sympathetic toward them, primarily because his wife was a devout catholic. He allowed them to spread their message, and as a result there were substantial conversions including Ethelbert himself. Augustine asked the Celts to help him in his ministry, but they refused, saying that they would rather have them “rot in hell”.

In 626 AD, Edwin became the king. He also converted to Catholicism, but was defeated by two pagan kings at the battle of Hatfield Chase, throwing the missionary work into confusion. In 634, Oswald, Edwin’s nephew came to power. King Oswald was converted Irish monks, whose form of Christianity had some differences with the Roman Catholic form. To solve the differences between the two forms, the synod of Whitby was held in 664, mainly due to the controversy of dating Easter. When the Roman clergy defended their claims by stating that the Pope was the successor of the Apostle Peter and that he supported these claims, Oswald was impressed and instituted some of the Roman Catholic practices in England. As a result, the Irish form of Christianity slowly gave way to the Roman Catholic form until it practically disappeared from England.

Due to the combination of Irish and Benedictine (Roman monastic) influences, England experienced a renaissance which is known as the Northumbrian renaissance. In this period there were significant improvements in architecture, epic poetry, and biblical illuminations which emerged from the monasteries. Jarrow, home to the Venerable Bede, was one of the key monasteries in this period. St. Boniface spread much of the Northumbrian learning to the continent from England.

When Charlemagne was the emperor of the Franks, a period began known as the Carolingian renaissance. It began when Charlemagne was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. Charlemagne was viewed by many people as the legitimate successor to the old Roman emperors like Augustus Caesar, Diocletian, Constantine, and the rest. Because of this, he wanted to build a civilization of which ancient Rome would have been proud of. But, he and his associates wanted to have a Christian, rather than a pagan emphasis in their efforts. He had a fixed capital at Aachen, and his palace at Aachen symbolized his vision. His palace was built in the style of a Roman or Byzantine emperor. Charlemagne also sought out builders, writers, and artists in the cities he visited for his movement.

Alcuin of York, a Northumbrian Benedictine who had studied under a student of the Venerable Bede, was an important adviser to Charlemagne during the Carolingian renaissance. He was in charge the court school, a school that operated in Aachen and discussed matters of theology, created and discussed poetry, and even discussed scientific matters on occasion. After eight years at the court school, Alcuin asked for a less demanding job from Charlemagne. As a result, he was made the Abbot of Tours, where he gets the monks to make more accurate copies of St. Jerome’s Vulgate, the writings of the Latin fathers, and the Latin classics.

Charlemagne also issued a letter to the clergy which instructed them to institute schools in each cathedral and monastery for the education of the clergy and the laity. He imported teachers from Ireland, England and Italy to educate the people. These schools would later develop into early European universities. There was much more preservation of past work than original work in the Carolingian renaissance. But, many of the classics that we have today from Rome and Greece come to us from the manuscripts made by the Franks. An important form of writing, Carolinian minuscule, also came from this era.

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