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Rulers, History and Exegesis in the Early Middle Ages: The Formation of Carolingian Political Identity

Year Group 2005/06

Theme group exploring the achievements of the Carolingian dynasty in the Early Middle Ages.

The achievements of the Carolingian dynasty have fascinated generations of historians. It is named after the Frankish king, Charlemagne (768-814) who succeeded in building a vast empire and was crowned emperor in Rome in 800. This theme group concentrated on some less familiar aspects of the Carolingian world. Its focus was on the ways in which members of eighth- and ninth-century literate élites defined their expanding polity. How did the vociferous authors of this period – historians, biographers, hagiographers, biblical commentators – draw upon the symbolic capital of an authoritative past? Rome, both classical and Christian, was an important source of inspiration for Carolingian authors, as was the world of David and Solomon. The strategies used to integrate these authoritative models from the past into the ideological framework of the brave new empire are still not fully understood. In this respect, late antique historiography is one crucial source, but biblical commentary is another. The latter genre was favoured by rulers and courtiers at the court of Charlemagne and his successors. Kings were held accountable to God for the salvation of their people, so biblical commentary written for Carolingian rulers contains much reflection on contemporary society, however obliquely. By the 820s, the notion emerged that the Carolingian empire was an ecclesia, in the sense of St Paul’s “Church of the gentiles” (ecclesia gentium). This biblically inspired concept of empire created room for the strengthening of regional ethnic identities within an all-encompassing polity that was defined in non-ethnic terms, as the Christian people.

The aim of this theme group was to produce individual books on closely related topics, in a cooperation that would be synergetic. All four of the core participants have managed to achieve what they set out to do. The year 2007 will thus see three monographs that go to press (CUP, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Penguin), while two others will follow a year later. Our joint methodical point of departure was close attention to the narrative strategies of our sources, and also to their manuscript sources. We all went for the big questions, and tried to breathe new life into what appears deceptively over-researched, or conspicuously under-researched.

We organised six smaller workshops on the following topics: “Carolingian Narrative Strategy”, “Biographies of Louis the Pious”, “Narratives and Politics”, “Practice of Carolingian Government”, “Apostles and Apocrypha in the Carolingian Age”, and “Letter Collections as a Historical Source in the Early Middle Ages”.