Under the Merovingian Kings of the Frankish kingdoms there was established at the court a 'palatial' school -- scola palatina, the chroniclers of the eighth century styled it—for the training of the young Frankish nobles in the art of war and in the ceremonies of the court.
With the accession of the future emperor Charlemagne (768) a scheme of educational reform was inaugurated, first in the palace school itself, and later in the various schools established or reformed by imperial decrees throughout the vast empire over which Charlemagne reigned. The reform of the palace school, i.e. the change from a school of military tactics and court manners to a place of as the learning, was begun in 780, as soon as the victories over the Lombards, Saxons and Saracens (in Iberia) afforded.
The start at court
It was not, however, until the arrival of Alcuin at his court seat Aachen in 782 that the work of educational reform began to have any measure of success. Alcuin was not made head of the emperor's school in the palace, but was admitted to the council of the emperor in all educational matters and became Charlemagne's "prime minister of education". Charlemagne also built new monasteries and encouraged the learning of Latin. He represented the learning of the school of York, which united in its traditions the current of educational reform inaugurated in the South of England by Theodore of Tarsus and that other current which, starting from the schools of Ireland, spread over the entire northern part of England. He was not an original thinker, but he exerted a profound cultural influence on the whole Frankish Kingdom by reason of the high esteem in which Charlemagne and his courtiers held him. He taught grammar, rhetoric, dialectic and the elements of geometry, astronomy and music (see Seven Liberal Arts), and his success as a teacher of these branches seems to have been generally acknowledged by all the courtiers as well as by his royal patron. We know from Einhard's biography of Charlemagne that the emperor, the princes and princesses and all the royal household formed a kind of higher school at the palace in order to learn from Alcuin what would nowadays be considered the merest rudiments.
Charlemagne was not content with securing for his palace school the services of the ablest teacher of that age. Acting under Alcuin's advice he proceeded by a series of enactments dating from 787 (two years after the final triumph over the Saxons) to 789, to inaugurate a reform in the educational conditions throughout the empire.
In 787 he issued the famous capitulary which has been styled the "Charter of Modern Thought", addressing himself to the bishops and abbots of the empire, informing them that he "has judged it to be of utility that, in their bishoprics and monasteries committed by Christ's favour to his charge, care should be taken that there should not only be a regular manner of life, but also the study of letters, each to teach and learn them according to his ability and the Divine assistance". He has observed, he says, in the letters which, during past years, he has received from different monasteries, that though the thoughts contained therein are most just, the language in which those thoughts are expressed is often uncouth, and the fear arises in his mind lest if the skill to write correctly were thus lacking, the power of rightly comprehending the Scriptures might be less than it should be. "Let there, therefore, be chosen [for the work of teaching] men who are both willing and able to learn and let them apply themselves to this work with a zeal equal to the earnestness with which we recommend it to them". Copies of this letter are to be sent to all suffragan bishops and to all (dependent) monasteries. In the major council of Aachen of 789 he issued more explicit instructions regarding the education of the clergy. From the wording of the capitulary of 787, it is clear that Charlemagne intended to introduce the reform of education into all the cathedral schools and monastic schools of the empire. Again in the capitulary of 789 we read: "Let every monastery and every abbey have its school, in which boys may be taught the Psalms, the system of musical notation, singing, arithmetic and grammar".
There can be no doubt that by boys are meant not only the candidates for the monastery and the wards (generally the children of nobles) committed to the care of the monks, but also the children of the village or country district around the monastery, for whom there was usually an external school attached to groups of monastic buildings. This is made evident by an enactment of Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans, who succeeded Alcuin (retired to the monastery of Tours) in 796 at the Court as adviser of the emperor in educational matters. The document dated 797, ten years after Charlemagne's first capitulary was issued, enacts explicitly "that the priests establish schools in every town and village, and if any of the faithful wish to entrust their children to them to learn letters, that they refuse not to accept them but with all charity teach them ... and let them exact no price from the children for their teaching nor receive anything from them save what parents may offer voluntarily and from affection" (P.L., CV., col. 196). To Alcuin himself tradition has assigned the lines set up in the streets of Strasbourg in which the attractions of a school are compared with those of a nearby tavern: "Choose, O traveller; if thou wilt drink thou must also pay money, but if thou wilt learn thou wilt have what thou seekest for nothing." In these free schools the teacher was, apparently, the priest of the town or village, and, as far as we can judge, the curriculum composed what may be called the rudiments of general education, with an elementary course in Christian Doctrine.
The "new learning" inaugurated at the palace school, which seems to have had no fixed location, but to have followed the court from place to place, was not slow in spreading throughout the empire. Its first noticeable success was at Fulda, which since the days of its first abbot, Sturm, had maintained a tradition of fidelity to the ideals of St. Benedict. The man to whose enlightened zeal the success of the schools of Fulda was largely due was Rhabanus Maurus. While still a young monk at Fulda, Rhabanus, learning of the fame of Alcuin, begged to be sent to Tours, where he listened a year to the aged teacher and imbibed some of his zeal for the study of the classics and the cultivation of the sciences. On his return to Fulda he was placed at the head of the monastic school and, amid many difficulties, continued to labour for the intellectual reform of his own monastery and his own land. What these difficulties were we may judge from the treatment which he received at the hands of his abbot, Ratgar, who, believing that the monks were better employed in building churches than in studying their lessons, closed the school of the monastery and confiscated the teacher's note-books. Rhabanus' unpleasant experiences on this occasion are reflected by his saying "He alone escapes calumny who writes nothing at all." He was not, however, discouraged, and the day finally came when, as Abbot of Fulda, he could give full authority to his measures for educational reform.
Later, as Archbishop of Mainz, Rhabanus continued to sustain the programme of the Carolingian revival, and by his efforts for the improvement of popular preaching, and by his advocacy of the use of the vernacular tongue, earned the title of the "Teacher of Germany". His influence may be traced beyond the territory which belonged to the monastery of Fulda; to him and to his educational activity is due the revival of learning in the schools of Solenhofen, Celle, Hirsfeld, Petersburg and Hirschau. Even Reichenau and St. Gall owe much to him, and it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that he, like Otfried of "Der Krist", first made the Old High German an instrument of literary expression.
In France, the Carolingian revival was, as has been said, taken up by Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans, who by his own diocesan enactments and by the advice which he gave the emperor proved his right to the title of Alcuin's successor. Alcuin himself, after his retirement to the monastery of Tours, devoted his attention almost exclusively to monastic education and the transcription of liturgical and theological works. Whatever love he had for the classics changed towards the end of his life into a deep-seated suspicion of all "pagan literature." In this he offers a striking contrast, with Lupus Servatus, a disciple of Rhabanus, who, as Abbot of Ferrières, early in the ninth century encouraged and promoted the study of the pagan classics with all the ardour of a fifteenth-century Humanist. Through the influence of Alcuin, Theodulf, Lupus and others, the Carolingian revival spread to Reims, Auxerre, Laon and Chartres, where even before the schools of Paris had come into prominence, the foundations of scholastic theology and philosophy were laid.
In Southern Germany and Switzerland the Carolingian revival was felt before the close of the eighth century in Rheinau, Reichenau and St. Gall, and early in the following century in Northern Italy, especially in Pavia and Bobbio. Under the successors of Charlemagne there sprang up the schools of Utrecht, Liège and St. Laurent, Liege in the Low Countries which continued the movement.
The Irish Teachers
With the extension and promotion of the Carolingian revival of education are associated the names of the Irish teachers, Alcuin's rivals who certainly share in the credit of having been the first masters of the schools. According to the St. Gall chronicler who wrote the history of Charles the Great, two Irish monks arrived in France before Alcuin had received Charlemagne's invitation, and having made known somewhat boastfully their desire to teach wisdom, were received by the emperor with honour, and one of them placed at the head of the palace school. The story, however, is not accepted as reliable.
We know for certain that after Alcuin left the court of Charlemagne, Clement the Irishman succeeded him as master of the palace school, and that he had pupils sent to him even from the monastery of Fulda. The grammarian Cruindmelus, the poet Dungal of Bobbio and Bishop Donatus of Fiesole were among the many Irish teachers on the Continent who enjoyed the favour of Charlemagne. Indeed, the emperor, according to Einhard, "loved the strangers" and "had the Irish in special esteem".
His successors likewise invited the Irish teachers to their court. Louis the Pious was the patron of the Irish geographer Dicuil, Lothair II stood in a similar relation to the Irish poet and scribe Sedulius Scottus, founder of the school at Liège, and Charles the Bald equalled his grandfather in his affectionate esteem for the Irish teachers. Under him Elias taught at Laon, Dunchad at Reims, Israel at Auxerre, and the greatest of all the Irish scholars, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, was head of the palace school.
Naturally the Irish teachers flocked to the places already known to them by the missionary activity of their fellow-countrymen of former generations We find them at Reichenau, St. Gall and Bobbio, "a whole herd of philosophers" as a ninth-century writer expresses it. Every monastery or cathedral school at which they appeared soon showed the effect of their influence. To the curriculum already in vogue in the Carolingian Schools the Irish teachers added the study of Greek, and wherever they taught philosophy or theology (dialectic and the interpretation of the Scriptures) they drew largely from the writings of the neo-Platonists and from the works of the Greek Fathers.
With regard to the details of schoolwork in the institutions founded or reformed by Charlemagne, the chronicles of the time do not furnish us as much information as one would desire. We know that the course of studies in the town and village schools (per villas et viccos) comprised at least the elements of Christian Doctrine, plainsong, the rudiments of grammar, and perhaps, where the influence of St. Benedict's rule was still felt, some kind of manual training.
In the monastic and cathedral schools the curriculum included grammar (corresponding to what we now call language-work in general, as well as the study of poetry), rhetoric, dialectic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. The text-book in these subjects was, wherever the Irish teaching prevailed, Martianus Capella, "De Nuptiis Mercurii et philologiae"; elsewhere, as in the schools taught by Alcuin, the teacher compiled treatises on grammar, etc. from the works of Cassiodorus, St. Isidore of Seville and Venerable Bede. In some instances the works of Boethius were used as texts in dialectic.
The master, scholasticus or archischolus (earlier capiscola), had at his command, besides his assistants, a proscholus or prefect of discipline, whose duty it was (in the monastic school of Fulda, at least) to teach the children "how to walk, how to bow to strangers, how to behave in the presence of superiors". The teacher read (legere was synonymous with docere) while the pupils took down his dictation in their wax tablets (parchment was too expensive).
Discipline in the Carolingian schools was maintained by the proscholus, and that the medieval scholar dreaded the rod is clear from an episode in the history of the school of St. Gall where, in order to escape a birching, the boys set fire to the monastery. Regulations regarding neatness, the hours to be given to work, and provision for the mid-day siesta etc. show that some attention was paid to the health and comfort of the pupils.
The "school-room" was, until as late as the twelfth century the cloister of the monastery and, in the case of some very popular teachers, the street or a public square. The floor of the schoolroom was strewn with straw on which the pupils sat -boarded floors and benches do not appear to have been in use in schools until the fifteenth century, although seats of a certain kind were provided at Cluny Abbey, in the twelfth century, namely wooden boxes which served both as seat and repository for writing materials.
After the death of Charlemagne and the dismemberment of the empire, the educational reforms introduced by him received a setback. There was a brief period under Charles the Bald, when royal favour was once more bestowed on scholars. But with the advent of the tenth century came other cares and occupations for the royal mind. Nevertheless, the monastic and episcopal schools, and no doubt the village schools too, continued wherever war and pillage did not render their existence impossible. Thus the educational influence of the Carolingian revival of learning was continued in some way down to the dawn of the era of university education in the thirteenth century.