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Charlemagne’s Love for Wisdom

Hugh O’Reilly

Now it happened, when Charlemagne had begun to reign alone in the Western parts of the world, the pursuit of learning had been almost forgotten throughout all his realms, and the worship of the true God was faint and weak. Then it was that two Scots came from Ireland to the coast of Gaul along with certain traders of Britain.

Emperor Charlemagne, throne

Charlemagne on his throne
These Scotchmen were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning. Every day when the crowd gathered round them for traffic, they exhibited no wares for sale, but cried out and said: "Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale."

Now they declared that they had wisdom for sale because they said that the people cared not for what was given freely but only for what was sold, hoping that thus they might be incited to purchase wisdom along with other wares. Also perhaps they hoped that by this announcement they themselves might become a wonder and a marvel to men, which indeed turned out to be the case.

For so long did they make their proclamation that in the end those who wondered at these men, or perhaps thought them insane, brought the matter to the ears of King Charles, who always loved and sought after wisdom.

Wherefore he ordered them to come with all speed into his presence and asked them whether it were true, as fame reported of them, that they had brought wisdom with them.

They answered, "We both possess it and are ready to give it, in the name of God, to those who seek it worthily."

Again he asked them what price they asked for it. They answered, "We ask no price, O King; but we ask only for a fit place for teaching and quick minds to instruct; and besides, food to eat, and raiment to put on, for without these we cannot accomplish our mission."

This answer filled the King with a great joy, and first he kept both of them with him for a short time. But soon, when he must need go to war, he made one of them, named Clement, reside in Gaul. To him he sent many boys both of noble, middle and humble birth, and he ordered as much food to be given them as they required, and he set aside for them buildings suitable for study. But he sent the second scholar into Italy and gave him the Monastery of Saint Augustine near Pavia, that all who wished might gather there to learn from him.

Alcuin goes to the Frankish court

Now when Alcuin, an Englishman, heard that that the most religious Emperor Charles gladly entertained wise men, he entered into a ship and came to him. Now Alcuin was skilled in all learning beyond all others of his times, for he was the disciple of that most learned priest Bede, who next to Saint Gregory was the most skilful interpreter of the Scriptures.

Charles received Alcuin kindly and kept him at his side to the end of his life, except when he marched with his armies to his vast wars. Nay, Charles would even call himself Alcuin’s disciple; and he would call Alcuin his master. He appointed him to rule over the Abbey of Saint Martin, near the city of Tours, so that, when he himself was absent, Alcuin might remain there and teach those who had recourse to him.

And his teaching bore such fruit among his pupils that the modern Gauls or Franks came to equal the ancient Romans or Athenians.

Charles rewards the studious

Then, when Charles, crowned with victory came back into Gaul after a long absence, he ordered the boys whom he had entrusted to Clement to come before him and present to him letters and verses of their own composition.

Emperor Charlemagne, court, students

Charlemagne rewards the good pupils and threatens the bad
Now the boys of middle or low birth presented him with writings garnished with the sweet savors of wisdom beyond all that he could have hoped, while those of the children of noble parents were silly and tasteless.

Then the most wise Charles, imitating the judgment of the eternal Judge, gathered together those who had done well upon his right hand and addressed them in these words: “My children, you have found much favor with me, because you have tried with all your strength to carry out my orders and win advantage for yourselves. Wherefore now study to attain to perfection, and I will give you bishoprics and splendid monasteries, and you shall be always honorable in my eyes."

Then he turned severely to those who were gathered on his left, and smiting their consciences with the fire of his eyes he flung at them in scorn these terrible words, which seemed thunder rather than human speech:

"You nobles, you sons of my chiefs, you superfine dandies, you have trusted to your birth and your possessions and have set at naught my orders to your own advancement. You have neglected the pursuit of learning and you have given yourselves over to luxury and sport, to idleness and profitless pastimes."

Then solemnly he raised his august head and his unconquered right hand to the Heaven and thus thundered against them: "By the King of Heaven, I take no account of your noble birth and your fine looks, though others may admire you for them. Know this for certain, that unless you make up for your former sloth by vigorous study, you will never get any favor from Charles."

From Early Lives of Charlemagne by Eginhard and the Monk of St. Gall,
trans. A.J. Grant, London: Chatto & Windus, MCMXII, vol. 1, pp. 59-63.
Posted August 13, 2011

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