Picking up the Rubble of Rome: How the West Built Cathedrals

“On the last, cold day of December in the dying year we count as 406, the river Rhine froze solid, providing the natural bridge that hundreds of thousands of hungry men, women, and children had been waiting for” (Cahill How the Irish Saved Civilization 11). These people were the barbarians, and within four years, their leader Alaric would be standing at the gates of Rome, negotiating the fall of the Roman Empire.

The period that ensued was truly a Dark Age. From AD 410 – 800, the West experienced one of the greatest decimations of culture and civilization. With the end of pax romana, towns were raided, libraries burned, and the dream that was Rome fell out of cultural memory. It was Fahrenheit 451 and the learned men of the time knew it. Boethius composed his Consolation of Philosophy and Isidore of Seville his Etymologies. And yet it was only by the dedicated efforts of a few oddball monastic communities out in the backwoods of Ireland, that much of what we consider classical learning was copied and preserved for us today. So what was it that brought us from the political, intellectual rubble of the 5th century to the soaring Gothic cathedrals of the High Middle Ages?

Then in the year 800, something incredible happened. Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor of the West, and it was only by his military campaigns, that a peace reminiscent of Rome was reestablished on the continent. And thank God. Charlemagne’s was not a conquest of political pride or religious fanaticism. In conquering, he was liberating. He brought freedom and security to hundreds of thousands of people across disparate cultures, who had been living oppressed by fear for centuries.

Moreover, commensurate with Charlemagne’s rule came an intellectual flourishing, a revival of learning, which we call the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne brought the most learned men from across Europe to France, where he founded his palatial school. Most notably, Alcuin of York served to standardize writing, which drastically increased both the speed of composition and ease of reading of manuscripts. Basically, prior to Alcuin scribes were writing on vellum with the same script used for stone carvings (latin uncial), with no system of word-spacing, spelling, or punctuation. If you think Augustine is slow-going in translation, try reading him in the rune-ish script of Latin uncial. Seeing this problem, Alcuin devised a new “font” called Carolingian miniscule that saved time and space (on valuable vellum) through a system of spacing, spelling, punctuation, abbreviation, and capital letters. To better understand the influence of Alcuin, the font you are probably reading this blog in is a derivative of the same Carolingian miniscule. (Now I get why they call it Times New Roman!).

If there was a dream that was Rome, Charlemagne reformed its members and Alcuin breathed life back into it.

So how do we get from the fall of Rome to the soaring heights of St. Denis? Art and architecture are inextricably intertwined with the intellectual and cultural temperature of the age. “From the fall of the Roman Empire down well into modern times the Latin classics furnished the best barometer of the culture of each period in Western Europe” (Haskins Renaissance of the Twelfth Century). And so it is, that by picking up the discarded books of Rome the people of the Carolingian period picked up the rubble of Roman buildings and refashioned it to new glory.

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