Tag Archives: Holy Roman Empire

The Style Book of Alcuin

Alcuin’s style book is probably waiting to be discovered in a church basement somewhere

Something that’s intrigued me for many years: besides standardizing written Latin, did Alcuin standardize its pronunciation, too? I’ve been told that Alcuin instituted a policy of one consonant = one sound only, or one vowel = one sound only. I don’t know if a style guide by Alcuin exists. It’s hard to believe he didn’t write one. It would be such an Alcuin thing to do.

I suspect we have ecclesiastical (church) Latin because that’s the pronunciation Alcuin made official. Ecclesiastical Latin is why around Christmastime we sing “in eks SEL sees Dayo” and not “in eks KEL sees Dayo.” We use a soft palatal s or ch sound instead of the hard gutteral k sound the old Romans would have used. My own personal theory is that Alcuin was English, that’s the way they pronounced Latin in England, so that’s the pronunciation that got his stamp of approval. Who knows?

Angels We Have Heard on High:

From a few years back. I idiotically informed everyone that Alcuin was Irish: https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/western-civ/

This guy gets into the weeds a bit but he’s well worth the listen:

Embrace your inner Latin nerd! This is what the internet was built for. When I was a kid you’d have to go to college to hear a great lecture like this:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-classical-journal/article/abs/english-pronunciation-of-latin-its-rise-and-fall/A0860C6625BE5A0E45FD58A18797E6FB
https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/roman-catholic-and-orthodox-churches-general-biographies/alcuin
https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/13984/how-old-is-ecclesiastical-latin-pronunciation
https://www.fisheaters.com/latin.html

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Lettering as sweet as the dew on the vine, so it is

You can still find the uncial style of writing every March on Saint Patrick’s Day cards and furniture-sale advertisements. Uncial style looks Irish. It was popular with the Irish monks.

Uncials

The old-style square-cap Latin was written in all capital letters, as if the ‘caps lock’ button were on the whole time. It reads like you’re being yelled at (maybe that was the idea).

In Alcuin’s day, monks wrote on parchment. Parchment isn’t cheap and all-caps takes up a lot of space. The monks learned to conserve space by making the first letter of a sentence a big capital letter and writing the rest of the sentence in small letters. The small letters were only an inch high—an ‘uncia’ in Latin—so this style of writing is called ‘uncial’ (OON se al).*

Uncials. Look how round they are compared to the Latin square-caps.

The small letters are called miniscules. The monks formed them with pens, so they became more round in contrast to the chiseled-in-stone letters of the old days. The miniscules grew tails, like ‘d’ or ‘p’ which extended up or down. They look different from capital letters.

The big capital letters are called maguscules MAH-juss-kyoolz). In time the maguscules became large versions of the miniscules.

This is the style Alcuin updated to Carolingian and promoted across the Holy Roman Empire. Latin translations of Arabic texts would be written in the Carolingian style. Alcuin dreamed up an additional feature: punctuation. Thanks to Alcuin you can tell when sentences end and new ones begin because they’re marked with a period. You can tell if the writer is asking a question, because there’s a question mark at the end. I’m personally grateful for the M-dash—which I probably overuse.

*…or maybe the monks shouldn’t be taken too literally. ‘Uncial’ may have been their jokey way of saying the letters are small.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/uncial
https://www.britannica.com/topic/uncial
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Uncials.html
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Carolingian.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/majuscule
I wanted to get a take on uncials from a calligrapher. Here’s that wonderful lady who makes her own ink. She says it’s St Jerome’s fault they’re called uncials. She shows you how to write them:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU-dHTEkAx0&t=335s
You weirdos who’ve been loyally following this blog will no doubt remember this post:
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/measuring-distance-in-rome/

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We’re going to need more books

Charlemagne wanted to promote a culture of learning throughout France and then the Holy Roman Empire. He didn’t have tv or the internet to spread this learning around, so Charlemagne would need to use books. Many of those old books from classical times (during the Greek & Roman Empires) were hard or impossible to find.

° Bad news: Charlemagne was made aware that many original manuscripts of ancient writers and philosophers had been lost or destroyed—like when the library at Alexandria got torched. Probably Alcuin and the other teachers told him.
° Good news: Charlemagne was made aware that copies of these ancient manuscripts existed in the Near- and MidEast, translated into Arabic. Probably Alcuin again.
° Plan of action: Charlemagne and Alcuin began an empire-wide program of finding the Arabic copies and translating them into Latin.

As I mentioned a few posts back, written Latin had taken on a different character in every different kingdom—it didn’t look like the square-cap Latin chiselled into a column that Julius Caesar would have recognized. Copying and translating these Arabic manuscripts would be a golden opportunity to standardize writing—get everybody in the empire writing the same way. Here’s the thing: instead of making all the monks go back to square-cap Latin, Alcuin had a different idea. He noticed that a lot of those regional writing quirks made Latin easier to read.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25669.How_the_Irish_Saved_Civilization
https://omniglot.com/writing/latin2.htm
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/charlemagnes-reforms/

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The mighty Alcuin

Alcuin with his students

Charlemagne was king of France at 20-something years old. He was remarkable simply for being able to make big, important decisions—a good general and executive. Charlemagne was also eager to learn new things.

Charlemagne’s dad and grand-dad had set up a school at the royal palace. It was meant to teach young princelings how to behave at court, how eventually to become a king. Charlemagne wanted to learn more than that. He wanted to know literature, art, math, science, music and to understand Christianity more deeply…so he gathered up scholars to teach him and his sons.

One scholar was Alcuin of York, in Northumbria, in the British Isles. The school at York was doing booming business—its students learned the liberal arts as well as Christian Ed, which was the new kind of curriculum Charlemagne was after. Alcuin had been an honor roll student and was encouraged by his mentor, the Venerable Bede, to stick around the York school to teach. Alcuin was headmaster by the time Charlemagne dragooned him to teach at his palace school. Alcuin not only taught at Charlemagne’s school, he ran it. He introduced the same curriculum that had been so successful at the York school. Alcuin used the classical framework of the trivium and quadrivium—“The trivium consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, while the quadrivium consists of arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry.” Alcuin taught the basics first: the rules of speaking & writing; how to think in an organized way; then how to persuade through speaking & writing. After that his students were ready for the more complicated subjects in the quadrivium.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcuin
https://jameswoodward.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/alcuin-of-york/
I quoted from this article: https://www.hillsdale.edu/hillsdale-blog/academics/understanding-trivium-quadrivium/

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Help wanted

Charlemagne’s challenge was to consolidate communications across the Holy Roman Empire. There wasn’t much he could do about vernacular languages—the languages used by different tribes in different kingdoms. What he could do was standardize Latin as spoken and written in the Church and government. He wanted a letter or manuscript written by a monk in southern France to be legible and understandable to a monk in northern Germany. Charlemagne needed to find someone smart enough to understand the problem, solve it, and train the monks who did all the writing. He needed a teacher. Where would he find one?

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/consolidate

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Cheeseburgers

Empires are like fast food chains. The successful ones are organized and standardized. F’rinstance, wherever in the world you go to eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger, it will taste and cost the same as a McDonald’s cheeseburger anywhere else in the world. Achieving that consistency takes tremendous managerial skill. Same with empires.

If someone hands you an empire, the first thing you do is start a program of organization and standardization. How do I know this? Look at Darius. Darius managed the Persian Empire with a highway system, postal service and standard weights and measures (including currency). He put up stones chiselled with imperial messages in 3 languages.

Alexander the Great enforced a program of Hellenization—everybody had to speak Greek and adopt Greek culture, laws, religion—across the diverse regions he’d conquered.

Caesar Augustus updated the Roman Empire’s highway system and standardized its weights and measures. His chiselled proclamations were in square capital letters in classic Latin.

Charlemagne inherited Rome’s road system and Rome’s standard weights & measures, so no major overhauls needed there. Communication was the big problem—language. The Church and whatever was left of the government used mediæval Latin. Depending on the tribe or kingdom, regular shmoes spoke Frankish/French/Gallic or German or Anglo-Saxon or Irish or Flemish or Italian or Czech or Polish. Writing was done by scribes (monks), in monasteries, in Latin. They wrote in ink on parchment using broad-nibbed pens. It was natural, since pens are more flexible than chisels, that writing would become rounder, more flowing, more cursive. Monasteries were isolated so each one developed its own version of cursive writing. To sum up: every tribe in the Holy Roman Empire spoke a different language. The one language—Latin—that might have been universal was written differently in every monastery.



https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/2/what-languages-were-spoken-within-the-holy-roman-empire
https://www.quora.com/What-language-s-were-spoken-within-the-Holy-Roman-Empire
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_Latin
https://overviewbible.com/vulgate/

(I don’t want to be misunderstood: this post is NOT some kind of sneaky endorsement of the bloated, pork-laden, power-grabbing “infrastructure” bill currently being promoted by the U.S. administration.)

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How do you run an empire once you have one?

What would you do if a handful of kingdoms—inhabited by tribes who fought with each other a lot—were thrown together and styled “The Holy Roman Empire” and you were put in charge? How would you get the empire up and running? Here are your main problems:

Communication. Each of those tribes is speaking some weird variation of Latin and other languages so they don’t understand each other too well. The economy. There’s been a constant, dreary, never-ending state of war for the past few centuries. Unless they sell swords, it’s been tough for regular shmoes to make a living. Farmers might sell their crops if (apart from the usual worry of late frost or early frost or too much rain or drought) a battalion of soldiers doesn’t march through your field. Banking, finance and the stock market haven’t been invented yet so wealth accumulation isn’t something that most serfs do. Culture. Forget about being a writer or an artist or a musician: those sensitive plants have been drafted into the army. Hardly anybody reads—even Charlemagne has to sound out the letters. Except for a few monks in monasteries, nobody writes. Architecture is mostly about fortifications. There may have been music but nobody wrote down any tunes. So, not much culture. Religion. Not every tribe in the Holy Roman Empire is Christian. Do we force those non-Christians to get with the program?

The Holy Roman Empire is a hot mess. Those countries have been conquered, all right, because Charlemagne came from a family that’s good at commanding a large military. He was great at it. But how was Charlemagne going to run this empire in peacetime?

What would you do?

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Charlemagne & Pope Leo III from yesterday

Here’s the painting I did yesterday. Still a bit rough; needs some tightening up. Charles’ right hand doesn’t look like it’s holding the hilt of that sword. I have to figure out how to mount my camera (phone) so it’s not in the way when I paint. I kept bumping into it.

May we be Frank?

Throughout this history I’ve been trying to keep it zippy. Not too many words. No excess verbiage. Avoid the chit-chat. Anyway…to do that I’ve had to shrink down some larger-than-life personalities into one or two paragraphs. Charlemagne—also known as Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, Charles the Great—is one guy who can hardly be covered in a book, let alone a blog post. But I’ll give it a whack.

After the western half of the Roman Empire fell to barbarian invasion in ad 476, civilization and culture had a tough time of it. From the north and west, people who would later become the French, the Germans, the Spanish and the Italians all fought within the empire. People from the MidEast also wanted to take over the empire. This state of constant warfare lasted more than a couple of centuries. Forget about culture—nobody could relax long enough to create art or music. Then in the 600s one tribe, the Franks, started fighting better than everybody else and a dynasty was begun—a ruling family who set up some stability and order using military power. The Carolingian Dynasty started with Charles Martel, then his son Pepin, then Charlemagne. Charlemagne was a ruler who rode at the head of his army and whupped the other armies. He brought more than peace to what had been the Roman Empire—he encouraged the arts, education and literature.

Remember that Christianity was the empire’s official religion since Theodosius. Pope Leo III was Charlemagne’s biggest fan and had Charlemagne crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in ad 800. After that, Charlemagne began a program of standardizing many parts of the Holy Roman Empire’s way of doing things. He relied on his right-hand man Alcuin of York to make much of this happen. Alcuin was a gifted innovator—he came up with cultural inventions that are part of our culture today.

F’rinstance, Charlemagne noticed that churches throughout the empire would sing a particular hymn, but each church used a different tune. He decided they should all sing a hymn using the same tune for that hymn, so Alcuin invented musical notation. With a songbook you can read how a tune should be sung. Charlemagne thought that the Roman way of writing (ALL CAPS) used up too much space and was difficult to read, so Alcuin invented upper-case and lower-case letters, like what you’re reading here.

Here’s why I’m telling you about Charlemagne. He liked Little Dennis’ Anno Domini system, so Charlemagne made AD and BC the Holy Roman Empire’s official way of numbering the years.

Just as it still is today.

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