Carolingian Church Reform? A Re-evaluation of the Renovatio of the 8th and 9th Centuries

Today we are going to talk about something intrinsically linked with my second favourite Renaissance (Yes, you hear me correctly…) – The Carolingian Renaissance and the impact this had in the constitution of the Church. Again in the revisionist fashion of my posts-of-late, I will be re-evaluating this process, and explore it in a way I think we should really be considering the subject. And here it goes…

During the eighth and ninth centuries the Carolingians attempted to remodel and reorganise the Frankish church considerably. This process has been usually defined as a church reform which, at least, seems an erroneous way to understand what happened in ecclesiastical terms. The word reformare for the Carolingians ‘was used only sparingly, usually to refer to the punishment of serfs, and hardly ever to the reform of churches, which was usually defined as correctio, a very general term lacking the theological overtones of reformatio’ – this is J.Barrow speaking and not me. There was a church, but certainly it lacked unity or proper organisation. In fact, it has been disputed by scholars like Claussen that there was no such thing as a Frankish church until Chrodegang became bishop and unified the churchmen. There is no denying that, during the previous centuries the church was modelled on a traditional Roman style that was ill-defined and did not suit the complexity and necessities of the Carolingian empire. So the winds of change were doomed blow at some point…

So Chrodegang will be our man to take upon this task. His concerns about pastoral care and the responsibility of abbots, influenced by the ideas of Gregory the Great and the Rule of Benedictine, were compiled in his Regula Canonicorum. This document would have an important ulterior impact, particularly once Charlemagne was on the throne. Based on the Regula and thank to the influence of the Dionysio-Hadriana, the Admonitio Generalis was created in 789, in Aachen. These capitularies set the re-establishment of the bishops’ functions and clergy behaviour, the importance of preaching, bishops’ responsibilities with churches, monasteries and houses of canons, and the importance of matter of education. Episcopal statutes were created, covering every aspect of the priests’ part in the parish, preaching and training to clergymen. Rules, Rules and More Rules were applied.

Louis the Pious would be the second player in this renovatio. He promoted a series of Synods from 816 to 819 for the introduction of the Benedictine Rule in an attempt to make monastic life the same for everyone. This may be reflected by the plan of St.Gall – Horn and Born believed that the plan was designed to create a general layout of an ideal monastery that would be copied throughout the Carolingian empire creating unity amongst the communities. In any case, what is clear is that the role of monasteries was crucial for the Carolingian ‘reform’. Moreover, so were the parishes spread all over the empire. The church established a connection with every man and woman within the Christian faith, and the correct measures would ensure this desire of community. The main relationship that lay people had with the church was the liturgical process. But the way the clergymen and the rest of the population lived their Christian life was different. A common and clear liturgy was needed for everyone to live as proper Christians and not fall in the evil ways of paganism or heresy.  And this ties in with the other great aspect of this great restructure: improving the education of both the clergy and the laymen. First of all, the clergy needed to be trained and provided with the appropriate materials so they could preach the Christian messages effectively. They had to understand properly what they were meant to teach, in order to provide true knowledge and not create misunderstandings. An example can be found in the corrections that Benedict of Aniane produce in the Gregorian sacramental that came from Rome, in order to make it suitable for Carolingian learning. In this process of creating true clergymen, true Christians were also formed, which settled the base for the code of conduct of lay community.

The last but not least feature of the rebirth of the Carolingian church was the missionary activities and conversion of the new territories acquired by the Franks. Several regions of the eastern part of the empire were still allegedly pagan. There were missionary centres spread all around the territory in order to avoid attempts of insurrection against the true faith. Sermons were preached in order to explain the concepts of the Christian religion, although the evidences suggest that the preachers were more fond of attacking the false gods and pagan rituals of the folk. This was complemented by the ever so effective destruction of temples and pagan objects – actions that even Charles Martel and Charlemagne would have performed. However, in other parts of the realm, such as Bavaria, the sources suggest that the real problem was not paganism but a wrong understanding of Christian practice which required a reorganization and consolidation rather than conversion per se. So, perhaps it should be considered this was not so much a renovatio but rather a series of adjustments. Moreover, do you know what happened to all this after good old king Louis the Pious died? Well…Not Much…

The quarrels between his heirs created tensions within the church. Italy never fulfilled the ‘reform’ programme, and in the Germanic lands action was taken but the system collapsed due to the internal problems of the empire. The clergy did partially fail in the guidance of the society as they were not worried too much about their Christian souls once they were baptised. The cult of saints  was so professed that really verged the edge of idolatry that Charlemagne and his missionaries feared would never leave their society. Pagan and folk believes prevailed all over the empire, from those cited by Boniface in his list of superstitions and pagan practices, to the so-called tempestarii referred by Agobard of Lyons –  yes, this super cool weather wizards that called upon hail and thunderstorms to affect the crops. The problem with bishoprics and landowning was never solved. The curious case of Saxony explains the issue in great detail. Land and grants were given to the bishoprics, and so the privilege of immunity for the main five episcopal churches of Saxony. The system never worked properly due to the lack of patronage from the few Saxon noble families remaining, and the incredibly inefficient and slow conversion process. Not to mention the lack of And  local support due to the rather violent conversion, to which not most of the people were happy to succumb -nobility included . In conclusion, the Carolingians may have succeeded in their task for a couple of decades, but not longer than that. And even during that period, the renovatio was not achieved completely. The common people’s ‘wrong’ practice of Christianity, was rather similar to the paganism they were trying to eradicate (unsuccessfully). The monasteries ended collapsing, and their status would not be properly restored until the Cluniac or the Cistercian efforts centuries later. Which made me reached the same conclusion than Charlemagne so cautiously raised in his court regarding this poorly solved, and unsolved issues: “are we really Christians?”…And if so, did this so-called reform ever happen or it is just a misunderstanding of the Carolingian church from the modern historical point of view?


Now my conspiracy theories do not come from the depths of my imagination…I did put a great amount of time into this subject, and there is a few books worth reading if you’re interested on the subject:


-Dutton, P.E., Carolingian Civilization: A Reader (Ontario, 2004) – I mean it is like the ultimate gospel of Carolingian documents – go buy it. No questions asked.

-Barrow, J., ‘Review Article: Chrodegang, his Rule and its Successors’, Early Medieval Europe 14 (2006), pp.201-12 – this is the article that I referred to earlier on my text. Even if it’s just for that discussion of the terminology, it is worth while.

-Carrol C., ‘The Bishoprics of Saxony in the First Century after Christianization’, Early Medieval Europe 8 (1999), pp.219-245 – just to give you an idea of the scope and differences between the lands the Franks ruled over.

-Claussen, M.A., The Reform of the Frankish Church: Chrodegang of Metz and the Regula Canonicorum in the Eighth Century (Cambridge, 2004) – very thorough investigation of Chrodengang and the contextual work also very impressive.

-Couser, J., ‘Inventing Paganism in Eighth-Century Bavaria’, Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010), pp. 26-42 – this will blow your mind, on how “Christian” central Europe was.

-McKitterick, R., The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895 (London, 1977) – even though written some time ago, this should be your starting point.



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