"The Gentle Voices of Teachers": Aspects of Learning in the Carolingian Age

By Nelson, Janet L. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1997 | Go to article overview

"The Gentle Voices of Teachers": Aspects of Learning in the Carolingian Age


Nelson, Janet L., The Catholic Historical Review


"The Gentle Voices of Teachers":Aspects of Learning in the Carolingian Age. Edited by Richard E. Sullivan. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press. 1995. Pp. xiv, 361. $49.50 clothbound; $18.50 paperback.)

This book grew out of six papers read at a conference masterminded by Professor Richard Sullivan in 1989. His preface evokes "gentle voices" (the phrase is from an Alcuin in nostalgic mood) in a world "anything but gentle." A sense of Carolingian hard times recurs in Sullivan's list (pp. 53-54) of "factors" inimical to the nurturing of "culture": "constrained material resources, anemic societal infrastructures, massive illiteracy, brutality of manners, endemic violence, adherence to diverse and 'primitive' mind-sets running counter to the light of learning" It depends, of course, on what you mean by culture. This is not a book about material culture in the archaeologists' sense (there is scant reference to archaeology here), but nor do the authors concern themselves with the wider Carolingian world sketched with a certain roughness by the editor. Sullivan acknowledges that his is a cultural history which neglects "the little people and the realms where they lived their silent, unlettered, culturally unadorned lives." It is clear what this book is not-and what, perhaps, a broader vision might have made it. Still, "learning is tackled here from a variety of standpoints, all of them of interest to students and scholars working in Carolingian and other parts of the medieval field. Are Carolingianists too specialized, asks Sullivan (p. 82)? If they are, this book may be all the more timely.

Do not be put off by the Introduction, specially written by Sullivan for the book, rather than the conference, yet perplexingly remote from the rest of it, including Sullivan's own Chapter 2."Factors shaping Carolingian studies" include a ritual incantation of the names of French structuralists (p. 15) followed by other (partly overlapping) lists of "seminal thinkers" (p. 19) of the postmodernist brigade, of avatars of "the new social history", "the new cultural history," and the annalistes, all cited in voluminous footnotes with scarce a reference to anything written on the Carolingian period. All allegedly represent currents of thought" of which Carolingianists, hitherto negligent, it seems,"must be aware. Well, those assembled in this book may not be unaware-but they are clearly old-fashioned, theoretically unaccredited jobbing historians: Lawrence Nees (p. 217) points out that his Carolingians were already postmodern in their receptivity to multivalent messages;Thomas Noble (p. 228), eschews poststructuralism to "proceed on the assumption that Theodulf [in the Libri Carolini] had both the means and the will to articulate his own views"; while David Ganz (p. 262), fires off some refreshingly acerbic criticisms at those who apply "concepts such as literacy, dramatic narrative, or `the social function of grammatica'. . to the sources in an effort to discover original insights." Frankly, this book is all the better for its contributors' sticking resolutely to their trade-one learned, in the cases of Contreni and Noble, in Sullivan's own workshop: good historians that they are, they parade no postmodernist warrant for the importance of close critical readings, and contextualizing, of their texts.Theory they no doubt have under their belts, where it belongs: what they have produced are beautifully crafted, custom-made pieces of scholarship.

Appropriately, the first substantial chapter (Chapter 2) is the master's: Sullivan's observations on the context of cultural activity are specific, and telling. He stresses how an upstart dynasty sponsored reform, of which high culture was part and parcel, to establish its legitimacy. He both affirms and qualifies the importance of Charlemagne's mandate, rightly saying that some have exaggerated the Great Man's personal responsibility for the renaissance that bears his name (isn't the tendency reinforced, though, by the shorthand use-especially by Americans? …

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