Academic journal article Magistra

With Paternal Concern: "Fathers" Theodulf and Alcuin and the Spirituality of Carolingian Women

Academic journal article Magistra

With Paternal Concern: "Fathers" Theodulf and Alcuin and the Spirituality of Carolingian Women

Article excerpt

It is commonly accepted that the inestimable Charlemagne surrounded himself with a court of international scholars and churchmen, individuals who would become the intellectual mentors and administrative architects of the revitalized Christian oikumene he was attempting to establish. His strategy of organization was based upon a deliberate program of coherent standardization: the codification of religious practices, the systematization of doctrinal instruction, and the establishment of a imperial judiciary that would incorporate even the general swath of the empire's population.1

Charlemagne's motives were several, but among the more principal intentions was his ambitious, and sincere, desire to sustain a unified, harmonious Christian kingdom. He relied upon the conscientious services of his select court circle of teachers, diplomats, and clerics to help realize this dream, and numbering among those courtly luminaries were two quite significant individuals, the tenacious and indefatigable Alcuin of York, and his sometimes rival and younger colleague, the insightful and incisive Theodulf of Orleans.

Together, and with others like Paulinus of Aquilea, they assisted Charlemagne in his quest to refashion western European culture, as it had long since fallen into despair, into a civilized stronghold firmly grounded in doctrinally orthodox (Christian) belief. Alcuin was recognized as "the Master" or "the Master Teacher" of the Carolingian court, just as Theodulf was noted for his exceptional ecclesiastical and theological contributions. The Carolingian renovatio, then, was a decidedly male enterprise, civilizing renewal by men for men.

Yet, in their capacities as courtly masters of both a cultural and religious reformation, leaders like Theodulf and Alcuin also assumed the role of spiritual, somewhat paternal, mentors to eager, capable women, including noble religious, as well as sovereign queens and princesses, who were becoming increasingly prohibited by the throne from directing their own spiritual programmes.

While formal treatises of Carolingian theology and ecclesiology manifest the official declarations on matters pertaining to the Church as a whole, and articles of restriction to women in particular, it is in the catalogue of letters, or other personal documents, that more individual, and thereby, probably more sincere, commentaries on faith, belief, and faithful practice, can be discovered. In order to arrive at a more authentic understanding of women's spirituality of the Carolignian world, this paper will turn to some examples of those individual, personal commentaries that were sent to Carolingian women as patrimonial guidance: the communication between Alcuin and his female correspondents, including Charlemagne's sister Gisla and his daughter Eulalia, a noblewoman, and certain Anglo-Saxon princesses, all of whom sought from their Christian "father" Alcuin guidance and direction in their Christian training.

The examination of Alcuin's correspondence, moreover, will be prefaced by observation of a poem from Theodulf to a Gisla (probably the same "Gisla" as one of Alcuin's correspondents), a verse that seems to have been a very private correspondence between the two, and to have been attached to a gift he was sending her, as instruction as well as encouragement for her devotional life.2

The letters and the poem would seem to be of significance to any contemporary scholarship that hopes to retrieve some authentic insight into the religious and spiritual lives of Carolingian women, for unless there is a miraculous discovery of long hidden manuscripts by the women themselves, the correspondence between Alcuin and an admiring circle of women, as well as Theodulf's poem, offer some of the only and most direct evidence of the religious lives and concerns, and the spiritual complexities, of those silent women.

There is but a single letter extant from a female correspondent of Alcuin, the redoubtable Gisla herself, which does afford the contemporary reader a small window on the spiritual lives of Carolingian religious, written by one of their own. …

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