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Byzantium and The West

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The history of the Carolingian empire, like seen, is finally linked to the one of the Byzantine empire. It's mainly because Byzantium focused back unto the Greek and Eastern world, facing the Arabs and because it left Italy that western Europe might see the birth -or rebirth- of the Empire. A enlarged view of the history of the West brings to ask in what measure the influence of the Byzantines -and even of Greece and the Hellenism- might not have been more determining still, not only for the Carolingian era but about the history of the West more generally too, beginning with the onset of the Barbarian kingdoms since the 5th century A.C or even before

Twice in the history of Roman Catholic Europe, confluences are seen, the similarities of which cannot be due to chance only. Let's consider, thus, the Carolingian era and the epoch of the Renaissance, in the 15th century. Renaissance, through Humanism, as far as the world is concerned, and through the 'Devotion moderna' as far as spiritual life is, was both a search of the rebirth of sciences coming from the Antiquity and a search for a reform of Church. Here is a first convergence with the Carolingian era, as the latter is too a will to preserve the science of Antiquity and to search for a strengthened Roman Catholic Church. When one steps further into the comparison, the 'Devotio moderna' was moving forward in his quest of a better understanding of the Scriptures and of the life of Christ, through the use of Neo-platonicism and through St. Augustine. That quest, albeit imprinted with respectability as far as of its aims, however quickly turned into a form a astrological-bound heresy. During the Carolingian era, some excesses due to the proponents of reason -like John Scotus Eriugena- themselves led to heretical stands. Renaissance, at last, through its political consequences -like the renewal of the civics as modeled upon the ones of the Republican Rome- and the acceleration of its scientific considerations -not taking in account the Protestant Reform- swiftly brought one of the more important contestation to which Christian Europe had to face since its beginnings. As far as the Carolingian empire is concerned, the general will of a political reform -which eventually led to the rebirth of the imperial idea- eventually too brought -because habits of the times were not ready for such theoretical advances in the field of politics- to a profound disaster for both the Carolingian dynasty -which swiftly plunged down into brotherly fights- and papacy -which was not to rebuild itself from the disorders, and then from the Ottonian views, until during the 11th century A.D. only. Albeit thus, at a distance of 7 centuries, one sees well how, in both cases, a will of renovating culture, Church and politics eventually brought to grave disorders instead of a scheduled, beneficial synthesis. If successfull, the quest by the 'Devotio moderna' and the return to Antiquity might have constitute a new step in the progressive evolution of Christian Europe, like the Aristotelicain synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas which had occurred in the 13th century. It would have been in that case about to christianly establish a form of symbiotics between microscomos -human beings renewed into their faith to God- and macrocosmos -a Universe better known through science. If successfull, the Carolingian Renaissance would, as far as it is concerned, have established, through the improvement of the cultural level of the princes and clerics, the first solid effort of a terrestrial City of God. At the contrary, in both cases, such projects could not be fulfilled as the endeavour, in the case of the Renaissance, quickly transformed into an academism at the service of the European sovereigns and, eventually, into the Protestant Reform as, in the case of the Carolingian Renaissance, it turned into Cesaropapism and to the borders of heresy

Two great endeavours thus -as measured with the perspective of the synthesis of a Christian Europe in view- failed. Both had common aims -a Christian order of the world- and both they shifted from those aims and eventually brought calamities worst than those they pretended to cure. As such a similarity isn't found twice in the history of the West, the question arises of what might have been shared by those two eras of the history of the West and which might explain that noticeable similarity, which further is limited to two periods only! A view might well be that, in both cases, Byzantium is in the field! It was eventually against the Byzantine empire that the Carolingian building of Europe was made, with Charlemagne becoming the western emperor like the equal of those of the East. Renaissance, on the other hand, unfolded at the time when Constantinople eventually fell into the hands of the Turks. In both cases, the cultural relations between both the East and the West are neat. Eastern monks were present in the West, due to the Iconoclasm, by the Carolingian era, with a general influence of Byzantium, like in architecture, for example, as Byzantine elites, at the time of the Renaissance, settled in Italy, with their libraries. Should one, a contrario, consider the other most fundamental era of the Western synthesis, the 13th century A.D. that is, one checks that it is, at the opposite, matching a period of weakness of the Byzantine empire, as it was at that time that the Crusaders took control of the Eastern empire!

Thus it doesn't seem a inopportune stance to ask whether Byzantium did not play, since the beginning of the building of Europe, a fundamental role, albeit ill-known, into the history of the West. The Roman empire, which eventually was shared between the East and West had Byzantium, since the beginning of its decline, aiming to stay like the sole place of the imperial legitimacy, and, further, to tend to claim, for the patriarch of Constantinople, a role at least equal to the one of the Pope. Byzantium then is where the decision was taken to take the Visigoths away from Constantinople by sending them into Italy. It was where, during the 5th century, intrigues were led to have the West back into the hands of the Roman party. And Justinian reconquered some parts of the Roman empire. Until the middle of the 7th century A.D., that way, the influence of the Byzantine empire remained very strong upon nascent Europe, in both a political, and religious aspect. It was only with the Arab conquest onwards, then of the quarrel with the Pope about Italy that the role of Byzantium eventually faded relatively to the West! It is certainly not by chance thus if Byzantium was well present, like a power of the time, during the Carolingian era, or by the beginnings of Renaissance as it was too, by its absence -by default- at the time, during the 13th century, of the Christian apogee of the West. It seems even possible that that influence of Byzantium upon the European history be not limited to the times of the Byzantine empire. The times of Pericles, in the 5th century B.C., was a landmark indeed to the end of the great empires of the Middle East and a first shift of the focus of history, in that part of the world, towards West. Or Hellenism obviously plaid a determining role upon Judaism, during the first Diaspora, with the Jewish religion passing from its conception of a unique God to that Judaism contained universal truths. Hellenism too was not without a influence upon the change of minds in the Republican Rome as the Greek way of thinking, during the early stage of the Patristic had a important influence too unto the molds into which the Christian thought of the first Fathers had to cast

Such a Byzantine influence upon western Europe, in any case, had consequences too upon the eras which followed Renaissance. Through its call to Neo-platonicism -and its latent paganism- through its call to St. Augustine, through the renewed importance awared to Man, through the worry of civics, and of architecturally, ideally-deviced cities, Renaissance influence -thus the influence of Byzantium- was to work too upon the Reformation. And, past them, unto the industrial civilizations. And, at last, thence, to communisms with, moreover, one of those taking hold in Russia, that place of the 'Third Rome' and where a renewed Byzantine Christianity unfolded. It is thus a whole Promethean, scientific, technological -and even a 'ecological'- vision of mankind which had been born with the last episode of the influence of Byzantium upon the West and which eventually largely determined the following centuries. A question, eventually. What the real, European spirit might well be should one take off the Byzantine influence? Would it have been some racialist way of seing the peoples of Europe, large farming domains and a tendency to some weakness of the Roman Catholic Church compared to lay rulers?

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 12/28/2010. contact us at