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Early Medieval Europe, 2003, 12-4, 339-363.


The starting point of all modern discussion of Charlemagne’s court library is, as of so much else, a lapidary statement in Einhard’s Vita Karoli. The penultimate section of the Emperor’s testamentary breviarium, dated 811, with which the Life concludes records that: ‘he decreed that the books of which he had assembled a great collection in his library’ (magnam in bibliotheca sua copiam congregavit) were to be available for purchase ‘at the appropriate price’ (iusto pretio) by anyone who wanted them, and the proceeds distributed to the poor. Two other chapters in the Life hint at some of the books which were available in the bibliotheca in both the pre-Aachen and in the Aachen years. In the one devoted to Charles’s ‘habits’, we are told that at meals he would have read to him historiae et antiquorum res gestae (words that have been surprisingly variously understood!), followed by the notorious claim that ‘he also delighted in the books of St. Augustine and especially those that are given the title De civitate Dei’. In the following chapter, concerned with Charles’s studies or cultivation of the liberal arts, Einhard reports that he learnt grammatica from Peter of Pisa and that under the direction of Alcuin he ‘studied rhetoric, dialectic and especially astronomy’.

Ten or fifteen years before the testamenta, the mostly derivative poem introducing a collection of extracts from patristic commentaries on the Octateuch, which Wigbod (of Trier?) had created specifically for the royal court, asks rhetorically: ‘Who can even list the collection of books which your sententia brought together from many lands and revived the written heritage of the Fathers of old?’ The interpretation of sententia proposed by the late Professor Bernhard Bischoff in 1965 – namely, that in the early 780s the king commanded religious communities in his dominions to send or bring to the court copies of important texts – still seems to me defensible, although Bischoff himself later abandoned it, and doubts have been raised whether the term could have had that meaning in the Carolingian period. But Wigbod’s emphasis on patristic texts is worth noting, and remembering.

The problem is how to fill the court armaria, and fill out these skeletal statements, on the basis of surviving manuscripts, or of lost but known ones. Early attempts to identify blocks of books of court origin in ninth-century monastic library lists did not survive subsequent criticism. The foundations of a more solid and more enduring approach were laid (in my view) by Rudolf Beer’s fine introduction in 1910 to the remarkable colour facsimiles of several pages of the ‘Golden’ or ‘Dagulf ’ Psalter at Vienna. Beer argued that a range of features demanded that this was a book created at the Frankish court for presentation to Pope Hadrian, who, however, died (in December 795) before it could be sent to him; and that its links with other luxury codices, mostly Gospel-books, constituting the so-called ‘Ada’ group, similarly demonstrated their origin at the court in the last two decades of the century.

Read the article on Biblioteca Malatestiana