Charlemagne the Humanist

Humanities, APUSH, constitutional law, cognitive psychology, religion and social justice: common classes for a student to take at many schools today. The classes all relate to a similar form of education: a liberal arts education. This term “liberal arts” has been tossed around a lot lately, being seen as either good and bad by many a politician. But where does this concept originate?

One of the biggest ideals within humanism is the idea of the necessity of education. From the beginning of its conception, “studia humanitatis” or “humanism” stressed the necessity of education in “arts subjects – language, literature, history and social studies,” (Cambridge, 1). In The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, Jill Kraye describes one of the first instances of this humanism ideal of education being instituted, long before the Renaissance, with king Charlemagne. Charlemagne, during his rule, completely reformed the system of education. In one of his decrees, he ordered that, “schools be established in which boys may learn to read,” and that in the schools, children would, “Correct carefully the Psalms, the signs in writing, the songs, the calendar, the grammar in each monastery or bishopric, and the catholic books; because often men desire to pray to god properly, but they pray badly because of incorrect books. And do not permit mere boys to corrupt them in reading or writing,” (Documents, 97). Education for this purpose falls under a category of Humanism called “Christian Humanism,” (McKay, 416).

Seeing his decrees and reasoning behind his actions, one can view Charlemagne as the father of Christian Humanism. As one of the many sects of humanism, Christian Humanism stresses the ideals of education in the arts subjects, but its purpose is to find links between classical literature and Christian ideals. Looking at the reasoning behind his schools, which was shown far before the renaissance, and to allow for a better understanding of the Christian texts, one can see that his ideals very closely match those of the Christian Humanists. Through his actions, one can see how Charlemagne’s actions influenced the Church in the future, causing higher literacy rates and thus a higher understanding of the purpose of the church, and allowing people to learn more about themselves and God, and thus completing his goal successfully (Kraye, 4).

Works Cited

Bettenson, Henry S. Documents of the Christian Church. 2nd. United States: Oxford University Press, 1963. Print.

Kraye, Jill. The Cambridge companion to Renaissance humanism. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

McKay, John, Bennet Hill, John Buckler, Clare Crowston, and Merry Wiesner-Hanks. A History of Western Society. 9th ed. B. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008, 407-8 412-8. Print



  1. harry242424

    Hey Alex, I really enjoyed reading your blog and I learned a lot from it. I had no idea there were earlier forms of Christian based Humanism! It sounds like Charlemagne made great strides forward in terms of ideology, but do you agree with what he did? Do you think this kind of Humanism would be affective today or would you change certain aspects of his ideas to better ‘fit’ into today’s society?

  2. mralexacademic2014

    Hey Harry,
    Thanks so much for reading, and great question! Personally, while I agree with many humanist ideals, such as education, I also disagree with many, especially those that come from Christian Humanism. As an established Atheist, I find that the application of religion to classic texts to be unimportant to me, and therefore, while I agree with Charlemagne’s decision to create schools, I do not agree with his reasoning. To directly answer your question: I agree with what he did, but not why.
    In your second question, in modern day application, I find that his ideas would not fit very will in our society. While a few private schools are religious institutions, most schools, public or private show a specific separation between church and state, and thus reading texts and attempting to find their relation to Christian values would not be very accepted in our present culture, although I admit, I have a bias due to my lack of faith. But what do you think about his ideas?
    Thanks again for reading, hope you enjoyed it,

  3. vijaye

    Hi Alex,

    I think you did an excellent job in this blog post, showing how the concept of “liberal arts” originated. Charlemagne seemed extremely successful with regards to the implementation of his beliefs. A lot of this can be attributed to the close relationship between the church and state. Do you believe that the separation between church and state nowadays is a hinderance to some of his ideals being used? If so, do you believe that there should be a closer relationship between them if it meant higher literacy rates, for example?


  4. allie0607

    Awesome job Alex! I think you do a great job making the concept understandable by providing modern-day examples such as the classes. I was wondering, What would Charlemagne’s opinion be on modern day education and how would he imagine an ideal modern education system? Thanks!

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