I am working on a Carolingian latin letters corpus, edited in the XIX th century by Dümmler, a German philologist. It can be found online, on the Monumenta Germaniae Historica website. They have been written by some intellectuals who lived in Charlemagne’s court. The Frank emperor indeed surrounded himself with numerous scholars : theologians, grammarians or poets, for example. This search for knowledge has been performed in the context of a cultural, intellectual, religious and political reform : the unification of the empire, which was to be accomplished through the unification of the liturgy, revealed the necessity of questioning about the standardisation and the transmission of the Scriptures.
The authors of these letters are then varied, and so are their subjects. They evoke the rite of baptism, they describe some conflicts, or they aim at dedicating some works to an important character. But one has to keep in mind that, while conveying a global vision of the cultural preoccupations inherent in this period, they necessarily reflect only the elites’ questioning, and not the whole society’s concerns. So, we must give importance to their content as much as to their medium : they need to be read both as historical documents and as literary texts.
Given that their epistolary aspect assigns them a fictitious dimension, they cannot be neutral. They are at first rooted in a communication strategy. The importance of written word in the Middle Ages reminds us that every text has a reason for being : circumstantial writing, generally required by an important person or by a patron, it aims at delivering a very specific message. Letter reception was furthermore public in the Carolingian age, and this multiplied the number of addressees, extending their influence over the private sphere. This is why we can detect in them an orientation of the writing of history, which was also very perceptible in many documents from this period. The writing of their society’s history by the Carolingians themselves expresses a real will to find some roots into a more ancient past, will which has to be taken into account when we study some documents contemporary with this period.
But this is also the great plasticity of the epistolary genre which seems essential : not codified yet in the IXth century, it could receive very varied literary genres (poetry, theology treatises, exhortation to the sovereign…) and reveal all of their strength while letting appear a glimpse of subjectivity which makes part of the letter writing, and which started to emerge in this period. Besides, the literary canons also influenced the redaction, and do not allow us to consider these epistles as some objective documents.
Even if thus it is possible to note that the pragmatic aspect is partly erased in favour of a literary one, one still has to be very careful while analysing these documents, which must be considered as historical testimonies as much as speeches expressing an interiority. It is so by remaining aware of all these issues that I wish to approach these texts ; by taking into account both history and literature, both text and mentality histories, both poetic and rhetoric, in order to highlight their cultural wealth in the best way.