Network Ecologies

Carolingian Intellectuals and Their Network(s)

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other global social networking tools, networks, and ways in which we can (re)construct and analyze them, have become an important focus of research across the disciplines. This is no less true for those of us studying the premodern world, where networks (whether social, political, familial or intellectual) were both the fabric and the driving force of societies.

This short article and the Network_Ecologies Symposium talk "Scholars, Teachers and Students in Early Medieval Europe: Towards a Total Network" draw on material from my ongoing Carolingian Intellectual Networks project, the broad aim of which is to collect data on and map all the various connections between scholars, teachers and students in the late eighth through ninth centuries. The intellectuals I am studying were located across a large area of Europe comprising what is now France, the Low Countries, Switzerland, western parts of Germany and Austria, and northern Italy. This vast geographical area constituted the Carolingian Empire, a territory united by the military campaigns of Charlemagne in the later eighth century, and holding together, more or less, through the reigns of his successors until the late ninth century. This early medieval period—from about the 770s to the later ninth century—is usually referred to as the Carolingian Renaissance. As the term "Renaissance" might suggest, the period was distinguished by its rich and sophisticated literary culture. Modern scholars have long been interested in Carolingian intellectuals and in the centres that housed them, usually monasteries or cathedrals, or the courts of aristocrats and kings. [1] 

To date, studies have tended to focus on individual scholars or individual schools, and typically on the very small number of individuals or centres for which we have the most data. Crucially, these studies are text-based. Maps and diagrams might be used to illustrate or clarify a point, but rarely work to enhance data and provoke further discovery. This reflection interrogates two recent (and representative) text-based studies of early medieval scholars and intellectual networks. Through visualizing data captured from these studies, I explore the challenges encountered in reconstructing early medieval intellectual networks and demonstrate the limitations of text-based network analyses.

As we shall see, these are of necessity selective, offering in consequence only partial or fractured glimpses of the whole. If we are to reconstruct a total intellectual network in all its complexity, we need to start exploring the possibilities offered by new digital tools, preferably tools that allow for dynamic visualizations of our data. In addition, I hope that this project demonstrates the power of the visualization process itself, a process that enables—even requires—us to ask different and larger questions of our data. What we know about Carolingian intellectuals we know because they wrote—to each other, for each other, occasionally about themselves. Quite possibly the richest source of information about Carolingian intellectuals—their interactions, connections, and networks—are the collections of letters that survive from the period. [2] The two studies I have chosen to interrogate in this post use letters as their primary source for establishing and discussing connections between Carolingian intellectuals.


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