I am looking for any noteworthy developments, formulations, or codifications of ethics that occurred between 770 and 890 AD in any country or empire that was nominally Christian. If the answer relates to Charlemagne, even better. Who were the theologians, legal scholars, noblemen, rulers, or clergy that put forth these ideas or enacted them in law or custom?

If you know of several, which would you say had the longest lasting influence?

The ideas need not be specifically related to Christian theology; they only need to be informed by such a worldview. In a different epoch, an answer might include the Code of Justinian or the Magna Carta.

Research note:

I just came across a wonderful resource: https://historyofphilosophy.net/ It has podcasts from Kings College in London on a wide range of topics, including several about the Carolingian Renaissance and John Scotus Eriugna.

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    I truly like this question subject!
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 21:06
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    Glad you like it. Every now and then, I want to go beyond what I can lazily find by searching en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_the_9th_century Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 21:21
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    This short article Charlemagne’s Reforms should prove the value of this question. Quote: " His reform focused on the strengthening of the church’s power structure, advancing the skill and moral quality of the clergy, standardizing liturgical practices, improving on the basic tenets of the faith and moral, and rooting out paganism. His authority was now extended over church and state; he could discipline clerics, control ecclesiastical property, and define orthodox doctrine." Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 3:12
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    But there may not be much in the 9th century though, see this book chapter "Early Medieval Ethics which says "The renaissance of learning, which had its center at the court of Charlemagne (742-814) did not give rise to innovation in moral thought." and named only John Scotus Eriugena (c. 813-880) "engaged in a heated dispute on predestination and foreknowledge which relates directly to the foundation of ethics..." Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 3:22
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    So indirectly his influence might be one element of the answer to your question. Entries about him from the Wikipedia as well as Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has Influence section. Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 21:04

2 Answers 2


The Carolingian Renaissance produced much reforms, including in the church, as well as much learning, patronized by Emperor Charlemagne and his grandson Charles the Bald. See Ken Graham's answer for more details.

But in the area of Ethics, the area the OP was focusing, the period "did not give rise to innovation in moral thought", according to a 1992 book chapter Early Medieval Ethics by G. Scott Davis, a professor in Religion & Ethics at the University of Richmond, which can be read online or in pdf.

However, Stephen Stewart, writing in a Philosophy Now magazine article "The Carolingians" (2005) has very positive assessment of the period within the larger scope of philosophy:

Thinkers such as Alcuin of York (c.735-804) and John Scottus Eriugena (c810-c877) are not as well known as their later counterparts. However, their substantial role in the history of philosophy should not be ignored or underestimated. Critics may say that they contributed little of originality and merely transmitted the philosophical musings of the ancient Greeks and others.


It is doubtful that the likes of Eriugena will ever hold as great a position as Renaissance thinkers such as Macchiavelli either in the popular mind or in the pantheon of western philosophy. However, to ignore them and their contribution is to distort the history of philosophy and the lasting legacy of the Carolingians.

Here are then, the 2 major contributors to early medieval philosophy of lasting significance during this Carolingian Renaissance:

Alcuin of York

c 735-804 AD: Cath. Ency. entry, Wiki. He wrote "De Virtutibus Et Vitiis Liber" (Book about the Virtues and Vices): Latin text (pdf here), English translation.

Quote from "Early Medieval Ethics":

The works of Alcuin (735--804), the leading figure in Charles' reform, reflect a period of consolidation and are instructive in their concerns. Introducing his De grammatica, for example, Alcuin pens a short introduction to philosophy which stresses, in Boethian fashion, the need to free the soul from the vicissitudes of Fortune and transitory involvements and to discipline itself with study. A dialogue on rhetoric closes with a discussion of the cardinal virtues and their parts. His treatise On the Virtues and the Vices, drawn primarily from scripture and the sermons of St. Augustine, presents a concise statement of the relation of faith and works, emphasizing the primacy of charity, fear of God, and chastity as the vita angelica. Alcuin traces the fundamental moral directive to reject evil and do the good back to Psalm33, and derives from it the four cardinal virtues. It is of interest that a list of eight principal vices and a new set of subordinate virtues emergea set which includes peacefulness, mercy, patience and humility.

Quote from "The Carolingians":

... Under Alcuin, knowledge was delineated into the seven liberal arts: the verbal arts of the trivium, namely grammar, logic and rhetoric and the mathematical arts or quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. According to David Luscombe, this classification of knowledge served as a cradle in which subsequent philosophical thought was nurtured.

... He also helped establish a thorough grounding in the arts as a prerequisite for the educated classes for centuries. As a result, while ever more fractious theological disputes broke out about the nature of souls, predestination and free will, philosophical concepts would increasingly be put into good use.

... It was also Alcuin who saw to it that the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius became a central part of the arts curriculum, ensuring a central role for the subject, according to Carabine. She wrote: “...the emphasis on reason in Christian education signalled the beginning of a tradition that was to come to its full blossoming in the works of the thirteenth-century master Thomas Aquinas.”

John Scottus Eriugena

c 800-877 AD: Cath. Ency. entry, Stanf. Ency. Phil. entry, Wiki. His major contribution was in the foundations of ethics in relation to God's foreknowledge and predestination. His archbishop engaged him to refute a growing heresy led by Gottschalk and as a response he wrote De divina praedestinatione (On Divine Predestination). Peter Adamson published a podcast "198. Grace Notes: Eriugena and the Predestination Controversy" on that very topic.

Quote from "Early Medieval Ethics":

Half a century later John Scotus Eriugena (c. 813-880), working at the court of Charles the Bald (Charles I, King of France, 823-877; r. 843-877), engaged in a heated dispute on predestination and foreknowledge which relates directly to the foundations of ethics. If God is omniscient, are not all human actions immutably fixed and inescapable? Taking his start from Augustine, Eriugena argued that language about God must of necessity be metaphorical and nonliteral. Hence talk of God's knowledge as preceding human acts is misleading. God exists in an eternal present without change. His understanding remains merely foreknowledge in the divine eternity and is in no way coercive. Eriugena remained primarily a cosmologist, however, though book four of his De divisione naturae does outline a moral psychology based on the allegorical interpretation of Genesis 3.

Quote from "The Carolingians":

... He develops the notion of negative theology which he attributed to pseudo-Dionysius and explores the idea that descriptions of God can only be held to be true when they are negated. God is by his very nature unknowable, even by himself – for if he was to know himself, he would be in a sense circumscribed and limited.

... Eriugena also had the audacity to question the shibbolleths of the great Augustine and shaped Christianity with a bold infusion of Neo-Platonism, uniting eastern and western philosophy. The influence of the “generality of scope and unaccustomed ideas” in his thought has been far-reaching. ...

... Writers have pointed out that Eriugena manages to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable, laying forth the relation between God and creation in an ingenious way which preserves both divine transcendence and omnipresence. ...


What innovations in ethics occurred within Christendom during the 9th Century?

To start with, Charlemagne banned work on Sundays in 789.

In the West, Emperor Charlemagne in 789 banned work on Sunday as a violation of the third commandment of God. In 1234, under Pope Gregory ІХ, the law of Sunday rest became a universal practice in the Latin Church. - The History of Sunday Observance

Charlemagne once elevated to the dignity of Holy Roman Emperor, imposed Gregorian Chant as the norm for ecclesiastical chant throughout his kingdom.

At his request, Pope Hadrian I sent monks from Rome to the court of Aachen to instruct his chapel's choir in 774. This event helped spark the spread of traditional Gregorian chant through the Frankish churches. In 789, Charlemagne also issued a decree to his empire's clergy, instructing them to learn (and sing properly) the Cantus Romanus, or Roman chant. Music schools were also founded under Charlemagne's reign, and monks transcribing music helped preserve the Gregorian chant into the present day.

Scholars debate whether the essentials of the melodies originated in Rome, before the 7th century, or in Francia, in the 8th and early 9th centuries. Traditionalists point to evidence supporting an important role for Pope Gregory the Great between 590 and 604, such as that presented in H. Bewerung's article in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Scholarly consensus, supported by Willi Apel and Robert Snow, asserts instead that Gregorian chant developed around 750 from a synthesis of Roman and Gallican chant commissioned by Carolingian rulers in France. During a visit to Gaul in 752-753, Pope Stephen II had celebrated Mass using Roman chant. According to Charlemagne, his father Pepin abolished the local Gallican rites in favour of the Roman use, in order to strengthen ties with Rome. In 785-786, at Charlemagne's request, Pope Hadrian I sent a papal sacramentary with Roman chants to the Carolingian court. This Roman chant was subsequently modified, influenced by local styles and Gallican chant, and later adapted into the system of eight modes. This Frankish-Roman Carolingian chant, augmented with new chants to complete the liturgical year, became known as "Gregorian." Originally the chant was probably so named to honour the contemporary Pope Gregory II, but later lore attributed the authorship of chant to his more famous predecessor Gregory the Great. Gregory was portrayed dictating plainchant inspired by a dove representing the Holy Spirit, giving Gregorian chant the stamp of holy authority. The myth of Gregory's authorship is popularly accepted as fact to this day.

Gregorian chant appeared in a remarkably uniform state across Europe within a short time. Charlemagne, once elevated to Holy Roman Emperor, aggressively spread Gregorian chant throughout his empire to consolidate religious and secular power, requiring the clergy to use the new repertory on pain of death. From English and German sources, Gregorian chant spread north to Scandinavia, Iceland and Finland. In 885, Pope Stephen V banned the Slavonic liturgy, leading to the ascendancy of Gregorian chant in Eastern Catholic lands including Poland, Moravia, Slovakia, and Austria. - Gregorian chant

Charlemagne made reforms within the Church:

Unlike his father, Pepin, and uncle Carloman, Charlemagne expanded the reform program of the church. The deepening of the spiritual life was later to be seen as central to public policy and royal governance. His reform focused on the strengthening of the church’s power structure, advancing the skill and moral quality of the clergy, standardizing liturgical practices, improving on the basic tenets of the faith and moral, and rooting out paganism. His authority was now extended over church and state; he could discipline clerics, control ecclesiastical property, and define orthodox doctrine. Despite the harsh legislation and sudden change, he had grown a well-developed support from the clergy who approved his desire to deepen the piety and morals of his Christian subjects. - Church Reform

Charlemagne standardize silver currency in his day.

As Charlemagne conquered Western Europe, he recognized the need for a standard currency. Instead of a variety of different gold coins, his government produced and disseminated silver coinage that could be traded across the empire—the first common currency on the continent since the Roman era. The currency’s system of dividing a Carolingian pound of pure silver into 240 pieces was so successful that France kept a basic version of it until the French Revolution.

Europe was entering its fourth century of the "Dark Ages" when Charlemagne was born in A.D. 742, a time marked by frequent warfare, few important cultural achievements and the virtual cessation of learning. Charlemagne became ruler of one of those kingdoms in Germany in A.D. 768 and immediately set about expanding his territory. Through the course of more than 50 battles, most of which he led in person, he'd conquered almost all of mainland Europe. Everywhere his rule was established, Charlemagne instituted the same reforms, creating a common identity in people from eastern Germany to southern Spain. Commerce boomed. One of the most important changes Charlemagne made was abandoning the gold standard and putting all of Europe on the same silver currency. Trade became easier and the continent prospered, aided by laws that took some power away from the nobles and let the peasantry participate in commerce. The lower classes benefited in other ways under Charlemagne, who was frustrated with the nobility's sense of entitlement and had deep sympathy for the peasants, according to historians. Among other legislation, all local regional governors were subject to regular inspections by royal emissaries to make sure no injustices were being done. Educational reform was also high on Charlemagne's agenda. The progressive leader loved to learn, historians say, and so encouraged schooling throughout his kingdom in his chosen lingua franca, Latin. - How Charlemagne Changed the World

More information may be gleaned from the following articles:

  • Early Medieval Ethics
  • Alcuin (Catholic Encyclopedia): An eminent educator, scholar, and theologian born about 735; died 19 May, 804. He came of noble Northumbrian parentage. While returning from Rome in March, 781, he met Charlemagne at Parma, and was induced by that prince, whom he greatly admired, to remove to France and take up residence at the royal court as "Master of the Palace School".

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