Paul the Deacon

Paul the Deacon
(c. 720-c. 799)
   Best known for his important work of history, Historia Langobardorum (The History of the Lombards), Paul the Deacon was also a teacher and monk who wrote a life of Pope Gregory the Great, poetry, and works on pedagogy and monastic life. He was an influential figure at two royal courts, that of his own Lombard people and that of the great Carolingian king, Charlemagne. As a Lombard he benefited from the support of learning and culture initiated by King Liutprand, but also suffered from the collapse of the Lombard kingdom in Italy under the advance of Charlemagne. His learning, however, attracted the attention of the great and powerful, and his history of his people was very popular and influential in the Middle Ages; it remains the best source for the history of the Lombards from their origins to the mid-eighth century.
   Paul was born about 720 to a noble Lombard family. His father, Warnefrid, and mother, Theodolinda, were of sufficient wealth and prominence that they were able to send their son to a fashionable court for his education. It is unclear whether he was sent to the royal court at Pavia of King Ratchis (r. 744-749), or possibly that of his famous predecessor Liutprand, or to Cividale, the court of the duke of Friuli. In any case, he was most likely taught by a leading scholar of his day, one who was able to teach the young Paul some Greek and Hebrew as well as the curriculum of traditional Christian and Roman Latin authors. By 770, Paul had come to the attention of the Lombard King Desiderius and was made the tutor of the king's daughter, Adelperga. In 774, when the Lombard kingdom in Italy fell to Charlemagne, Paul retired to the community of Monte Cassino and, perhaps unwillingly, became a monk. He remained there until 783, when he journeyed to the court of Charlemagne to plead for the release of his brother, who had been involved in a conspiracy against the great Frankish king, and for the return of his property. The mission ultimately proved successful, and Paul remained at court as an honored guest for the next several years, where he joined other leading scholars such as the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin of York and tutored one of the king's daughters. He returned to Monte Cassino in 785, perhaps with greater commitment to the monastic life thanks to his experience at Charlemagne's court, and remained there until his death in 799.
   Paul wrote a wide variety of works during his career. His earliest composition may have been a poem composed for Adelperga around 770. He wrote other poems during his life, although their number was not great. He wrote a poem in praise of St. Benedict of Nursia and verses in his correspondence with other members of Charlemagne's court. His finest poems include one that is a delightful description of Lake Como and another that is a moving plea to Charlemagne for his brother's freedom. He edited a fourth-century history of Rome and continued it down to the age of Justinian, and wrote a life of Pope Gregory I and a history of the bishops of Metz. His writings also included more religious works, among them a collection of homilies that Charlemagne recommended for use by the clergy in his kingdom and a commentary on the Rule of Benedict that influenced the monastic reforms of the early ninth century.
   His most famous and important work, however, was the Historia Langobardorum, which traces the history of the Lombards from their origins to the death of King Liutprand in 744. The work exists in over one hundred manuscripts and was imitated and used by writers down to the fifteenth century. Paul borrowed from earlier historians, including Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, and Bede, but his most important sources-the anonymous Origo Gentis Langobardorum (The Origin of the Lombard People) and the chronicle of Secundus-are now lost. Although relatively weak on exact chronology, the History is a simple but powerful narrative of the Lombard people. Paul describes the Lombards' origin and their entry into Italy, as well as the many invasions the Lombards were forced to fight off. He writes of the great kings and dukes of the Lombards and tells of the exciting escape of the young king Grimoald from the Avars. He discusses the affairs of popes, bishops, and monks, as well as supernatural events and miracles. His work is a source of great value, and it is regrettable that death kept him from including in his History the tale of the defeat of his people by Charlemagne, whom he admired.
   See also
 ♦ Christie, Neil. The Lombards. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500 to 900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 951-987. London: Longman, 1983.
 ♦ Paul the Deacon. History of the Lombards. Trans. William Dudley Foulke. Ed. Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century. Trans. John Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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