Testing for Political Harmonization

This site designed and maintained by
Prof. Glenn Fulcher



The Computist Test of 809 CE
Testing and Politics
Testing and assessment has always been used as a political tool. Indeed, it seems that most of the earliest uses of tests were not only to certify that someone was 'competent' in a discipline, and therefore able to practice. Of course, they did this. But the real purpose was to dictate what 'knowledge' was acceptable, to harmonize practice, and thereby to achieve unity within the state. This is the explicit role of education in Plato's Republic, which laid down the principles for anti-individualistic uses of education and tests that were adopted by future collectivist states (Popper, 2002).

This feature is about one particular test, the earliest we have that was used for political harmonization, dating to 809 CE.

If you would like to read more about the political uses of tests, you can download:
Fulcher, G. (2009). Test Use and Political Philosophy. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 29, 3 - 30. This is made available on this web site with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

The Political Context of 9th Century Europe

If a powerful state can use testing to enforce a single model for reference and practice, it can enhance its own identity through conformity. The earliest example of a test used for this purpose comes from the time of Charlemagne (800 - 814 CE).

Charlemagne expanded the Frankish empire across Europe. This was achieved primarily through military conquest. However, there is also evidence of the forced conversion of 'pagans' to Christianity, and mass execution of Saxon populations as early as 782. It is even argued that aggression against Denmark was a major cause of the 'reprisals' that we now think of as the Viking raids (Ferguson, 2009). This map shows the extent of the empire in 813 CE. It was the only time in history that Germany and France were united, and so today is illegitimately idealized as a golden European age (Black, 2005).

In 800 CE, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in St. Peter's, Rome. He set about creating a Christian empire based upon the Roman model. The video is an extract that puts the role of Charlemagne into context. He soon realized that to run an empire of this size he would need a civil bureaucracy and an educational system. During his rule he introduced the monastic schools that would later become the basis for the first universities.

One role of the schools and the bureaucracy was to help in the creation of a single identity that could be imposed upon the diverse peoples of Europe: a Catholic state controlled by the Emperor and the Pope. Part of achieving this was to enforce the common use of a single liturgical calendar, so that everyone celebrated Christian festivals at the same time; and this is where the test for computists comes in.

The Computist Test

Jones (1963) tells the story of a document that "...reports the results of an oral examination administered in the empire of Charles the Great in A.D. 809." The examination is set firmly within the Carolingian need for uniformity throughout the empire, or as Jones (1963: 20) puts it:

    Charles, who was above all a great military organizer, had a legionnaire's passion for uniformity, which he thought essential to maintenance of order and development of culture. He therefore promulgated capitula applicable to every corner of his vast empire. One method of assuring conformity with these promulgations was to dispatch missi palatini to every province, where the clerks, whether civil or ecclesiastical, were examined.

In Charles' schools, specialists in arriving at standard times and dates for feasts and festivals were called 'computists'. If you would like to see something of the complexity of their task, why not have a go yourself. As everyone in the new empire had to celebrate at the same time, it was essential to control who could be a computist, and to ensure that they all arrived at the same solution that was acceptable to state and Church. The text itself: a report of an examination board, made to some central agency, indicating the specific topics on which a group of "computists" were examined and the range of answers received. The lack of variety in the responses indicates that the questions were posed orally to the group as a whole and that discursive replies were accepted; the responses are merely summaries. The questions increase in difficulty, and move forward progressively, so that a new question depends upon preceding discussion. Almost without exception the questions are framed in particular terms but involve understanding of some general principle (ibid., 22).
All of the questions are based upon a single text that was being used as the standard in the empire, Bede's (725) On the Reckoning of Time. This is the earliest example of a test for which there are no 'correct' answers as such, except in so far as they are required as a standard 'acceptable' response to show conformity with the requirements of the state. Again, as Jones (ibid., 23) puts it: "In textbooks, as in fundamental practice, the Carolingians pressed for uniformity, and as such an examination was one form of pressure....the examiners had as one of the several aims the enforcing of a strict party line."

Here, you can download the English translation.

Political Harmonization Today

Tests and testing systems are still used as tools for harmonization, for bringing pressure to bear on institutions and individuals to conform to a single model and way of doing things. The reasons are pretty much the same: the creation and maintenance of a uniformity that is believed to create 'identity' and provide the state and its institutions with additional strength and legitimacy. Thus, we see that economic and political pressure in Europe to 'link' tests to the CEFR has as its main goal the demonstration of "compliance with a mandate" (Kaftandjieva, 2007: 35). And some, including Bonnet (2007: 672), would like to see "...a common educational policy in language learning, teaching and assessment, both at the EU level and beyond." New empire building indeed.

The practical problems associated with using tests to build political empires are numerous. For assessment the most important consequence is that the "juggernaut" of a single bureaucratically sponsored model, which pays little attention to test purpose or effect, stifles local creativity and responsiveness to learner needs (Davies, 2008: 438). An a-theoretical model, with little basis in second language acquisition theory or even observational research, is reified through institutionalisation. This is just one of the inevitable prices to be paid when centralizing institutions attempt to gain command and control powers over education through testing (Shohamy, 2001; Fulcher, 2004; 2010).

Useful Web Sites

The History of Charlemagne from History World.

Charlemagne from Wikipedia.


Black, J. (2005). Using History. London: Hodder Arnold.

Bonnet, G. (2007). The CEFR and educational policies in Europe. Modern Language Journal 91, 4, 669 - 672.

Davies, A. (2008). Ethics and professionalism. In Shohamy, E. (Ed.) Language Testing and Assessment. Vol 7. Encyclopedia of Language and Education. New York: Springer, 429 443.

Ferguson, R. (2009). The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings. London: Allen Lane.

Fulcher, G. (2004). Deluded by artifices? The Common European Framework and harmonization. Language Assessment Quarterly 1, 4, 253 - 266.

Fulcher, G. (2009). Test Use and Political Philosophy. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 29, 3 - 30. (Made available with the kind permission of Cambridge University Press)

Fulcher, G. (2010). Practical Language Testing. London: Hodder Education.

Jones, C. W. (1963). An Early Medieval Licensing Examination. History of Education Quarterly 3, 1, 19 - 29.

Kaftandjieva, G. (2007). Quantifying the quality of linkage between language examinations and the CEF. In C. Carlsen, and E. Moe (Eds.) A human touch to language testing Oslo: Novus Press, 33 - 43.

Popper, K. (2002). The Open Society and Its Enemies. London: Routledge.

Shohamy, E. (2001). The Power of Tests. London: Longman/Pearson Education.

Glenn Fulcher
February 2010