Alcuin of York

Alcuin of York
(c. 730/735-804)
   An Anglo-Saxon scholar, trained in the tradition of the Venerable Bede, Alcuin was the most important and influential of Charlemagne's court scholars. As one of Charlemagne's most trusted advisors, Alcuin participated in important church councils and guided Charlemagne through some of his more important political decisions. Although he was not an original thinker, he was widely respected for his encyclopedic knowledge. His influence is perhaps demonstrated by the importance and number of his students, including Louis the Pious and Rabanus Maurus, and the warm regard they had for him because of his incomparable talent as a teacher. Indeed Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer and possibly one of Alcuin's students, described him as "the greatest scholar of the day." He is no longer recognized as the author of the Libri Carolini or the creator of the form of writing called Carolingian minuscule. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most important figures in the Carolingian Renaissance because of his teaching and because of his numerous writings, including commentaries on various books of the Bible (Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and the Gospel of John), a new edition of the Bible, hagiography, poems, letters, and works on grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (the trivium, the three most basic disciplines of the seven liberal arts).
   Little is known for certain of Alcuin's early years. He was born in 730/735 to a noble family of York and was a kinsman of the great missionary saint, Willibrord. He entered the cathedral school at York, where he received an education that eventually brought him to the attention of Charlemagne, having prepared him to help shape a renaissance in the great king's realm. The school had recently been founded by Bede's friend and student, Egbert, who introduced the great Anglo-Saxon's love of learning there and invited Aethelberht (or Aelberht) to oversee the creation of a library. It was Aethelberht who taught Alcuin and instilled the love of books and learning that Alcuin bore with him through the rest of his life, an affection that had a strong effect on the Franks and was the foundation of their cultural revival.
   Aethelberht evidently recognized Alcuin's talents, for he took his student with him to the continent on two occasions. On these trips Alcuin collected books and met other scholars; he met Charlemagne for the first time on a trip in 768. When Aethelberht succeeded to the position of archbishop of York, Alcuin took over the cathedral school of York, and when Aethelberht retired in 780, Alcuin also took over direction of the library. The new archbishop, Eanbald, had such confidence in Alcuin that he sent the scholar to Rome to collect the pallium (liturgical vestment granted by the pope to bishops with metropolitan authority), and on Alcuin's return he met Charlemagne at Parma and was invited to take charge of the king's court school. After gaining permission from Eanbald, Alcuin returned to France and spent the rest of his life in the Frankish kingdom, with the exception of two periods, 786 and 790-793, when he returned to his native land.
   It was in the service of Charlemagne that Alcuin made his mark on history. From 781 until his retirement in 794, Alcuin was a member of Charlemagne's peripatetic court. At court, he participated in the cultural and religious revival that Charlemagne promoted and was, no doubt, important in the direction that the revival took. He also led the court school, teaching a broad range of subjects, including astronomy, to Charlemagne, his children, and many others who went on to contribute to the Carolingian Renaissance. He brought the great Anglo-Saxon tradition with him to create, as he once wrote, a new, and better, Athens in the Frankish kingdom, one that honored learning in devotion to God. He was rewarded by Charlemagne with the revenues from several abbeys, and at his retirement was made abbot of the important monastery of St. Martin of Tours, even though he may never have taken monastic vows and took orders no higher than the level of deacon. Even in retirement he continued to influence the cultural and religious life of his adopted homeland. He contributed to and promoted the handwriting reform at Tours, even though he did not create Carolingianminuscule. He wrote treatises on a variety of religious and secular subjects and produced a new edition of the Bible, now lost, which he presented to Charlemagne on Christmas day 800. On May 19, 804, Alcuin died at Tours, having composed his own epitaph: "Alcuin was my name and wisdom always my love."
   A scholar and teacher, Alcuin's influence was felt in many areas during his lifetime, not the least of which was education. He wrote a treatise on the liberal arts and resurrected the system of the seven liberal arts devised by Cassiodorus. He taught a number of topics, including chant, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic (logic), mathematics, and astronomy. His method of teaching is preserved in a dialogue with one of Charlemagne's sons that reveals Alcuin's extraordinary pedagogical talents. It is a dialogue in which student and teacher alternate asking and answering questions. He brought encyclopedic learning, which he dispensed to his many students who, in turn, passed it along to their students, including Rabanus Maurus, the preceptor of Germany. Indeed, his active and energetic mind, his comprehensive (though derivative) knowledge, was precisely what was needed for the first generation of the Carolingian Renaissance.
   Alcuin was more, however, than the teacher to the renaissance, he was an important contributor. He supplied the scholars in the Frankish kingdom with numerous books from his native England. He wrote over 300 letters and over 220 poems that reveal his ability with Latin, his religious and intellectual concerns, and his own attractive personality. His poetry included light verse to students, for example the Lament for the Cuckoo with its echoes of the great Roman poet Virgil, hymns, and acrostic poems to Charlemagne. He also wrote longer, more serious poems, including one on the Viking destruction of Lindisfarne abbey in 793, a life of St. Willibrord, and The Bishops, Knights, and Saints of York. He also wrote works of hagiography and treatises on the virtues and vices, the nature of the soul, and confession.
   He was a great influence on Carolingian religious life and a staunch defender of religious orthodoxy. He reformed the liturgy of the Frankish church to bring it into line with Roman usage, revised the mass book, and composed a series of masses drawn from the Anglo-Irish tradition of piety. He advised Charlemagne on religious policy and criticized the king's brutal Saxon policy and forced baptisms. Indeed, Alcuin's influence is clearly evident in Charlemagne's second Saxon capitulary of 797. He was an ardent foe of Felix of Urgel and the Adoptionist heresy, which denied that Jesus Christ in his humanity was the natural son of God. Alcuin presented the case against it at the Synod of Frankfurt in 794 and wrote a number of treatises against it, including a longer commentary on the Trinity. It is likely that he also participated in the debate on the decisions of the Second Council of Nicaea, 787, approving veneration of icons, which were misunderstood in the Frankish world because of a faulty translation. Although it is now believed that Theodulf of Orléans, not Alcuin, wrote the official work, the Libri Carolini (the Caroline Books), he influenced their content and may have had an editorial hand in their preparation.
   Finally, it should be noted that Alcuin also influenced political life in the Frankish kingdom. He was used by Charlemagne as an ambassador to King Offa of Mercia in 790, and frequently served on the king's council. Alcuin sent numerous letters to Charlemagne on a wide variety of subjects, including Frankish relations with the Saxons and the duties of kings and nobles. His most famous letter, however, was written in 799 and concerned the great powers of the world. After noting that the imperial throne in Constantinople was vacant, and the holder of the throne of Peter had been attacked and depended on Charlemagne's protection, Alcuin wrote:
   • Third, there is the Royal Dignity . . . in power a ruler more excellent than the aforementioned ones, in wisdom more radiant, and in grandeur more sublime. Behold, now in you alone lies the salvation of the churches of Christ. You are the avenger of crimes, the guide of those who err, the consoler of the afflicted, the uplifter of the righteous. (Riché, p. 120)
   This letter clearly reveals Alcuin's understanding of Charlemagne's power, and it is generally recognized as Alcuin's endorsement of Charlemagne's acceptance of the imperial crown in the following year. Indeed, throughout the 790s, Alcuin and Charlemagne's other advisors had begun to speak of the king in imperial terms. It is most likely that Alcuin himself actively encouraged his friend to accept the imperial dignity because it would be a means of resolving the crisis in Italy and also because Charlemagne surely had earned the right to be called emperor.
   See also
 ♦ Bullough, Donald. "Alcuin and the Kingdom of Heaven: Liturgy, Theology, and the Carolingian Age." In Carolingian Essays, ed. Uta-Renate Blumenthal. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1983, pp. 1-69.
 ♦ Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. Alcuin, Friend of Charlemagne: His World and His Work. New York: Macmillan, 1951.
 ♦ Dutton, Paul Edward, ed. Carolingian Civilization: A Reader. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1993.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500-900, 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1957.
 ♦ Mayvaert, Paul. "The Authorship of the 'Libri Carolini': Observations Prompted by a Recent Book." Revue bénédictine 89 (1979): 29-57.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
 ♦ Wallach, Luitpold, Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Literature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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