Alcuin Essay - Critical Essays




Alcuin c. 735-804

(Also known as Albinus) English scholar, theologian, letter-writer, and poet.

Alcuin is recognized as a brilliant scholar and a key intellectual figure in Charlemagne's effort to reform education, often referred to as the Carolingian renaissance. As an instructor in Charlemagne's Palace School, he helped to transmit the great ideas of Latin culture from England to France. Without his contribution, many of the classics would be lost to modern times since English manuscripts did not fare well under the regular ransacking of the country by Vikings. Through his teaching, Alcuin spread the thought of St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, Gregory the Great, Bede, and others, instructing not only the King and Queen, but also their sons and daughters, clerics, and some of the most promising men of the continent. Under his supervision, numerous manuscripts were copied and circulated to monastic libraries. Alcuin was also instrumental in developing the Caroline Minuscule, a neat script that was easily read and written; in 769 Charlemagne decreed that all books and official records follow this style. Numerous great works of the past were recopied, specifically many classic Greek mathematical texts that would otherwise have perished. As a theologian, Alcuin worked on a revision of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, chiefly to rid it of errors made by copyists, and composed numerous letters and tracts refuting the positions of heretics. The Missal that he compiled was adopted by the Frankish church and gained popularity throughout much of Europe, leading to improved church unity. As Charlemagne's secretary, Alcuin undoubtedly edited and wrote numerous official statements under the King's name, but details about these efforts are scarce. He also wrote numerous educational treatises, but critics consider them relatively unimportant because of their lack of originality; much more valued by Carolingian historians are his hundreds of extant letters (most written between 793 and 804). Scholars note that it is difficult to underestimate Alcuin's influence, because many of his pupils took on important government and church posts in widespread locations, in turn impacting the lives of countless others.

Biographical Information

Alcuin was born in Northumbria in about 735. Little is known of his parents except that they were probably of high social rank. In about 740 he enrolled in the York cathedral school, founded by Archbishop Egbert. He soon drew the appreciation of Egbert and the master of the school, Aelbert, and accompanied the latter to the continent on several occasions in search of rare manuscripts. In 767 Alcuin assumed duties as director of the school, working to build it into one of the finest in all of Europe, including an impressive library. In 781 he met Charlemagne, who invited him to join the Frankish Dynasty at his Palace School in Aachen in order to develop an educational curriculum and a library. Alcuin kept this post from 782 until 796, returning to England only twice on assignment, between 786 and 787 and between 790 and 793. In 796 he was appointed Abbot of St. Martin at Tours, a position he held until his death in 804. Most of Alcuin's writings originate from the time of his service under Charlemagne.

Major Works

Alcuin wrote in Latin. When he composed his educational works, he was not striving for originality; he wanted textbooks for his students and drew largely from the works of previous masters. These treatises, all from 782 or later, are typically in the form of dialogues and include the Ars grammatica (On Grammar); De orthographia (On Orthography), a work indebted to Bede that consists of a list of problematic words and tips on using and spelling them correctly; Disputatio de rhetorica et de virtutibus sapientissimi Regis Carli et Albini magistri (Debate of the Wisest King Charles and the Teacher Alcuin, about Rhetoric and the Virtues), a fictitious dialogue addressing the choice of correct subjects for debate; De dialectica (On Dialectics), which again finds Charlemagne and Alcuin in dialogue, discussing the differences between rhetoric and dialectic; and Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico (Dialogue of Pepin, the Most Noble and Royal Youth, with the Teacher Albinus), a dialogue of riddles between one of Charlemagne's sons and Alcuin (who sometimes referred to himself as Albinus). His most popular moral treatise was De virtutibus et vitiis (On the Virtues and Vices), which drew on the ideas of St. Augustine. His theological works battling Adoptionist heresy include: Adversus Felicis haeresin libelles (798 or after; Book against the Heresy of Felix); Contra Felicem Urgellitanum episcopum libri VII (800; Seven Books against Felix of Urgel), Contra Elipandum libri IV (800; Four Books Against Elipandus); and De fide sanctae et individuae Trinitatis with the appendix De trinitate ad Fredegisum Quaestiones XXVIII (802; On the Faith of the Holy and Undivided Trinity). De fide was his most important and popular single work, and exists in nearly one hundred surviving manuscripts of all or part of its text. It covers topics from creation to the fall, to Trinitarian relations and eschatology. In it, Alcuin asserts that faith is the first prerequisite to true happiness. Alcuin also wrote several lives of saints and kings and some 130 poems. Perhaps his most celebrated poem is “Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae” (780-82; “Poem on the Saints of the Church at York”), a history of the church at York. His poem “De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii” (793; “On the Destruction of the Monastery at Lindisfarne”) concerns the first Viking attack on England. Other significant efforts include “O mea cella” (“Alcuin's Cell”) and “Verses de cuculo” (“Verses on the Cuckoo”). Perhaps the most important of Charlemagne's declarations actually penned by Alcuin is “De Litteris Colendis” (“On the Study of Letters”), which details the King's plan to reform education.

Critical Reception

Although Alcuin's accomplishments in the Carolingian renaissance have always been praised, his literary reputation was more that of a compiler than an original thinker. In modern times, however, critics are considerably more appreciative of Alcuin's contributions. Mark Damien Delp examines De dialectica and rejects criticisms that characterize the work as mediocre and merely a compendium. Delp explains how Alcuin transforms his material to meet theological needs. This skill is also examined by John William Houghton, who describes how Alcuin variously develops permutations of others' thoughts, takes portions out of context, and sometimes uses parts of an idea in order to argue a view antithetical to the original. Peter Dale Scott contends that Alcuin is also extremely underappreciated as a poet. Scott writes that in subordinating rhetoric to a functional role, Alcuin was taking “an important step in the evolution towards modern notions of poetry.” In an essay on “Verses de cuculo,” Scott declares Alcuin “the innovator of Christian pastoral,” skilled in the use of symbolic imagery. Colin Chase argues that too many modern scholars make the mistake of imposing their theories, concerns, and preoccupations on the Carolingians, resulting in anachronisms. Chase examines one of Alcuin's most celebrated poems, “O mea cella,” which is also analyzed by Joseph Pucci. Pucci writes: “Because his engagement of Virgilian pastoral is so convincing, Alcuin places himself in the paradoxical position of seeming to embrace precisely what he rejects at the poem's end: a love of earthly beauty.” Andrew Fleming West examines Alcuin's educational writings, particularly Ars grammatica and De Orthographia. West states that, “in spite of their puerile character, they did more good service than anything else he wrote.” Celia M. Chazelle analyzes a letter dealing with a theological issue and Martha Bayless analyzes Alcuin's “remarkable” riddle collection, the Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico.

Principal Works

Ars grammatica [On Grammar] (treatise) 782 or after

De dialectica [On Dialectics] (treatise) 782 or after

De orthographia [On Orthography] (treatise) 782 or after

De virtutibus et vitiis [On the Virtues and Vices] (treatise) 782 or after

Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico [Dialogue of Pepin, the Most Noble and Royal Youth, with the Teacher Albinus] (treatise) 782 or after

Disputatio de rhetorica et de virtutibus sapientissimi Regis Carli et Albini magistri [Debate of the Wisest King Charles and the Teacher Alcuin, about Rhetoric and the Virtues] (treatise) 782 or after

Treatise de Fide Trinitatis [On the Faith of the Holy and Undivided Trinity] (treatise) 782 or after

Adversus Felicis haeresin libelles [Book Against the Heresy of Felix] (treatise) 798 or after

Contra Elipandum libri IV [Four Books against Elipandus] (treatise) 800

Contra Felicem Urgellitanum episcopum libri VII [Seven Books against Felix of Urgel] (treatise) 800

De fide sanctae et individuae Trinitatis with appendix De trinitate ad Fredegisum Quaestiones XXVIII [On the Faith of the Holy and Undivided Trinity] (treatise) 802

The Rhetoric of Alcuin and Charlemagne (translated by Wilbur Samuel Howell) 1941

Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters (translated by Stephen Allott) 1974

Two Alcuin Letter-Books (translated by Colin Chase) 1975

The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (translated by Peter Godman) 1982

Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance (translated by Peter Godman) 1985


Andrew Fleming West (essay date 1892)

SOURCE: West, Andrew Fleming. “The Educational Writings of Alcuin.” In Alcuin and the Rise of the Christian Schools, pp. 89-116. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892.

[In the following essay, West surveys Alcuin's didactic works.]

Alcuin's writings have been preserved to us in tolerable completeness, and may be classified under a fourfold division. First come his theological works, which embrace the greater part, perhaps two-thirds, of all that he wrote. This theological portion may in turn be divided into four parts, exegetical, dogmatic, liturgical and practical, and lives of the saints. Of the remaining third of his writings, the major parts is embraced in...

(The entire section is 7023 words.)

Peter Dale Scott (essay date April 1964)

SOURCE: Scott, Peter Dale. “Alcuin as a Poet: Rhetoric and Belief in His Latin Verse.” University of Toronto Quarterly 33, no. 3 (April 1964): 233-57.

[In the following essay, Scott credits Alcuin for helping shape the evolution toward a modern role for poetry, in which formal rhetoric is subordinated to a functional role within the structure of the poem.]

Much has been written in our century about the question of belief in poetry, and much about the question of rhetoric. I hope in this article to deal with both these aspects of convention (nomos) or habit: rhetoric being considered as linguistic convention or habit, and belief as a habituation of the mind....

(The entire section is 10932 words.)

Peter Dale Scott (essay date July 1965)

SOURCE: Scott, Peter Dale. “Alcuin's Versus de Cuculo: The Vision of Pastoral Friendship.” Studies in Philology 62, no. 4 (July 1965): 510-30.

[In the following essay, Scott examines the symbolic meaning of the cuckoo in a poem by Alcuin, arguing that he used this central image as a means of sublimating the expressions of desire contained within the poem.]

Though I believe Alcuin to have been the innovator of Christian pastoral, I cannot claim that he showed any great interest in perfecting the genre as such. Indeed, he seems almost to have stumbled upon it by accident. We must remember that, when he began to write, the terms pastoralis and...

(The entire section is 8508 words.)

Colin Chase (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Chase, Colin. “Alcuin's Grammar Verse: Poetry and Truth in Carolingian Pedagogy.” In Insular Latin Studies, edited by Michael W. Herren, pp. 135-52. Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1981.

[In the following essay, Chase takes other scholars to task for projecting their own attitudes and interests onto those of Alcuin.]

In recent years, a marked tendency towards deductive analysis has characterized Alcuinian studies. The purpose of the deduction has been to abstract from Alcuin's work a systematic treatment of areas of human thought which he dealt with only implicitly or casually. Thus, in 1959, Luitpold Wallach in Alcuin and...

(The entire section is 6986 words.)

Celia M. Chazelle (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Chazelle, Celia M. “To Whom Did Christ Pay the Price? The Soteriology of Alcuin's Epistola 307.” Proceedings of the PMR Conference 14 (1989): 43-62.

[In the following essay, Chazelle outlines Alcuin's rejection of the theory of the atonement, which states that Christ's Passion was a ransom he paid to Satan in order to liberate mankind.]

Towards the end of his life, Alcuin wrote a letter to his emperor and friend, Charlemagne, concerning the significance of Christ's Passion. The letter, epistola 307 in Ernst Dümmler's edition of Alcuin's letters,1 focuses on Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 6.20 that man's salvation was...

(The entire section is 8857 words.)

Joseph Pucci (essay date October-December 1990)

SOURCE: Pucci, Joseph. “Alcuin's Cell Poem: A Virgilian Reappraisal.” Latomus: Revue D'Études Latines 49, no. 4 (October-December 1990): 839-49.

[In the following essay, Pucci analyzes Alcuin's use of Virgilian pastoral language.]

The artistic, generic, and stylistic features of Alcuin's carmen 23 (MGH [Monumenta Germaniae Historica]), commonly called the cell poem, are novel, marking an advance on Merovingian poetics1, and symbolizing an invigoration of poetry-writing after several centuries of relative abandonment. Such features have inspired several generations of scholars at once to praise the poem and to agree upon the unities and...

(The entire section is 5302 words.)

Mark Damien Delp (essay date 1992-93)

SOURCE: Delp, Mark Damien. “Alcuin: Master and Practitioner of Dialectic.” Proceedings of the PMR Conference 16/17 (1992-93): 91-103.

[In the following essay, Delp urges a favorable reappraisal of one of Alcuin's short texts on logic, De dialectica.]

In surveying the scholarship on Alcuin's educational writings, one cannot help noticing the negative judgements leveled on his little text on logic, De dialectica. Although older scholarship tended to be harsh, using adjectives such as “miserable”1 and “mediocre,”2 more recent scholars have brushed aside De dialectica as a mere “compendium.” The best that scholars seem...

(The entire section is 5248 words.)

John William Houghton (essay date 1992-93)

SOURCE: Houghton, John William. “(Re)Sounding Brass: Alcuin's New Castings in the Questions and Answers on Genesis.” Proceedings of the PMR Conference 16/17 (1992-93): 149-61.

[In the following essay, Houghton contends that Alcuin was a skillful weaver of others' texts, not a mere compiler, and that his work speaks in a single voice.]

Depreciation—ridicule, even—of the Carolingian renewal of the empire is an ancient, if not venerable, tradition1, reaching back to contemporary sources: the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor reports the events of Christmas Day, 800, with the mocking observation that the Pope anointed the King of the...

(The entire section is 5170 words.)

Martha Bayless (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Bayless, Martha. “Alcuin's Disputatio Pippini and the Early Medieval Riddle Tradition.” In Humour, History, and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, edited by Guy Halsall, pp. 157-78. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Bayless examines Alcuin's collection of riddles.]

The early medieval period saw a flowring of riddles and riddle collections, both religious and secular, both earnest and light-hearted. To date the greater part of scholarly attention has been focussed on the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book, on the grounds both of literary merit and of mystery—the text does not...

(The entire section is 9361 words.)

Further Reading


Bolton, W. F. “Alcuin and Old English Poetry.” In The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 7, edited by G. K. Hunter and C. J. Rawson, pp. 10-22. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1977.

Examines Alcuin's thoughts on six Old English poems.

Brown, Carleton F. “Cynewulf and Alcuin.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America n.s. 11, no. 2 (1903): 308-34.

Argues against the idea that a passage by Cynewulf concerning purgatory was dependent upon Alcuin.

Bullough, D. A. “Alcuin's Cultural Influence: The Evidence of the Manuscripts.” In Alcuin of...

(The entire section is 289 words.)