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Andrew Fleming West (essay date 1892)

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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 his epistles, and least in extent are the didactic treatises and poems which make up the rest.

It will thus be seen that the greater part of Alcuin's writings have little connection with the history of education, and yet, even his theological works have incidental interest in this respect. Besides a few scanty gleanings from his exegetical writings, there are two of his practical treatises, On the Virtues and Vices and On the Nature of the Soul, which have a general connection with education, but beyond this there is nothing to be found. The epistles are of high value for the general history of the times, and more particularly for the abundant light which they shed upon the activity of Alcuin in his relation to the restoration of school-learning. The poems have a lesser value, but contain important help for the history of the school at York, where Alcuin was bred, and for his later career in Frankland. But the chief interest centres in his specifically didactic writings, for they contain most fully his general views on education as well as separate treatises on some of the liberal arts.

Let it be remarked at the outset that Alcuin is rarely an original writer, but usually a compiler and adapter, and even at times a literal transcriber of other men's work. He adds nothing to the sum of learning, either by invention or by recovery of what has been lost. What he does is to reproduce or adapt from earlier authors such parts of their writings as could be appreciated by the age in which he lived. Accordingly, while he must be refused all the credit that belongs to a courageous mind which advances beyond what has been known, he must yet be highly esteemed for the invaluable service he rendered as a transmitter and conserver of the learning that was in danger of perishing, and as the restorer and propagator of this learning in a great empire, after it had been extinct for generations. A passage from the letter dedicating his commentary on the Gospel of John to Gisela and Rotrud, states so aptly the timorously conservative attitude which appears in all his literary efforts, educational or otherwise, that it is worth citing here. He writes: “I have reverently traversed the storehouses of the early fathers, and whatever I have been able to find there, I have sent of it for you to taste. First of all, I have sought help from St. Augustine, who has devoted the greatest study to expounding the most holy words of this holy gospel. Next, I have drawn somewhat from the lesser works of St. Ambrose, that most holy doctor, and likewise from the Homilies of the distinguished father, Gregory the Great. I have also taken much from the Homilies of the blessed presbyter Bede, and from other holy fathers, whose interpretations I have here set forth. For I have preferred to employ their thoughts and words rather...

(This entire section contains 7023 words.)

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than to venture anything of my own audacity, even if the curiosity of my readers were to approve of it, and by a most cautious manner of writing I have made it my care, with the help of God, not to set down anything contrary to the thoughts of the fathers.”

Fortunately for his theological works, he depends mainly on the really great fathers of the Latin Church. Most of what he writes comes from Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory the Great, while Bede is the chief of his later authorities. Of the Greek fathers, however, he knows nothing, except through Latin versions, and of these he makes no considerable use beyond drawing on a translation of Chrysostom to help in composing his commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. His literary sources are all Latin, nor is there any Greek to be found in what he wrote, apart from some citations copied from Jerome and occasional Greek words from elsewhere. On the educational side he depends mainly on Isidore and Bede, but with subsidiary help from Cassiodorus and the treatise On the Categories falsely ascribed to Augustine. He knew of Boethius, but made only indirect use of him. Martianus Capella is not so much as mentioned.

The separate educational treatises of Alcuin of undoubtedly genuine character are the following: On Grammar,On Orthography,On Rhetoric and the Virtues,On Dialectics, a Disputation with Pepin, and a tedious astronomical treatise, entitled De Cursu et Saltu Lunæ ac Bissexto. Three others are ascribed to him with less certainty: On the Seven Arts, A Disputation for Boys, and the so-called Propositions of Alcuin.

First and most important of these is his Grammar, which falls into two parts, the one a dialogue between Alcuin and his pupils on philosophy and liberal studies in general, and the other a dialogue between a young Saxon and a Frank on grammar, also conducted in the presence of Alcuin. The former dialogue is an original composition and contains in brief compass Alcuin's views on the end and method of education, and on the duty of studying the liberal arts, to which the entire dialogue serves as a general introduction. “Most learned master,” says one of the disciples, opening the dialogue, “we have often heard you say that Philosophy was the mistress of all the virtues, and alone of all earthly riches never made its possessor miserable. We confess that you have incited us by such words to follow after this excellent felicity, and we desire to know what is the sum of its supremacy and by what steps we may make ascent thereunto. Our age is yet a tender one and too weak to rise unhelped by your hand. We know, indeed, that the strength of the mind is in the heart, as the strength of the eyes is in the head. Now our eyes, whenever they are flooded by the splendor of the sun, or by reason of the presence of any light, are able to discern most clearly whatever is presented to their gaze, but without this access of light they must remain in darkness. So also the mind is able to receive wisdom if there be any one who will enlighten it.” Alcuin benignantly replies, “My sons, ye have said well in comparing the eyes to the mind, and may the light that lighteneth every man that cometh into this world enlighten your minds, to the end that ye may be able to make progress in philosophy, which, as ye have well said, never deserts its possessor.” The disciples assent to this and then renew their entreaty in the same figurative and flowery manner. “Verily, Master,” they urge, “we know that we must ask of Him who giveth liberally and upbraideth not. Yet we likewise need to be instructed slowly, with many a pause and hesitation, and like the weak and feeble to be led by slow steps until our strength shall grow. The flint naturally contains in itself the fire that will come forth when the flint is struck. Even so there is in the human mind the light of knowledge that will remain hidden like the spark in the flint, unless it be brought forth by the repeated efforts of a teacher.” Alcuin answers: “It is easy indeed to point out to you the path of wisdom, if only ye love it for the sake of God, for knowledge, for purity of heart, for understanding the truth, yea, and for itself. Seek it not to gain the praise of men or the honors of this world, nor yet for the deceitful pleasures of riches, for the more these things are loved, so much the farther do they cause those who seek them to depart from the light of truth and knowledge.”

After this elaborately courteous opening the dialogue proceeds to show that true and eternal happiness, and not transitory pleasure, is the proper end for a rational being to set before him, and that this happiness consists in the things that are proper and peculiar to the soul itself, rather than in what is alien to it. “That,” says Alcuin, “which is sought from without is alien to the soul, as is the gathering together of riches, but that which is proper to the soul is what is within, namely, the graces of wisdom. Therefore, O man,” he calls out in fervid apostrophe, “if thou art master of thyself, thou shalt have what thou shalt never have to grieve at losing, and what no calamity shall be able to take away. Why then, O mortals, do ye seek without for that which ye have within? How much better is it to be adorned within than without!” “What, then, are the adornments of the soul?” the disciples naturally inquire, and Alcuin answers: “Wisdom is the chief adornment, and this I urge you to seek above all things.”

Alcuin then explains that wisdom is itself eternal because it is an inseparable property of the soul, which is immortal, and in this differs from everything else of a secular character. But its pursuit is laborious. The scholar will not gain his reward without study, any more than the soldier without fighting or the farmer without plowing. It is an old proverb that the root of learning is bitter but the fruit is sweet, and so St. Paul asserts that “every discipline at the present is not joyous but grievous, yet afterwards it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness to them that were exercised in it.” Progress in secular knowledge is to be made by slow ascents, step by step, and is to lead to “the better ways of wisdom, which conduct to life eternal.” “May the divine grace guide and lead us,” exclaims Alcuin, “into the treasures of spiritual wisdom, that ye may be intoxicated at the fountain of divine plenty; that there may be within you a well of water springing up unto everlasting life. But, inasmuch as the Apostle enjoins that everything be done decently and in order, I think that ye should be led by the steps of erudition from lower to higher things until your wings gradually grow stronger, so that ye may mount on them to view the loftier visions of the pure ether.” The disciples are overwhelmed and humbly answer: “Master, raise us from the earth by your hand and set our feet upon the ascents of wisdom.” Alcuin accordingly proceeds to set before his pupils the seven ascents of the liberal arts in the following manner: “We have read how Wisdom herself saith by the mouth of Solomon, ‘Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.’ Now although this saying pertains to the Divine Wisdom which builded for Himself a house (that is, the body of Christ in the Virgin's womb), and endued it with the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, or may mean the Church, which is the House of God that shines with these gifts, yet Wisdom is also built upon the seven pillars of liberal letters, and it can in no wise afford us access to any perfect knowledge, unless it be set upon these seven pillars, or ascents.” Here is a distinct advance on Alcuin's part beyond the earlier writers on the liberal arts. Augustine had regarded them with qualified approval because they were helpful towards understanding divine truth. Cassiodorus saw in addition a mystical hint of their excellence in the fact that they were seven, and fortified his position by the text, “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven columns.” Alcuin takes up the text from Proverbs quoted by Cassiodorus, and finds in it the liberal arts as a matter of direct interpretation. Sapientia, or Wisdom, who had builded her house and hewn out her seven pillars, he mystically explains first of Christ the Divine Wisdom and next of the Church, each endued with the seven gifts of the Spirit, and then proceeds to his third application, which is that Sapientia, or Wisdom, which in the speech of his time often meant learning, was built upon the seven liberal arts. Augustine found the arts outside of Scripture, but deemed them helpful towards understanding it. Cassiodorus found in Scripture a mystical hint as to their excellence, and Alcuin gets them out of Scripture itself. It needs not to be told how influential such an interpretation would be on the fortunes of secular learning; for if the arts were once found in the Scriptures, there was no way of getting them out of the Church. Henceforth the proscriptive utterances of Tertullian, though echoed once and again down the middle ages,1 could never dominate the Church.

But let us return to the dialogue. The pupils renew their request: “Open to us, as you have often promised, the seven ascents of theoretical discipline.” Alcuin replies: “Here, then, are the ascents of which ye are in search, and O that ye may ever be as eager to ascend them as ye now are to see them. They are grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astrology. On these the philosophers bestowed their leisure and their study.” Then he adds with a boldness which might well have alarmed him: “By reason of these philosophers the catholic teachers and defenders of our faith have proved themselves superior to all the chief heretics in public controversy,” and closes with the exhortation: “Let your youthful steps, my dearest sons, run daily along these paths until a riper age and a stronger mind shall bring you to the heights of Holy Scripture.”

Plainly in Alcuin's mind the arts were seven and only seven. They are the necessary ascents to the higher wisdom of the Scriptures. Not the fact that they are simply useful to the Scriptures, but indispensable, is what gives them such value in Alcuin's eyes. Much of the rhetoric in which his ideas exfoliate is childish enough, but it is impossible not to see behind it all a pure and gentle spirit, who valued the scanty sum of learning he possessed for no lesser reasons than the love of God, purity of soul, knowledge of truth, and even for its own sake, as against any pursuit of learning for the vulgar ends of wealth, popularity or secular honor.

The second dialogue in the treatise is properly grammatical. Two of Alcuin's pupils, a Saxon and a Frank, are beginners in the study, or, to put it in Alcuin's flowery language, “They but lately rushed upon the thorny thickets of grammatical density.” The Frank is a boy of fourteen years and the Saxon of fifteen. The master presides over their interrogations and answers. It is decided that grammar must begin with the consideration of what a letter is, though Alcuin stops on the way to expound the nature of words. It is defined as “the least part of an articulate sound.” The letters are the “elements” of language because they are ultimate and indivisible, and are built up first into syllables, and thereafter successively into words, clauses, and sentences. Letters are of two sorts, vowels and consonants, and are defined as follows: “The vowels are uttered by themselves and of themselves make syllables. The consonants cannot be uttered by themselves, nor can they of themselves make syllables.” But this sapient definition by antithesis, though accepted by the pupils, does not contain all that is to be said. There is an occult reason why the alphabet is divided into vowels and consonants, as Alcuin at once informs them. “The vowels,” he says, “are, as it were, the souls, and the consonants, the bodies of words.” “Now the soul moves both itself and the body, but the body is immovable apart from the soul. Such, then, are the consonants without the vowels. They may indeed be written by themselves, but they can neither be uttered nor have any power apart from vowels.” This explanation seems to satisfy them, for they pursue the matter no further. The peculiarities of the consonants are then discussed very much in the same manner, and the syllable is next taken up. It is defined as “a sound expressed in letters (vox litteralis), which has been uttered with one accent and at one breath.” The discussion of syllables falls into four parts, accent (accentus), breathings (spiritus), quantity (tempus), and the number of constituent letters. After these are discussed, the pupils entreat that before proceeding further they may be furnished with a definition of grammar. Alcuin accordingly tells them that “Grammar is the science of written sounds (litteralis scientia), the guardian of correct speaking and writing. It is founded on nature, reason, authority, and custom.” It has been well observed that this shrunken notion of grammar on the part of Alcuin as contrasted with the wide conception of the study that prevailed among the grammarians of the later Roman Empire is thoroughly characteristic of the intellectual feebleness of the later time. Instead of being both the art of writing and speaking, and also the study of the great poets and orators, it has now become only the former of these, a childish, technical and barren study. This appears more plainly as we advance to Alcuin's alarming enumeration of the parts of grammar. They are “words, letters, syllables, clauses, sayings, speeches, definitions, feet, accents, punctuation marks, critical marks, orthographies, analogies, etymologies, glosses, distinctions, barbarisms, solecisms, faults, metaplasms, figurations, tropes, prose, metres, fables, and histories.”

Words, letters and syllables, the first three of Alcuin's twenty-six parts of grammar, have been discussed, and each of the others is next defined. Alcuin then proceeds to the consideration of the different parts of speech in the following order: the noun, its genders, numbers, “figures” and cases; the pronoun, its genders, “figures,” numbers and cases; then the verb with its modes, “figures,” inflections and numbers; and the adverb with its “figures.” Lastly he treats of the participle, the conjunction, the preposition and the interjection. By “figures” Alcuin means the facts relating to the simplicity, composition or derivation of words. Thus, under his “figures” of verbs, the word cupio is in simple figure, concupio is in composite figure, and concupisco is in derivative figure, because it comes from concupio. The whole treatment of the parts of speech is similarly feeble in spirit and almost entirely restricted to etymology, so that Alcuin's Grammar is really devoid of orthography, syntax and prosody. Whatever is excellent in any way in his Grammar ought to be credited to Donatus, whom Alcuin follows. Isidore also furnishes him many a definition, but wherever this happens the treatise is apt to be childish. An example or two may suffice. The derivation of littera is said to be from legitera, “because the littera prepares a path for readers (leg entibus iter).” Feet in poetry are so named “because the metres walk on them,” and so on. Yet his book had great fame, and Notker, writing a century later, praised it, saying, “Alcuin has made such a grammar that Donatus, Nicomachus, Dositheus and our own Priscian seem as nothing when compared with him.”

In the manuscript copies of the Grammar there appear to be some slight parts missing at the end, so that it may have been more extended than we suppose; but there is no ground for thinking it covered more than etymology. However, Alcuin's next work is on orthography, and is properly a pendant to his Grammar. It is a short manual containing a list of words, alphabetically arranged, with comments on their proper spelling, pronunciation and meanings, and with remarks on their correct use, drawn to some extent from a treatise by Bede on the same subject. It is a sort of Antibarbarus, a help towards securing accuracy of form and propriety of use in the employment of Latin words, and must have been serviceable in the instruction of youth, but more so in the copying of ancient manuscripts. We may reasonably believe that Alcuin's scribes in the monastery of Tours, busily engaged in recovering one and another patristic and classical writer, were guided by his book in the purification of the copies they made, and for which the monastery at Tours became so famous. “Let him who would publish the sayings of the ancients read me, for he who follows me not will speak without regard to law,”2 is the translation of the couplet which stands at the head of the Orthography and indicates its purpose. It is Alcuin's attempt to purge contemporary Latin of its barbarisms. He puts his comments oddly enough. “Write vinea,” he says, “if you mean a vine, with i in the first syllable and e in the second. But if you mean pardon, write venia with e in the first syllable and i in the second. Write vacca with a v, if you mean a cow, but write it with a b if you mean a berry.” In the same way be careful to write vellus with a v to mean wool, and bellus, if you mean fair. Similarly, when writing, do not confuse vel with fel which means gall, or with Bel, the heathen god. By no means consider benificus, a man of good deeds, the same as venificus, a poisoner. So bibo and vivo are not to be mixed. Such examples indicate that Alcuin had to struggle against “rusticity” in pronunciation as well as in writing,—a rusticity which was due to the modifying influence of the barbarous Tudesque upon the pronouncing of Latin,—an influence which, even in Alcuin's time, was altering the forms of words in a manner which presaged the final demolition of Latin prior to the rise of French.

Some of the definitions are quite amusing. Coelebs, a bachelor, is defined as “one who is on his way ad cœlum,” evidently the true monk. “Write œquor with a diphthong,” for the reason that it is derived from aqua. Mālus, a mast, is to have a long a, but “a mălus homo ought to have a short a.

It is on the Grammar and Orthography that Alcuin's didactic fame principally rests, and justly so, for in spite of their puerile character they did more good service than anything else he wrote. Let it be remembered that the tall, blue-eyed barbarians, whom Alcuin was aiming to civilize, were but little children when it came to school-learning. Let it also be remembered that Alcuin, divesting himself of all vanity and conceit, wisely and even humbly set before them what they could learn, and the only thing they could learn at the start. Even his master, Charles, had to toil painfully to bend his fingers, stiffened with long use of the sword, to the clerkly task of writing, and confessed that he acquired the art with great difficulty.

The dialogue On Rhetoric and the Virtues has for its two interlocutors Charles and Alcuin, and was composed in response to a request from the king. Alcuin instructs him in the elements of the rhetorical art with special reference to its applications in the conduct and settlement of disputes in civil affairs, and closes with a short description of the four cardinal virtues,—prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. It is, therefore, not strictly a book on rhetoric, but rather on its applications. It is based on rhetorical writings of Cicero, which are rehandled by Alcuin, and always with loss and injury to his originals. The hand of Isidore is likewise visible in places, and contributes to the general deterioration. If the Grammar was rudimentary and ill-arranged, the Rhetoric suffers yet more from its miscellaneous presentation of ill-digested bits of rhetoric, and from its greater dulness of style. Moreover, it is less jocose in spirit than are parts of the Grammar, though Alcuin's specimen of sophistical reasoning, which he produces for the instruction of the king, is indeed comical. “What art thou?” asks Alcuin, and after Charles answers, “I am a man (homo),” the dialogue goes on as follows:—

See how thou hast shut me in.
How so?
If thou sayest I am not the same as thou, and that I am a man, it follows that thou art not a man.
It does.
But how many syllables has homo?
Then art thou those two syllables?
Surely not; but why dost thou reason thus?
That thou mayest understand sophistical craft and see how thou canst be forced to a conclusion.
I see and understand from what was granted at the start, both that I am homo and that homo has two syllables, and that I can be shut up to the conclusion that I am these two syllables. But I wonder at the subtlety with which thou hast led me on, first to conclude that thou wert not a man, and afterward of myself, that I was two syllables.

After the Rhetoric comes the Dialectics, which is in part extracted or abridged from Isidore, who in his turn had taken from Boethius, and in part copied almost solidly from the supposed work of Augustine on the Categories of Aristotle. If possible, it is less original than the Rhetoric, but is at least what its title indicates,—an attempt to say something about dialectics. However, as the age of medieval logic had not yet begun in earnest, Alcuin's treatise was perhaps as much as the times would bear, especially in view of the existing indifference or antagonism in the Church to the subtleties of Aristotle. In conjunction with the Grammar and Rhetoric, it may be taken as constituting such instruction in the trivium as was given in the palace school.

Interesting in its way as a specimen of Alcuin's teaching is his dialogue written for Pepin, then a young prince of sixteen years, and entitled The Disputation of Pepin, the Most Noble and Royal Youth, with Albinus the Scholastic. It rambles without plan and allegorizes without restraint. Parts of it run as follows:—

What is writing?
The guardian of history.
What is language?
The betrayer of the soul.
What generates language?
The tongue.
What is the tongue?
The whip of the air.
What is air?
The guardian of life.
What is life?
The joy of the happy; the expectation of death.
What is death?
An inevitable event; an uncertain journey; tears for the living; the probation of wills; the stealer of men.
What is man?
The slave of death; a passing traveler; a stranger in his place.
What is man like?
An apple.

Let us understand this short and sudden definition. Alcuin means that man hangs like an apple on a tree without being able to know when he is to fall.

The questions on natural phenomena are not less instructive:—

What is water?
A supporter of life; a cleanser of filth.
What is fire?
Excessive heat; the nurse of growing things; the ripener of crops.
What is cold?
The febricity of our members.(3)
What is frost?
The persecutor of plants; the destruction of leaves; the bond of the earth; the source of waters.
What is snow?
Dry water.
What is the winter?
The exile of summer.
What is the spring?
The painter of the earth.
What is the autumn?
The barn of the year.

After more of this same sort, the dialogue rapidly runs into puzzles and then closes.

The treatise De Cursu et Saltu Lunœ ac Bissexto needs no special notice. It deals with the method of calculating the changes of the moon with special reference to the determination of Easter, and is compiled for the instruction of the king. Bede is the principal authority.

There remain for consideration the three works somewhat doubtfully attributed to Alcuin. The first is entitled On the Seven Arts, and is a fragment derived from the work of Cassiodorus on the same subject. But only the first two parts, grammar and rhetoric, are described, and they are in part copied and in part abridged from their original. Alcuin may have taken them after his manner from Cassiodorus, without any thought of laying claim to the production as his own. But whether he did this or not, the fragment is useful in that it shows that the book of Cassiodorus On the Arts and Disciplines of Liberal Letters was consulted in the time of Alcuin. The so-called Disputation of the Boys is likewise doubtful. It is a set of questions and answers on Scriptural subjects and may at least serve as another example of the catechetical method of that time. Much more interesting is the set of puzzles entitled The Propositions of Alcuin, the Teacher of the Emperor Charles the Great, for Whetting the Wit of Youth. Unfortunately, the Venerable Bede had written just such a treatise, which is here closely copied. But this need not weigh against the probability of Alcuin's taking and using it. But whether he did really do so, or whether copyists attributed it to him, is a matter of little moment, for it well represents the character of the teaching of the time. It is, in fact, not unlikely that these are the propositions which Alcuin enclosed in a letter to Charles and styled “certain figures of arithmetical subtlety sent for the sake of amusement.” Charles himself refers to his excursions with Alcuin “through the plains of arithmetical art,” and Alcuin speaks in one of his poems of “studying the fair forms of numbers” with Charles. The propositiones consist in the main of very simple exercises, all solved by painfully rudimentary methods. Not one of them exhibits an apprehension on Alcuin's part of any mathematical idea or formula. Forty-five of the fifty-three propositions may, by courtesy, be styled exercises in reckoning. Each one is twofold in its structure, containing the propositio and its attached solutio. They are put in the style of a master towards his pupils, the proposition generally culminating in some such formula as “let him solve this who can” (solvat qui potest), or, “let him that understandeth say how we must divide,” or simply, “let him who is able answer.” The propositions themselves are various, but are confined to a few kinds of questions, all put in concrete form and sometimes jocosely. Occasionally there is no regard paid to the probability of the state of things pictured in the proposition. Thus a king is represented as gathering an army in geometrical progression, one man in the first town, two in the second, four in the third, eight in the fourth, and so on through thirty towns. The total is 1,073,741,823 soldiers, an army whose number might well amuse the imperial pupil. Of course Alcuin is entirely ignorant in this problem of any formula for the sum of a geometrical progression, and so he proceeds to count it all out. The solutions are alarmingly infantile in their methods. The numerals are Roman, and this adds enormously to the slowness of working the examples. The only processes employed are the simplest operations of addition, multiplication, and division, commonly neglecting all “remainders” in division, and there is rarely any use of subtraction. Common fractions of a very elementary sort are at times used, but no fractional symbols are employed. They are spoken of as “the half,” “the half of the half,” “the third part,” “the sixth part,” and “the eleventh part.” They are not treated as fractions, but as divisors. “Aliquot parts” frequently figure in constructing the puzzles, and there are some examples of finding areas of triangles, always isosceles, and of quadrangular and “round” figures. His forty-second proposition is unique, in being clever. There is a ladder with one hundred steps. One dove is on the first step, two on the second, three on the third, and so on. How many doves are on the ladder? On the first and ninety-ninth steps there are accordingly one hundred doves, and so on the second and ninety-eighth steps. Proceeding thus through the pairs of steps, we find forty-nine pairs of steps, each containing one hundred doves, with the fiftieth and hundredth steps omitted, which last contain jointly one hundred and fifty doves. The total is accordingly five thousand and fifty. In this example Alcuin unconsciously goes through the process which underlies arithmetical progression. Some of the propositions are properly algebraical, involving the simple equation in one unknown quantity, but of course he is not aware of this and works them out mechanically.

Not only are the methods of solution employed so crude, but no principle of arithmetic ever seems to dawn upon his mind. Cumbrous manipulation of particular problems is his only accomplishment. The character of most of the problems solved is depressing to think about. Of course they are concrete and meant to be witty. They are “ad acuendos juvenes.” They are “figures of arithmetical subtlety” meant to whet the wit of youth, but it is surely startling to read of a sty that holds 262,304 pigs, as one which some unknown quidam has constructed, starting with one sow and a litter of seven;—and all this invented to get an example in multiplication. Other examples are equally silly without being funny. Quadrangular houses are to be put into a triangular city so as to fill the triangle completely, or into a “round” city with a similar result, the answers being worked out in entire unconsciousness of the logical impossibility involved. Leaving the semi-arithmetical exercises, we have a variety of trivial puzzles remaining. After an ox has plowed all day, how many steps does he take in the last furrow? The answer is, “none, because the last furrow covers his tracks.” This would serve as well for the first or for any or for all furrows. When a farmer goes plowing, and has turned thrice at each end of his field, how many furrows has he drawn? Alcuin says six, but the Venerable Bede said seven, and the Venerable Bede was right, if only the farmer starts in his first furrow on a straight line from one end of the field and finishes his last furrow. In another proposition Alcuin requests that three hundred pigs be killed in three batches on successive days, an odd number to be killed each day. But as three odd numbers cannot add up an even sum, he has an impregnably insoluble proposition. “Ecce fabula!” he cries in glee, “here's a go! There is no solution. This fable is only to provoke boys.” He adds a scholium at the end to the effect that the proposition will work in the same way if only thirty pigs are taken.

Let not Alcuin's treatises be judged apart from the environment of his times. The age, whose intellect he addressed, thought as a child and spake as a child, and to have presented anything else was to present what it could not understand. It was to invite certain failure in any attempt made in behalf of learning. It was a necessary first stage in the evolution of modern European culture that some one should at some time teach the rudiments to barbarous western Europe, and that Alcuin did this and recognized the limitations under which learning would be received, is not so much a proof of mediocrity as of his sagacity. He was not a writer of genius, nor of originality, nor of vast learning, but he was a man of great practical sense.

Nor should his properly didactic writings furnish the basis for a judgment as to the educational attainments of their author, except as exhibiting the substance of his formal instruction. If this is all we have, then the best that can be said for his teaching is that he gave western Europe imperfectly understood fragments of the wisdom of the ancients, and is more significant from the fact that he makes plain the intellectual darkness of the time than that he is introducing a learning that relieves it. Happily, there is another side to his educational activity which appears in many of his letters. They give us many a glimpse of his utter unselfishness, his purity and gentleness, his fidelity to the spiritual welfare of his pupils, and his never-ceasing personal anxiety that their lives and minds should be moulded by the spirit of Christ. Here is the true Alcuin, not the reviver of a decayed and fragmentary school learning, but the inspirer of Christian ideals, both as to studies and conduct, in an age when both seemed to be disappearing from the face of Europe.

Alcuin's eye followed his pupils in their later life and his hand of support or restraint was outstretched to them again and again. When one of them, who was fond of high living and the company of actors, was going to Italy, he cautioned him soberly not only as to the care of his health in that climate, but as to his general conduct. “My dearest son,” he writes, “great is my longing for your health and prosperity. I therefore desire to send you a letter of exhortation in place of the spoken words of paternal affection, beseeching you to keep God before your eyes and in your remembrance with entire devotion of mind and virtuous intention. Let Christ be on your lips and in your heart. Act not childishly and follow not boyish whims, but be perfect in all uprightness and continence and moderation, that God may be glorified by your works, and that the father who bore you may not be made ashamed. Be temperate in food and drink, regarding rather your own welfare than any carnal delight or the vain praise of men, which profiteth not if your acts be displeasing to God. It is better to please God than to please actors, to look after the poor than to go after buffoons. Let your feastings be decorous, and those who feast with you be religious. Be old in morals, though young in years.” Another letter written from Tours in Alcuin's old age to the young princes still at the palace, when Charles, their father, was away in Italy, is both tender and playful in its affection. It reads in part: “To my dearest sons in Christ their father wisheth eternal welfare. I would write you a great deal if only I had a dove or a raven that would carry my letter on its faithful pinions. Nevertheless, I have given this little sheet to the winds, that it may come to you by some favoring breeze, unless, perchance, the gentle zephyr change to an eastern blast. But arise, O south or north or any wind! and bear away this little parchment to bid you greeting and to announce our prosperity, and our great desire to see you well and whole, even as the father desires his sons to be. Oh, how happy was that day when amid our labors we played at the sports of letters! But now all is changed. The old man has been left to beget other sons, and weeps for his former children that are gone.”

In his little book, On The Virtues and Vices, sent to Count Wido for his moral instruction, he commends to him the reading of the Scriptures in words of quiet serenity and deep spirituality. “In the reading of the Holy Scriptures,” he writes, “lies the knowledge of true blessedness, for therein, as in a mirror, man may consider himself, what he is and whither he goes. He who would be always with God ought frequently to pray and frequently to read, for when we pray we are speaking with God, and when we read God is speaking to us.” More than one letter of Alcuin's to wayward pupils has come to us. To one of them he writes in the following manner: “A mourning father sends greeting to his prodigal son. Why hast thou forgotten thy father who taught thee from infancy, imbued thee with the liberal disciplines, fashioned thy morals, and fortified them with the precepts of eternal life, to join thyself to the company of harlots, to the feastings of revellers, to the vanities of the proud? Art not thou that youth that was once a praise in the mouth of all, a delight to their eyes, and a pleasure to their ears? Alas! alas! now art thou a reproach in the mouth of all, the curse of their eyes and the detestation of their ears. What has so overturned thee but drunkenness and luxury? Who, O gracious boy, thou son and light of the Church, has persuaded thee to feed the swine and to eat of their husks? Arise, my son, arise, and return to thy father and say not once, but often, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight.’”

Such are a few out of many instances where Alcuin has left on record the secret of his power over the character of his pupils. He had been their master in things scholastic, but he was also their father in things spiritual.


  1. As late as the thirteenth century we read in a regulation of the Dominican order:

    In libris gentilium philosophorum non studeat, et si ad horam suscipiat saeculares scientias, non addiscat, nec artes quas liberales vocant.

  2. Me legat antiquas vult qui proferre loquelas.
    Me qui non sequitur, vult sine lege loqui.
  3. This “cold” is apparently a chill.

Peter Dale Scott (essay date April 1964)

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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. Style, which begins as a mode of persuasion or appeal to belief, eventually becomes transfixed in an exploration of linguistic habit for its own sake; but a period subjected to appreciable cultural and social change will ultimately come to look back upon this fixation of language as mannered and oppressive. To harmonize our inner and outer habituations, a readjustment of rhetoric and belief is called for. This occurred, for example, during the Romantic Revival, and many have called for it in our own time. I propose to study Alcuin, not just as a poet in his own right, but as an example of such a readjustment. In his age as in our own, language, the great conservative medium of a culture (in which all is convention and only the habitual survives) had become a problematic and challenging link with a largely alienated past.

For late antique poetry, in a period conscious of decline, the key to metrical composition was the imitation and outdoing of established models. This attitude towards language we usually call rhetorical: it conflicts with the criteria of “sincerity” and “uniqueness” which are sought after in modern poetry. The pagan grammatical and rhetorical schools were only superficially affected by their nominal conversion to Christianity: not bishops but barbarians caused their antique traditions to be broken. The new ecclesiastical Latin schools on Teutonic soil (above all in Northumbria), precisely because they were artificial in their very inception, could dispense with the living tradition of school Latin, as it had been modified by seven centuries of rhetorical working, and return, self-consciously, to the much simpler models of Augustan Rome. Thus, just as again during the Romantic Revival, a simpler and more “natural” language was restored by artifice and social change. Language became functional. Indeed, the whole of culture, now shrunk to what the schools would transmit, was as far as possible reduced to what was functional within an informing Christian harmony. The Northumbrian schools were not rhetorical schools in a Christian setting, but the intellectual and spiritual flowering of churchmen united in a vita apostolica or common life.1

The court of Charlemagne attracted learned men from all over western Europe: Alcuin came from York to be master of the Palatine School, but there were also representatives of the ancient traditions from Lombardy and Gothic Spain. Thus the old faced the new; and the problem of poetic style was obviously pursued as a matter of conscious and perplexing choice. The ultimate tone at the court, leading up to the renovatio Romani imperii, was a programmatic neo-classicism in art, letters, and finally politics.2

Not only the cerebral phantasy of the Holy Roman Empire, but the modern pastoral eclogue, with its deliberately classical evocations, was born (or reborn) out of this confrontation. A pastoral panegyric by Alcuin's pupil Modoin (c. 780-840) goes back to the linguistic exemplars of Ovid and Calpurnius; and owes little or nothing to the last antique panegyrics such as that of the Christian bishop Sidonius Apollinaris (d. 480). Sidonius had written that, with the birth of the Emperor Anthemius,

The rivers, flowing with fresh honey, are slowed by their sweetened waves; and oil runs through the astounded oilpresses from the hanging olive. The meadow brought forth waving grain without seed; and the vine envied the grape, born without its aid.

(II.105-9; M.G.H. [Monumenta Germaniae Historica] Auct. Ant. VIII, 176)

This is imaginative but hardly credible; instead it plays on the theme of credibility (astounded—attonitas, literally “thunderstruck”) for greater effect. Sidonius shows us what, with the decline of republican politics, had happened to antique rhetoric: the transition of purpose from the mental habit or belief which is the object of persuasion, to the linguistic habit or convention (nomos) for its own sake. The bishop accepts the golden age topos for what it is. To say less would be unconventional: “such extravagant rhetoric … did not indicate on Sidonius's part any fundamental belief.”3 In the handling of the same panegyrical topos by Modoin, the supplanting of the credible by the rhetorical is no longer so unambiguous:

Aurea securis nascuntur regna Latinis … (92)
Omnibus una quies terris concessa resurgit (97)
Non freta aranda cavo meditantur cerula ligno,
Nulla peregrinas cognoscunt litora naves,
Terra neque ignotis querenda est fertilis oris. (100)
Omnia fert omnis tellus commertia rerum,
Paupertas fugit ima petens terrasque relinquens.
Nulla bono nostro nunc tempore surgit egestas,
Divitiis opibusque piis cumulabitur orbis.
Non iuga dura praemunt furiosi cornua tauri, (105)
Nam neque tellurem vomer proscindit aduncus:
Terra inarata suo producit sidere messem,
Sponte Ceres flava maturis surgit aristis.(4) (108)
The golden age is born to strifeless Rome. …
In every land one granted peace accrues.
The waves do not think to be ploughed by hollowed wood,
Nor are the coasts aware of peregrine ships,
Nor fertile land sought out on unknown shores,
Since every soil bears every need of life,
And hunger flees from earth to Hades' depths.
No poverty is known in our good time,
The earth will be heaped with pious wealth and means.
Hard yokes do not oppress the straining bull,
Nor curved plough rip the unfurrowed earth
Producing freely crops in their due season
As Ceres rises gold with ripened corn.

The passage, like the whole pastoral poem, is both intriguing and disappointing. While it vaguely evokes, by listing the topoi of Ovid and Vergil's Fourth Eclogue, the cultural aspiration and nostalgia of the Carolingian era, it loses the supple allusiveness of Vergil without compensating for this by a gain of credibility. Modoin is simply a good deal less sophisticated: he goes through the established topical paces, but there is not the same artistic play with the material. The poem is indeed barely more than a cento: the notes show how his studious imagination was dominated and ultimately oppressed by classical authority. It is possible, nonetheless, to be original by subtraction. The Calpurnian periphrases are replaced by a more earnest diction: for the first time since Vergil, we feel in the eclogue some excitement of a genuine turning-point in history. The poem is a good example of what we may call reduction to archetype: just as Vergil before him had censored out the arbitrary details of the bronze age and heroic interlude in the Hesiodic topos (Hesiod has more to tell us about the bronze age than the golden) so now Vergil's rainbow-coloured sheep and honey-sweating oaks, and all such stumbling-blocks for the trained Christian sensibility, have themselves been censored out. But the poet thereby complicates rather than resolves the question of belief; this is no longer a pure rhetorical flight such as we find in earlier descriptions of the Christian paradise; but the poet's plain manner is academic, rather than sincere. The paradox of “pious riches,” though necessary to his business, cannot be explained to us; here and everywhere we conclude that he fails to recast the pagan material in his contemporary and essentially Christian vision.

We may take this as a useful but unsuccessful example of the Carolingian effort to imitate the past from a new perspective. If we turn now to the much greater poetry of Modoin's master Alcuin, we find in it a note of personal sincerity and directness which we can trace to the direct manner of address in Alcuin's early model Bede. The new teaching of Latin on Teutonic soil had led in Northumbria to an obvious purification and simplification of language and diction, and also a self-conscious return to classical models. Bede's poetry is full of interwoven classical tags, for this “weaving” was the principle of poetic making which was taught at the time. But the language and diction are subordinated to his puritan sensibility and moralizing purpose; as a rule this leaves him little room for rhetorical indulgence. Alcuin inherits this plain manner, but consciously embellishes it: in his best poetry we find a balance between statement and allusion, between direct experience and literary context, so that unlike Modoin he succeeds in shaping rhetoric to his personal beliefs.

I find such a balance in the following poem to his cell, which is protected from artificiality by its direct statements and affective commitments, from banality by its involvement with enduring, “literary” themes:

O mea cella, mihi habitatio dulcis, amata,
          Semper in aeternum, o mea cella, vale.
Undique te cingit ramis resonantibus arbos,
          Silvula florigeris semper onusta comis.
Prata salutiferis florebunt omnia et herbis, (5)
                    Quas medici quaerit dextra salutis ope.
Flumina te cingunt florentibus undique ripis,
          Retia piscator qua sua tendit ovans.
Pomiferis redolent ramis tua claustra per hortos,
          Lilia cum rosulis candida mixta rubris. (10)
Omne genus volucrum matutinas personat odas,
          Atque creatorem laudat in ore deum.
In te personuit quondam vox alma magistri,
                    Quae sacro sophiae tradidit ore libros.
In te temporibus certis laus sancta tonantis (15)
                    Pacificis sonuit vocibus atque animis.
Te, mea cella, modo lacrimosis plango camaenis,
                    Atque gemens casus pectore plango tuos.
Tu subito quoniam fugisti carmina vatum,
          Atque ignota manus te modo tota tenet. (20)
Te modo nec Flaccus nec vatis Homerus habebit,
          Nec pueri musas per tua tecta canunt.
Vertitur omne decus secli sic namque repente,
          Omnia mutantur ordinibus variis.
Nil manet aeternum, nihil immutabile vere est, (25)
                    Obscurat sacrum nox tenebrosa diem.
Decutit et flores subito hiems frigida pulcros,
          Perturbat placidum et tristior aura mare.
Qua campis cervos agitabat sacra iuventus,
          Incumbit fessus nunc baculo senior. (30)
Nos miseri, cur te fugitivum, mundus, amamus?
          Tu fugis a nobis semper ubique ruens.
Tu fugiens fugias, Christum nos semper amemus,
          Semper amor teneat pectora nostra dei.
Ille pius famulos diro defendat ab hoste, (35)
                    Ad caelum rapiens pectora nostra, suos;
Pectore quem pariter toto laudemus, amemus;
                    Nostra est ille pius gloria, vita, salus.(5)
O my cell, beloved habitation,
Prosper forever, O sweet cell of mine.
The trees surround you with their murmuring limbs
Forever heavy with their flowers and leaves.
Your fields will flower with health-giving herbs
The doctor's hand seeks out for skilful cure.
Rivers with flowering banks surround you too
Where a fisherman rejoicing casts his nets.
Your cloister smells throughout with apple-branches,
Easter lilies mixed with scarlet roses.
While every type of bird recites its matins
Praising its creator with its mouth.
Here once the master's gentle voice recited,
Transmitting books of wisdom by his mouth.
In you at proper times the praise of God
Sounded from peaceful voices, peaceful minds.
I weep you now, my cell, with tearful muse,
And with groaning heart lament your fate.
Suddenly you have fled the poets' songs
And unknown persons occupy you now.
Now neither Flaccus nor Homerus holds you,
Nor students sing their songs within your walls.
All temporal beauty turns with just such speed
And all things change in their appointed times.
Nothing endures, nothing is eternal:
The shadowy night obscures the holy day,
And frigid winter strikes down pretty flowers,
A sadder wind disturbs the quiet sea.
Where golden youth once coursed a rapid stag
A tired old man now hangs upon his stick.
Why do we love you, world our fugitive?
You flee from us, on all sides fall away.
Then, fleer, flee. Let us love Christ instead,
Our hearts be held by our desire of God.
Let Him defend His servants from the field
And snatch our hearts above to paradise,
When with all our hearts we praise and love,
Who is our pious glory, life, hope, health.

Somewhere in these lines Miss Helen Waddell has found “the silvered light of the Loire”:6 I find only the language of earlier models, relaxed in a context of strikingly unadorned and unrhetorical statement. We can see how dangerous is the judgement of Professor Taylor, that the transition to mediaeval poetry is characterized by a movement further and further from “the antique observance of the mean.”7 Alcuin, indeed, has effectively censored out the rhetorical overworking, the penchant for the antheron plasma or flowery style, which still operates heavily in some comparable elegiacs by his model Fortunatus (530?-610?):

Hic ver purpureum viridantia gramina gignit
                    et paradisiacs spargit odore rosas;
hic tener aestivas defendit pampinus umbras,
                    praebet et uviferis frondea tecta comis,
pinxeruntque locum variato germine flores,
                    pomaque vestivit candor et inde rubor.
Mitior hic aestas, ubi molli blanda susurro,
                    aura levis semper pendula mala quatit.(8)
Here purple spring gives birth to verdant shoots,
                    sprinkles with scent the paradisal rose;
here the soft tendril guards the summer shade,
                    to yield a leafy and grape-clustered roof.
Flowers adorn the spot with varied buds,
                    crimson and white have dressed the apples there.
Summer is sweeter here; with whispers soft
          a gentle breeze beats on the hanging fruit.

The delicate equilibrium of this idyll (the beating breeze, the tendrilled shade) and its maximized appeal to a set of conventional sensations—all this is a late and highly derivative product, heavily overlaid with literary evocations of the locus amoenus (as the notes will show), especially of the Christian paradise as described in Alcimus Avitus (d. 518) or Dracontius (fl.c. 490). It is true we do not find the same virtuoso performance if we turn to the epanaleptics in praise of Lake Como by the Carolingian Lombard poet Paulus Diaconus (720?-799?):

Ver tibi semper inest, viridi dum cespite polles; (7)
                    Frigora dum superas, ver tibi semper inest.
Cinctus oliviferis utroque es margine silvis;
                    Numquam fronde cares cinctus oliviferis.
Punica mala rubent laetos hinc inde per hortos; (10)
                    Mixta simul lauris Punica mala rubent.
Myrtea virga suis redolet de more corimbis,
          Apta est et foliis myrtea virga suis.
Vincit odore suo delatum Perside malum, (15)
                    Citreon has omnes vincit odore suo.
Cedat et ipse tibi me iudice furvus Avernus,
          Epyrique lacus cedat et ipse tibi
Cedat et ipse tibi vitrea qui Fucinus unda est,
          Lucrinusque potens cedat et ipse tibi.(9) (20)
For you it is always spring, you rejoice in a verdant greensward
                    and overcome all chills, for you it is always spring.
Girdled by olivetree woods are you on either shore;
                    you never lack for green, girdled by olivetree woods.
The pomegranates redden there in the happy plots,
                    mixed together with laurels, the pomegranates redden.
The myrtle twig is fragrant with its fruit,
                    thick-set with leaves the myrtle twig is fragrant.
Now wins by its smell the newly-gathered peach,
          over all the lemon now wins by its smell.
Let yield to you Avernus as I deem,
                    the Epyrian lake as well let yield to you.
Let yield to you Fucina's glassy wave,
                    and mighty Lucrinus, now yield to you.

Paulus is a Lombard, not a Roman. Here, as in his history, he looks to ancient Rome from slightly outside its historical tradition, as not a continuity but a classical model at a moment in time. Hence the emulations of Fortunatus are largely replaced by a simpler diction, more Vergilian and also more direct. Yet the basic structure of the poem is still rhetorical, proceeding (with a set deliberateness alien to Vergil) in methodical catalogues and the experientially meaningless comparisons of the vincit and cedat topoi.10 If we define mannerism as the indulgence in literary or rhetorical conventions for their own sake,11 then there are still traces of late antique mannerism in the Lombard poets, whence it is picked up by Modoin.

Returning now to the poem of Alcuin, our task is not so much to witness the subordination of traditional rhetoric, as to study closely what residue remains. The simplicity of the poem should not let us forget that it is constructed on a pathetic fallacy, as the epistolary formula of the second line establishes.12 But whereas the address of, say, Fortunatus to the Garonne (Carm. I.xxi) is epideictic and impersonal, Alcuin has caught the contemporary Irish and Anglo-Saxon tone of sympathy with nature, permitting him the characteristically direct

Atque gemens casus pectore plango tuos.


Then in line 24 there is an equally characteristic and abrupt transition from everyday reality to literary commonplace. The omnia mutantur passage is a paramythetic or consolatory topos, imbuing grief with a pattern at once cosmic—

Nil manet aeternum, celso sub cardine caeli, (11)
                    Omnia vertuntur temporibus variis … (12)
Nunc micat alma dies, veniet nox atra tenebris (17)
          Ver floret gemmis, hiems ferit hocque decus(13) (18)
Nothing remains eternal, under the hinge of the sky,
          All things are turning to their various times. …
Now shines bright day, black night will come with shadows,
          Spring brings forth buds, and winter strikes them down—

and personal, or affective:

Cur tu, dulcis amor, fletus generabis amaros (7)
                    Et de melle pio pocula amara fluunt?
Si tua iam, mundus, miscentur dulcia amaris,
                    Adversis variant prospera cuncta cito. (10)
Omnia tristifico mutantur gaudia luctu,
          Nil est perpetuum, cuncta perire queunt.
Te modo quapropter fugiamus pectore toto,
          Tuque et nos, mundus iam periture, fugis.
Delitiasque poli semperque manentia regna (15)
                    Quaeramus toto, pectore, mente, manu.
Felix aula poli nunquam disiungit amicum;
                    Semper habet, quod amat, pectus amore calens.(14)
Why do you, sweet love, entail such bitter tears
          And from blessed honey pour out bitter cups?
Now, O world, your sweet is mixed with bitter,
          Good fortune changes swiftly to adverse.
All joys are turned to desolating grief,
                    Nothing abides, all things must decay.
Thus let us flee you now with all our hearts,
                    As you flee us, O world about to die.
The bliss of heaven and its enduring realm
                    Let us now seek with all our heart and mind.
There friends will nevermore be rent asunder,
                    The heart, by loving, has its love always.

This last passage, in a letter from Alcuin to an unknown friend, shows the commonplace affective transition from worldly transience to paradisal reconciliation. This is a convention of Christian rhetoric, which in epitaphic formulas had been appropriately stripped of linguistic overlay. But in the cell poem we see that the conventional antithesis has become something more: a vision of the world into which the earlier imagery of the poem is transformed (Decutit et flores subito) and, in the end, celestially translated. The transfer of emotional attention to Christ in the closing lines is another epistolary formula to answer and complete that of the exordium. Thus the antithesis between worldly transience and mortality, and that idyllic reconciliation which the monastic cell should prefigure, is implicitly at least a containing structure for the entire poem: about these poles of alienation and charity, the whole imagery and language of the poem are to a certain extent magnetized.

This affective unity and structure is rare in ancient poetry, pagan or Christian. Even the highly affective rhetorical tropes of Sedulius (fl.c. 435) or Paulinus Nolanus (d.c. 431), to which Alcuin owes so much, are rarely sustained or echoed within their poems; more usually they constitute an excursus irrelevant to the poem's narrative or essentially linear development. Above all, the rhetoric is more or less continuous; it cannot exploit, as Alcuin does, the contrast between direct (vv. 3-22) and allusive language.

Except when he has reasons to be playful, Alcuin's use of rhetoric and literary allusion is almost always functional in terms of the unity of the poem. Take, for example, the bare hint of asyndeton (suppression of conjunction) in the closing gloria, vita, salus. From the fifth century on, one symptom of the decay of classical poetry is the regression towards tasteless and indiscriminate use of the more obvious and easily imitated rhetorical figures such as asyndeton,

myrta salix abies corylus siler ulmus acernus,

(Fortunatus, III.ix.23)

or paromoion (alliteration),

Tantillus tantam temno tacere tamen.

(Theodulfus, XXV.8)

In contrast to both Fortunatus and especially Theodulfus, Alcuin tends to reserve such figures for salutations or reverences to deity, where the conventional and thus depersonalized language has the effect of creating a due sense of ritual or reverence.15

The old man with the staff is another commonplace allusion; and a poem by Columban (d. 615) which is inspired by the same commonplace moralizing about time and salvation uses the formula baculo nitens in the usual rhetorical manner; there is no visible function to the allusion. But the couplet by Alcuin reminds us of the context or situation in a poem by Claudian, whose appropriate sentiment is here significantly converted. “Happy,” wrote Claudian, “is the man who spends all his days in his own fields.”

Ipsa domus puerum quem vidit, ipsa senem,
Qui baculo nitens in qua reptavit harena.
The same house sees him as a boy, and old
Who leans on a staff in the sand where once he crawled.

Rural simplicity and continuity (Frugibus alternis, non consule computat annum) is for the pagan poet Claudian an earthly consolation: but in Alcuin this image of a man's whole lifetime symbolizes not endurance but brief mortality.16 Even the rural comforts of the cell flee us as time itself. The use of traditional and thus in a sense timeless language also lends an added mystique to the omnia mutantur topos, since it is only from the timeless perspective of the books studied in the cell that this vision can be sustained. When Professor Laistner professes to admire only the first sixteen lines, adding that “the rest is commonplace,”17 I think he ignores the appropriateness at this point of language which (like that of the mass) is resonant from timeless repetition in the past. (Words and the Word are traditionally contrasted with the transience of the world—grammata sola carent fato18—and this invests the master's cell with a limited mystique, or at least foretaste, of secular transcendence.) Alcuin is known to have composed his poems from sylloges or anthologies of epitaphic inscriptions: but his turning of this rhetoric to novel matter is an ingenious technique of sacramentalizing the immediate, of seeing the present in the rich context of a timeless past. It is hard to appreciate mediaeval Latin poetry if we reject its wealth of commonplace. With a different perspective of time and truth, a poet did not have our compulsion to be original.

This unification of structure, imagery, and sensibility, and corresponding balance between direct and rhetorical statement, seem to be features which emerge in Alcuin's late and more mature poetry.19 We can perhaps best see what was involved by contrasting Alcuin's poem to the nightingale (a set topic if not indeed a school exercise for eulogy) with a late antique example from the pen of Archbishop Eugenius of Toledo (d. 658).20 In the earlier poem a brief exordium (“your song forces this rustic tongue to sing your praise”) is followed by several examples of panegyric outdoing (the vincit and cedat topoi we saw in Paulus Diaconus) to celebrate the victory in song of the nightingale over the cithara, the pipe, the seeds of care, the swan, the garrulous swallow, and the illustrious parrot. (In a ninth-century imitation, the Spaniard Paulus Albarus adds the Muses themselves to the ranks of the defeated; and the same topoi are still set out in the overrated rhythm to the nightingale by Fulbert of Chartres (?) in the tenth or eleventh century.) But Alcuin praises the nightingale, not for her Caesarian invincibility, but as an example of humility and dedication for himself to follow. Characteristically, his exordium is a cry of personal loss, while he concludes with his ever-fervent theme of awakening from the drunken sleep of this life:

Quae te dextra mihi rapuit, luscinia, ruscis,
          Illa meae fuerat invida laetitiae.
Tu mea dulcisonis implesti pectora musis,
          Atque animum moestum carmine mellifluo.
Quapropter veniant volucrum simul undique coetus, (5)
          Carmine te mecum plangere Pierio.
Spreta colore tamen fueras non spreta canendo,
          Lata sub angusto gutture vox sonuit,
Dulce melos iterans vario modulamine Musae,
          Atque creatorem semper in ore canens. (10)
Noctibus in furvis nusquam cessavit ab odis
          Vox veneranda sacris, o decus atque decor.
Quid mirum, cherubim, seraphim si voce tonantem
          Perpetua laudent, dum tua sic potuit?
Felix o nimium, dominum nocteque dieque (15)
                    Qui studio tali semper in ore canit.
Non cibus atque potus fuerat tibi dulcior odis,
          Alterius volucrum nec sociale iugum.
Hoc natura dedit, naturae et conditor almus,
          Quem tu laudasti vocibus assiduis: (20)
Ut nos instrueres vino somnoque sepultos,
          Somnigeram mentis rumpere segniciem.
Quod tu fecisti, rationis et inscia sensus,
          Indice natura nobiliore satis:
Sensibus hoc omnes, magna et ratione vigentes (25)
                    Gessissent aliquod tempus in ore suo.
Maxima laudanti merces in secla manebit
Aeternum regem perpes in arce poli.(21)
Whoever stole you from that bush of broom,
          I think he envied me my happiness,
O little nightingale, for many a time
          You lightened my sad heart from its distress,
          And flooded my whole soul with melody.
And I would have the other birds all come,
          And sing along with me thy threnody.
So brown and dim that little body was,
                    But none could scorn thy singing. In that throat,
That tiny throat, what depth of harmony,
                    And all night long ringing thy changing note.
                    What marvel if the cherubim in heaven
Continually do praise Him, when to thee
          O small and happy, such a grace was given?
Happy the man, who can both night and day
          The Lord with such attention celebrate.
Not food nor drink could tempt you as did song,
          Not even love of some domestic mate.
          This nature gave, and nature's architect
Whom you have praised with such inspiring tongue
          That you could us in drunken sleep instruct
To break the sodden torpor of our minds.
          This you have done, though ignorant of wit,
Your nobler nature a sufficient sign.
          This all have sometime done, whose wit is great,
          And sometime praised the maker in their heart.
The greatest guerdon will in time remain
                    For those who praise Him in celestial court.

The central conceit—“you, too, nightingale, are a little monk”—is a commonplace of Irish poetry in this period.22 The rigorous pursuit of it by Alcuin in this poem has led a modern scholar to complain of “intolerable bathos,” but in fact the single-minded moralizing of the poem is what makes it a genuine experience; the feeling of monastic friendship and communal purpose between man and bird (the same identity as was touched on in the poem to the cell) give this traditional topic a new sense of personal engagement and rapport. Because the nightingale, in the simplest sense, means something to the poet, all of the old imperial rhetoric is censored away, except for what is relevant to his purpose. Moralizing, in this case, has worked for both poetic immediacy and unity of feeling.

This discipline of rhetoric by belief, feeling, and affective purpose, is what distinguishes the northern Carolingian poets, and above all Alcuin, from their Latin contemporaries. The greatest representative of the latter is the Spanish refugee Theodulfus, who seems to have come north about 774 and was soon made Bishop of Orléans. Theodulfus still reflects the continuity of the ancient rhetorical schools, whose influence survives in Spain until the protreptics and Gongorism of the seventeenth century. Of all the Carolingians he is without doubt the most adept, versatile, fluent, and incisive in his use of rhetoric, which he turns with effect to vivid satiric sketches of his own day. By modern critics he has been most admired for his portraits of life at court, with its feasts, drinking, and tenuously repressed hostilities. The chief of these sketches is cast as a panegyric, and in large part it is so well-spoken as to read like a parody of Fortunatus. Its exordium is traditional: the whole world sings the praises of the king, and though it may say much, cannot say all. An adynaton follows: If the Meuse, the Rhine, the Saône, the Rhône, the Tiber, and the Po can be measured, so can your praise. Then a catalogue of specific praises: the face brighter than thrice-melted gold, the egregious head, the golden hands which abolish poverty, the limitless wisdom broader than the Nile, greater than the cold Danube and the Euphrates, not smaller than the Ganges. Then the coming together of his pacified subjects: as there is spring in the world, let there be peace in the state. Then we see the sunlike king, his family, and a chorus of bejewelled virgins such as that which Fortunatus describes in paradise.

This is pastoral-type panegyric of the old order. All of these praises are traditional, but the attitude of the poet is more subtle; somehow we are dealing, as he tells us at the outset, with laude iocoque simul, jokes as well as praise. What a tribute in that admission to the humanity of the period: Theodulfus can joke with his monarch just as Alcuin (Carm. XLV) can give him hard parental advice. (If Fortunatus was joking when he described Queen Fredegonde as “excelling all in merit,” he kept the secret to himself.23 Familiarity is after all the key to purposive communication: in this respect Vergil himself was constrained within the strictest limits.) In truth Theodulfus was no frivolous man, but in his own way as stern a moralist as Alcuin. His religious verse sings the praises of the monks who reject the world, even if he never quite abandoned secular concerns himself. He was an aggressive reformer, and some of his most powerful verse is devoted to the satiric denunciation of contemporary decadence. In all this we feel we are dealing with an alienated sensibility, a feeling confirmed by Theodulfus' religious verse, where the dominant note is not so much of hope as of despair.

Given the values of his contemptus saeculi, Theodulfus, like Alcuin, was incapable of versifying too seriously. But if he affected a certain contempt for rhetoric, this contempt (like that of Catharism) becomes a licence for excess; he knows the limits of exercises, but rarely gives us anything else. It is the positive details of the Christian religion which, by their very intractibility, are attractive to him as set topics for the display of his techniques. Thus (somewhat like Unamuno in our century) he will versify a chapter of St. Paul, or the description in Matthew XXIV. 21-2 of the coming great tribulation; to the latter he adds an explanation of why, if we rightly read Daniel XII.7, the time of Antichrist will last for forty-two months. We see his two-edged sensibility in a poem on avarice (C.VII) which becomes an opportunity to catalogue the riches of all the exotic places in the fourteenth book of Isidore. A topical consolation (C.XXI) in the vein of Fortunatus (IX.ii) ignores the death which occasioned it, but supplies 73 lines of Old Testament necrology. When he turns to the favourite Carolingian theme of the sower (Matt. XIII) he passes over the archetypal seminal overtones24 for the quaint numerological fancies of Jerome.

Namque index summus leviter cum pollice iunctus
          Terdenum in numeris scit retinere locum.
Mullis et amplexus digitorum dulcia signat
          Oscula coniugii, quae sibi grata manent.
At pollex curvo curvatus ab indice pressus
          Sex denos monstrat, inque typo viduas. …(25)
The index finger joined with the thumb together
Are recognized to mean the thirtieth number.
This gentle finger-coupling signifies
The sweet connubial self-rewarding kiss.
But a curved thumb pressed by an index finger curved
Signifies sixty, and is a sign of widows. …

This, like a great deal of Theodulfus' poetry, is a static metrical exercise. It is true that he is a far greater descriptive poet than Alcuin; he will lavish vivid virtuoso ecphrases on a cup or a pair of gloves. Alcuin, with his nisus towards archetype and the inner simplicity, tends to pass over such sensuous detail, since in his life and prose he treated all sensuous pleasure as volatile shade, velut volatilis umbra. But if such a doctrine seems unpromising in a poet, we should at least see that it was no denial of Alcuin's sensibility, but a fulfilment of it. His desires were other-wordly but none the less powerful for that. Actually, in the long run, the poetry of Theodulfus strikes me as being just as dogmatically limited. He does not give way to desire; his final expectation is that of Antichrist as the evil to cure our evils (Carm. XVIII). What could be closer to an anti-pastoral, a reversal of the affective vision in the Fourth Eclogue, than his versifying of Cyprian (d. 258) on the world's decline?

Non ea temperies hiemis prius ut fruit exstat, (5)
          Quae nutriere queat gramina, ligna, sata.
Copia deest solis torrendo aestate labori,
          Verna nec officio sunt modo laeta suo.
Dulcibus haud adeo mustis autumna redundant,
          Foetibus arboreis non onerata vigent … (10)
Non viget, ut viguit dudum, vegetata iuventa (21)
          Cuncta senectus atrox ore nigrante vorat.
Namque necesse manet minui, cui proximus exstat
          Finis, et occasum haud procul esse videt.
Dat sol ima petens radios splendore minore, (25)
          Lunaque decrescens cornua fusca gerit.
Arbos, quae iuvenis vernabat flore comisque,
          Deformi fundit germina rara situ.
Fons et inundantes solitus diducere rivos,
          Sic guttam tenuem saepe vetustus habet.(26) (30)
Our winters are not temperate as before
To nurse and shelter pasture, shrubs, and seeds.
The sun in summer lacks its parching power
And joys of spring now fail their proper task.
Nor do autumns stream with gentle must
Nor are they laden down with orchard fruit. …
Our youth is not as lively as it was,
Cruel age with pitch-black mouth devours all things.
We must diminish, now our end appears
And we can see our fall not far away.
The sun descending casts less splendid rays,
The waning moon proceeds with darkened horns.
Once flowers and leaves adorned this youthful tree,
Now single shoots escape its weakened burls.
And springs which used to flood with drenching streams
With age have often shrunk to trickling drops. …

In this vigorous reiteration, Theodulfus makes commonplace language supremely his own, and the more emphatic and controlled for its spiritual alicnation. We might say there is something Spanish in this near-fatalism: those who feel a difference between the pedantic curiosity of Isidore and the symbolic appetency of Bede may recognize a similar divergency of motive between the Spaniard and the Northumbrian of the Carolingian Court. Isidore and Theodulfus are late products looking to the authorities of the past; with Bede and Alcuin the legacy of these authorities has been relaxed and remoulded in a vision of new possibility.

The traditional rhetoric of Theodulfus enables us to understand and define more closely the original simplicity of Alcuin. Alcuin too can write light verse involving friendly jokes and even puns;27 but he is more likely to turn these rhetorical jokes to some affective purpose. In like manner the language of allusion is controlled and modulated. Theodulfus uses tags from Ovid, Prudentius, and the satirists more or less indiscriminately, for the sake of elegance, rather than for any special effect. He knows himself to be part of an imitative tradition; Alcuin is equally conscious of the difference between his own relatively plain and unaffected Latin, and the elegant pagan excerpts (literally “pluckings,” since these were the “flowers” of mediaeval florilegia or commonplace books) which he sets like gems within it. There is a more complex intention here, not imitation for its own sake, but a quotation which is functional:

Splendida dum rutilat roseis Aurora quadrigis,
                    Perfundens pelagus luce nova liquidum,
Discutit ex oculis nocturnos pollice somnos,
                    Mox senior strato prosilit ipse suo,
In campos veterum procurrens carpere flores,
                    Rectiloquos ludos pangeret ut pueris. …(28)
While the magnificent dawn shines in her roseate carriage,
          Soaking the liquid sea with light anew
The master strikes with his thumb nocturnal sleep from his eyes
          And soon himself leaps from his lowly bed,
Running to pluck the flowers found in the classical fields
          That he may grant his boys some right-speaking games. …

The thumbwork here, as much as the roseate carriage, is made from echoes, not (as has been suggested) from direct visual observation. Yet the quotations are used to colour and heighten a real, everyday occurrence, as we learn in the cold awakening of the second couplet. The carpere flores topos of the third couplet, one of Alcuin's central and most archetypal metaphors, makes the whole game clear, and establishes the appropriateness of quoting Vergil: Alcuin's poem is, in fact, a preface to his textbook on spelling.

This passage is typical of Alcuin's ability to move backwards and forwards between the rhetorical language of allusion and the direct language of statement; and thus to see the present as unique, at the same moment that it is superimposed upon the past of literature. By moving between these two realms of meaning, an ambiguity of situation is created, of the type which pastoral exploits; and which can be put to work either for allegory or for irony. Alcuin reminds us how closely these two genres are related; just as, in the recent past, the allegoric allusions of romanticism have been inevitably followed by the ironic allusions of Eliot and Pound:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal coot.

Allegory expands, irony diminishes, the extension or truthfulness of its statement. The same telescope can be brought into ironic focus, on the limitations of the actual, or into allegoric focus, on the realm of connotations behind it. A convenient device to either end is (what we find in Alcuin) the conscious art of pastiche. Now the rigorous pursuit of either allegory or irony is likely to pall: what we admire in the eclogues of Vergil, and can find in Alcuin also, is the ability to move lightly from one game to the other. But Theocritus could not represent the past to Vergil as securely as Vergil himself did to the Carolingians: perhaps there has never been another age when, among the literate, a single short canon of authors was so familiarly known, so meditated on,29 and thus so affectively important. Latin was already becoming a literary language dominated by traditional connotations: this, while it threatened poetic immediacy, allowed for an almost unconscious facility and subtlety of allusion which could range through several modes. Of these, in Alcuin, the mode of disaffected irony is most conspicuously absent. Can we trace this perhaps to his real attachment to, and gratification from, the gaudia mentis (XVII.11) or delights of sacred learning, which he so often celebrates in his poetry? We are convinced that for Alcuin the flowers of the commonplace carpere flores topos are real, in the sense of affectively persuasive, however bitter the turbulent waters of the world:

Alcuinus ingrediens patrum sacra prata piorum
          Carperet ut flores per pia rura sacros,
Fingere serta volens puerorum congrua fronti,
          Grandia quorum aetas pondera ferre nequit.
Has, rogo, litterulas nostri perdiscite nati,
          Et tota aeternos mente tenete dies.
Omnia fluxa fluunt saeclorum gaudia longe,
          Nec redeunt iterum more fluentis aquae. …(30)
Alcuin enters the sacred patristic fields
          To gather sacred flowers from this holy country
Hoping to weave a garland fit for the young
          Whose age cannot yet bear too huge a weight.
Learn, O youths, this text of mine, I pray,
          Guard it with all your mind through all your days.
All temporal joys of the world flow far away,
          Like flowing water will not come again. …

In this more serious and religious poem, Alcuin's plain language has divested these two commonplace metaphors, flores and serta, of their originally rhetorical associations. Their affective importance now transcends the lines in which they occur: instead of being an occasional decorative figure, part of the rhetorical ornatus of the poem, they create a central metaphorical situation for the poem as a whole. The meaning of the figures thus greatly transcends their explicit grammatical function: insofar as this happens, we may say that they approach the status of symbolic and even archetypal metaphors. To study the history of this transition from rhetoric to symbolic, and the emergence of poems with underlying metaphorical situations, would require a separate article paying due notice to both rhetorical conventions, such as the epithalamium, and above all the pagan and biblical traditions of allegorical exegesis. The transition is by no means limited to Alcuin, but, especially in the rhetoric-mistrusting north, is a common feature of the period. The important thing to observe (witness the notes to the poem in question) is that the process is largely one of subtraction, a reduction to archetype through the elimination of what is not relevant to it. This is most clearly brought out by contrasting the earlier, more self-conscious figures of Aldhelm (d. 709):

Sic lector libri solers et gnarus amator
Nititur electos scripturae carpere fructus,
Ut pecus agrestes ex prato vellicat herbas.

(Carm. 2773-5)

Thus the skilled and loving reader of books
Strives to pluck the chosen fruits of scripture
As a herd plucks its country herbs from a field.

Or again

purpureos pudicitiae flores ex sacrorum voluminum prato decerpens pulcherrimam virginitatis coronam Christo favente contexere nitar.

(Prosa de Virg. XIX)

Plucking the purple flowers of chastity from the field of the sacred volumes I shall endeavour with Christ's aid to weave a most beautiful garland of virginity.

No one can deny the rhetorical quality of Aldhelm's late Irish Latin: in Alcuin our attention is no longer drawn to the words, but to the mental realm they represent. The more one reads Alcuin's poetry, the more it is clear that for Alcuin the entire universe of abstract meanings and connotations is relatively simple and composed; and the metaphorical situation just quoted is in fact the metaphorical situation for all his poems which have one. It is not (as any modern poem must almost certainly be) a fragment from the world of the poet's imagination; it is very simply that world itself, ordered into a single structured vision or orama between the affective poles of desire (in this poem, the peaceful fields) and alienation (the flowing waters). This world is of course not one of his own invention: if it were, it could not have the objective reality which it does. In large part it has been created by centuries of allegorizing and de-allegorizing from sacred scripture, by the efforts to contemplate that jumbled congeries as a single intellectual whole. It is this sustained interlocking of figurative meanings, operating continuously as a single world of reference underneath the literal development of the poem, that turns rhetorical tropes into poetic symbols.

We saw a hint of this interlocking affective structure, or orama, in the poem to the cell, when its wakeful peace was contrasted with the violent passage of time; and again in the poem to the nightingale, where the spiritual burial of man in wine and sleep was contrasted with the bird's spring vigil in praise of the Lord. Note how all these themes are alluded to in the following letter to Alcuin's former pupils at York, where the linkup of the images is partly independent of the poem's literal development:

Nunc cuculus ramis etiam resonavit in altis;
Florea versicolor pariet nunc germina tellus.
Vinea bachiferas trudit de palmite gemmas,
Suscitat et vario nostras modulamine mentes
Indefessa satis rutilis luscinia ruscis. (5)
Et sol signiferi medium transcendit in orbem,
Et Phoebus vicit tenebrarum regna refulgens;
Atque natans ad vos pelagi trans aequora magni
Albini patris deportat carta salutem,
Moenibus Euboricae habitans tu sacra iuventus. (10)
Fas idcirco, reor, comprehendere plectra Maronis.
Somnigeras subito te nunc excire camenas,
Carminibusque sacris naves implere Fresonum,
Talia namque placent vestro quia munera patri,
Qui nunc egregias regalibus insonat artes (15)
Auribus et patrum ducit per prata sequentem
Praepulchro sophiae regnantem stemmate celsae.
Tu quoque, tu patri nimium dilecta iuventus,
Tu sobolis vitae, patriae laus et decus omne,
Aetheriis sophiae feliciter utere donis, (20)
Ut tibi permaneat merces et gloria semper.
Ebrius initiat vobis neu vincula Bachus,
Mentibus inscriptas deleat neu noxius artes.
Nec vos Cretensis depellat ab arce salutis
Improbus ille puer, stimulis armatus acutis. (25)
Nec vos luxivagus raptet per inania mundus,
Vertice submergens vitalia pectora nigro:
Sed praecepta sacrae memores retinete salutis,
Dulcisono Christum resonantes semper in ore.
Ille cibus, potus, carmen, laus, gloria vobis (30)
Sit, rogo, qui vobis tribuat felicia regna
Atque suis sanctis iungat super aethera semper.(31)
Now has the cuckoo sung in the lofty branches,
The varied earth brings forth its flowery shoots.
The vine puts out its wine-bearing buds from its sprouts,
The nightingale from groves of golden broom
Unwearied wakes our minds with varied measure.
The sun climbs through the middle zodiac,
Resplendent Phoebus conquers the realm of shades;
And swimming to you through the waters of the sea
Alcuin's letter brings paternal greetings,
You hallowed youth within the walls of York.
'Tis fit, I say, to seize the Maronian lyre
And suddenly to wake the sleeping Muses
And fill the Frisian naves with sacred songs;
Because such gifts are pleasing to your father
Intoning noble arts to regal ears
And leading through the patristic fields a youth
Ruling with the crown of lofty wisdom.
You also, youth too cherished by your father,
Offspring of life, our nation's pride and glory,
Use happily the etherial gifts of wisdom.
Do not submit to drunken Bacchus' chains,
Nor lose the arts inscribed upon your minds.
Nor let the Cretan, armed with piercing darts,
Unworthy lad, drive you from heaven's height,
Nor the erring world seize you through vanities
Submerging living breasts in a whirlpool dark:
But retain the precepts of salvation
Singing of Christ with dulcet lips forever.
Let He, to you, be food, drink, song, praise, glory
I pray, and grant to you his happy realm
And join you to his saints above the skies.

The poem's tono scherzoso and vigorous springtime whimsy have been noted before. What is equally original, and has not been noted, is the initial heaping up of congruent images in what we may call symbolic harmony. The single line

Et Phoebus vicit tenebrarum regna refulgens

has a polarizing effect: it not only invests the spring images of the exordium with mystical paschal overtones; but adds symbolic resonance to the succeeding triumph of the health-giving letter over the waters of the sea. This eidyllion of pastoral well-being is sustained in the monastic references of the prata patrum, the sacra iuventus of the poem to the cell, and above all the resonant notion of a time for awakening to song, the same optative idea we encountered in the poem to the nightingale. The pole of optative well-being is mirrored darkly in the antithetical admonition

Nec vos luxivagus raptet per inania mundus
Vertice submergens vitalia pectora nigro

where the vortex of the world, with its wealth of commonplace associations, draws the sea of the earlier lines more securely into the affective structure of the poem; and is contrasted directly with the opposite vortex of the felicia regna. This commonplace archetype of the machina mundi—known to modern readers through the whirling world of Eliot's poetry—is further structured by the commonplace formula raptet per inania. Whatever instance of it may have served as Alcuin's model, its appropriateness is unquestionable. Callisto and her son were caught up by Jove and translated through the void (raptos per inania) to heaven: it is important that the world not seize us in the opposite direction, through the vanities of what Alcuin elsewhere calls the vortices of lust.32

It is characteristic of Alcuin's poetry that Bacchus and Cupid (the improbus ille puer of Vergil's Eighth Eclogue—to sustain and convert the Vergilian tone of the exordium) have lost their more specific connotations to merge as aspects of a single swirling diabolic force. What we have here is not the amplificatio or “free creation of the marvellous” which C. S. Lewis admires in Claudian (fl. c. 400) or Bernardus Sylvestris (fl. c. 1150), but its opposite and complement, a reduction to archetype. The pagan gods are no longer unmentionable (as when Avitus (d. 518) wrote claudetur fistula Phoebo), but they are relevant only insofar as they have not been wholly “disinfected of belief.” The wish and danger is for Alcuin a real one; thus the poem has an immediacy of appeal which is not purely “rhetorical.”33

Whoever has read, say, the magnificent paschal poem of Fortunatus (III.ix) knows that this archetypal reduction, and symbolic resonance, do not begin with Alcuin. But Fortunatus rarely sustains a metaphorical situation: a typical poem (VIII.vii) begins with the paschal victory over Tartarus, passes to the flowers which Agnes and Radegunde have strewn in the church, describes the herbid battle of their colours in this place of peace, and compares the victory of the flowers over gems and frankincense to the odour of the nuns themselves. It is, in short, a discursive rhetorical poem: the tropes are his subject, not a unified background for it, and the poem has a linear articulation only. Alcuin's poem is both more immediate and more symbolic. His relatively simple motives control the underlying affective unity of the poem, while allowing for a relative freedom of articulation on the literal level. His unswerving purpose extracts from the literary past only such fragments as are relevant to its intentions, and fixes these, as it were, in a magnetic field of polarized fear and desire.

With these two features, of affective unity and of the disengagement between syntactical and allegorical structures of development, Alcuin represents, in my opinion, an important step in the evolution towards modern notions of poetry. Thus I cannot understand why, up to now, even admiring critics have been so hesitant in their praise. This close examination of the role of rhetoric in Alcuin's poetry should persuade us that Alcuin was original in this, if in nothing else: that rhetoric in all its senses, of tropes, ornatus, emulation, and allusion, was clearly subordinated to a functional role within the unified structure of the poem. This was of course because Alcuin had something to say in an extra-poetic sense. His poems sustain a single optative mood; and his wishes are real ones. Although his poems do not presume to express the full measure of his faith, they lead us to it; and it is possible perhaps to suggest that by modern standards Alcuin was more Christian in his treatment of secular subjects than most of the first Christian rhetoricians in their treatment of sacred ones.

Alcuin had a fairly low estimation of poetry as a secular game or diversion: he left surprisingly little sacred or liturgical poetry, and versified for the most part on relatively humble subjects. Nevertheless, it appears that more of his poetry has been preserved (over 180 folio pages in the MGH edition are attributed to him) than that of any other Latin poet between the sixth and eleventh centuries. I believe it is time to accept the tribute of this preservation as some mark of his true value as a poet, and to challenge the almost universal judgement that

this great scholar and organizer, “the first intellectual among Charlemagne's officials” (Guizot) and “one of the men to whom Western civilization owes most” (Gilson)—was only a second-rate writer.34

The fact is that poetry, even as a game, was important to Alcuin's life-objective: to re-establish learning as a means towards gratifying and thus converting the world. We can still commune in the faith and objective which shaped his life: in reading his letters or his poems, we can understand and identify with his human motivations. However more forceful may be the effect of reading Vergil, or even Fortunatus, the personalities of these ancient writers are veiled to us. The very intensity of Alcuin's dedication to a common faith has the paradoxical effect of lifting that veil. A new intimacy is given to language by his resumption of a common purpose: we read Alcuin, no longer as a rhetorician, but as we would a modern poet.


  1. Cf. R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries (Cambridge, 1954): “To be viable, a system of educational training must possess a certain internal harmony. The student must not be troubled by being taught contradictory notions of the world, mutually exclusive values, or incompatible tastes. That type of harmony the Anglo-Saxon schools certainly achieved” (102). Cf. 103: “What they did was to simplify the teaching of grammar and versification so as to bring these subjects within the grasp of students who had needed to start Latin from the beginning.”

  2. Roger Hinks, in Carolingian Art (London, 1935) refers to a “sudden and successful resuscitation of the antique style about the year 800 both in book-painting and ivory-carving” (110). It is Hinks's thesis that “the history of medieval art in western Europe starts as an organic growth from the Carolingian Renascence at the end of the eighth century. Until that date the Christian narrative and didactic art of the Mediterranean world had never fused completely with the ornamental and non-representational art of the Celtic and Germanic north. This process took place during the ninth century in the workshops attached to the court of Charles the Great” (ix).

  3. George Boas, Essays on Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages (Baltimore, 1948), 63.

  4. Edited by Dümmler, Neues Archiv XI (Hanover, 1886) 77-91 (90). I have slightly augmented his notes: 92: Calp. Ecl. I, 42, Aurea secura cum pace renascitur aetas. 97: Verg. Geo. IV, 184; Omnibus una quies operum. 98: Aen. X, 209, caerula … freta (Ov. Ep. XV. 65); cp. Ecl. I, 136, alnos … sensere cavatas; Aen. III, 191, cava trabe. 99: Ov. Ep. I, 59, peregrinam littora puppim Ov. Met. I, 96, Nullaque mortales praeter sua litora norant. 100: Ov. Met. VI, 396, Fertilis … terra; Verg. Geo. III, 225, Ov. Ep. IX, 155, ignotis … in oris. 101: Ecl. IV, 39, Mutabit merces, omnis feret omnia tellus (Ov. Met. I, 102). 102: Aen. VIII, 67, ima petens (Ov. Met. II, 265); Ov. Met. I, 150, terras reliquit. 104: Alcuin LVIII, 32, Divitias cumulat. 105-6: Ov. Fast. II, 295, Nullus anhelabat sub adunco vomere taurus; Ex P. III, 7, 15, taurus … Subtrahit et duro colla … iugo; Met. IX, 186, validi pressistis cornua tauri; Art. I, 414, Rem. 172, vomer aduncus, Drac. II, 433, Vomere non terram proscinderet, cp. Theod. XXVIII, 61, vomer … uncus. 107: Ov. Met. I, 109, Mox etiam fruges tellus inarata ferebat. 108: Verg. Geo. I, 96, Ov. Am. III, 10.3, Flava Ceres; Verg. Geo. I, 348, Ov. Fast. V, 357, maturis albescit … aristis.

  5. Alcuin Carm. XXIII, ed. Dümmler, Poetarum Latinarum Medii Aevi Tom. I (henceforward MGH Poetae I) (Berlin, 1881) 243-4. Notes: 1: Alc. XXXIV. 3, O mea cara domus, habitatio dulcis, amata. 2: Alc. XII. 4, Semper in aeternum, Lucia virgo, vale!; XXXVII. 2, Semper in aeternum, dulcis Homere, vale; XXV. 11, Semper in aeternum domino miserante valete; cf. e.g. XXIV.1, XXVII.2, 13, XXVII.9-10, IX.240, XV.1, XXVIII.25. 3: Georg. II. 81, ramis felicibus arbos; Beda de die Iud. 2, resonantibus undique ramis; cf. 1, florigeras … herbas; Aen. V. 287-8, undique … cingebant silvae; Fort. VI. i. 18, undique cinxerunt cf. Angilbert (?) II.98, Undique cingantur; Aedilvulf XXII.28, cingentes undique; Ov. Tr. III.1.40, Fast. VII.1.4; cingit … arbor. 5: Fort. III.ix.12, prata virent herbis. 6: Aen. X.395, dextera quaerit; Fort. V.xvii.6, Dagulf (MGH Poetae I 93) Alc. XLIII.8, LXXVI.ii.12, Salutis ope. 10: Drac. Epith. VI.8, Fort. II. ix. 24, Paulin VI.1.108, Aq. I.60, lilia mixta rosis; Aen. VI.708-9, Drac. I.68, candida … lilia. 11: Beda VSC XLIV.12, matutinas … laudes. 12: Alc. XXXIV. 6, In te discatur sophia sacra patrum. 14: Alc. XXI.30, Sacro … ore. 15: Ov. Rem. 189, temporibus certis. 18: Alc. IX.191 (cf. IX.13), Plango tuos casus; LVII.37, Plange tuos casus. 21: Flaccus and Homerus: the pastoral names at the Carolingian court for Alcuin and Angilbert. 23: Alc. IX.55, Sic fugit omne decus; 112, cadit corporis omne decus; Fort III.viii.16, omne decus, cf. Drac. Satisf. 247-56. 24: Alc. XI.11, Omnia mutantur; IX.12, Omnia vertuntur temporibus variis; cf. Drac. II.587, Tempora mutantur. Prop. Eleg. II.viii.7, Omnia vertuntur; Claudian. Bell. Gildon. 477, Fort. VIII.3. 264, Ordinibus variis. 25: Alc. IX.11, Nil manet aeternum; XI.12, Nil est perpetuum. 27: Alc. LVIII.7, Frigida … Hiems; Drac.I.589, decutit … flores. 29: Alc. LIX.10, sacra iuventus. 30: Alc. IX.101-2, quondam certabat in arvis / Cum cervis, quoniam fessa senectus adest. 33: Alc. XLVIII.26, Sed fugiens fugiet. 38: Alc. XXXVII.6, XLV.8, XLVIII.44 vita salus, Ep. 307 (MGH Epp.IV.470) gloria vita salus.

  6. Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars (New York, 1955) 46. I have attempted in my notes to support Dümmler's contention that the diction is that of Alcuin; Miss Waddell follows Mabillon in attributing the poem to Alcuin's pupil Fredegis. But, it is unlikely, if not impossible, that Angilbert (“Homerus”) was connected with Corméry or any other cloister that Fredegis could have called his own. For the same reason, the cell cannot have been that of Alcuin's childhood school at York (C. Foligno, Latin Thought During the Middle Ages [Oxford, 1929] 82). The most obvious possibility is a cell in the celebrated park of Aachen itself, since Alcuin knew Angilbert there, and praises the fishing of the neighborhood (Epp. IV. 235). I grant that Alcuin would not call himself a magister sacro ore: this could, however, be the grammarian Peter of Pisa, an elder contemporary who was close to Angilbert (Epp. IV. 285, Poetae I.75). Thus the poem might date either from 790, when Angilbert was made Abbot of St. Riquier and Alcuin returned to England; or from 796, when the now ailing Alcuin went to Tours, and Angilbert was sent on a mission to Italy. Another possibility is Echternach, where Alcuin liked to make his retreat. Its Abbot, “Samuel” (Beornrad, d. 797) is linked with “Flaccus” and “Homerus” in Carm. XVI. 3-4; and Alcuin writes to him in a tone that is both familiar and reverent (Epp. IV. 175, Carm. XVI, sancte pater). Such speculations are, of course, hazardous.

  7. H. O. Taylor, The Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages (New York, 1901), 297.

  8. 1: Carm. 1-8 (ed. Leo, 146). Notes: 1: Virg. Ecl. IX.40, Hic ver purpureum; Culex 50, Stat. Theb. V.526, Paul. Petr. IV.556, viridantia gramina. 3: Ov. Met. XIII.793, aestiva umbra; Georg. I.448, defendet pampinus uvas; Sil. VII.167, pampinus umbras. 4: Georg. IV.61, frondea … tecta; Ov. Tr. V.vii.50, tecta comis. 8: Drac. I. 194, mollior aura, 198, pendula poma.

  9. Carm. (ed. Neff) I. 7-20. 7: Aen. III.304, viridi quem caespite. 17: Verg. Ecl. IV.38, cedet et ipse mari; Eug. Tol. (ed. Vollmer) XXXIII.11, iudice me cygnus et garrula cedat hirundo, cedat et illustri psittacus ore tibi. 19: Aen. VII.759, vitrea te Fucinus unda.

  10. For the history of hyperoche or outdoing as a topos, cf. E. R. Curtius (tr. Trask), European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York, 1953), 162-5.

  11. Curtius, 273 ff. Curtius treats mannerism as “a constant in European literature”; I am concerned here to suggest its ebb and flow.

  12. Miss Duckett (Alcuin, 283), Howard Mumford Jones (P. S. Allen, The Romanesque Lyric, 240) and other translators, not recognizing the formula, have mistakenly assumed that the poet must be saying “For evermore … Goodbye!”

  13. Alcuin IX. 11-8. 11: Aldh. c. 1887, sub caeli cardine mundus. 12: Prop. El. II.viii.7, Omnia vertuntur. 17: Fort. II.ix.34, micat alma fides.

  14. Alcuin XI.7-18. 9: Ov. Fast. IV.463, Alc. IX.7, miscentur tristia laetis, XLVIII 27-30. 11: cf. Alc. XXIII.24.

  15. Perhaps this is the place to observe also the effectiveness of the restrained anaphora (repetition for emphasis) from lines 17-21.

  16. Columbanus Ad Sethum 25 ex Ov. Met. XIV.655, Claud. Carm. Min. XX.2-3, cf. Columbanus, loc. cit. 63:

    Omnia tempus agit, cum tempore cuncta trahunter,
    Alternant elementa vices et tempora mutant.
  17. M. L. W. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe A.D. 500-900 (London, 1931) 281.

  18. Hrabanus Maurus (Alcuin's pupil), Carm. XXI:

    Grammata sola carent fato, mortemque repellunt,
              praeterita renovant, grammata sola biblis.

    cf. Dungal II.33, Munera Musarum saeclis aeterna manebunt; Albarus IX.134, Hec sola verba nescit cum mundo senesci.

  19. His early long poem on the Church of York owes much to Bede; his middle poems (e.g. IV, VII) show that in his forties he could learn much from his encounter with the Lombard poets.

  20. Opera (ed. Vollmer), 254.

  21. Alcuin LXI (De Luscinia) MGH Poetae I. 274-5. Notes: 1: Alc. LVII.6, Quae te nunc rapuit; Aldhelm Aen. LXVIII.7, Alc. LIX.5, luscinia ruscis. 7: Paulin. Nol. XXIII.33, unicolor plumis ales, sed picta loquellis. 9: Paulus Diac. (Neff) XXIX.2, dulce melos; Aldhelm C.e. III.54, melos fantes modulamine; Paulin. Nol. XXIII.56, vario modulamine; cf. Alc. LIX.4. 10: Alc. ubique, e.g. XXXI.8, XXXV.6, XLIV.18, XLVI.6, LIX.29, semper in ore. 12: Paulus Diac. (Neff) XXV.4 (cf. XXVI.24), o decus atque dolor. 15: Beda de die Iud. 131, Felix o nimium; cf. Verg. Aen. IV.657, heu nimium felix; Commod. Apol. 613, Fortunatus I.ii.27, VIII.iii.299,309,, O nimium felix; Prudentius C. Symm. II.1019 O felix nimium; e.g. Alc. III.xxi.4, laudibus invigilant domini nocteque dieque. 16: vd. supra v.10. 21: Aen. II.265, somno vinoque sepultam; Ov. Fast. II.333, somno vinoque solutos. 26: e.g., Alc. XXI.36, in ore suo. 28: Fort. IV.xxvi.114 arce poli: Alc. III. Pr. 12, IX.226, XXXVII.20, CIX.xii.2, CXII.4, in arce poli; CXVII.8, poli perpes in arce. The first two verses of the translation are by Helen Waddell, Mediæval Latin Lyrics (London, 1933), 89.

  22. Cf. a contemporary example (Kuno Meyer, Ancient Irish Poetry, 100):

    Ah blackbird, thou art satisfied
    Where thy nest is in the bush:
    Hermit that clinkest no bell,
    Sweet, soft, peaceful is thy note.
  23. A less discreet rhetoric might have earned him a martyr's death, like that of his brother bishop St. Praetextatus of Rouen. Nothing in the poetry of Fortunatus can approach the admonitory tone of Alcuin to Charlemagne:

    Plurima nempe tibi sunt emendanda per orbem. …


  24. E.g. Smaragdus III 24-9 (MGH Poetae I.618):

    Qui rutilus nocuas pellat de mente latebras,
    Vincula disrumpat, cordis eliminet umbras,
    Inradietque sacro mentis spiramine fibras,
    Ut valeat nobis divino semine iacto
    Rore poli madidus, doctorum vomere cultus,
    Cordis opimus ager centenos reddere fructus.
  25. XVI.ii.11-16, MGH Poetae I.471-2. The conceit is from the so-called Romana computatio, or finger-counting. Cf. Hieron. Adv. Jovinianum I; Ep. CXXIII; Beda Comm. in Ev. Matt. II.13; In Luc. Ev. Expos. III.8; De Temp. Rat. I.

  26. Theodulf Carm. XIV, Quod Multis Indiciis Finis Proximus Esse Monstretur; MGH Poetae I.469. I do not wish to suggest that Alcuin was free of historical disillusion: in his later years at least (MGH Epp. IV.89), he too wonders whether the end of the world may not be at hand. But in his long and not unmoving poem on historical vicissitude (De Clade Lindisfarnensis Monasterii, C.IX) he closes on a note of spiritual victory

    Praelia post terrae regnat in arce poli.

    Theodulf omits this commonplace conclusion.

  27. E.g. XVI. 6 Est locus in Sennis, auxiliare senem: “There is a place in Sens, to aid an old man.” Whatever we may think of punning or annominatio, it is treated as a formal rhetorical figure in the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and later in twelfth-century poetics: cf. Curtius, European Literature, 278 ff. The Est locus formula (e.g. Aen. I.530, III.163; Ov. Her. XV.53; Met. II.195, XIV.489; Fast. II.491, IV.337; Luc. VIII.546; Sil. XI.505; Stat. Silv. V.i.222; Theb. II.32; Claud. III.123, V.466; Lact. Phoen.1; Drac.I.178; Sid.Ap.II.407; Avit.I.193; Fort. I.xviii.1; Alc.I.656) traditionally initiates descriptions of a locus amoenus such as the Christian Paradise: hence we have here another example of Alcuin's novel and whimsical use of allusion.

  28. Alc. XLII. 1-6. Notes: Aen. VI.535, roseis Aurora quadrigis. 3: Verg. Geo. IV, 499 dixit et ex oculis; Claud. C.Min.XXV.27, detersit pollice somnum; Fort V.S.M. IV.II, evigilansque oculis detergam pollice somnum.

  29. For the meaning of meditation, see Jean Leclercq (tr. Misrahi) The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (New York, 1962) 25.

  30. Alc. LXXVI.5-12. For earlier, more traditionally rhetorical workings of the fingere serta motif, cf. VII.30-5, XIV.1-3. The following loci, especially in their contexts, illustrate the evolution from a rhetorical to a symbolic topos: Euseb. Vitae Const. I init. πλίξαντεs στεθάνουs; Claud. Carm. min. xxx.2, Pierio … serto redimire; Fort. VSM I.36-8, inter tot … gemmantia prata loquentum/ nullo flore virens ego tendam texere sertam; Aldh. De Metris i (ed. Ehw., 62), de amoenissimo scripturarum paradiso quasi quosdam campestrium cauliculos aut vernantes pratorum flosculos coacervans ad unius coronae texturam congerere nitar; Prosa de Virg. xix (249), Carm. 2773-5, vide infra.

  31. Alcuin Carm. LIX (Ad Fratres Euboricenses). 3: Verg. Ecl. VII.48, Drac. Feb. in palmite gemmae; Geo. II.74 trudunt de cortice gemmae, 335, trudit gemmas; Avit. II.139, de palmite mala; Ps. Beda Hymn. II, PL 94.608, trudit in palmite gemmae. 4: Paulin. Nol. XXIII.56; Alc. LXI.9, vario modulamine. 5: Aldh. Aen. LXVIII.7, Alc. LXI.1, luscinia ruscis. 6: Verg. Geo. IV.426, ardebat caelo, et medium sol igneus orbem; Drac. II.3, Temperies Caeli medium nec possidet orbem; Petrus Pis. (Neff) XVII.1-2, sol … medium caeli transcenderat axem. 7: Fort. VIII.vii.3, tempore vernali, dominus quo Tartara vicit. 9: Alc. IV.1, Cartula … pelagi trans aequora cursu. 10: Alc. XXIII.29, sacra iuventus. 17: Theod. XLVI.12, celsa Sophia. 18: Aen. IV.130, delecta iuventus. 19: Verg. Ecl. V.34, Tu decus omne. 25: Verg. Ecl. VIII.49, improbus ille puer. 26: Verg. Cul. 212, rapior per inania ventis; Ov. Met. II.506, raptos per inania; Arat. Ep. ad Parth. 52, per inane … rapi; cf. Carm. Sangall. MGH Poetae II.476, Cum mundus per inania vertatur volitando.

  32. Ep. 65 (MGH Epp. IV, 107) per libidinum vortices caro rapuit.

  33. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (New York, 1958) 82-3. It will be obvious that I find Professor Lewis's chapter on “Allegory” one-sided and dominated by romantic ideas from Coleridge (e.g. Biog. Lit. xviii) and Max Mueller (or Owen Barfield). To Lewis' suggestion that allegory provided a “sleeping-place” for the old gods (ibid.), I much prefer the judgement of Curtius that “Christianity did not allow the antique Gods to die in peace. It had to degrade them into demons” (462). But what really controls their survival in Christian poetry is their connotational function, for either good or evil, within a revised symbolic universe, which is both conventional and affectively important. When Professor Lewis suggests that the gods had to be disinfected of belief before they could “come to light in the imagination,” the truth is that the most easily disinfected (the God Terminus for example) were also the most quickly forgotten.

  34. Maurice Hélin (tr. Snow), A History of Medieval Latin Literature (New York, 1959) 29. Cf. e.g., F. J. E. Raby, Christian Latin Poetry (Oxford, 1953) 162: “On the whole, Alcuin was a mediocre poet. His real talents lay elsewhere. He was pre-eminently a teacher.”

Peter Dale Scott (essay date July 1965)

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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 ecloga were both too vague to have any precise connotation, though by his death they were re-established as formal genres.1 From the standpoint of his contemporaries, Alcuin's “pastorals” are always examples of some other form: the Conflictus Veris et Hiemis is a rhetorical synkrisis; his poems to Corydon and to Cuculus are each an epistola ammonitorialis currens.2 Though each of those poems, to some extent, echoes the formal arrangement of Virgil's Eclogues, and to good purpose, this formal echo is less important than the pastoral symbolic imagery which can also be found in Alcuin's other poems.3

The poem to Corydon, by its failure, shows that Alcuin did not easily arrive at this unity of pastoral form and content. For it is nostalgic in the unpoetic sense: it recalls, but does not recreate, the conventional signs of a lost foster friendship. It opens with the unusually complex imagery of Alcuin's poem Nunc cuculus: the hostile waves, the appeal to song, a Biblical allusion to spiritual feeding, and the liberating notion (so central to the Conflictus) of free flight over water. But these are hardly integrated:

En tuus Albinus, saevis ereptus ab undis,
          Venerat, altithrono nunc miserante deo,
Te cupiens apel—peregrinis—lare camenis,
          O Corydon, Corydon, dulcis amice satis.
Quicquid tu volitas per magna palatia regum, (5)
          Ut ludens pelago aliger undisono:
Qui sophiae libros primis lac ore sub annis
          Suxisti et labris ubera sacra tuis.
Dum tibi, dum maior per tempora creverat aetas,
          Tunc solidos sueras sumere corde cibos.(4) (10)
Lo, your Albinus, snatched from the cruel waters
By noble God's compassion, now had come,
Wishing to call you to the exiled muses
O Corydon, Corydon, my sweet, sweet friend,
Wherever you may fly through the royal palace
Playing like a bird on the wave-loud sea.
At first your mouth sucked milk from books of wisdom
As to these sacred breasts you gave your lips.
Then, as you arrived at a fuller age
You were accustomed to take solid food.

The first line links Alcuin to the figure of Aeneas after his escape from drowning, addressing Dido for the first time. The fifth echoes a favourite whimsy of Alcuin in addressing his former students, the game of bird-identification to symbolize spiritual friendship:

Postquam de paternae pietatis nido in publicas saecularium negotiorum evolastis auras.5

Now that you have flown out from the nest of paternal love into the public breezes of secular cares.

The lover's complaint in the Second Eclogue is indeed an appropriate background for this teacher's call to an erring pupil, in terms of the topical epistolary question: Cur taces? But the pastoral opening is hardly sustained as such, nor the pregnant similes of flight and water worked out in terms of the poem's central antithesis between the sleep of Bacchus and the awakening to the idyll of divine song.6 The thematic coherence is implicit, but not established; and the poem's final tone of forgiveness is sustained by a turn to triviality—we finish with no more than a punning personal use of the Virgilian material.7 One should not quarrel: no doubt this is all Alcuin intended at the time. But the essentially pastoral optative of the desired return seems to have struck Alcuin as having larger possibilities; for he deals with it again and again.

The result of these exercises is the Versus de Cuculo, where the playful bird-identification is no longer an incidental simile, but a central image modulating and effectively sublimating the poem's expressions of desire. This game is anterior to the poem. Alcuin did have a pupil whom he addressed in his letters as Cuckoo, just as their friend Bishop Arne was an eagle, and Alcuin himself a goose, a swallow, or a swan.8 The Cuckoo's real name was probably Dodo, since an ammonitorial letter from Alcuin to Dodo reads like an abstract of the poem's thematic material:

Carissimo filiolo meo, quem et sero genui et cito dimisi, nec bene ablactatus raptus est ab uberibus meis. Inmitiorque noverca tam tenerum de paterno gremio per libidinum vortices caro rapuit. Heu pro dolor, quid faciam, nisi plangam pereuntem, si forte calidis lacrimarum fomentis resuscitari possit.9

To my dearest son, whom I have both lately begotten and swiftly lost, since he has been snatched not yet well suckled from my breasts. A crueller stepdame, the flesh, has snatched him through the vortices of lust from my paternal lap. Alas, what shall I do, but weep my dying one, in the chance that perhaps by the fomentations of scalding tears he may yet be resurrected.

The tone of this letter is severe; yet from beginning to end its admonition is sweetened by a tone of forgiveness and personal concern:

Do do iuxta nomen tuum tibi, tu mihi da da
          Do tibi me totum, sed tu, Dodo, mihi te da.(10)
As your name asks, I give; but give to me:
          All of myself I give you, give thus to me.

The letter's language is borrowed from that of paramythetic or consolatory rhetoric: its allusions to death color with sympathy and care the letter's sterner business of parental correction. In like manner the poem, to maintain the same affective balance, is cast in the form of a mock pastoral elegy.

Plangamus cuculum, Dafnin dulcissime, nostrum,
          Quem subito rapuit saeva noverca suis.
Plangamus pariter querulosis vocibus illum,
          Incipe tu senior, quaeso, Menalca prior.
Heu, cuculus nobis fuerat cantare suetus, (5)
          Quae te nunc rapuit hora nefanda tuis?
Heu, cuculus cuculus, qua te regione reliqui,
          Infelix nobis illa dies fuerat.
Omne genus hominum, volucrum simul atque ferarum
          Conveniat nostrum querere nunc cuculum. (10)
Omne genus hominum cuculum conplangat ubique,
          Perditus est, cuculus, heu, perit ecce meus.
Non pereat cuculus, veniet sub tempore veris,
          Et nobis veniens carmina laeta ciet.
Quis scit, si veniat; timeo, est summersus in undis. (15)
                    Vorticibus raptus atque necatus aquis.(11)
Weep for our cuckoo, O beloved Daphnis
          Whom the cruel stepdame seized from his own.
With querulous voice, let us weep for him together;
          As older man, Menalcas, pray begin.
Cuckoo, alas, once wont to sing to us, (5)
          What hour has now snatched you from your own?
O cuckoo, cuckoo, in what land did I leave you?
          Unhappy was that day to all of us.
All tribes of men, of ibrds and wild beasts also,
          May they properly lament our cuckoo now. (10)
Let every tribe of men weep for our cuckoo,
          Lost is our cuckoo, lo, he perisheth.
May he not die, but come in the early springtime,
          Coming to us be loud with joyous songs.
          He may not come, I fear he is plunged in a maelstrom, (15)
          Snatched by its vortex and now dead by drowning.
Heu mihi, si cuculum Bachus dimersit in undis,
          Qui rapiet inuvenes vortice pestifero.
Si vivat, redeat, nidosque recurrat ad almos,
          Nec corvus cuculum dissecet ungue fero. (20)
Heu quis te, cuculus, nido rapit ecce paterno?
          Heu rapuit, rapuit, nescio si venias.
Carmina si curas, cuculus, citus ecce venito,
          Ecce venito, precor, ecce venito citus.
Non tardare, precor, cuculus, dum currere possis, (25)
          Te Dafnin iuvenis optat habere tuus.
Tempus adest veris, cuculus modo rumpe soporem,
          Te cupit, en, senior atque Menalca pater.
En tondent nostri librorum prata iuvenci,
          Solus abest cuculus, quis, rogo, pascit eum? (30)
Heu, male pascit eum Bachus, reor, impius ille,
          Qui sub cuncta cupit vertere corda male.
Woe to me, if Bacchus has drowned my cuckoo,
          Who loves to snatch young men in his poisonous gyre.
If he lives, let him return, run back to the fostering nest,
          Let not the raven slash him with savage claw. (20)
Alas, who seizes you from the nest paternal?
          He has seized you, seized you. Who knows if you will come?
If songs can move you, cuckoo, lo, come quickly,
          Come quickly, now I pray you, lo, come quickly.
Do not delay, while you have strength to hasten, (25)
          Your youthful Daphnis wishes to have you here.
It is time for spring, cuckoo, break your slumber,
          Behold your father Menalcas wants you now.
Behold our bullocks graze in the fields of letters.
          Only the cuckoo is absent. Who feeds him? (30)
Woe, it is Bacchus, I say, who feeds him badly,
          Hoping to captivate all human hearts.
Plangite nunc cuculum, cuculum nunc plangite cuncti,
          Ille recessit ovans, flens redit ille, puto.
Opto tamen, flentem cuculum habeamus ut illum, (35)
          Et nos plangamus cum cuculo pariter.
Plange tuos casus lacrimis, puer inclite, plange:
          Et casus plangunt viscera tota tuos.
Si non dura silex genuit te, plange, precamur,
          Te memorans ipsum plangere forte potes. (40)
Dulcis amor nati cogit deflere parentem,
          Natus ab amplexu dum rapitur subito.
Dum frater fratrem germanum perdit amatum,
          Quid nisi iam faciat, semper et ipse fleat.
Tres olim fuimus, iunxit quos spiritus unus, (45)
          Vix duo nunc pariter, tertius ille fugit.
Heu fugiet, fugiet, planctus quapropter amarus
          Nunc nobis restat, carus abit cuculus.
Carmina post illum mittamus, carmina luctus,
          Carmina deducunt forte, reor, cuculum. (50)
Sis semper felix utinam, quocumque recedas,
          Sis memor et nostri semper ubique vale.
Weep for the cuckoo, now all weep for the cuckoo,
          Joyous he left; I think he returns in tears.
Even in tears, I wish that we might have him, (35)
          And we and the cuckoo all shall weep together.
Weep your fate with tears, weep, noble boy,
          Even your very bowels weep your fate.
If no hard flint once bore you, weep, we all pray:
          Perhaps, remembering, you too can weep. (40)
Sweet love for his son forces a parent to sorrow,
          When his son is suddenly snatched from his grasp.
When a brother loses his brother german,
          I say let him weep forever, if not now.
Once we were three, three joined in a single spirit, (45)
          Now hardly two, now that the third has fled.
Alas he will flee, our bitter lamentation
          Now stays with us, as dear cuckoo withdraws.
Let us send songs after him, songs of lamenting
          Songs, I say, may bring the cuckoo down. (50)
May you be happy, wheresoever you go
          Remember us, and be forever well.

“It would be wrong,” says F. J. E. Raby, “to inquire too closely into the mechanism of Alcuin's verse; for what shines forth is the poet's gentle and harmless spirit exercised on these simple themes.”12 But the simpleness of the poem's language, imagery, and uncelebrated subject is deceptive. We must not overlook the device of evoking the elegiac Fifth Eclogue, nor the epitaphic subito rapuit, a formula from tombstones. In this solemn setting of a supposed death to the spirit, the whimsical plodding Plangamus cuculum creates an affective ambiguity at the outset, one in which love and irony are balanced. We understood what Virgil's Menalcas felt for Daphnis; even Catullus, commenting on the death of Lesbia's sparrow, is relatively direct and straightforward. But a mock-elegy for a homely human bird: this is a more complex emotion, and properly pastoral; inasmuch as the bird-identification again symbolizes spiritual friendship, and obstructs or sublimates the erotic responses of the reader. This fall of a human cuckoo is at once allegoric (the religious overtones recalled in the Fifth Eclogue—deus, deus ille Menalcas—are reinforced by a Paschal setting) and ironic (the cuckoo is no conventional symbol, and moves as a stranger amid such complex allusions). Allegory expands, irony diminishes, the extension of its subject. By this equilibrium the poem leaves us in clever suspense, between the timeless context of Virgilian pastoral (more timeless, indeed, than it could have been for Virgil himself) and the stridently earthly, personal figure of the cuckoo.

The poem's themes of spiritual death and redemption are dramatized as a conflict between hostile and good spiritual parents, and thus drawn into a single polar structure of fear and desire. This structure is not rhetorical; it can only be discerned by looking behind the words to the unified symbolic background, and most notably the dramatic personifications which symbolize the choice of a secular or spiritual life. The personalities of Daphnis and Menalcas are unimportant, since as members of a monastic fellowship they are unanimis, and speak with one heart and soul.13 But a dramatic situation is created for the uncommitted cuckoo, between the good spiritual father of the fostering nest, and the evil stepdame's maelstrom of the flesh. This dramatic personification represents a considerable poetic advance over the highly particularized allegories, rhetorical set-pieces, of early Christian poets like Prudentius. The tensions of Alcuin's poem are “as large as life.” The poem is characterized by an easy and rapid movement back and forth between the real and symbolic, foreground and background. Its polar structure is sustained by a series of resonant or symphonic allusions, triadic in their evocation, and emphasizing the alternatives of love and death. Perhaps these need to be spelled out to the modern reader. Qua te regione reliqui (ex Aen. IX. 390) is the cry of Nisus for his lost friend Euryalus, when he suspects that the latter is being overcome in battle by the enemy. Si non dura silex genuit te, plange, precamur is a portmanteau allusion: dura silex echoes Aeneas' vain loving appeal to Dido in Hades, just before she turns back to her dead husband; the whole echoes the commonplace lover's accusation by Dido (genuit te … Caucasus, Aen. IV. 366-7) in her last vain appeal to Aeneas while alive.14 The commonplace saeva noverca tag refers to both allusions. In a contemporary manuscript Phaedra is described as saeva noverca, and Hippolytus as mersurus amore novercae:15 in Alcuin's letter the male-female contest between father and stepmother typifies that between spiritual protection and the flesh with its vortices of lust. Behind this is the proverb that nature by herself is not a mother but a stepmother,16 and the Virgilian context (Geo. II. 126-30) in which the saevae novercae kill with their cups of black poison.

For the Carolingian reader this last allusion would suggest in turn the black venom of the serpent in Eden, and thus the diabolic calix pestifer or pocula Bacchi. This rationalizes the transition to the enemy as Bacchus in line 17 (with his pestiferous vortex), and again as a raven in line 20, since the raven was not only the antithesis of the dove of the waking spirit, and associated with death,17 he was an exegetical blazon of the devil,18 and proverbially known as a bad feeder of his children (cf. v. 33).19 To a modern reader these transitions may seem pedantic; but the Carolingian audience, accustomed to read narrowly but deeply, practiced in meditation upon a restricted canon of texts, and familiar above all with the exegetical habit of reference to archetype, would have been more readily perceptive of their symbolic harmony. For them such allusions were not a matter of forced contrivance, but of easy and indeed inevitable association. Alcuin must have written with the same fluency. The meaningful echoes of his poem are a matter not so much of conscious wit as of an archetypally attuned mind.20

The mental movement between situations which are symbolically rather than temporally linked is a special feature of typological exegesis, which saw in each situation or “type” of the Old Testament a special significance for its corresponding New Testament antitype. The result, as Prof. Auerbach has written, confirms a new attitude towards time and the timeless: “The horizontal, that is the temporal and causal, connection of occurrences is dissolved; the here and now is no longer a mere link in an earthly chain of events, it is simultaneously something which has always been, and which will be fulfilled in the future.”21 Virgil's pastorals, although they blend with the persons and language of Theocritus, make no such pretensions or effort to present themselves as mediating the eternal. Even when most allegorical, there is never that equilibrium between symbol and actuality, timeless and temporal, that we now find in Alcuin's affective evocation of the monks as bullocks in the fields of books. It is not that Alcuin is a greater poet, but Alcuin can unselfconsciously avail himself of the mystically affective habits (such as the habit of “typing” just referred to) and the symbolic vocabulary of exegesis.

To suggest what the various blazons or symbolic objects of the poem might have connoted to the Carolingian reader, let us quote, by way of example, from the relatively early Formulae Minores of St. Eucherius of Lyons (d. 450).22

Ver … Vitae renovatio
Nidus … Ecclesia
Currere … In bonis operibus proficere
Campi … Sancti, sive Scripturae divinae
Pascua … Refectio spiritualis
Pecora … Simpliciores homines
Unda … Tentatio
Corvus … Nigritudo peccatoris
Languor … Vitiorum morbus

And so on. One can see the poetic convenience of this agreed-upon symbolic language or dialect, though I do not mean to suggest that the language was unequivocal, nor that this particular list (which Alcuin may or may not have seen) was definitive. One can also see the disappointing tendency of such commentaries (either Biblical or Virgilian) to dwell on finite, mechanical allegories, directed rather to the part than to the whole. Nevertheless, if exegesis was not to be wholly incoherent, there had obviously to be at least a potential harmony between these separate components. After the period of the Fathers, the task of the exegete was not to be original, but to retell more coherently what had been written already. Thus we find that in later writers, and perhaps particularly in Bede, a structured relationship between the various tropes of Scripture is brought out more and more clearly:

Mystice autem mare, turbida ac tumentia saeculi hujus volumina significat; in quibus pravi quilibet injuste delectati, quasi profundis dediti pisces, mentem ad superna gaudia non intendunt. Unde bene idem mare Galileae, id est, rota cognominatur, quia nimirum amor labentis saeculi quasi in vertiginem corda mittit, quae ad perennis vitae desideria non permittit erigi. De qualibus Psalmista: In circuitu, inquit, impii ambulant.23

Mystically however the sea signifies the troubled and disordered whirlings of this world, in which all the sinners unjustly gratified, like fishes devoted to the depths, do not lift up their minds to the joys above. From which the same sea is properly called Galilee, that is, “wheel,” for indeed love of the flowing world hurls hearts as if into a vortex, which does not permit them to be lifted up to the desires of eternal life. Of these men the Psalmist says [cf. Ps. xii. 8] “The wicked walk round in a ring.”

Here we are dealing with the sea, not merely as a fact or object, but as part of a structured vision (or orama, to use a favorite word of the Anglo-Saxons) of the universe. In the retelling of secular poetry, also, the whirling world had come to be described from such a polar, philosophic perspective. But if we think of Seneca's burning axle-tree, or Boethius' iusto foedere rerum (Cons. Phil. IV. vi), or even Eliot's “crowds of people, walking round in a ring,” (“The Waste Land,” l. 56) all of these may strike us as cosmic but hardly personal, not so intimately related to our affective poles, the desires and fears of the human heart.

I have been trying to suggest how Alcuin in the De Cuculo, despite his rapid train of friendly and hostile objects (the stepdame, the raven, the nest) has worked to reduce these into a single structured symbolic relationship, through the congruence of literary and exegetical allusions. It is as if the power and above all the exclusions of his faith had made of his mind an electromagnet, concerned to draw fragmented allusions, like particles of iron, out of their old literary contexts into a centripetal affective field. One pole of this field is the vortex pestifer of the passions in which our hearts may be easily drowned; the other vertex is the paternal nest which opens out miraculously to the peaceful fields of books. It is not a choice against, but between loves: intimacy is seen as the antithesis of profligacy. The paternus nidus, as we said, is for Alcuin a recurrent and intensely personal symbol of monastic friendship; as, for example, when he writes as a sparrow

Qui modo mense Septembrio nidum revisere volat amatum, ut pullos avidis hiantes rostris, pietatis pascat granulis.24

who now flies back to visit his beloved nest [i. e. the monastery at Tours] in September, so that he may feed his fledglings, whose avid beaks are agape, with grains of piety.

The more we read his antitheses between the light of charity and the waters of the world which cannot put it out, between the floods of our cogitations and the port of quiet desire, the more we appreciate how consistently he saw the world in the light of his most central and ardent emotions: his cosmic and affective visions are indeed the same.25 Yet the De Cuculo would be a static poem if it stated nothing but a structured vision of life and love; instead, as in the Conflictus, the symbol objects are a context for the symbolic action: in this case, for the poem's numerous verbs expressing movement, grief, and desire.

The verbs of moral urgency (Non tardare, precor, cuculus, dum currere possis)26 find their symbolic correlative in the ominous raven. For the raven is not only the death-bringing devil and an unfeeding parent, he is also (as Alcuin reminds us in his prose) a traditional symbol of the sinner's slowness to repent:

Neque tardes converti ad Dominum, et ne differas de die in diem [Eccli. v. 8]. Verba Dei sunt, non mea. Non a me haec audisti, sed ego tecum audio a Domino. Forte respondes: Cras, cras. O vox corvina! Corvus non redit ad aream, columba redit. Si enim tune vis poenitentiam agere quando peccare non potes, peccata te dimiserunt, non tu illa.27

The raven has ceased to be a symbol of sinful procrastination; hence we shall call the allegory positive rather than universal, and the symbol itself a blazon rather than an archetype. But according to Dora and Erwin Panofsky, (Pandora's Box, New York, 1962, pp. 28ff) three “crows” (?) still say “crasz” in a book-illustration of the procrastinating fool (published 1494) by Dürer. In the next century the mediaeval connotations suffer a rapid change. A 1521 Book of Hours shows a “crow” saying “cras, cras,” above the triumphant progress of winged Death. But Alciati revives the ancient interpretation of cras as a message of hope (cf. Suetonius, Vita Dom. XXIII. 2; Tib. Carm. II. vi. 20) and consequently the crow becomes an attribute of Hope, and Pandora, down into the eighteenth century.

Make no tarrying to turn to the Lord, and put off not from day to day. These are God's words, not mine. You have not heard them from me, but you and I together from the Lord. You may perhaps reply, Cras, cras [Tomorrow, tomorrow]. O raven's voice! The raven does not return to the ark, the dove returns. And if you delay your penitence until you can no longer sin, your sins will have abandoned you, and not you them.

Here again we must see the symbols in their relationship: the congress of beasts, the raven's perfidy and the church as nest amid the waters, all suggest that other, congruous type of the church, the ark. Against this background the cuckoo's return has a richer mystique of overtones: that of the dove which as the Holy Spirit brings in the springtime of history, and with its olive announces peace to the world:28

En natat in liquidis mundi cum civibus area.
Ecce columba piam pacis tibi portat olivan.
Alba columba redit corvo pereunte nigello.(29)
Sola columba redit, quae totum circuit orbem
          Discedant corvi, sola columba redit.

The ark swims with its citizens in the waters of the world. Behold, the dove brings you the pious olive branch of peace. The white dove returns, while the black raven perishes.

These same verbs form the central optatives30 and choice (Non pereat … redeat) of the De Cuculo: Alcuin's favorite theme of awakening from the drunken sleep of winter, and returning to the idyllic springtime fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Alcuin is not unique in superimposing the cuckoo upon the symbolic hoped-for return of the dove. His friend Bishop Arne, in a second letter to Dodo, plays in like fashion on the relevant part of the Canticle—that which was said (e. g., Alcuin, PL 100. 647) to prefigure the appearance of Christ:

Calamum in caritate tinxi, dum hanc cartulam scripsi. Surge, surge, gratissima avis. Iam hiems transit, imber abiit et recessit. Flores apparuerunt in terra, tempus carminis advenit. Fac amicos, id est angelicas dignitates, audire vocem tuam. Vox tua dulcis est illis, et facies tua decora sit domino Deo tuo, qui concupiscit speciem tuam. …

Adveniant aquilae cuculi, rogo, carmina nostri.31

I have dipped my reed in charity, while writing this letter. Rise up; rise up, most pleasing bird. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come. Let your friends, that is, the angelic powers, hear thy voice, for sweet is thy voice, and let thy countenance be comely to the Lord thy God, who desires your image. …

Let, I pray, the songs of our cuckoo come to the eagle.

Before these Paschal overtones break in upon the poem we have a succession of urgent minatory echoes, notably of the Apocalypse (Apoc. xxii.12 Ecce venio cito) and perhaps of Paulinus Nolanus:

Tempus adest mutare vias, exurgere somno
          Et tandem vigilare deo, dormire vicissim.(32)
Now it is time to change our course, to wake from sleep
          And at last awaken to God, and sleep in turn.

This mood of mystical imminence, slowly built up through the nervous rhythms of several hexameters, is then suddenly released into the pacific spondees of En tondent nostri librorum prata iuvenci—one moment of serenity, yielding in turn to a renewed agitation of pathos.

Though modern critics call the poem a pastoral, its pastoral imagery is condensed in this single line, a belated justification of the bucolic exordium. Yet this single line resolves the imagery that has preceded. At once we have moved from water to land, from silence to psalmody, from the disturbed sleep of that life which is more like death, to the exalted bucolic passivity of the paradisal prata librorum. The line cannot be passed over: its salient features of transition and equilibrium are sustained in what is neither violent nor clichéd imagery, but a fusion, or what we may call a catachresis of commonplace. The familiarity of the pastoral image tricks us into accepting what is in fact a very complex transition, first from the swift fellowship of birds to the passive community of bullocks, and from this in turn into the necessarily non-visual “mixed” allegory of the prata librorum. Modern critics often disapprove categorically of what they call “mixed metaphors,” which are taken to indicate the author's lack of control over his material. But we have seen throughout the De Cuculo a unified linking of words by their symbolic rather than their visual associations. The effect of this is to establish a central perspective of the inner eye: visually it may be remote, but affectively, in the optative expression of desire, it is intimate.33 The result is to suspend the reader between the realm of fact which he knows (for this cuckoo was a real person) and the realm of letters which is so relevant to the poet's appeal. This, in other words, is properly pastoral allusion, one which sees our world in intimate relation with the timeless. Yet it is centripetal, where Virgil is centrifugal; our pastoral aspirations are not dissipated, but drawn to an ideal which can shape and contain the adult energies of a lifetime.

This unified symbolic vision, Alcuin's gift to the pastoral genre, is a subtle thing, a matter of balance and tact: too direct a concentration upon the poem's symbolic background would have destroyed the poem's contact with reality, its statement of a genuine concern. Hence, although the context may be rich, it is so implicitly. Most of the language is characteristically direct, and turns its back upon the antheron plasma or flowery style which Fortunatus cultivated in his poetry of friendship. Above all the glimpse of the eidyllion or little picture of perfection is succeeded by a deliberately halting, wistfully prosaic travesty of Alphesiboeus: Carmina deducunt forte, reor, cuculum,34 in which the teacher's emotion cannot be doubted, any more than the sincerity of the forgiveness in the formulaic epistolary conclusion. Such an effortless balance between evocation and statement, idyll and prosa, allusive background and affective foreground, makes Alcuin the most important writer of pastoral between Virgil and Dante.35 He shows that he has understood the Virgilian technique of games which are serious, an allusive handling of desire; but the result is new. Virgil's Eclogues establish their idealized suspension of desire by their studied irrelevancy; they are set off in a self-consciously fictive world of their own. We do not doubt Virgil's feelings for Pollio or Gallus, but these instants of self-revelation are swiftly obscured in thickets of private and unrelated allusions, to which the heavy glosses of Servius were an inevitable response. Even the Fourth Eclogue is a sphinx's riddle; and the Fifth is left in mid-air by the problem of the goodly crook “which Antigenes won not.” Alcuin is not so guarded. He too achieves a lusory multiplicity; his poem haunts us by hovering between the actual and idyllic worlds. But he does this without Virgil's bucolic lack of commitment, the final dismissal of the idyll as a tenuous basketry or gracilis fiscella. This is because he sees the world differently. His idyll is that of the perfectio monastica to which he had devoted his entire life: thus he sees it as desirable in the true sense, that is to say, incipiently real.

We read in Alcuin's correspondence the language of his ordinata caritas, how he saw the mystique of the Canticle surrounding his hortus conclusus on the Loire.36 He means it when he hopes to create in France a new Athens, immo multo excellentior; in a way that Fortunatus never meant at all, when he once called Nantes a new Rome.37 I believe that our civilization has partly been held together by just such a difficult faith, by a relatively few men who were able, in the face of the world as it is, to envisage and design a course towards a major ordo rerum. The Virgil of the Aeneid is of course such a man, giving utterance, “as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, which is the experience of her children in every time.”38 Without the pain, the hope is spurious; and in the De Cuculo it is the presence of default, and the prevailing elegiac tone of deprivation and human failure, which make the vision of friendship an honest one. Yet (and I need imply no value judgment here) Alcuin's faith is easier and greater, less privately contrived, than Virgil's; his art is unequivocally for the sake of his vision, not vice versa. Thus his poetry is necessarily humble, and often trivial when it is not prosaic. Yet implicitly this monastic idyll involves not only his personal feelings for a friend but his life work as abbot and teacher. Based on an intimate community of endeavor, rather than on an uncertain political liaison, it manages to tease and convince us still; in contrast the Virgil of the Aeneid sounds disillusioned with respect to love, while the nova progenies of the Fourth Eclogue is little more than a hollow intellectual curiosity.

The Carolingian Renaissance was short-lived. In the next intellectual revival (after the “crisis of monasticism” in the eleventh century, and the secular dissipation or inward withdrawal of the reform movement) its spirit found a more articulate, but also more divided incarnation. Within the monasteries we see the conflict between Cistercians and Cluniacs: in St. Bernard we have the mystical charity without the charity of learned friendship, in Peter the Venerable we see rather the reverse. Poetry takes flight to the new secular cathedral schools; and ultimately its place in the curriculum is taken by prose—la bataille des sept arts is a rearguard action. Thus the Carolingian tension between actual and ideal breaks down: the curriculum is dominated by the rational and dialectical; the poets tend to take refuge in either satire or romance. The free allegory of personal allusion gives way to the systematic allegories of twelfth century Platonism, with their intricate allegiance to truth—more curious indeed, but also less persuasive. Soon utopian aspirations survive only among lay and heretical movements. The church is more guarded, its moral tone set by sermons De honesto et utile.

For Alcuin it was not prodigious to be at once a poet, a scholar, and a reformer. But after this fragmentation of the intellectual fraternity, the quest for pastoral unition becomes either more modest or more nostalgic. The tone is set by the alienated sensibility of Petrarch, the irresoluble dialectic of whose Eclogues is caught in their opening lines:

Monice, tranquillo solus tibi conditus antro,
Et gregis et ruris potuisti spernere curas!
Ast ego dumosos colles sylvasque pererro
Infelix: quis fata neget diversa gemellis?
Una fuit genetrix: at spes non una sepulchri!
Sylvi? quid puereris? cunctorum vera laborum
Ipse tibi causa es. quis te per devia cogit?
Hei mihi! solus amor.(39)
SYLVIUS [i. e. Petrarch]:
Monicus, you, secure in your tranquil cave
Alone can spurn the onerous field and herd.
But I these thorny hills and woods must roam
Unhappy. Who'll deny these fates diverse
Lead us, twins from a single womb, to a diverse death?”
MONICUS [i. e. Petrarch's brother, a monk]:
Sylvius? Why complain? Of all this toil
You are the cause. What drives you out of way?
Ah me! Love alone.

Petrarch, however unhappily, was tempted to accept art as a substitute for more primitive hopes of perfection. He understood that art, as a goal, imposed this radical price—which Alcuin clearly would not have thought of paying. In Alcuin's Christian perspective friendships were more true and valuable than the poems they inspired; he could not falsify a human friendship by seeking to make it immortal. Thus we must read his poems more as testimony than as achievement; but they testify to a unified sensibility which found strength in its settled aspirations. In one sense Alcuin was a more ambitious political poet than Virgil, Dante or Petrarch. Ultimately these three are poets less of persuasion than of acceptance, or of what the Marxists call mystification. I mean that, because of the times they lived in, they justified an external sword to pacify the world: that sword itself is not of their intellectual making, and their own desires cede to it. Thus they anticipate an idyll elsewhere, a vision before or after. Alcuin wrote from a lifetime of conversion in the community of the vita regularis. For him the unified fellowship of love is not an escapist dream, but a new reality, whose prospects and limitations can be measured in a new poetic style.


  1. The term carmen pastorale may have had some limited significance in the context of epithalamium, but bucolic echoes abound during this period in all forms of verse. For Ausonius an ecloga is any short poem, but during the Carolingian period the word acquires its modern meaning of a short poetic dialogue (whether pastoral or not). Some of the numerous Carolingian pastoral eclogues are listed in E. Carrara, La Poesia Pastorale (Milan, 1906) and Frank Russell Hamblin, The Development of Allegory in the Classical Pastoral (Chicago, n. d.).

  2. A fourth, more primitive example will be found in Riese, Anthologia Latina #765, Tityre, tu fido recubans sub tegmine Christi. Although de Rossi and Ferrua have reluctantly included it among the epigrams of Pope Damasus (d. 384), it has been thought to be the work of an Anglo-Saxon poet, probably Alcuin or Boniface. It is relevant as a prototype for the poems to Corydon and Cuculus.

  3. P. D. Scott, “Alcuin as a Poet: Rhetoric and Belief in his Latin Verse,” University of Toronto Quarterly, XXXIII (April, 1964), 233-57.

  4. Alc. Carm. XXXII, MGH [Monumenta Germaniae Historica] Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini (Berlin, 1881) I. 249. Notes: 1 Aen. I.545-6 Adsum / Troius Aeneas, Libycis ereptus ab undis; cf. Alc. LXV. iv. 1 Nauta rudis pelagi ut saevis ereptus ab undis. 3 Cutting or tmesis was accepted by Quintilian as a normal rhetorical figure. It is as old as Ennius, though not in this striking form; and later is cultivated as a conspicuous mannerism: vd. Eugenius Toletanus, MGH AA XIV. 262. 4 Verg. Ecl. II. 9 A, Corydon, Corydon. 5 Cf. Aen. XII. 474; Alc. Ep. 146 (MGH Epp. IV. 235). 10 Hebr. v. 12 facti estis, quibus lacte opus sit, non solido cibo; 14 Perfectorum autem est solidus cibus.

  5. Ep. 251, MGH Epp. IV. 406; cf. Ep. 245, p. 393. For the monastic school as a nest of desired peace and friendship-feeding, cf. also p. 257 nidum dulcissimae quietis, p. 300.

  6. Ib. vv. 19-25:

    Viscera tota tibi cecinerunt atque capilli,
              Nunc tua lingua tacet; cur tua lingua tacet? (20)
    Nec tua lingua valet forsan cantare camenas,
              Atque, reor, dormit lingua tibi, Corydon?
    Dormit et ipse meus Corydon, scolasticus olim,
              Sopitus Bacho. Ve tibi, Bache pater! (25)
  7. Ib. vv. 31-5:

    Rusticus est Corydon, dixit hoc forte propheta
              Virgilius quondam: ‘Rusticus es Corydon’

    (Ecl. II. 56)

    Dixerat ast alter, melius sed, Naso poeta:
              ‘Presbyter est Corydon,’ sit cui semper ave.
  8. Alc. Epp. 159, 146, 59 (MGH Epp. IV. 257, 235, 102). For the effect of sublimating erotic language compare Ep. 157, p. 255:

    Et utinam veniat volando aquila mea orare apud Sanctum Martinum; ut ibi amplectar alas illius suavissimas; et teneam, quem diligit anima mea, nec dimittam eum, donec introducam illam in domum matris meae (Canti. iii. 4); et osculetur me osculo oris sui (Cant. 1. 2); et gaudeamus ordinata caritate invicem.

    And would that my eagle might come flying to pray at St. Martin's; so that I might embrace his sweetest of wings; and might hold him, whom my soul loveth, and not let him go, until I bring him into my mother's house; and he might kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; and we might rejoice together with an ordained affection.

  9. Alc. Ep. 65 (MGH Epp. IV. 107-8) Cf. Bonif. Ep. 73 (MGH Epp. III. 342) Si … voragine libidinis quasi puteo inferni demersus fueras, iam tempus est, ut memor domini tui a diaboli laques resipiscas.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Alc. Carm. LVII, MGH Poetae I. 269-70. I follow Dornau, Amphitheatrum (Hanover, 1519), p. 457, Carrara (La Poesia Pastorale, pp. 44-45) and Bulst, “Alchuuines Ecloga de Cuculo,Zschr. f. deutsches Altertum, LXXXVI (1955), 193-196, in reading the poem as amoebean. Notes: 2 Verg. Geo. II. 128 saevae infecere novercae; Anth. Lat. 688c. 2 (de Phedra) saeva noverca; Alc. Ep. 65 (MGH Epp. IV. 107) Inmitiorque noverca tam tenerum de paterno gremio per libidinum vortices caro rapuit; Dam. (Ferr.) XXV. 2 Sanctorum subito rapuit quos regna coeli; cf. LXIII. 2; Fort. IV. xxvi.47 abripuit … subito; Paulus Diac. (Neff) XXVIII. 1 rapuit subito; cf. XXXIII. 3; de Rossi Inscr. Chr. II. viii. 97 Quem mihi tam subito mors … tulit. 4 Verg. Ecl. V. 10 Incipe, Mopse, prior; Alc. LVIII. 4 seniorque Palemon. 6 Alc. LXI. 1 Quae te … rapuit; Verg. Ecl. VI. 47 (de Pasiphaa) Quae te dementia cepit. 7 Verg. Aen. IX. 370 qua te regione reliqui, (Ov. Met. VIII. 232 qua te regione requiram (Daedalus Icaro), Luc. IX. 873 Qua te parte poli, qua te tellure reliqui, Claud. De raptu III. 428 Qua te parte poli, quo te sub cardine quaeram, Fort. VIII. iii. 231 qua te urbe requiram, Alc. LX. 15 qua te nunc parte requiram?). 8 cf. e. g. Verg. Geo. III. 242 Omne adeo genus in terris hominumque ferarumque, Alc. XXIII. 11 Omne genus volucrum, LXI. 5 volucrum simul … querere. 12 I Mac. vi. 13 ecce pereo, Ps. lxxii. 27, xci. 10 ecce … peribunt.

    17 Alc. IV. 35 Si non Neptunus pelago demerserit illos. 19 Alc. LX. 17 Sed citius redeat. 23 Verg. Ecl. II. 6 nihil mea carmina curas?, Ecl. VIII. 103; Alc. XL.9 Carmina non curat David; Alc. LVIII. 52 nunc ecce venito; Apoc. iii.11; xxii. 12 Ecce venio cito. 25 Alc. Ep. 52 (MGH Epp. IV. 96) Noli tardare. … Curre, dum lucem habes; cf. pp. 51, 325. 26 Alc. LVIII. 4 iuvenis Dafnis. 27 Verg. Aen. XII. 96, Arat. II. 706 tempus adest; Paulin. Nol. XXVIII. 255 tempus adest mutare vias, exurgere somno et tandem vigilare deo, dormire vicissim; Ps-Beda Hymn. I (PL 94. 584) tempus adest messis. 29 Verg. Geo. I. 15 tondent dumeta iuvenci; prata / tondentur; Ecl. VII. 11 per prata iuvenci, Ps-Beda Hymn. II (PL 94. 608) Tunc armenta mares repetunt et gramina tondent. 30 Fort. VII. xii. 107 quis rogo reddat eas. 31 Verg. Geo. l. 448 Heu male. 32 Num. xxxii. 9 subverterunt cor filiorum Israel; Alcimus II. 141. Non queat iniecto subvertere corda veneno; Alc. XXXII. 24-5 Ve tibi, Bache pater! / Ve, quia tu quaeris sensus subvertere sacros; Ep. 156 (MGH Epp. IV. 255) Non subvertat cor tuum ambitio seculi. 33 Eug. Tol. (PL 87. 399) Plangite me cuncti.

    37 Paul. Nol. VI. 180, Alc. LXIX. 55 puer inclitus. 39 Verg. Aen. VI. 471 quam si dura silex, IV. 366-7 duris genuit te cautibus … Caucasus. 45 Symphos. Aen. 82 Tres olim fuimus, qui nomine iungimur uno; Fort. VII. xix. 12 Tres amor unus habet; Alc. XVIII. 9-14. 47 Jer. vi. 26 planctus amarus; Beda De die Iud. 4 (PL 94. 633) planctum amaro. 50 Verg. Ecl. VIII. 68-9 ducite ab urbe domum mea carmina Daphnim / carmina vel caelo possunt deducere lunam; Ov. Am. II. i. 23 Carmina … deducunt.

  12. F. J. E. Raby, A History of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1957), I, 185.

  13. The ambiguity of the in arte names Daphnis and Menalcas cannot now be easily resolved. Alcuin, in his correspondence, uses both names to refer to real people. “Daphnis,” a student, could easily be the Daphnis of the poem; but we cannot say the same of “Menalcas,” the chief steward or seneschal of Charlemagne. “Menalcas” and “Daphnis” are here more likely to be Alcuin and Arne, whose letters to Dodo (MGH Epp. IV. 107-110) use common language and allusions in urging repentance. (Cf. Bulst, loc. cit., p. 196.)

  14. Cf. Ovid, Tr. I. viii. 37-44, echoed in the ninth century by Engelmodus of Soissons (MGH Poetae III. 57)

    E saxis genitum hunc lactarunt ubera tigrum
              Durum perpetuo frigore Sarmatico

    The hard-hearted lover of the Eighth Eclogue is also recalled by Alcuin in his wistfully prosaic echo of Alphesiboeus: Carmina deducunt forte, reor, cuculum.

  15. Riese, Anthologia latina, #688. The preceding leaves of the manuscript (from St. Gall) have the Conflictus Veris et Hiemis. Riese's emendation of moriturus is unnecessary.

  16. Cic. De re publica III. i. 1, in Augustine Contra Iulianum IV. xii. 60; cf. Philo De posteritate Caini 160-2.

  17. The raven frequently preys on the battlefield in Old English and Scandinavian poetry. Cf. N. Lukman, “The Raven Banner,” Classica et Medievalia, XIX (1958), 133-151. Mr. Lukman sees a specific allusion to the “Viking raven” in Sedulius Scotus' description of the Danish conversion of 845: ex corvis esse columbas (II. xxx. 51). But this is a topos of conversion to be found for example in Prudentius, Dittochaeus 192 Corvos mutare columbis; Aldhelm C. 491-2 corvos / Vertit in albentes … columbas; De Conversione Saxonum Carmen, MGH Poetae I. 381 corvos / Vertit in albifluas … columbas.

  18. Joh. Chrysostomus, Serm. in Pentec. de Spir. sancto: diabolus, qui vere niger et tenebrosus corvus est, (quoted PL 99. 253); MGH Poetae II. 445.

  19. The raven was supposed not to feed his children as long as they were white, and hence unrecognizable by him. Vd. e. g. Isid. Etym. XII. vii.43, MGH Poetae IV. 345. In secular literature the raven was also regarded as a harbinger of rain; and, in Biblical exegesis, he was supposed to have failed to return to the Ark in order to feast on the hosts of floating corpses (vd. e. g. Arat. de Act. Ap. I. 650ss; Ambros. lib. De Noe et arca XVII. Culpa tenebrosa est, et mortuis pascitur sicut corvus.)

  20. Consider for example the phrase dissecet ungue fero, which seems unconsciously to echo the locus communis in Jerome's letter about the conversion of secular letters to Christian uses: si quid vero superfluum de idolis, de amore, de cura saecularium rerum, haec radimus … haec in unguium morem ferro acutissimo desecamus (Ep. xxi.., PL 22. 385; cf. Deut. xxi. 12) Perhaps no strict sense could be made of this alusion, yet the punitive distinctions it raises between secular and spiritual are affectively appropriate, and could easily have been near the surface of Alcuin's mind when he was writing. The passage was a popular one in this period. We find it echoed in Hrabanus Maurus (PL 107. 396) and again in the Vita S. Maioli (PL 137. 755). F. J. E. Raby seems to be unaware of the allusion, since he takes the latter passage literally: to mean that the Cluniac abbot St. Maiolus “made it his duty” to scrape manuscripts (History of Christian Latin Poetry, Oxford, 1927, p. 312).

  21. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Garden City, 1957), p. 64; cf. “Figura,” Archivum Romanum, XXII (1938), 436-489. A helpful recent introduction to typology is H. Clavier's “Esquisse de Typologie comparée,” Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Altchristlichen Literatur, LXXIX (1961), 28-49.

  22. J. B. Pitra, O.S.B. (ed.), Spicilegium Solesmense (Paris, 1855), III, 400-406. Cf. PL 50. 727ss.

  23. Alcuin, Comment. in Joan. vi. 1, PL 100. 819: following Bede, Homelia XXI, PL 94. 111.

  24. Ep. 181 (MGH Epp. IV. 300) ex Verg. Geo. I. 414 dulcis revisere nidos; cf. supra.

  25. In the light of this polar vision, most symbols are ambivalent. To the pocula Bacchi are opposed the pocula fidei, to the vincula diaboli, the vincula Christi, etc.

  26. An epistolary topos. Cf. Alc. Ep. 52 (MGH Epp. IV. 96) Noli tardare. … Curre dum lucem habes; cf. pp. 51, 156, 325, PL 100. 589, Boniface ep. IX (MGH Epp. III. 249) Currite dum lumen vitae habetis ne tenebrae mortis vos comprehendant; Joh. xii.35.

  27. Alc. De Virt. et Vit. XIV, PL 101. 623. The passage borrows from St. Caesarius of Arles, Serm. XVIII. 6 (ed. Morin CCL. 103. 83-6). Cf. Alcuin's pupil Hrabanus Maurus (PL 111. 252): Corvus peccatorum el daemonum significat, vel pecatoris traditatem ad poenitendum (cf. Eucherius, PL 50. 748).

  28. Alc. in Gen. viii.11, PL 100. 531 Columba Spiritus sancti, expulso alite teterrimo, ad Noe post diluvium, quasi ad Christum post baptismum devolat, et ramos refectionis ac luminis portans, pacem orbi annuntiat. In this substitution of the cuckoo (vernalis avis, as Alcuin calls Dodo in his letters, MGH Epp. IV. 370) for the allegoric dove of Genesis and the Canticle, we have the key to the poem's effective blurring of its symbolic overtones. The dove is a favorite symbol of earlier Christian poetry, and too often its connotations are written out at length. In the Versus de Cuculo their function is not rhetorical, but what we would now call poetic; they haunt, but cannot dominate the meanings of the poem. We find exactly the same device—of muting and transcending allegory by symbolic substitution—in the cuckoo of the Conflictus Hiemis et Veris; and this is perhaps the principal argument for Alcuin's authorship of that complex poem.

  29. Alc. Carm. CXV. 12-14 (MGH Poetae I. 346) emended. Cf. Sedulius, Hymn. I. 103-4:

  30. As Alcuin would have construed them: cf. his Grammatica, PL 101.877. It has been pointed out to me that a modern grammarian would construe redeat as a volitive.

  31. MGH Epp. IV. 110.

  32. Paul. Nol. Carm. XXVIII. 255-6; cf. Cant. v. 2.

  33. This is as I have said the perspective made familiar and easy by exegesis, as for example in the following relevant passage:

    Qui dat iumenta escam ipsorum, et pullis corvorum invocantibus eum. (Psal. cxlvi. 9) Jumenta ecclesiasticos significant greges, qui competenti refectione pascuntur, alii lacte, alii cibo solido, prout dispensatori visum fuerit, ui solus novit quae sunt profutura praestare. Corvi sunt irreligiosi viri, qui peccatorum nigredine inseparabiliter vestiuntur.

    (Cassiodorus, PL 70. 1037)

    Professor Northrop Frye has written deprecatingly of what he calls naive allegory “or the translation of ideas into images,” and he has the Old Testament particularly in mind: “When the author of II Esdras, for instance, introduces an allegorical vision of an eagle, and then says, ‘Behold, on the right side there arose one feather, which reigned over all the earth,’ it is clear that he is not sufficiently interested in his eagle as a poetic image to remain within the normal boundaries of literary expression. The basis of poetic expression is the metaphor, and the basis of naive allegory is the mixed metaphor.” But the criterion of “normal boundaries” is elusive, and clearly will shift between Jerusalem and Toronto. Likewise the concept of the “mixed metaphor” presupposes a certain viewpoint and habitual context, which here does not apply. I would have preferred to distinguish between prophecy, which throws up these blazons for motives we cannot fully analyze; and the naive allegory which, in contrast, insists on explicating them. A consistently explicative allegory, by insisting on certain meanings, excludes others; and thus has the effect of deadening the tone of its allusions. Such allegory is finite; but it, like prophecy, can have a poetry of its own. What is “clear” to Prof. Frye would not have been to Alcuin: we are thrown back on the study of literature as habit, nomos, or convention.

  34. Verg. Ecl. VIII. 69 Carmina vel caelo possunt deducere lunam. A commonplace: cf. Ovid, Amores II. i. 23.

  35. I am tempted to say, between Virgil and Petrarch, since Alcuin forms such a natural bridge between the two. (I hope to demonstrate elsewhere that Petrarch was familiar with Alcuin's verse.) Dante's Eclogues, though considerable, are something of a literary accident; they show his genius, but do not help to shape it.

  36. Alc. Ep. 121 (MGH Epp. IV. 177): Ideo haec vestrae excellentiae dico, ne forte vestro placeat totius sapientiae desiderantissimo consilio, ut aliquos pueris nostris remittam, qui excipiant inde nobis necessaria quaeque et revehant in Frantiam flores Britanniae, ut non sit tantummodo in Euborica hortus conclusus, (Cant. iv. 12) sed in Turonica emissiones paradisi cum pomorum fructibus, (Cant. iv. 13) ut veniens Auster perflaret hortos Ligeri fluminis et fluant aromata illius, (Cant. iv. 16) et novissime fiat quod sequitur in cantico, unde hoc adsumpsi paradigma: ‘Veniat dilectus meus in hortum suum, et comedat fructum pomorum suorum’ (Cant. v. 1); et dicat adulescentulis suis: ‘Comedite, amici mei, bibite et inebriamini karissimi. Ego dormio, (Cant. v. 2-3) et cor meum vigilat,’ vel illud exhortativum ad sapientiam discendam Esaiae prophetae elogium: ‘Omnes sitientes venite ad aquas. Et qui non habetis argentum, properate, emite, et comedite.’ (Isai. lv. 1). … Ego vero secundum modum ingenioli mei apud servos vestros in his partibus seminare sapientiae grana segnis non ero; memor illius sententiae: ‘Mane semina semen tuum, et vespere non cesset manus tua: quia nescis, quid magis oriatur hoc an illud, et si utraque simul, melius est.’ Mane, florentibus per aetatem studiis, seminavi in Britannia, nunc vero frigescente sanguine, quasi vespere, in Francia seminare non cesso; utraque enim, Dei gratia donante, oriri optans.

  37. Alc. Ep. 170 (MGH Epp. IV. 279); Fort. III. viii. 20.

  38. Cardinal Newman, quoted in Theodor Haecker (tr. Wheen) Virgil, Father of the West (London, 1934), p. 120.

  39. Petrarch, Ecloga I. 1-7, 11.

Colin Chase (essay date 1981)

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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 Charlemagne1 outlined a political philosophy based on his analysis of the Dialogus de Rhetorica et Virtutibus, though Alcuin purported to be treating only the subject implied by his title, that is, the essential nature and manner of acquisition of the art of rhetoric and the four cardinal virtues. Again, in 1965, Wolfgang Edelstein in Eruditio und Sapientia concentrated on the letters in order to deduce a sociology for Alcuin and his period.2 Finally, in 1978, W. F. Bolton in Alcuin and Beowulf compiled references, drawn from the whole corpus, but principally from the exegetical commentary, the didascalia, and the polemical writing, to construct a theory of literary criticism according to which Alcuin might have read Beowulf.3

The deductive character of these investigations does not invalidate them. Although Edelstein's methodology would have been foreign to Alcuin or anybody of his time, in my opinion, the conclusions drawn are thoroughly consonant with the period, for the author carefully and consistently distinguishes between attitudes implicit in his analytic method and attitudes which might conceivably have belonged to the Carolingians themselves. Thus, there is no implication in Edelstein's study that Charlemagne and his court would have been any more interested than the Hatfields and the McCoys in the excitements of sociological analysis.

The same, regrettably, cannot be said for the others: the very statement that Alcuin had a political theory or a theory of literary criticism which might be applied to secular vernacular verse involves presuppositions respecting the uses of power and the enjoyment of beauty in Carolingian Europe which I suspect are largely anachronistic. The process of deductive analysis, in these instances, devolves into a search for hints and fragments to satisfy the intellectual curiosities of our own time and not to discover Alcuin's.

For the literary scholar this turn of events is alarming. When the solid sober Wissenschaft of our more learned cousins in history and the social sciences becomes tinged with this kind of subjectivity, what is to become of us? “If they do these things in the green wood, what will they do in the dry?” For many years now, we in literature have existed comfortably enough with an approach to Alcuin's poetry which, if not wholly modern, is at least Victorian in outline. We have anthologized, translated, and commented frequently upon four poems: the “Farewell to His Cell,” the “Elegy for a Nightingale,” the “Debate Between Winter and Spring,” and the “Epitaph,” despite a nagging doubt that the first (possibly), the third (probably), and the last, (given the circumstances), are likely not to have been written by Alcuin at all.4 Beyond these four, we generally acknowledge the importance of the poem on the church at York—particularly with reference to its list of authors represented in the library there—, the versified life of Willibrord, and the poem on the destruction of Lindisfarne, not because they are to be admired as literature, but because they relate to Alcuin's biography, to the intellectual life of the times, to its missionary activity, and to the history of the Viking invasions.5 Such reasons are excellent, but they do not put us in touch with Alcuin's sense of what he was about in the composition of poetry. Such reasons also explain why we more often know about these poems than read them.

But even when we discuss the poems we read and reread, there is an inescapable impression that we read them with concerns and preoccupations more appropriate to our modern than their medieval setting. For example, Peter Dale Scott in an article of 1964 entitled “Alcuin as a Poet: Rhetoric and Belief in his Latin verse,”applies a subtle intellect and a sensitive ear to appreciating principally the “Farewell to His Cell” and the “Elegy for a Nightingale.”6 Beginning with the hypothesis that at given periods in history style becomes fixed and ceases to express interior attitudes, Scott goes on to describe the character of his interest in Alcuin's poetry:

To harmonize our inner and outer habitations, a readjustment of rhetoric and belief is called for. This occurred, for example, during the Romantic Revival, and many have called for it in our time. I propose to study Alcuin, not just as a poet in his own right, but as an example of such a readjustment. In his age as in our own, language, the great conservative medium of a culture (in which all is convention and only the habitual survives) had become a problematic and challenging link with a largely alienated past.7

The comparison is tempting. Just as Wordsworth in the preface to the second (1800) edition of The Lyrical Ballads had called for a return to “the very language of men” and for greater freedom and simplicity in poetic language, Alcuin demonstrably wrote poetry in which he “effectively censored out the rhetorical overworking, the penchant for the antheron plasma or flowery style” which characterized so much of the poetry in the tradition he inherited.8 The comparison, as I say, is tempting, until one recollects the basic facts of Alcuin's linguistic context. Alcuin wrote Latin verse. During his life he lived successively at York, Aachen, and Tours, where “the language of men” was Old English, Frankish, and an Italic dialect no longer recognizable as Latin. In fact, less than a decade after Alcuin's death at Tours, a council meeting at that place decreed that bishops were to translate their homilies into rustica Romana lingua or into Germanic so they could be understood.9 In such an historical and linguistic context, the comparison with England of the Romantic Revival becomes equivocal, for while the romantics were declaring their independence of both tradition and the classroom, Alcuin's clarity and simplicity were part of a re-emphasis on both the tradition of Donatus and Priscian and the necessity for constant academic exercise to master the universal language of western Europe and the church. There is much that is valuable in Scott's article, but much of that value is vitiated by the presumption that Alcuin's attitude towards rhetorical tradition was something like Wordsworth's.

Such a romantic stance—that poetry defines itself through opposition to the traditions and culture of its own society—influences not only the poems we select to read and the way we describe their historical context but also the way we understand those poems. Myra Uhlfelder's 1975 article on the Farewell to His Cell is a good example.10 In this description of the poem's strategy, the poet “is led astray by the gloomy thoughts and feelings induced by preoccupation with this world, until his very excess and intensity—his explcit rejection of belief in stability and permanent values—appear to shock him into renewed awareness and affirmation of his Christian faith. Finding himself, he returns to the Way and the Life.”11 In this reading, the poet's absorption with the vanity and evanescence of life represents a kind of nihilism, expressed most completely in the couplet:

Nil manet aeternum, nihil immutabile vere est
Obscurat sacrum nox tenebrosa diem.


This gives way finally to a reaffirmation of faith in God, “Pectore quem pariter toto laudemus, amemus,” not by a linear extension of the process of reflection, but by a reversal stimulated by the sudden realization that he has wandered so far from the paths of faith. This is much like Keats' realization in the famous nightingale ode, where—enchanted and “half in love with easeful Death” from listening to the bird's song—the poet is similarly recalled by a sudden thought:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.


In both Keats' ode and in Myra Uhlfelder's interpretation of the “Versus ad Cellam,” poetry is an inevitable tension with the traditional values of culture. It is a siren sound, inviting the poet to a thrilling but potentially dangerous encounter with mysterious and irrational forces. This interpretation expresses clearly and forcefully the sort of value our generation has looked for in its verse. Such values are, in my view, wholly contrary not only to the ordinary attitudes of the time, but also to Alcuin's explicitly enunciated goals and aspirations. The identification of some of those central, controlling aspirations is a primary objective of this paper.

My premise, then, is that we can better understand not only the mind of Alcuin but also any given product of that mind if we begin by examining work more closely related to his central preoccupations than to ours. The verse associated with his lifelong commitment to pedagogy provides a convenient expression of these preoccupations, though this verse has to be clarified with reference to the pedagogical prose works of which they are frequently a part. To call this verse “grammar poetry” may seem perverse, but the expression is an attempt to avoid distortion by using his concept rather than ours, for in Alcuin's day the classical notion that grammatici were poetarum interpretes or explanatores was still current.12 At the same time, grammar had some of the association with the fundamentals of education it still has, without the restrictive, pejorative connotation deriving from its later status as the first and lowest of the arts of the trivium, a word which does not appear for more than a century after Alcuin's day. In his time, while grammatica was considered the first of the seven liberal arts,13 its cultivation was not limited to any one phase of education, but provided the basic methodology for all of them. Thus, knowledge was considered to consist in natural, moral, and rational science, called respectively Physica, including the arts later called the quadrivium; Ethica, including the four cardinal virtues; and Logica, or rational science, including rhetoric and dialectic but not grammar, for grammar was held to be a constituent element of all the sciences. Hence, the term “grammar poetry,” which implies both the interpretation of poetry and the investigation of first principles.14

While this overview gives an accurate notion of the way the Carolingians conceived the different branches of learning to be related, in practical terms, most of the time was apparently spent in the last-mentioned branch, Logica, or rational science. Furthermore, this was accomplished at the same time as the arts of liturgical singing and calligraphy were being pursued, so that students would be sent off in groups to the chantry, the scriptorium, or to a lectio master, who—as I understand it—would drill them in the progressive acquisition of the liberal arts.15 The poetry I am looking at relates to these day-to-day practical and pedagogical activites at which Alcuin spent his life.

A convenient example is offered by the first two lines of the versified prologue to Alcuin's De Dialectica:

Me lege, qui veterum cupias cognoscere sensus,
Me quicunque capit, rusticitate caret.(16)

“The one that understands me is without … what? Rusticity?” Today, that might not seem a very inviting promise. A book promising to relieve its readers of rustic charm does not promise much. For Alcuin, however, rustici, or people from the rus, inhabit the same semantic category as pagani, or people from the pagus or country, or in his native Old English the haethen or “health-dwellers”—all of them living in darkness, all of them a little suspect and somewhat alien for reasons strikingly similar to those for which, by contrast, the early nineteenth century began to find country people and country places so charming: that is, because both the people and the places seemed very much as nature had made them. Isidore of Seville explains, “Gentiles are so named because they remain just as they were geniti,” which for him meant “just as in the flesh they have descended under the power of sin, serving idols and not yet regenerati.17 The process of education was seen, then, as a process by which man in his natural state, rudis and indoctus, is brought to eruditio and doctrina. It was parallel to and partly identified with the process which brought the unbaptized to a rebirth in Christ. How different is this attitude to education from that implied in Wordsworth's “Immortality Ode,” in which the uninstructed child is addressed as “Best Philosopher …

Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest
Which we are toiling all our lives to find


The contrast is not random or fortuitous. Dominated by a post-romantic sense of the function of poetry, we have chosen to read those poems of Alcuin which concern nature, natural scenery, and the relations between man and nature. We have, moreover, brought to them a post-industrialized preoccupation with the alienation of man from his natural surroundings. In both instances we have inevitably distorted Alcuin's meaning. For him, rusticitas was never a positive word.18

Some sense of the major concerns which do appear to have occupied Alcuin can be gained by a brief look at the short poem he appended to his Dialogus de Rhetorica et Virtutibus. The poem suggests what Alcuin feels to be among the chief difficulties and the chief rewards of a life of study:

O vos, est aetas, iuvenes, quibus apta legendo,
Discite: eunt anni more fluentis aquae.
Atque dies dociles vacuis ne perdite rebus:
Nec redit unda fluens, nec redit hora ruens.
Floreat in studiis virtutum prima iuventus,
Fulgeat ut magno laudis honore senex,
Utere, quisque legas librum, felicibus annis,
Auctorisque memor dic: “miserere deus.”
Si nostram, lector, festucam tollere quaeris,
Robora de proprio lumine tolle prius:
Disce tuas, iuvenis, ut agat facundia causas,
Ut sis defensor, cura, salusque tuis.
Disce, precor, iuvenis, motus moresque venustos,
Laudetur toto ut nomen in orbe tuum.(19)

A persistent concern apparent in this poem, as in many of Alcuin's is the swift passage of time. The fourth line, based on a couplet of Ovid's, is a favourite of Alcuin's, appearing again and again in his verse.20 In the verses written apparently to dedicate the walls of a chantry, he makes a plea much like that just quoted:

Instruat in studiis iuvenum bona tempora doctor,
Nam fugiunt anni more fluentis aquae.(21)

or again in the verses added to his commentary on Ecclesiastes, he laments:

Omnia fluxa fluunt saeclorum gaudia longe
Nec redeunt iterum more fluentis aquae.(22)

This preoccupation with the swift passage of time and with the mutability of human joy is not surprising in a man of this period, and certainly not in an Englishman, the poetry of whose native land is so filled with similar concern. What is, perhaps, a little disconcerting is his insistence on the topic in this particular context. His educational poems, the “grammar poetry” of my title, return to the theme with even greater regularity than the broad range of his verse. Why?

The answer, I believe, is to be found in the central passage of Alcuin's dialogue-introduction to his De Grammatica, in which master and student seek an answer to the age-old question: “What is true happiness?” and, “What is true wisdom?” As the dialogue proceeds, familiar ground is covered. True happiness cannot consist in anything exterior, for these cannot be securely possessed. Nor can it consist in any delight of mine which depends on such things. “Quid pulchrius luce?” says the master: “et haec tenebris succedentibus obfuscatur. Quid floribus venustius aestatis? qui tamen hiemalibus frigoribus pereunt. Quid salute corporis suavius? et quis hanc perpetuam habere confidit? … Si coelum terraque suis semper vicissitudinibus mutantur … quanto magis cujuslibet rei specialis delectatio transitoria esse necesse est?”23 As the dialogue proceeds, it become clear that the one possession which one may keep despite external circumstances is sapientia. Here is the root of true happiness, for this is not subject to the same laws of change and decay as other things. At this point the dialogue begins to take a new turn, for the question of the soul's immortality is raised. To the question as to whether the soul's wisdom endures along with the soul, the master answers, “Is it not unreasonable that the soul should endure without that which makes it beautiful and worthy? Therefore it appears that both are everlasting.”24

At this point the student begins to question his master about the acquisition of this wisdom, which is both perfect guarantor of happiness and not subject to change. In response, the master quotes from the Book of Proverbs: “Wisdom built herself a house; she fashioned seven columns,”25 and goes on: “Quae sententia licet ad divinam pertineat Sapientiam, quae sibi in utero virginali domum, id est corpus, aedificavit, hanc et septem donis sancti Spiritus confirmavit: vel Ecclesiam, quae est domus Dei, eisdem donis illuminavit; tamen Sapientia liberalium litterarum septem columnis confirmatur; nec aliter ad perfectam quemlibet deducit scientiam, nisi his septem columnis vel etiam gradibus exaltetur”.26

Thus, in Alcuin's pedagogy, the perception that time's swift chariot carries all before it does not represent a temptation to despair nor a statement of the meaninglessness of existence but the rational principle and motive for the attainment of learning. As we have seen, Alcuin identifies progress through academic learning as a necessary condition for attaining wisdom; at the same time, such wisdom is also identified with the state of the blessed soul after death. The conclusion to be drawn is not that Alcuin had devised a sort of academic Pelagianism (his doctrine of grace was sufficiently Augustinian to protect him from that), but rather that, in his time, scholarship and ultimate truth were more closely and optimistically identified with one another than they have often been since, and, perhaps more important, that reflection on the fickle quality of human happiness in more likely to be evidence of faith than despair in Alcuin.

In the context of the poem we were considering, the references to the passage of time fulfil the same kind of function that the thoughts of earthly mutability do in the preface to the De Grammatica, that is, they are a spur to activity and a warning against wasteful idleness:

Atque dies dociles vacuis ne perdite rebus:
Nec redit unda fluens, nec redit hora ruens.(27)

The difference is that the poem is not as explicitly concerned with the soul's eternal destiny as with praise and honour in a man's later years. The two were not unconditionally compatible with one another: in the preface to the De Grammatica, the master tells his student: “Est equidem facile viam vobis demonstrare sapientiae, si eam tantummodo propter Deum, propter puritatem animae, propter veritatem cognoscendam, etiam et propter seipsam diligatis; et non propter humanam laudem, vel honores saeculi, vel etiam divitiarum fallaces voluptates.”28 At the same time, the two were not wholly antithetical. In this poem, Alcuin both asks for prayers for his own soul, “Auctorisque memor dic: ‘Miserere deus,’” and at the same time twice recommends the praise of men, first as the reward of a wise old age, then as the natural result of virtue learned in youth. Alcuin did not see any obvious contradiction between a serious Christian commitment and a reasonable respect for the opinion of men. In the concluding section of the preface to the De Grammatica he notes, after naming the seven liberal arts, that with their help the philosophers became more famous than kings,29 and in an epigram ascribed to him he comments on the immortality of poets:

Vivere post mortem vates vis nosse viator?
Quod legis ecce loquor, vox tua nempe mea est.(30)

To me, this epigram expresses a beautiful balance between the human attraction and the ultimate fragility of earthly fame.

The references in this couplet to man as pilgraim or wayfarer points to the imaginative nucleus about which much of Alcuin's thought revolved. To him and to his contemporaries this world was seen, not only as a “faire that passeth soone as floures faire” but also as a journey home from exile, the direction and milestones for which were plotted by application to the study principally of the first three of the liberal arts, of scripture, and the fathers. These things ensured that the one thing necessary, ultimate understanding and eternal happiness, would be salvaged from the all-consuming power of time.

But to accomplish this one needs texts. Exposure to the word, both sacred and secular, would ensure the journey could be accomplished, but who was to guarantee that the word itself would survive the Heraclitean fire unscorched by time and unobscured by human ignorance or perversity? An anxious concern that man's ultimate happiness depends on such fragile, corruptible things as a good knowledge of syntax, clear articulation, a good pen, and dark ink goes far towards explaining the nagging, querulous note that whines through so many of Alcuin's letters and epistolary poems: “Whatever you may think of this page, keep it as a witness to my advice, and as often as you peruse it, recognize me speaking in your heart”; “hear the lector, not the harpist at your priestly banquet”; “have a better copy made of my letter to journey with you, to stay with you, and to speak to you in place of my paternal voice.”31 To the careless post-Merovingians of the 780's, Alcuin must have appeared the fussiest of curmudgeons and a champion pedant.

Something of this note can be heard in the last of the “grammar poems” to be examined. These are lines composed to adorn the walls of the scriptorium:

Hic sedeant sacrae scribentes famina legis,
Nec non sanctorum dicta sacrata patrum;
Hic interserere caveant sua frivola verbis,
Frivola nec propter erret et ipsa manus,
Correctosque sibi quaerant studiose libellos,
Tramite quo recto penna volantis eat.
Per cola distinguant proprios et commata sensus,
Et punctos ponant ordine quosque suo,
Ne vel falsa legat, taceat vel forte repente
Ante pios fratres lector in ecclesia.
Est opus egregium sacros iam scribere libros,
Nec mercede sua scriptor et ipse caret.
Fodere quam vites melius est scribere libros,
Ille suo ventri serviet, iste animae.
Vel nova vel vetera poterit proferre magister
Plurima, quisque legit dicta sacrata patrum.(32)

The last couplet is a reference to Matthew's text: “Every scribe learned in the kingdom of heaven is like the householder who brings forth from his treasure things both new and old.”33 Just as the study of grammar and the liberal arts is the necessary condition for the attainment of wisdom and lasting happiness, so the activity of the scribe is the necessary condition for study of any kind. Without the results of his demanding labour, the word becomes garbled, illegible, or unpronounceable; the reader becomes confused and either misreads or falls into silence; and the soul lacks its proper food.

During the years that Alcuin was at Aachen and Tours, there were constant pressures both in his individual life and in the atmosphere of life at Charles' court which served to give added emphasis to the importance of clarity and functional intelligibility in communication at every level, from the simplest calligraphic exercise to the most sophisticated theological analysis, for to Alcuin and his time there was an unavoidable connection between word and Word. The pressure which demanded the most time and energy for Alcuin was that generated by the Adoptionist controversy, which not only engaged him in a long and complex correspondence with Felix and Elipandus, the chief proponents of Adoptionism, but also elicited his most sustained theological effort: seven books against the arguments of Felix and four against those of Elipandus, occupying nearly two hundred columns in Migne's reprint.34 While Alcuin certainly engaged the central theological issues in these works, in many ways Felix's difficulties appeared to him to derive from a faulty grasp of grammar. Alcuin advises a female correspondent, who was apparently having difficulty answering the arguments of the Adoptionists: “Tu vero de grammatica tua profer regulas naturales … Interrogandum est, quid sit medium inter verum et non verum? Si dicit: nihil, inferendum est: ergo Christus secundum quod homo est, aut verus Deus est aut non verus. Sed valde absurdum est dicere Deum eum esse, sed non verum. Aut si hoc erubescit adversarius dicere, proferat, quid sit medium inter verum et non verum secundum artem dialecticam, interrogandum est, si una persona possit esse homo verus et homo pictus, qui est non verus homo. Si dicit, non posse, inferendum est: nec in Christo, qui est una persona, in duabus naturis verum esse potest et non verum, sed quicquid in eo est, verum est, quia ipse totus est Deus et totus verus filius Dei et tota veritas in eo est et nihil habet figmenti in se.”35

In this sort of argumentation, one notices not only a strong pastoral desire to help a person who is possibly being upset by the arguments of those about her, but also an optimistic sense that even the deepest mysteries will yield their secrets if only we gain a sure enough grasp of the fundamental disciplines. As Alcuin put it at the conclusion of his preface to the De Grammatica, the seven liberal arts not only provide fame and happiness to philosophers, pagan or Christian, but “through them the holy and Catholic teachers and defenders of our faith have always overcome heretics in public debates.”36

The argument just quoted, suggesting that one person cannot at the same time be a man and the picture of a man, is perhaps a faint reflection of the other major pressure at Charlemagne's court in Alcuin's time, emphasizing functional clarity of a verbal kind. This is the pressure of the iconoclastic controversy, for the misunderstood iconodule position was debated and condemned at the same Council of Frankfort which condemned Felix's position. Though I disagree with Professor Wallach's recently expressed opinion that Alcuin wrote the Libri Carolini,37 there is nonetheless an interesting connection between that work and Alcuin's grammatical cast of mind. As with the Adoptionist controversy, much of the discussion, again, hinged on arguments drawn from grammar and its adjunct studies. According to the Libri, the iconoclastic synod of 754 had erred as badly as their iconodule children, since the earlier council had treated the species as a genus. The middle term of the argument is that, whereas all idols are images, not all images are idols: images are for ornamentation and for commemoration of the past, idols for superstitious worship.38 This distinction is important, for there is evidence that such a functional definition of the uses of ecclesiastical art had some impact in the years following, partly because the original documents from the Council of Nicaea were not translated into a more accurate Latin version until the latter part of the ninth century, leaving a lasting impression that half of Christendom had lapsed into idolatry.

For example, Ermoldus Nigellus' description of the church built by Louis IV at Ingelheim describes a severely functional, chronologically arranged sequence of scenes, detailing Old Testament history on one wall, while “Altera pars retinet Christi vitalia gesta, / Quae terris missus a genitore dedit.”39 If the poem is accurate, the pictorial detail is exhaustive, with a different scene suggested by nearly every four lines of the sixty-five.

A similar programme is described by the verses which are said to have been inscribed on the walls of St. Gall. In one part, possibly the entrance, there must have been a full sequence of pictures portraying the Nativity, including in order the angelic appearance of Zachary, the annunciation to Mary, the visitation, the naming of John, the angels and shepherds, the stable at Bethlehem, the coming of the Magi, the dream of Joseph, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the innocents. A similarly detailed continuation of the life of Christ is said to occupy the right wall of what I understand to be the nave of the church, from the baptism of Jesus and the calling of the apostles through a long sequence from the passion, while the sequence is completed with a last judgement scene above and around the cathedra, featuring Gabriel's trumpets and a large shining cross above, and scenes of the blessed and damned below.40

These later developments I tentatively connect with the pressures and fears generated by the iconoclastic controversy, because they conform so well to the function of church art approved in the Libri Carolini, and because, to my knowledge, these decorative programmes were so different from those which characterized ecclesiastical art before this period. If I am right, this iconographical tendency springs from the same suspicion of the ill-defined and the non-functional which governed Alcuin's attitude towards pedagogy. Just as faulty grammar can lead to heresy, non-functional art can breed idolatry. The guardian against all such excess is, again, the explicit statement, clear and functional. This is true, as Hrabanus Maurus was to put it,

Plus quia gramma valet quam vana in imagine forma,
Plusque animae decoris praestat quam falsa colorum
Pictura ostentans rerum non rite figuras.
Nam scriptura pia norma est perfecta salutis.(41)

The poem ends with a reminder that painting and the art of pigmentation first derived from Egypt, whose name means “anxious trouble” (angustans tribulatio) as does the art she discovered. By contrast, the Lord chose to carve the rock of the law with writing, which he entrusted to his magister to bring to the people. This fear and suspicion explains the impressive amount of monumental verse written by Alcuin and his successors. The word was always present to guard against idolatry.

The implications of this for poetry are extensive. When the visual icon is stripped of its power to mediate reality, the verbal icon becomes similarly caught, cabined, and put to work at the mill wheel of explicitly functional expression. Alcuin's verbal simplicity, noted by Peter Scott and discussed at the opening of this paper, is more than a simple “censoring out” of the “flowery style.” It is apparently part of a rigidly functional approach to learning, art, and the most challenging mysteries of life. The verdict of most critics who read Carolingian Latin poetry is that Theodulf of Orléans is a better poet than Alcuin. I would not challenge that verdict. Though we can learn more from Alcuin about the mood and temper of his time, Theodulf's poetry is always more evocative, complex, ambiguous, and—to continue the comparison—iconic. A supreme irony of Carolingian letters is the iridescent quality of the imagery employed in the Libri Carolini to sustain the attack on the iconodules. In this, Theodulf—who, as Paul Meyvaert has argued, probably wrote the Libri42—illustrates what a complex, contradictory personality he was. As bishop of Orléans, he gave up writing poetry, partially for the reasons he gives to his friends, namely, that the responsibilities of his pastoral care did not leave him time for it.43 I think it likely, also, that the plain, unvarnished style of the poetry written by Alcuin, and the even further simplified poetry by Angilbert, did not appeal to him. Certainly, when he returned to poetry in disgrace and exile, it was to the symbolic, fiercely apocalyptic style of his “Epistle to Modoin,” describing the portentous drying up of a river and the war of the birds.44

As we have seen, the one area of experience which Alcuin could not reduce to the easy formulas of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric was his sense of the evanescence of all things human. Before this mystery he was capable of standing in wonder and, for that reason, of writing poetry about it. Even in therelatively dry, formal grammar verse I have been examining, the catch in the throat can be heard, the inescapable fear of our universal grave:

Nec bene namque senex poeterit vel discere, postquam
Tondenti ingremium candida barba cadit(45)

a couplet which, to me, refers both to old age and death.

Nam fugiunt anni more fluentis aquae …
Nec redit unda fluens, nec redit hora ruens …(46)

Though the “Farewell to His Cell” is better than Alcuin's other verse, and though it is certainly not representative of his general style of poetry, I still feel he probably did write it.47 The note of fear and wonder is the same:

Nil manet aeternum, nihil immutabile vere est,
Obscurat sacrum nox tenebrosa diem.
Decutit et flores subito hiems frigida pulcros,
Perturbat placidum et tristior aura mare.
Qua campis cervos agitabat sacra iuventus,
Incumbit fessus nunc baculo senior.
Nos miseri, cur te fugitivum, mundas, amamus?
Tu fugis a nobis semper ubique ruens.
Tu fugiens fugias, Christum nos semper amemus.(48)

At the same time, the “sadder breeze” which “ruffles the peaceful sea” seems to me the very opposite of a breeze of despair. This is a sign that the world is wider than the grammatical and rhetorical categories into which Alcuin would fit it, and a sign of his sensitivity to mysteries beyond man's immediate capacity to comprehend. Fittingly, this was also the awareness which provided the urgent motive for his effective work in the reform of teaching and writing, for which he is justly best remembered.


  1. Ithaca, New York, 1959.

  2. Eruditio und Sapientia: Weltbild und Erziehung in der Karolingerzeit; Untersuchungen zu Alcuins Briefen (Freibrug im Breisgau, 1965).

  3. New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1978.

  4. MGH [Monumenta Germaniae Historica] Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini, 1:243-44 (no. 23), 270-72 (no. 58), 274-75 (no. 61), 350-51 (no. 123). See n. 47.

  5. Ibid., pp. 169-206 (no. 1); 207-20 (no. 3); 229-35 (no. 9).

  6. UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly] 33 (1963-64), 233-57.

  7. Ibid., p. 233.

  8. Ibid., p. 238.

  9. Cf. Dag Norberg, Manuel pratique de latin medieval (Paris, 1968), pp. 28-9.

  10. “Classicism and Christianity: a Poetic Synthesis,” Latomus 34 (1975): 224-31.

  11. Ibid., p. 229.

  12. This idea that the grammaticus had a special responsibility to understand and interpret the poets is a commonplace among early medieval grammarians, e.g., Sergius' Commentary on Donatus, “Ars grammatica praecipue consistit in intellectu poetarum et in recte scribendi loquendive ratione,” H. Keil, Grammatici Latini (rep. Hildesheim, 1961), 4: 468; Asper's Ars Grammatica, “Grammatica est scientia recte scribendi et enunciandi interpretandique poetas,” Keil, 5: 547; Maximus Victorinus' Ars Grammatica, “Grammatica quid est? Scientia interpretandi poetas atque historicos et recte scribendi loquendique ratio,” Keil, 6: 188. Similarly in Marius Victorinus, Keil, 6: 4; in Cassiodorus, Keil, 7: 214; in Audax, Keil, 7: 321; in Dositheus, Keil, 7: 376, etc.

  13. Cf. Alcuin, De Grammatica, PL 101: 853-54.

  14. Idem, De Dialectica, PL 101: 947-50.

  15. See, for example, MGH Epistolae, 4: 175-78 (no. 121), 166-70 (no. 114), and 542-44 (the letter of Leidrad).

  16. PL 101: 951; for these lines elsewhere in Alcuin, see MGH Poet. Lat., 1: 298.

  17. Etymologiae 8.10.2: “Dicti autem gentiles, quia ita sunt ut fuerunt geniti, id est, sicut in carne descenderunt sub peccato, scilicet idolis servientes et necdum regenerati.”

  18. See Edelstein, pp. 106-11 and 231-32.

  19. O youth, whose years are ripe for learning,
    Study hard: time passes like a flowing river.
    Don't waste this time for learning in idle games.
    The flowing wave does not come back, the fleeting hour does not return
    Your first youth should flower in pursuit of virtue.
    That age may shine in great honour and glory.
    Whoever should read this book, enjoy happy years
    And, mindful of its author, pray: “God have mercy.”
    If, reader, you look to take up our staff of freedom,
    First find strength by your own light:
    Learn as a young man to argue with eloquence
    That you may be to those about you, protector, remedy, and cause of happiness.
    In your youth, I pray, learn a pleasant character and behaviour,
    That your name may be praised over the whole world.

    MGH Poet. Lat., 1: 299-300 (no. 80); PL 101; 949-50.

    Dummler's MGH edition is easier to read, but Migne's reprint of Froben's edition more accurately indicates the purpose of the lines, since they are attached to the prose work for which they were written.

  20. Ars Amatoria 3. 62-64.

  21. “May a teacher instruct the good season of youth in studies, For the years flee like flowing water.” MGH Poet. Lat., 1: 319-20 (no. 93).

  22. “All the fleeting joys of the word flow far away And like flowing water do not come back again.” Ibid., 297-99 (no. 76).

  23. “And yet shadows come and darken it. What is more pleasant than the flowers of summer? But they perish in the winter's cold. What is sweeter than the body's health? But who believes he will always have it? … If the heavens and the earth are always changing in their various alternations … how much more must a particular delight in anything at all be transitory? PL 101: 849-54, esp. 851.

  24. “Nonne absque ratione est, animam absque decore et dignitate sua esse perpetuam? Consequens videtur utramque esse perpetuam, animam scilicet et sapientiam,” PL 101: 852.

  25. Prov. 9, 1: “Sapientia aedificavit sibi domum, excidit columnas septem.”

  26. “Although this sentence pertains to the divine wisdom that built a house—that is a body—for itself in the womb of the virgin and confirmed it with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and illuminated it with the same gifts of the Church, which is the house of God, nevertheless, the wisdom of the liberal arts is established on seven pillars, nor does it lead anyone to perfect knowledge unless he is raised up by these seven columns or steps.” PL 101: 853.

  27. MGH Poet. Lat., 299 (no. 80); PL 101: 949.

  28. “Showing him the path of wisdom will be easy, so long as you love it for God, for purity of heart, for knowledge of truth, and for itself; and not for the praise of men, for worldly honours, or for the deceptive pleasures of wealth.” PL 101: 850. I have eliminated Froben's “propter rerum scientiam,” bracketed by Migne.

  29. Ibid., p. 854.

  30. Do you want to know, Pilgrim, how poets live after death? Observe how I speak as you read, for your voice is mine. PL 101:802.

  31. See MGH Epistolae, 4: 107 (no. 65), 181 (no. 124), 166 (no. 114); or, for the first and last references, my Two Alcuin Letter-Books (Toronto, 1975), pp. 19 and 69.

  32. Let those sit here who copy out the words of the divine law
    And the sacred sayings of the holy fathers.
    Here let them take care not to sow their nonense among the words,
    And for the sake of nonsense may their hand not wander freely.
    They should carefully acquire corrected copies
    So the goose-quill may follow a straight path.
    They should make the sense clear in clauses and phrases
    And put all the punctuation in its proper place
    Lest the lector in church read the wrong things
    Or perhaps fall suddenly silent before the pious brethren.
    It is an excellent work to copy out sacred books,
    And the scribe will not lack his reward.
    Copying books is better than planting vines.
    The one serves the body, the other the soul.
    The master who reads the sacred sayings of the fathers
    Will be able to bring forth a great many things both new and old.

    MGH Poet. Lat., 1: 320 (no. 94).

  33. Matthew 13.52.

  34. PL 101: 87-300.

  35. “Bring out the natural rules of grammar to answer them … Ask what mean there is between something true and not true? If he says, ‘Nothing,’ then conclude: therefore Christ, insofar as he is man, is either true God or not true God. But it is plainly absurd to say that he is God but not true God. Or if your adversary blushes at saying this, ask what is the mean between the true and the untrue according to dialectics; you should question whether a single person could be a true man and the picture of a man, which is not a true man. If he says, ‘No,’ then conclude: neither in Christ, who is one person in two natures, can there be something true and not true, but whatever is in him is true, for he is wholly God and wholly the true son of God, and there is nothing fictitious in him.” MGH Epistolae, 4: 338-39 (no. 204).

  36. “… iis quoque sancti et catholici nostrae fidei doctores et defensores omnibus haeresiarchis in contentionibus publicis semper superiores exstiterunt.” PL 101: 854.

  37. Diplomatic Studies in Latin and Greek Documents from the Carolingian Age (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977), pp. 47-122. The presence of elements from the Mozarabic liturgy in the Libri seems to me incontrovertible evidence against Alcuin's authorship. See Ann Freeman, “Theodulf of Orléans and the Libri Carolini,” Speculum 32 (1957): 665-705, and “Further Studies in the Libri Carolini I-II,” Speculum 40 (1965): 203-289; “III,” Speculum 46 (1971): 597-612.

  38. Hubert Bastgen, ed., Capitulare de Imaginibus: MGH Legum Sectio 3, Concilia 2, Supplementum (Hannover-Leipzig, 1912-24), p. 3.

  39. “The other side holds the life-giving deeds of Christ which, he, sent by his father, brought to the world.” MGH Poet. Lat., 2: 63-65, lines 179-244; esp. 11. 219-20.

  40. MGH Poet. Lat., 2: 480-82.

  41. MGH Poet. Lat., 2: 196-97 (no. 38); esp. lines 4-7: “Because the letter is more powerful than the vain shape of an image, And provides more beauty for the soul than the false Coloured picture, unfittingly displaying the exteriors of things. For faithful Scripture is the perfect norm of salvation.”

  42. “The Authorship of the ‘Libri Carolini’: Observations Prompted by a Recent Book,” RB [Revue Biblique] 89 (1979): 29-57.

  43. “Cur Modo Carmina non Scribat,” MGH Poet. Lat., 1: 542 (no. 44).

  44. Ibid., 563-69 (no. 72).

  45. For the old man will not be able to learn very much
    After his white beard falls in the lap of the shearer.

    Ibid., 319.20 (no. 93).

  46. For the years flee like flowing water …
    The flowing wave does not return, failing time does not come back …

    Ibid., 319-20 (no. 93); 299-300 (no. 80).

  47. In a study published after this paper was complete, Peter Godman has provided solid support for the feeling expressed here that this poem is Alcuin's: “Alcuin's Poetic Style and the Authenticity of ‘O Mea Cella,’” SM [Studi Mediaevali] 3rd ser., 20 (1979): 555-83.

  48. Nothing lasts forever, nothing is really changeless,
    Night shadows blot the sacred light of day.
    Icy winter's scythe surprises the loveliest flowers,
    And a sadder breeze ruffles the peaceful sea.
    Where once inviolate youth chases deer through the fields,
    A weary old man leans on his staff.
    Fickle world—why do we love you, poor fools?
    You always run from us, always fail us.
    Well, run on; we shall give our love to Christ.

    Ibid., 243-44.

Celia M. Chazelle (essay date 1989)

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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 “bought with a great price,” and seeks to answer the question of to whom Christ is properly said to have made such a payment. Alcuin states that his letter was prompted by a request from Charlemagne for comments on the teachings of a Greek doctor et magister visiting the Carolingian court, who had advanced the claim that the price's recipient was death.

The doctrine that the Greek magister defended, commonly known as the ransom-theory of the atonement, is the concept that through the Passion Christ paid Satan or struck a bargain with him for man's release from captivity: in return for the life of the God-man, Satan allowed humanity to go free. While various forms of the ransom-theory had survived in eastern thought since the patristic period, the doctrine as a whole was one that the Latin Church had largely rejected; by Alcuin's time, it had disappeared almost entirely in the west.2 Alcuin's letter to Charlemagne has been characterized as “the first and perhaps the only full-fledged critique of the ransom-theory that it has ever received in the Latin world,”3 but it is important for two other reasons, as well. Although Alcuin deals with the question of how Christ saved man specifically in order to correct the Greek teacher's exegesis of 1 Corinthians 6.20, and although the methodology of his letter differs radically from that of Anselm's Cur deus homo, to the best of my knowledge Alcuin's work constitutes the first systematic exposition from the early medieval west, prior to Anselm's treatise, that is concerned uniquely with the process of man's redemption.4 Moreover, despite some triumphal language—language that highlights Christ's victory over death—the need to respond to the Greek doctor provides Alcuin with an opportunity to elaborate with greater consistency and depth than is found elsewhere in his writings a vision of the nature of redemption that departs from the soteriology most commonly associated with the early medieval west,5 even though the ideas he presents do occur in others of his writings and in general circulated throughout this period.6 Thus, Alcuin's letter is again striking, and to some degree again foreshadows the Cur deus homo of Anselm, because its investigation of the process of redemption focuses exclusively on God the Father and his Son, working in consort on behalf of sinful mankind through the mechanism of Christ's innocent, sacrificial death. Satan and death as an external force synonymous with the devil are ultimately left out of the picture, while Christ's victorious resurrection in his divinity is made tangential to his human suffering and dying.7

Unlike Anselm's teaching, the doctrine that Alcuin proposed to Charlemagne is organized around not only the concept of man's redemption from sin through Christ's sacrifice but also a notion of the cleansing efficacy of the blood he spilled on the cross. It is a bloodshed that witnesses to Christ's fully human suffering and death, and indeed, in keeping with Old Testament images of sacrifice, is the key to the offering's value. All three of these ideas—man's redemption from his sins, Christ's sacrifice, and the role of his blood to wash away sins—are rooted in traditions of thought that reach back through the early Middle Ages to the Church Fathers and that are expressed with particular force in some of Augustine's writings.8 Similar themes regularly emerge in other early medieval writings dating to both before and after Alcuin composed his letter, most notably in texts where attention is focused on the eucharist, baptism, or penance: the first because it is the sacrament through which Christ's sacrificed body and his blood are both commemorated, the second because of its connection with the crucifixion through the water that also flowed from Christ's side, and the third because it is necessary to the sinner's cleansing of sin in preparation for his reconciliation.9 Alcuin's letter stands in contrast to such writings, however, both because it is an orderly investigation exclusively into the problem of how Christ redeemed man, one that focuses on this problem directly rather than via sacramental considerations, and because it isolates the three themes mentioned from other doctrines of redemption.

These attributes of Alcuin's response to the Greek magister make his text deserving of a more thorough study than is offered here, with, for example, greater attention to its sources, its relation to earlier doctrine, to other Carolinian literature, and to later Christian writings such as those of Abelard, of Anselm, and of Anselm's successors. Questions of this breadth cannot be adequately addressed in the space of a short article. What follows has a more modest aim, which is simply to draw attention to what Alcuin has to say in a work that, I think, has greater importance in the intellectual history of the medieval Church than has previously been assigned to it (or for that matter to its author), and to try to outline the structure of its thought as well as clarify some of the presuppositions that seem to underlie its teachings.

Alcuin's response to the Greek magister consists of three parts: First, the letter confronts the Greek teacher's usage of Romans 5.14 (“… death reigned from Adam to Moses”) to support the claim that the price paid by Christ has been rendered to death as “personified” in the devil. Alcuin therefore devotes considerable space to a discussion of the different forces denoted by the word “death” and of the word as it is employed in Romans 5 in order to differentiate thoroughly between Satan and the particular “death” whose conquest is most crucial to understanding Christ's achievement. Second, the letter examines the meanings of the terms, “redemption” and “to redeem” (Latin, redimere), and seeks to define them as they are used to speak of the work of the cross. Third, it analyzes Paul's employment of the word “price” again for its relation to the divine work of salvation.

The first part of the letter, which deals with the different kinds of death,10 allows Alcuin to set forth what he held to be the primary result of Christ's work through the cross, and at the same time to state clearly his belief that such an achievement could not have involved a transaction with Satan. The word “death” can serve three distinct functions, Alcuin argues; it can be either a synonym for the devil, or a referent to sin, described as the death of the soul, or it can designate the termination of physical life.11 In Alcuin's view, Paul had the second meaning in mind in Romans 5.14, and in support the letter to Charlemagne quotes Ezechiel 18.4: “The soul which shall have sinned will die.”12 By this, Alcuin does not mean to deny the close relationship that sin also has with the devil and with corporal death in Christian doctrine. He does seek, however, to establish grounds for the belief that the most direct and most critical effect of Christ's work of redemption was not to free mortals from bondage to the devil or to overcome the permanence of bodily death, even though he considered these also to number among Christ's achievements, but to release them from their burden of sin.13

It is from the soul's death, above all, as distinct from Satan or the body's decease, that Christ freed humanity. As Alcuin elaborates: “But the kingdom of this death is destroyed by the arrival of grace, since Christ's blood has washed away the decree which our sins have written, fixing it to the cross, killing in himself the enmities that were between God and man.”14 To say that Christ paid a price to death/Satan for that release raises for Alcuin the question of why the devil did not hold onto whatever payment he received; for neither did the death of the soul that is sin have a kingdom in Christ, who was sinless, nor did his flesh remain in the tomb.15 The sentence just quoted concerning the destruction of death's kingdom is one of the few places in Alcuin's letter where a triumphal picture of salvation seems to come to the fore.16 Its bellicose tone masks the conviction elucidated further on in the text, that the flow of Christ's blood, with its awesome power to remove sins, demanded his sacrificial death in his humanity.

In the second portion of the letter, where attention is directed to the proper interpretation of the term, “to redeem,” Alcuin focuses on the nature of Christ's action through the cross and contends that when the use of the word “redemption” to describe that action is correctly understood, it again becomes evident that a transaction with or payment to Satan was not involved. From here Alcuin is able to develop further his conception of what in fact did take place. For it is not always true, Alcuin declares, that when something is said to be “redeemed” it is literally “bought back” (as the Latin suggests), such that the person who relinquishes the thing in question receives something else in exchange. As evidence, Alcuin cites Psalm verses alluding to those whom the Lord redeems, and also the Passover story from Exodus: when God freed the Hebrews, he notes, no recompense was given to the Egyptians. The lamb was sacrificed to God, not to Pharaoh, while its blood protected the Hebrews alone.17 Furthermore, Alcuin states, if man's redemption through Christ should be regarded as an act of selling and buying with death/Satan—as a redemption in the most literal sense of the term—it is necessary to explain why the event is called a “buying back.” The implication is that a previous sale took place, that at an earlier time God sold off the human race, an idea which is manifestly wrong.18

When Christ gave his holy, immaculate, sinless soul as “a redemption for many,” what he accomplished was not a purchase at all, but purely and simply a liberation. In Alcuin's view, this definition of the term is the only one that correctly reveals the true character of Christ's act.19 That liberation, a liberation from sin, required delivering up Christ's soul not to the devil, but to God the Father, as Jesus himself made it known by his cry on the cross, “Father, in your hands I commend my spirit.” It was an act that Christ undertook entirely of his own free will, not because he was driven by any necessity, and therefore he was also able to resume his soul when he chose to do so. In Christ alone rested this power, not in death/Satan, which had no hold on the sinless Son of God.20

At this point, Alcuin suggests a doctrine derived from Augustine that was widely repeated in early medieval exegesis of the Passion, as one alternative interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6.20 to the ransom-theory of the Greek magister. Just as from Adam's side Eve was formed, so from the “sleeping” crucified Christ was brought forth the price of the Church, meaning the blood and water that poured from Christ's side.21 Referring to both the fourth book of Augustine's De trinitate and to Fulgentius for support, Alcuin adds that it is altogether wrong to hold that the blood which spilled on the ground was intended as a payment to the earth, since when Christ resumed his humanity at the resurrection neither his blood nor any other part of his body was lacking.22 The notion that the Church was formed from Christ's side receives no further discussion in the letter. The more radical solution to the meaning of Paul's statement that Alcuin makes central to his response to the Greek magister, and which he introduces in the final portion of his letter, is, rather, that far from death receiving a payment from Christ, death was itself “the price” of redemption. Reference is again made to Augustine's De trinitate 4 in order to insist that Christ's dying was a sacrifice made to God the Father. As such, it alone constituted the price that Christ was called upon to pay in order to redeem man from sin. Sacrifice and price are one. For this very reason, the price, like the sacrifice, had nothing to do with the devil,

Unless perhaps someone dares to say that the sacrifice offered to God the Father was one thing and the price by which we are redeemed another. In all the injuries, torments, and passions which the unique Son of God sustained for us, what did he bear but an oblation for our sins, but the price of our redemption?23

It was a sacrifice offered by him who was both “priest and sacrifice, price and oblation.”24 The “price” of redemption had to be paid not in the sense of a transaction with the devil, nor even, as will become more apparent shortly, in order to offer God restitution for man's sins, but in the sense of a burden. Christ's suffering and death were the hardships he assumed, in obedience to God the Father, in order to see redemption accomplished.

Indeed, Alcuin observes towards the close of his letter, it is inconceivable that such a price could ever have been paid to death for the additional, simple reason that death has no substance. If it did, it would be one of God's creations; but death was not among the creatures that God made in the first six days, and did not exist before man sinned. It is nothing more than the absence of life, just as shadows are merely the absence of light, and therefore could never receive the price that was more excellent than all creatures.25

Alcuin's refutation of the ransom-theory of the Greek magister rests on the notion that Christ liberated mortals from the burden of the sins to which they daily succumbed as the heirs of original sin from Adam. With the stain of sin gone, the punishment of internal death that sin inflicts upon the human soul is also removed. Mankind is restored to the proper relationship to its creator and rendered capable of attaining the eternal life in soul, and ultimately body, promised through Christ's resurrection. Thus, the captivity of death from which Alcuin mainly envisions Christ to have freed man is the soul's inner affliction, and it is one that is clearly differentiated from corporal death and the devil, even though Christ's triumph over these punishments is also recognized.

The exact place given to sin and its redemption within the overall program of Alcuin's letter can be better shown if we consider briefly how Alcuin's attitude towards sin differs from that of Anselm in Cur deus homo. I should note that Anselm's work is mentioned here not in order to offer anything approaching a thorough comparison of its teachings with those of Alcuin, but simply as a means to clarify elements of the doctrine set forth to Charlemagne, in part by identifying through Anselm's treatise certain ideas that Alcuin did not espouse. Indeed, what follows should make it apparent that in the end the doctrines of the two works bear little resemblance to each other, beyond their similar emphasis on man's need to be redeemed of sin, their rejection of an active role for the devil in human redemption, and their focus on Christ's human suffering and death.

Anselm stresses man's active disobedience towards God and the mortal's own responsibility for his misdeeds, despite the inevitability of those sinful actions through his inheritance of original sin: to sin is to fail to subject oneself to the creator's will; it is to choose to do what is not pleasing to God. That active departure of the human will from the will of its creator dishonors God; it is the cause of man's condemnation because it essentially means that the sinner robs his maker by not rendering to him the honor that is rightfully his. While God did not want to leave man separated from the eternal blessedness for which he was created, in Anselm's belief it was imperative that God find a means of salvation that assured him proper reparation for the honor of which he had been deprived.26 As Anselm demonstrates in the course of his treatise, this was a goal that was only realized when the God-Man, born without sin, willingly died on the cross. Christ's innocent life, offered to God the Father, served as a fitting recompense or satisfaction for the sins of all humanity.27

The thought that underlies Alcuin's attack on the Greek teacher moves in a somewhat different direction. Here it is helpful to read the references to sin in the letter to Charlemagne against remarks on the same theme in other writings by the same author, where he provides more insight into his views. For Alcuin, the most pressing issue is not the active, willful disobedience of the mortal towards God, but human weakness and the mortal's complete inability to avoid the urge to sin.28 Sin, Alcuin is convinced, places a horrible, inescapable burden on the human soul, and while he recognizes that through Adam the entire human race is responsible for that burden, his concern is less with where to lay the blame than with the devastating sorrow to which sin leads. Above all, it is a burden that renders the soul—including Alcuin's soul, for his remarks on the subject are often cast in a very personal vein29—utterly incapable of its proper relationship with its creator, no matter what the mortal may wish to the contrary. God desires to restore that proper relationship, to bring each person back to him, by liberating the individual from the sins that have distanced him from heaven.

This picture of sin is an important reason why Anselm's argument that man owed recompense or “satisfaction” to the divine honor is alien to the doctrine of redemption that Alcuin presents. It is not only significant that in expressing the concept of satisfaction Anselm may have drawn on contemporary ways of thinking about the Christian faith and secular society that did not exist in the early ninth century.30 Alcuin's own preoccupation with human weakness, with the inescapable character of man's propensity to do wrong, encouraged him to conceive of Christ's work in very different terms.

The single action in the divine work of salvation on which Alcuin's letter places the greatest emphasis is Christ's human death, as is also true of Anselm's Cur deus homo. But in Alcuin's case, this is not intended to imply that mankind is saved solely or even most directly through the offering of Christ's body to God the Father. As suggested earlier, the letter to Charlemagne diverges from Anselm's treatise by avoiding any hint that redemption involved a transaction between God the Father and Christ; there is no indication, in other words, that what Christ undertook, through his voluntary death, was to render the necessary satisfaction to the divine honor on behalf of the rest of the human race. Instead, as also noted earlier, the crucial significance that Alcuin attributes to Christ's sacrifice is the release of blood that it made possible.31

In order to elucidate the relationship that Alcuin, in composing epistola 307, understood to exist between the sacrifice of the cross and the blood spilled from Christ's side, it is again useful to take into account other writings by him where these themes are also discussed. A survey of such works suggests that, frequently, when Alcuin thought of the sacrificial character of Christ's act, he thought in terms influenced by Old Testament accounts of blood offerings; among these, in particular, was the Exodus story of the passover lamb, associated with Christ in John 1.29 and through the foundation of the eucharist at the Last Supper. From this perspective, just as the lamb saved the Hebrews not merely because it was sacrificed, but through the blood from it that was placed on their doorposts, man's redemption or liberation from sin was achieved through the blood Christ poured out after his own, sacrificial death. So long as the mortal turns to Christ in faith, especially through prayer and the sacraments, Alcuin's writings often suggest, the blood of his redeemer washes from him the sins that divide him from God.32

In such texts, then, including the letter against the Greek magister, that bloodshed and not Christ's sacrifice per se is marked out as the central mechanism of human redemption. Alcuin does not spell out in epistola 307 or elsewhere the precise reasons why Christ's blood was efficacious in this manner, but when taken together, the various references to the bloodshed found in his writings indicate that, in his view, three factors were crucial: it came from a perfectly innocent victim, since Christ was without sin, it was filled with divine power because it belonged to the body of the Son of God, and its power is made continually available to the Church through the sacraments, especially baptism, penance, and the eucharist.33

What Alcuin had in mind in attacking the ransom-theory of the atonement is that Christ willingly sacrificed his body to his Father, in perfect obedience to the Father's wishes, in order to pour out his saving blood; for the release of the savior's blood, human yet divinely empowered, could be accomplished only if his human nature suffered and died, much as the paschal lamb of the Israelites had to be slaughtered in order for its own blood to be released. Thus, the notion of a sacrifice made to God the Father is crucial to the soteriology of Alcuin's letter, and the devil is largely left out of the picture, as is also true in Cur deus homo; yet as is not the case in Anselm's treatise, the process of redemption remains essentially manward.34 Christ's manhood, his human weakness, suffering, and offering of his own life to the Father, are absolutely central to his achievement of redemption; but what is at stake in freeing man from sin is less directly Christ's action as man towards God than God's action towards man, through the channel opened by Christ's human sacrifice. For Anselm, the divinity assures the salvific status of the humanity that then wins redemption,35 while for Alcuin redemption is wrought through a divinely empowered attribute of the humanity.

Christ's sacrifice was therefore the “price” of man's redemption, not because it was offered to the devil or even because it was per se redemptive, as though an offering made (a “price” paid) to God the Father in reparation for man's sins. Rather, it was the price because this was what God had to accept from his son, and what Christ had to endure, in order for the saving blood to be spilled. It was the burden that they together had to bear for redemption to be effected, the bad side of the ledger that was infinitely outweighed by the good it achieved.

When the letter to Charlemagne states that on the cross Christ paid “the price” for the formation of the Church from his side, however, it indicates how indissoluble the shedding of Christ's blood and his sacrifice are in Alcuin's thought. The sacrifice and the pouring out of Christ's blood can be distinguished from each other to the extent that the latter resulted from the former, yet it is evident that Alcuin also understands the spilling of blood as the culmination to all the torments that led up to and encompassed the sacrificial death on the cross. Christ's bloodshed was inseparable from those torments and sacrifice inasmuch as it was the final, visible proof that the humanity of Christ had suffered and died, the proof that he had indeed paid “the price,” and implicitly, therefore, the final proof of his true humanity.36 As such, it was also the proof of the infinite bounty of God's love for the human race, a love so great that he was willing to submit his only-begotten son to the Passion in order to wash away the sins that kept man apart from him. There is an aching beauty to the soteriology of Alcuin's letter, in its combined picture of man's helpless incapacity to bring himself out from under the burden of sin and of the lengths to which the divine love allowed Christ to go in order to achieve that goal.

Man is helpless against the oppressive weight that sin places on his soul, an inescapable burden that perpetually divides him from his creator; but God, in his boundless love for his creation, sent his very own Son to earth, to become man, to be himself the saving oblation offered on the cross, in order that from his tormented body might pour the blood that alone could cleanse the human soul of its stains and allow mankind to regain its true relationship with the Divine. The sheer lyricism of the soteriology presented in Alcuin's letter against the Greek magister alone makes the letter worthy of note, while its vision of the meaning of redemption, for this quality alone, deserves a more secure place in the history of medieval theology than it has usually received.

This is not to say that Alcuin was uninfluenced by earlier thought. As already indicated allusions to the letter's three principal themes—that Christ saved man from sin, that he offered a sacrifice to God the Father, and that his blood washed away sins—appear in other patristic and early medieval texts,37 and on several occasions in the letter, Alcuin quotes and cites the writings of various Church Fathers. In particular, there are the points in the letter where Alcuin openly draws inspiration from Augustine's De trinitate. The fourth book of that work is the only source Alcuin directly quotes to confirm his image of Christ as the sacrificial victim, and the only one to which he refers in his denial that Christ spilled his blood as a payment to the earth and his subsequent affirmation of the wholeness of the redeemer's resurrected humanity. Beyond this, it may be significant that De trinitate 4 is a place where Augustine alludes to 1 Corinthians 6.20 and stresses themes that appear elsewhere in his writings as well, those of Christ's sacrifice, man's redemption from sin, the willingness of Christ's death, and the cleansing efficacy of his blood.38

In composing the letter against the Greek magister, Alcuin may have looked for support for his arguments not only to De trinitate 4, but also to Book 13 of the same treatise (to which epistola 307 does not directly refer). There Augustine poses the question, foreshadowing Anselm's query, “Was there no other way for God to liberate men from the misery of their mortality, that he should will the only-begotten Son … to become man [and] suffer death?”39 The answer to this question is explored at length in chapters 10 through 20 of De trinitate 13,40 where again Augustine elaborates on the significance of Christ's dying, the redemptive value of his blood, and the price that he paid. In the end, however, both the fourth and thirteenth books of De trinitate focus to a much greater extent than does Alcuin's letter on Christ's conquest of the devil. This is where Augustine's references to “the price” come in: the price was Christ's blood, which the devil received so that he was overcome, not by power but by justice.41 Augustine's argument is not the idea probably espoused by the Greek visitor to Charlemagne's court, that God had to pay a ransom to Satan in order to win back mankind, but instead that Satan unjustly took Christ's blood and thus lost his control of humanity, since he took something not rightfully his. Yet this understanding of “the price” clearly differs from that offered by Alcuin. In general, Alcuin's letter stands apart from both Book 4 and Book 13 of De trinitate when it presents Christ's sacrifice and the subsequent removal of sins through his blood as together forming the single driving force behind human salvation, while for the reasons suggested at the outset of this article it also seems distinguished from other, early medieval writings where such themes emerge.

Elsewhere in his writings, Alcuin demonstrates more flexibility in his perception of the Passion and how Christ saved mankind. His exegesis of biblical passages that he linked with the Passion, for instance, is closely connected with the contents of the verses in question as well as frequently drawn from various patristic authorities; consequently, while some scriptural texts lead him to recall Christ's triumph over death or the devil, and others the revelation, even from the cross, of his savior's omnipotent majesty, still others bring him to remember the examples of humility and obedience that the crucified Jesus set for mortals, or once more the cleansing efficacy of the blood he shed, or his sacrifice to God the Father.42 Similarly, Alcuin's poetry and other letters can range from the startling praise of the fully triumphant though crucified lord of the universe, in his carmen figuratum honoring the cross, to the beseeching tone taken in a titulus to a cross, and in several letters, where Alcuin dwells on his own sinfulness and his ardent need for cleansing through the blood shed by his tortured redeemer.43 In the treatises that formally attack the Spanish Christology of Adoptionism, where Alcuin is intent on demonstrating that Christ possessed in one person both a perfect human and a perfect divine nature, as the Carolingians believed the Spanish Adoptionists to have denied,44 his approach differs yet again. Here the overall focus is more on the Incarnation than on the Passion; that God assumed true human flesh from a virgin is largely seen as itself the central act by which man was saved. Despite allusions to various doctrines of redemption, the Passion is considered chiefly as proof of the Incarnation, as evidence that the divinity was totally present in the crucified Christ and that it was the Son of God himself who took part in the crucifixion. At some points, Alcuin recalls Christ's conquest of Satan or the eternal kingship of the crucified redeemer, while elsewhere he dwells mainly on his torments, or stresses the voluntary character of his Passion; but what links all these passages together is their almost invariable regard to show how the crucified, tortured human nature of Christ was indissolubly united with his divine omnipotence. No matter what picture of the crucifixion is suggested, Christ's divinity is made to permeate every allusion to his human qualities.45

The range of attitudes towards the process of human redemption that Alcuin exhibits in such writings only matches the enormous variety of approaches to that process found in the writings of contemporaries and earlier churchmen, going back to the Church Fathers.46 The brief reference made above to Augustine's teachings in De trinitate is indicative of the capacity of early writers to mix and match doctrines of redemption. Why, then, did Alcuin focus narrowly on Christ's sacrifice and bloodshed when he wrote against the Greek visitor to Charlemagne's court? One reason must be that he considered these ideas the most effective means to demonstrate the error of the ransom-theory of the atonement: in particular, they together constituted a doctrine of redemption that clearly disassociated redemption from any considerations of God's dealings with the devil. Such disassociation was of major importance if Alcuin was to refute decisively the belief that Christ paid a price to death/Satan. To dwell on Christ's conquest of the devil, to suggest another way of viewing the work of salvation, would have undermined this attribute of Alcuin's letter.

Perhaps more significant, though, is the personal attachment Alcuin may have felt to the doctrine that Christ suffered and died so that his blood could wash away sins. As already noted, several of Alcuin's writings reveal their author's intense anxiety over his own sinfulness and his profound sense that, as much as if not more than other mortals, he must continually seek forgiveness and remission of his sins from the creator who deigned to die for mankind.47 If Alcuin was particularly drawn to any view of how Christ redeemed man, it probably was the one that, as some of his writings show, he associated so closely with the remission of sins made continually available to sinners such as himself through the eucharist and penance, as well as through baptism. That he focused on this doctrine when writing at the beginning of the ninth century, in a text devoted to a systematic explanation of Christ's work and offering the Latin west's first thorough refutation of the ransom-theory of the atonement, is a reason that his letter's importance in the history of medieval Christian thought deserves recognition. Although Alcuin's attack on the Greek magister draws upon some earlier theologians, such as Augustine, its clear differences from previous writings that consider the nature of redemption provide fitting testimony to the originality of the intellect that produced it.


  1. The letter discussed in this article is edited in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae, 4, Epistolae Karolini Aevi, 2, ed. Ernst Dümmler (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895), Alcuini sive Albini Epistolae, 1-481, Ep. 307.466-471. The most recent, comprehensive biography of Alcuin is Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alcuin, Friend of Charlemagne: His World and his Work (New York: Macmillan, 1951). Before that see C. J. B. Gaskoin, Alcuin: His Life and Work (New York, 1904); Arthur Jean Kleinclausz, Alcuin (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1948).

    On Alcuin's involvement in Carolingian liturgical reforms see Gerald Ellard, Master Alcuin, Liturgist: A Partner in our Piety (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1956). Important investigations of other issues regarding Alcuin and his writings include Leopold Wallach, Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Literature, Cornell Studies in Classical Philology, 32 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1959), and idem, Diplomatic Studies in Latin and Greek Documents from the Carolingian Age (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977); H. - B. Meyer, “Alkuin zwischen Antike und Mittelalter: Ein Kapitel frühmittelalterlicher Frömmigkeitsgeschichte,” Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 81 (1959), 306-350, 405-454; John Marenbon, From the School of Alcuin to the Circle of Auxerre: Logic, Theology and Philosophy in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Donald Bullough, “Alcuin and the Kingdom of Heaven: Liturgy, Theology, and the Carolingian Age,” in Carolingian Essays: Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in Early Christian Studies, ed. Uta-Renate Blumenthal (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1983), 1-69; and the introduction by Peter Godman to his edition of Alcuin's poem on York: Peter Godman, ed. and trans., Alcuin: The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), esp. xxxiii-cxxx. Comprehensive arguments for attributing the Libri Carolini to Theodulf of Orleans rather than Alcuin, as earlier scholars have sometimes held, are set forth by Ann Freeman, initially in “Theodulf of Orleans and the Libri Carolini,Speculum 32 (1957), 663-705. Recent research, such as that by Freeman, Bullough, Meyer, Marenbon, and Godman, has corrected several of the views presented in Duckett's biography and in Ellard's study of Alcuin's liturgical work, most notably by amending the list of Alcuin's authentic writings as well as by reassessing the relative roles played in early Carolingian affairs by that churchman and his colleagues, especially Theodulf of Orleans and Benedict of Aniane. In light of this scholarship, a new, comprehensive analysis of Alcuin's life, thought, and relationship with Charlemagne would clearly be desirable.

  2. The ransom-theory appears already with Irenaeus, and recurs with numerous Church Fathers of the second and later centuries, among them Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Ambrose, and Augustine. Generally on this and other aspects of patristic soteriology, see J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), esp. pp. 173-174, 183, 185-186, 375-377, 382-383, 387, 391; Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 5 volumes, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), esp. pp. 141-155, 232-236. On soteriology in the medieval west, see J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 3: The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), esp. pp. 124-144; Gustav Aulèn, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, transl. A. G. Hebert (New York: Macmillan, 1931), pp. 1-60, 81-84. In many respects still useful for the patristic and the medieval traditions are the works of Jean Rivière: Le dogme de la rédemption: Essai d'étude historique (Paris: Libraire Victor Lecoffre, 1905); idem, Le dogme de la rédemption au debut du moyen âge, Bibliothèque Thomiste, 19 (Paris: J. Vrin, 1934); idem, “Rédemption,” in Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, ed. A. Vacant et al. (Paris: Libraire Letouzey et Ané, 1936), pp. 1912-2004, for the Church Fathers esp. pp. 1932-1942.

  3. “… la première et peut-être la seule critique de fond [de la théorie de la rançon] qu'elle ait jamais recontrée en terre latine.” J. Rivière, Le dogme au debut du moyen âge, pp. 30-31. Rivière goes on to make the claim, with which I disagree, that “L'incident n'a pas d'autre titre à entrer dans l'histoire. …” The interest of the position Alcuin takes in Ep. 307 is also noted briefly by H. - B. Meyer, “Alkuin,” esp. p. 334, although my article will show that I disagree with him slightly on the substance of Alcuin's teachings there.

  4. A few of the most striking differences between the two works may be mentioned here. First, there is simply the difference in length: Alcuin's arguments, which cover a little over five pages in the MGH edition of the letter, are extremely brief and uninvolved compared with those set forth in the two lengthy books of Anselm's treatise. Second, the starting-points of the two works are not the same: unlike Alcuin, who had only a Christian audience in mind (specifically, his emperor), Anselm sought to outline arguments that might persuade even the unbeliever of the rationality of the Christian doctrine that God became man in order to save the human race. Thus, while Alcuin assumes his audience's faith in Christ and his Passion, and seeks to demonstrate only how that event was salvific, Anselm wants to prove the validity of belief in Christ as well as in his endurance of the cross; his analysis of just how Christ's death was redemptive is therefore tied to his effort to demonstrate, more basically, why the Incarnation had to occur at all. Anselm asks why the God-Man was necessary in order to save man, and from this perspective is concerned with how that salvation was accomplished; Alcuin asks how Christ's Passion saved man, having assumed that his audience agrees with him already that to do so led God to take on human nature and undergo the crucifixion. A few other differences between Alcuin's and Anselm's works will be suggested later in this article. On the unbelievers to whom Anselm refers, see R. W. Southern, St. Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought, 1050 - c.1130 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), pp. 88-91. Anselm's work is edited in PL 158.359-432. A fine translation with a lucid introduction to Anselmian thought is found in Eugene R. Fairweather's A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, The Library of Christian Classics, 10 (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1956), introduction pp. 47-62, text pp. 100-183. A more recent translation is that in Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson, eds. and transls., Anselm of Canterbury, 4 vols., vol. 3 (Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1976), pp. 41-137. Besides the work done by R. W. Southern and E. R. Fairweather (both cited above, this note), see also John McIntyre, St. Anselm and His Critics: A Re-Interpretation of the Cur Deus Homo (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1954), and Jasper Hopkins, A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972), esp. pp. 187-212.

    It should be noted that Anselm's question, “Why did God become man?” was anticipated by Augustine in De trinitate 13.10, as pointed out to me by Professor John Cavadini of Villanova University. Given that Alcuin composed Ep. 307 either during or after the completion of his own treatise, De fide sanctae et individuae trinitatis (PL 101.9-58), which draws upon De trinitate and for which he must have made himself thoroughly familiar with the earlier work, he probably had Augustine's query and response in mind as he wrote.

  5. I.e., in patristic as well as early medieval discussions of the Passion, the notion that Christ in his divinity and resurrection vanquished the forces of death and Satan. Doctrines of redemption of this kind tend to diminish the importance to salvation of Christ's humanity other than as a vehicle for the divine power. On the early Middle Age's triumphal view of redemption, see, e.g., G. Aulèn, Christus Victor, esp. 47-60, as well as, in different terms, Jean Rivière, e.g. in “Rédemption,” 1939-1940 (for both see above, n. 2).

  6. The relationship of the doctrine espoused in Ep. 307 to that expressed in other Alcuinian writings is discussed further below. For other early medieval theologians who set forth similar ideas, see below, n. 9.

  7. In Cur deus homo Anselm never speaks of Christ's work as a sacrifice; but the idea is implicit as he develops his argument that a sinless God-Man had to undergo death in order to recompense God for humanity's sins. Alcuin's distinction among the different types of death is discussed below.

  8. Analyses of Augustine's soteriology can be found in, among others, E. TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (London: Burns and Oates, 1970), pp. 171ff., Eugène Portalié, A Guide to the Thought of St. Augustine, trans. Ralph J. Bastian (Chicago: H. Regnery, 1960), esp. pp. 161-173, and J. N. D. Kelly, Doctrines, pp. 390-395. On the influence of Augustinianism on later thinkers in the west, including the Carolingians, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, The Christian Tradition, 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), for the Carolingians esp. pp. 50-105. Outside of Augustine, the appearance of the doctrine of Christ's sacrifice, especially, in the Church Fathers and other early writers before the Carolingian period is remarked by J. Rivière, “Rédemption,” esp. pp. 1935-1937, and J. N. D. Kelly, Doctrines, pp. 388 (Hilary), 389-390 (Ambrose, Ambrosiaster, Pelagius), 398-399 (Cyril); cf. ibid., pp. 440-455, on teachings regarding the eucharist.

    There is a tendency in scholarly discussions of patristic and early medieval soteriology either to overlook the role given to Christ's blood or to view it as essentially another way of expressing the notion of his sacrifice. In this article, I try to show why, at least in Alcuin's thought, while the two ideas are closely related it is necessary to distinguish between them. Indeed, the need to distinguish Christ's bloodshed from his sacrifice is apparent from the early writings that refer to the blood less as a sign of his suffering or death than of his divine power and victory over death: cf., e.g., Ambrose, writing, significantly, on the sacraments; as he declares, man was “… a debtor of the devil. An enemy held your bond, but the lord impaled it and destroyed it with his blood” (Ambrose, The Sacraments, 5.4, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, Fathers of the Church, 44 [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963], p. 318). (The same Church Father also speaks of the flow of blood and water from Christ's side as the source of baptism and the eucharist, e.g., in idem, Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucan, 10.135, CSEL [Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum] 32, S. Ambrosii Opera, 4, ed. C. Schenkel [Prague: F. Tempsky, 1902], pp. 506-507).

  9. All three themes mentioned recur singly and side-by-side in various Carolingian treatises that discuss the eucharist, baptism, and penance. See, for instance, the main treatises stemming from the ninth-century eucharistic controversy, Paschasius Radbertus, De corpore et sanguine domini, CCCM 16, e.g., 28, 52, 53, 83, 84, 96, 126; Ratramnus, De corpore et sanguine domini, PL 121, e.g., 138 A/B, 139C-140A, 144B, 154B-155A. On baptism see esp. Theodulf of Orleans, De ordine baptismi, PL 105.231D-232A, 234D-235A, 240A/B. From among the Carolingian writings where the theme of penance is emphasized, see some of Alcuin's letters, in MGH Epp. 4, Alcuini … Epistolae, e.g., Epp. 138.218, 166.271, 223.367; cf. idem, De virtutibus et vitiis, PL 101.622B/C (where Alcuin stresses the cleansing action of penance), and see also Paulinus of Aquileia, Liber exhortationis, PL 99, esp. 204A; 208D-209A; 220A; 240A; 241A; 261A. A pre-Carolingian writer who regularly refers to Christ's suffering, his sacrifice for sin, and the blood he shed was Bede: cf., e.g., his sermons, PL 94.121, 131, 135, 138B-D. The significance of Christ's bloodshed is noted in some early medieval poetry and liturgical texts, where the emphasis tends to be on its divine power: e.g., in “The Dream of the Rood,” Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. and trans. R. K. Gordon (London: Dent, 1954), pp. 235-238; in the “Ab ore verbum,” Analecta Hymnica 51.78, 82-84; and in the collect for the mass of the feast of the Inventio crucis, in the Missale Gothicum (Vat. Reg. lat. 317), ed. L. C. Mohlberg, Rerum ecclesiasticarum documenta, series maior, fontes 5 (Rome, 1961), 80.

  10. I.e., after Alcuin's introductory comments: Ep. 307.467, ll. 4-28 (above, n. 1).

  11. The distinction made here shows the influence of Augustine, e.g., in De trinitate 4.3(5), CSEL 50.165.

  12. Ep. 307.467, ll. 18-19.

  13. Alcuin's close association of sin with death and the devil is apparent, for one, from his discussion of Christ as mediator in De fide 3.12, PL 101.45B/C. Christ came, Alcuin there declares, “to offer for us what he assumed from us, in order to bear away from us what he found in us, that is sin. For just as the proud devil is the mediator to death, who led proud man to death, so Christ is the mediator to life, who, humble, led obedient man to life; since just as the former, exalted, fell and cast down the consenting, so the latter, humiliated, rose and raised the believer.” (“… veniens ad nos offere pro nobis quod sumpsit ex nobis, ut auferret a nobis quod invenit in nobis, id est, peccata. Sicut enim diabolus mediator est ad mortem, qui superbus superbientem hominem perduxit ad mortem, ita Christus mediator ad vitam, humilis hominem obedientem reduxit ad vitam: quia sicut ille elatus cecidit, et dejecit consentientem, sic iste humiliatus surrexit, et erexit credentem.”) See also below, concerning Alcuin's usage of several different doctrines of redemption.

  14. Ep. 307.467, ll. 19-22. Cf. Augustine, De trinitate 4.13(17), CCSL 50.184.

  15. Ep. 307.467, ll. 23-28.

  16. A triumphal view of the work of salvation appears regularly in other writings by Alcuin, however, one example being his carmen figuratum to the holy cross: MGH PLAC 1, Alcuin, Carmen 6, pp. 224f. For bibliography on this poem, see below, n. 43.

  17. Ep. 307.467, ll. 29-43; see Ps. 118.34, 143; 106.2; 135.24; Ex. 12.1-13.

  18. Ep. 307.467, l. 44 - 468, l. 3.

  19. Ep. 307, esp. 468, ll. 4-7.

  20. Ep. 307.468, ll. 8-24.

  21. Ep. 307.468, ll. 24-27. See Augustine, Tractatus 120.2, CCSL 36.661. The parallel of Adam to Christ (who is thus the “second” Adam) occurs very early in Christian exegesis, esp. in Irenaeus, who makes it fundamental to his soteriology. See J. N. D. Kelly, Doctrines, pp. 147-149.

  22. Ep. 307.468, ll. 28-38. Augustine, De trinitate 4.3(6), CCSL 50.168; cf. Fulgentius, Libri tres ad Trasimundum regem, 3.34, PL 65.229B.

  23. Ep. 307.469, ll. 5-32, esp. ll. 29-32. See Augustine, De trinitate 4.12(15), CCSL 50.181; 4.13(17), CCSL 50.183; 4.14(19), CCSL 50.186.

  24. Ep. 307.469, ll. 34-35.

  25. Ep. 307.470, l. 27 - 471, l. 6.

  26. See, e.g., CDH 1.10-15, 19-24.

  27. See esp. CDH 1.25, 2.6-19.

  28. The following discussion of Alcuin's attitude towards sin draws on several of his writings, since sin, its dangers, and its conquest were among his favorite themes. Particularly useful are his treatises and letters against the Adoptionists, other letters of moral exhortation, or where he dwells on his own sinful nature, his treatise on the virtues and vices, and some of his poetry. Examples from these works will be indicated in subsequent notes. For another treatment of Alcuin's views in this area of thought, see H. -B. Meyer, “Alkuin,” esp. pp. 430-452.

  29. As already noted by H. -B. Meyer, “Alkuin,” pp. 430-431; cf. ibid., nn. 339-340, for letters in which Alcuin dwells on his own sinfulness. Generally emblematic of his concern is also his treatise, De virtutibus et vitiis, PL 101.613-639.

  30. As argued, e.g., by R.W. Southern, Anselm, esp. pp. 97-114.

  31. On the relationship between the divine and human in the God-Man according to Anselm, see esp. CDH 2.7-18. It may be noted here that Alcuin's view of redemption also differs from that proposed by Abelard, which again diverges from Anselm's. Abelard, like Alcuin before him, suggests that there was no payment to either God or the devil, but he emphasizes a vision of salvation that highlights Christ's role as teacher and example; by his words and deeds, including his death, Christ inspires man to love for the Divine and thereby to virtue: e.g., Abelard, Expositio in Rom. 3.23-26, PL 178.833-836 (cited in R.W. Southern, Anselm, p. 96). From this perspective, the Passion loses the central place in the work of redemption that both Alcuin and Anselm gave to it. See R. W. Southern, Anselm, pp. 96-97; G. Aulèn, Christus Victor, pp. 95-97.

  32. See, e.g., among Alcuin's writings, for reference to the parallel of Christ with the passover lamb, MGH PLAC 1, Alcuin, Carm. 116.346; and his Commentaria in Joannem (following Augustine), PL 100.986C. For a small sampling of the many places where Alcuin alludes to the cleansing power of Christ's blood, see the Expositio in psalmos poenitentiales, PL 100.589C, 590A, 593B/C; the Commentaria in Joannem (following Augustine), PL 100.985B, 986A/B, and earlier in the same treatise, where Alcuin is more influenced by Bede, PL 100.926B; the Contra Felicem libri septem, PL 101.134B, 139D, 155B, C, 227A, 229A/B. On the relation of Christ's sacrifice to his bloodshed, e.g., the Expositio in epistolam ad Hebraeos, PL 100.1078B; cf. the Expositio in psalmos poenitentiales, PL 100.593B-594B. On the relationship of the blood Christ shed to the sacraments, see esp., e.g., the Expositio in epistolam ad Hebraeos, 10 (drawing on Chrysostom), PL 100.1081A/B (to baptism and penance); the Commentaria in Joannem (following Augustine), PL 100.986A/B (probably to both baptism and the eucharist); MGH PLAC 1, Alcuin, Carm. 109.337 (to penance, and more vaguely to the eucharist). More generally, also, e.g., MGH Epp. 4, Alcuini Epistolae, Epp. 34.76, 113.165, 166.272.

  33. See above, previous note.

  34. The distinction between doctrines of the atonement that make redemption a “Godward” (from man to God) rather than a “manward” (from God to man) movement was elaborated by Gustav Aulèn, in Christus Victor, esp. pp. 1-7. His main thesis is summarized in Bernard Sesboüé, “Salut,” in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 14, fasc. 91, ed. M. Viller, et al. (Paris: Beauchesne, 1988), cols. 251-283, at pp. 256-257.

  35. See CDH 2.6-7.

  36. This emerges esp. in Ep. 307.468, ll. 38-41 and 469, ll. 5-32.

  37. See above, (p. and n. 8).

  38. Augustine, De trinitate 4.13(16-17), 14(19), CCSL 50.181-184, 186-187.

  39. Augustine, De trinitate 13.10(13), CCSL 50A.399.

  40. Augustine, De trinitate 13.10-20, CCSL 50A.399-420.

  41. Augustine, De trinitate 15(19), CCSL 50A.408.

  42. Such mixtures of ideas occur particularly in Alcuin's commentaries on the penitential and gradual psalms, in PL 100, cf. e.g. 589C, 590D-591A, 594A/B, 594 C; 625D, 628D-629A. Cf. also in some of Alcuin's letters the similar range of ideas, e.g., MGH Epp. 4, Alcuini Epistolae, 17.45-46, 34.77, 38.81, as well as other letters already mentioned.

  43. For Alcuin's carmen figuratum, see MGH PLAC 1, Alcuin, Carmen 6.224f.; for the titulus, see ibid., Carmen 109(11).337. A recent translation of the carmen figuratum is available in Peter Godman, ed. and transl., Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), pp. 138-143; see also Godman's introduction, esp. p. 20. The poem's contents and origins are discussed in H. -B. Meyer, “‘Crux, Decus es Mundi’: Alkuins Kreuz- und Osterfrömmigkeit,” in Paschatis Sollemnia. Studien zu Osterfeier und Osterfrömmigkeit, ed. Balthasar Fischer and J. Wagner (Freiburg: Herder, 1959), pp. 96-107, and Dieter Schaller, “Die karolingischen Figurengedichte des Cod. Bern. 212,” in Medium Aevum Vivum. Festschrift für Walther Bulst, ed. Hans R. Jauss and D. Schaller (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1960), pp. 22-47.

  44. An important reevaluation of the controversy over Spanish Adoptionism, one that breaks decisively away from earlier interpretations of the dispute, is that by John Christopher Cavadini, “The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and in Gaul, A.D. 785-817” (Diss., Yale University, 1988). In addition to Cavadini's work, several overviews of the dispute are available, most of them (as Cavadini shows) somewhat misrepresentative of the nature of Adoptionist teachings: e.g., in J. Hefélé, Histoire des conciles, 3.2, trans. H. Leclerq (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1910), pp. 1001-1060; Émile Amann, L'époque carolingienne, Histoire de l'église, 6, ed. A. Fliche and V. Martin (Paris: Bloud et Gay, 1947), pp. 129-152; J. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, esp. pp. 52-59 (above, n. 2).

  45. See, e.g., Alcuin (sometimes drawing on earlier authorities), Contra Felicem, PL 101.134B, 147C/D, 154D, 190C, 204C/D, and the other passages from the same treatise already cited in n. 32; idem, Adv. Felicis haeresin, PL 101.93C-94A, 94C, 97A, 100B, 103B, 105D-106A, 109C/D; also idem, Contra epistolam ab Elipando, PL 101.255A/B, 259A/B; and MGH Epp. 4, Alcuini Epistolae, Epp. 166.273, 309.474-475.

  46. J. N. D. Kelley, Doctrines, pp. 375-399; J. Rivière, “Rédemption,” pp. 1935-1942.

  47. See above, n. 29. Alcuin links his own need for remission of his sins to Christ's death and bloodshed esp. in MGH Epp. 4, Alcuini Epistolae, Epp. 83.126, 94.139.

Joseph Pucci (essay date October-December 1990)

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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 assymetries involved in its creation2. Alcuin combines in this poem an array of literary modes that in other circumstances might well collapse of their own weight. Generically, he writes an elegy in mature couplets but his topic is almost entirely pastoral. Beyond the mere conflation of form to content is the addition of Virgilian pastoral language that is set side by side with Christian imagery. Additionally, the poem moves beyond the confines of a form that is already challenged by its content when, at its conclusion, it takes up the theme of lament with which it began, making it more properly elegiac again.

Moreover, Alcuin was able in writing the cell poem to concentrate on the strengths of Latin, especially making the language's elegant simplicity work to good effect. Alcuin, in fact, would seem to expose the central dilemma of his situation of discourse in the cell poem precisely in the control exhibited in his language, and this is the one feature on which prior work on the poem has most usually centered. In re-working Latin in the ways he did, Alcuin allows himself to become the poet of the classical locus amoenus. 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.

This essay takes as its starting point this essential paradox. Its purpose is to analyze more closely the Virgilian material found in the cell poem. Such attention is merited, for through the deployment of classical allusion Alcuin is able to control the tone and movement of his own poem without necessarily saying anything overtly. Due to the conflation—but not the confusion—of classical modes of writing and the use of classical allusion Alcuin has often been seen as less than concerned to revive classical norms and genres3. But his seeming disinterest in genre as such ought not to be mistaken for a haphazard poetic style or artistic crafting. Indeed, the novel ways he goes about crafting his poem are themselves sophisticated and important new ways of crafting, forged in the peculiar environment in which he lived: absent of living models and a literary tradition of which to speak4.

This kind of artistic composition can be seen at work immediately in the opening verses of the cell poem. While v. 1-3 will have special significance in their linkage with Georgic 2, the first sixteen lines of “O mea cella” need to be analyzed first in order to understand the ideal about to be destroyed through the linkage to that Georgic:

O mea cella, mihi habitatio dulcis, amata,
          semper in aeternum, o mea cella, uale.
Undique te cingit ramis resonantibus arbos,
          siluula florigeris semper onusta comis.
Prata salutiferis florebunt omnia et herbis, (5)
          quas medici quaerit dextra salutis ope.
Flumina te cingunt florentibus undique ripis,
          retia piscator qua sua tendit ouans.
Pomiferis redolent ramis tua claustra per hortos,
          lilia cum rosulis candida mixta rubris. (10)
Omne genus uolucrum matutinas personat odas
          atque creatorem laudat in ore deum.
In te personuit quondam uox alma magistri,
          quae sacro sophiae tradidit ore libros.
In te temporibus certis laus sancta tonantis (15)
          pacificis sonuit uocibus atque animis(5).

Alcuin begins in the present, bidding his cell farewell (v. 1-2), before undertaking a nostalgic description of the cell itself and its surroundings, in part evoked by the leave-taking, and in part a way of prolonging the moment of departure in his mind: a clear, fine moment of ideal memory (v. 3-12). He ends with a warm remembrance of the teaching that was at the core of the activity in the cell (v. 13-16). There is a progressive distancing of the poet's voice in these lines, from the firm and clear present imperative of uale (v. 2), to the less powerful present indicatives of v. 3-12: cingit, quaerit, cingunt, tendit, redolent, laudat (florebunt, future indicative, is the only exception here). Once he begins to recall the intellectual activity that he misses already, however, Alcuin reverts to perfect tense, since the activity is completed now, never to be taken up again. As if to mirror this process, the distance between the poet and reader and the poet and his topic has grown greater in the very writing and reading of these lines. The poet of nostalgia in v. 1-3 has been transformed by the process of poetic composition into a poet of distance and gloom6.

So too does the poem's movement in these lines imply a loss of integrity and an eventual abandonment of an ideal. The poet, taking leave of his cell and temporarily caught up in its magic, has constructed a worthy catalogue of its virtues. First, he recalls trees, then meadows, then rivers, before moving on to living creatures and, finally, the recollection of the sure strength and power of the cell as a dwelling-place. The catalogue is important because both in his conception of, and his meditation on, idealism in v. 1-16 and in his pastoral résumé of the cell's surroundings, Alcuin has taken as a general guide Georgic 2.1-346. The linkage of choice here is Georgic 2.81-82: exiit ad caelum ramis felicibus arbos / miraturque nouas frondes et non sua poma7, to which v. 3 of Alcuin's poem alludes: Undique te cingit ramis resonantibus arbos. The casualness of Alcuin's language (or Virgil's) ought not suggest the implausibility of allusiveness here, for although ramis and arbos are common words, they appear only once in Virgil's oeuvre—here, in Georgic 2—in this proximity8. It should be noted also that Alcuin has inserted an ablative between these two words—as Virgil does also—to further strengthen the linkage.

This linkage sanctions a broader relationship between the texts. Virgil speaks in v. 81-82 of a most extraordinary tranformation. V. 73 ff. have taken up the topic of grafting, which is itself the arboricultural form of allusiveness, that is, the implantation of foreign material into a form or body. But the result is magnificent, both for the eye of the beholder of the tree (or the reader), and especially for the tree itself (the text and its author). Virgil says miraturque nouas frondes et non sua poma: “and [the tree] marvels at new leaves and fruit not its own”. The “fruit not its own” here is, in fact, partially its own and partially not its own, and Virgil's description of it manifests a strange but common instance where language is incapable of describing phenomena, for the fruit is of the tree in the sense that it has grown from it, but is unlike it organically, in that it is not genetically related to the tree that now succors it9.

In Virgil, this is both a description of allusion and an image of man-made growth that represents the ideal of fruitful vitality and the possibility of abundance. The allusion to a description of allusion functions in Alcuin, however, both as a symbol of allusion and as an indicator of the larger role Virgil will play in the poem. Virgil's idea of grafting, so Alcuin suggests through the self-same grafting in the cell poem, will be important in his own poem.

But so too do Virgilian ideas of abundance and rustic idealism play a central role in Alcuin the cell poem, for idealism is the notion of choice in the opening lines of this poem. There is, then, a firm parallel between Alcuin's ideal pastoral recollection of his cell and Virgil's rustic pastoral ideal, a linkage that will be ratified in v. 3-12. These later verses, which most closely approximate Virgilian pastoral, function also to suggest a key point: even though Alcuin begins his poem with an evocation of ideal memory of the cell (it is his habitatio dulcis [et] amata), the formally pastoral verses begin at line 3, precisely where the allusion to Georgic 2 has been placed. The beginning of the poem is as much Virgil's, then, as Alcuin's.

V. 3-12 follow the same movements as the first 350 or so lines of Georgic 2 and such a parallel is strategic10. First Alcuin remembers arbos (v. 3-4), then prata (v. 5-6), and then flumina (v. 7-8) in a fashion similar to Virgil's opening to Georgic 2. There, Virgil treats arbos first (principio arboribus uaria est natura creandis (v. 9)); following his discussion of arbos with a discussion of terrae, the kinds of land, and the kinds of flowers, herbs and fruits they harbor (v. 109 ff.: terrae being the broad category of which prata is one typos, which Alcuin could not credibly treat exactly as Virgil does here); and finally, ending with a discussion of flumina (v. 157 ff.). Virgil's discussions of soils and olives, impossible to include in a poem written in northern Europe, is wisely and credibly omitted by Alcuin (v. 177 ff.). The broad sweep of topics that Virgil treats in a treatise on agriculture, a passage of which functions in the opening lines of Alcuin's poem, also seems to function much more broadly as a model of poetic movement. The dimensions of the movements seem calculated to suggest the strong connection that has already been made Alcuin's poem and the second Georgic. Virgil ends v. 1-350 with a discussion of spring, another seeming instance of parallelism, here operating to give new form to Alcuin's v. 13-16.

Those verses would seem to take shape from Georgics 2.315-346, Virgil's vernal monologue, which follows the catalogue of agricultural traits whose order Alcuin has seemed to imitate. Virgil praises this season for all that it makes possible: for its innate virtue as a constant symbol of life, growth and potential. His praise, however, is eventually undercut by the poet's calculated accentuation of the impermanence of spring and its conditions11. Alcuin's v. 13-16 easily parallel the movement of Virgil's monologue on spring, where the shift to the perfect tense and the distancing of the poet's vision and voice undercut the serenity and perfection of the pastoral scene and highlight Alcuin's growing realization of the impermanence of his vision in the world, of its inability to offer what it promises. In v. 3-12 of the cell poem, Alcuin, like Virgil in the second Georgic, would seem to set up a pastoral ideal only to comment on the fallaciousness of a beauty doomed to the cycles of mutability and impermamence that characterize all life.

Alcuin concentrates in v. 1-16 on the ideas of impermanence and change. His allusion to the second Georgic highlights the idea that any pastoral vision is undercut by the same cycles of change which seemingly are the source of their fundamental allure. But an allusion to Aeneid 6.707-9 at v. 10 (lilia candida) helps Alcuin both to confirm the functioning of the allusion to Georgic 2 and also to form a provisional solution to the problem of impermanence and change. Especially when read as a propadeutic to the second block of material, v. 17-32, which represents the poet's bitter lament over the fact that omnia mutantur, Virgil's function in “O mea cella” becomes clearer, deepening and coloring certain concepts and emotions suggested by the language Alcuin carries over from Virgil's own poetry:

Te, mea cella, modo lacrimosis plango camoenis,
          atque gemens casus pectore plango tuos.
Tu subito quoniam fugisti carmina uatum
          atque ignota manus te modo tota tenet. (20)
Te modo nec Flaccus nec uatis Homerus habebit,
          nec pueri musas per tua tecta canunt.
Vertitur omne decus secli sic namque repente:
          omnia mutantur ordinibus uariis.
Nil manet aeternum, nihil immutabile uere est, (25)
          obscurat sacrum nox tenebrosa diem.
Decutit et flores subito hiems frigida pulcros,
          perturbat placidum et tristior aura mare.
Qua campis ceruos agitabat sacra iuuentus,
          incumbit fessus nunc baculo senior. (30)
Nos miseri, cur te fugitiuum, mundus, amamus?
          Tu fugis a nobis semper ubique ruens.

Aeneid 6 is by any account a tour-de-force of lyric form, its emotion superbly honed under the veneer of epic design. It is this book that the Latin Middle Ages, with its great love of bizarre locales and the dark of evil, well-remembered and for just this reason Dante made good use of it in his own epic experiments. The book is justly famous as a recollection of Aeneas' journey to the world below in order to complete his search for knowledge about the future, but, though the book brims with Aeneas' presence, it is Anchises who stands out in the book's end.

The linkage of the two texts is subtle but it is possible to say that Aeneas' position in book 6 of the Aeneid suggests to Alcuin certain parallels to his own position as construed in the cell poem. One point of connection would be the emotional exhaustion of both figures exhibited at the beginning of their respective texts. Aeneas, recall, at the opening of book 6 is in tears over Palinurus' death and, more generally, is rattled over the course of events that more and more compel him—without very much of his own control—to action. In the same way, Alcuin also begins his poem in distress, grieving at v. 13-16 over the loss of his cell.

A more cogent point of connection would be the concept of uncertainty that works in both the Aeneid and in the cell poem. Book 6 recounts Aeneas' efforts to escape uncertainty, to find out about the future from none other than his father. The linkage is apt since the allusion to this book in the cell poem comes immediately before the poet's pessimistic turn from his own pastoral vision (doomed to death, and so useless) to lament an uncertainty that has already enfeebled a vision he had hoped might somehow relieve his pain. Alcuin, too, has turned to his father, God, for help in his own poem. Aeneas will leave this world, as Alcuin will seem to suggest must be done also at the end of “O mea cella,” (tu fugiens fugias; Christum nos semper amemus, v. 33), in order to find the answers he seeks. But both Aeneas and Alcuin have long and very different journeys through dark worlds to undertake. For Alcuin, “O mea cella” itself represents a dark journey and the end of darkness never really obtains. For Aeneas, darkness ends finally at v. 638 ff., when he comes to places described as delightful and green (locos laetos et amoenos, uirecta)12.

Much compressed emotion animates this scene in the Aeneid and Virgil plays such emotions perfectly, contrasting the relieved re-discovery of security in Aeneas with the reclaimed sense of self that Anchises' tender devotion to his son elicits. The physical act, however, that would be the natural culmination of the event at hand—the embrace—cannot take place, because Anchises is a shade. Virgil's emphasis on the emotions of Aeneas seems calculated to heighten the sense of emotional deprivation and extreme desire that compel the son to try three times to embrace his father. Virgil describes the attempted union this way:

Sic memorans largo fletu simul ora rigabat.
Ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum,
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par leuibus uentis uolucrique simillima somno

(v. 699-702).

Almost as if to describe this haunting act by means of recreating Aeneas own vision of it,—moving from image to image in a way that seems to represent the very thoughts of Aeneas in his own mind, and cast directly through Aeneas' own line of vision from beginning to end—Virgil immediately moves to describe what Aeneas sees after his failed attempts to embrace his father occur. Surely hurt and somewhat bewildered by his father's vapory form, the sudden shift of focus from Anchises to a plush grove seems calculated to reproduce the make-shift reaction of an emotionally hurt child: quickly, after the hurt, divert one's own, and, it is hoped, everyone else's, attention away from oneself, before anyone can discover the hurt. Aeneas' hurt here is complex; he is hurt, to be sure, in the way a lost child is hurt: longing for a security that seems forever lost to him. But he is hurt also because in this scene he has just recognized that he is experiencing a world of deep illusion and paradox, real, yet unreal, like the fruit of Virgil's grafted tree which is itself grafted onto the opening of Alcuin's poem.

Aeneas' makeshift reponse to his father at v. 703-4 leads now directly to the allusion in v. 10. V. 703-709 of the Aeneid describe a grove where a stream (amnem), and a meadow (prata) thick with flowers (floribus), entertain bees who dance on white lilies (lilia candida). Alcuin's use of lilia candida links specifically to Aeneid 6.708-9. Aeneas' grove, then, the grove that averts his attention from one kind of unreality to another, the ideal grove of the underworld, is transfixed allusively to Alcuin's text and becomes Alcuin's own vision also, a vision that ultimately proclaims the doom of the temporal world.

But these verses also link to the figure of Anchises and the idea of permanence that he represents. Aeneas has left the world of the living. But the luscious meadow he sees, the grove that averts his gaze from his father, is as unattainable to him at this point as his father's form. And, given the linkage to Virgil's lilia candida, the pastoral vision in Alcuin's poem well-represented by this image is also an unattainable, a vision of ideal memory that both is unreal and doomed to perish.

Both Aeneid 6 and Georgic 2 are meditations on permanence. In Georgic 2 images of spring that intimate their own demise in the cycles of change that envelop the world lead, eventually, to an abandonment of ideal memory altogether. As Gary Miles has noted, Virgil ends this poem “with an image in which the rustic ideal is subsumed in a mythical past that ipso facto places it beyond the attainment of this world, and of the poet himself”13. The motions of impermanence and permanence are not for Virgil successfully mediated in the second Georgic. The poem ends with an image of philosophic failure, or at best, philosophic exhaustion, with the poet's horses about to be unharnessed. The problem has been broached and dissected, but that is all. The enquiry has led to a dead end14.

But Alcuin does not embrace the position of Virgil in Georgic 2 entirely. Virgil's position there, after all, is a tentative position, and forms one aspect of a more complete response on his part. Such exhaustion or failure does not obtain, for example, in Virgil's passage from the Aeneid. The Georgics can suggest the solemnity and immensity of the issue allusively in the cell poem but the allusion to the Aeneid suggests Alcuin's solution to the problem: a willingness to re-harness the horses and to plunge ahead, due, in large part, to the hard work of Virgil, who also forged ahead from his Georgics into a different, maturer position in the Aeneid15.

That willingness is seen in the ending of the poem where the poet declares in clear and strong language his own position. While noting is these verses that omnia mutantur ordinibus uariis (v. 24), and that nil manet aeternum, nihil immutabile uere est (v. 25), nevertheless Alcuin is strong enough not to stop after he says this, to ask the question that has entered his mind in his readings of Aeneid 6 and Georgic 2: nos miseri, cur te fugitiuum, mundus, amamus? / tu fugis a nobis semper ubique ruens? (v. 31-32). But where the Virgil of Georgics 2 had no answer for Alcuin, the Virgil of Aeneid 6 has at least a possible answer for him. Virgil has himself moved with some assurance from his position in Georgics 2, where impermanence could only be accepted, to the heart and soul of the Aeneid itself, and his answer is moving and humane.

His answer is found in the figure of Anchises, and in the antinomy between what is real and unreal, between what remains and is permanent and what has vanished or is about to vanish. Like Virgil's delight with Casella's song in the Purgatorio, where we find Dante reading Virgil along the lines suggested here16, Virgil focuses in this passage in the Aeneid on the idea that what abides, what is permanent, is not the ideal memory of the man (“he was my great and perfect father”), but is rather the essence, the reality (“he—his love—was my guide and protector”). In realizing that Anchises was his guide and protector, that Anchises truly loved him, Aeneas realizes that Anchises remains to him what he was, that Anchises' essence, even in death, is permanent.

Why do we love the world even though it falls away from us? We love it because, like Anchises' essence, it is what abides even though it, like the grafted tree or the texts of Virgil and Alcuin themselves, is real and unreal, abides and flees but does not really flee; because it is also truly what we are: fugitiuus, doomed to change and to perish. Alcuin's answer is—like Virgil's answer in the Aeneid—humane and profound. We love the world because it is the world, we love it simply for what it is, like Anchises loves his son; and we love it because in loving it we quietly affirm our own humanity, fallibility, and impermanence, which is a way of groping for permanence after all. But such a position points to an ultimate idea that Dante will celebrate also: that what is supremely and uniquely human is also entirely and sublimely divine.

There can, of course, be no happiness in a poem such as this even if there is celebration. The poet, like a scorned lover, can taunt the world:

Tu fugiens fugias; Christum nos semper amemus:
          semper amor teneat pectora nostra dei.
Ille pius famulos diro defendat ab hoste (35)
          ad caelum rapiens pectora nostra, suos.
Pectore quem pariter toto laudemus, amemus:
          nostra est ille pius gloria, uita, salus.

But the taunt of v. 33-34 brings no relief. The solitude of nostalgia and ideal memory that leads to the central dynamic of the poem is not mediated by the ending of the poem, because the language of the ending is insufficient. This is not the language, after all, of a Christian rejoicing in God's love. It is the language of a man who has momentarily lost his balance, who has realized the divinity of humanity and who questions his ability to scorn all that is beautiful in the temporal world for a faith that is, after all, based on an ideal (like Virgil's ideal in the Georgics) unattainable in this life. Alcuin, like Dante, suggests the paradoxical: that something abides in the temporal world though nothing is ever supposed to remain.

“O mea cella” seems to offer an easy answer to its central question. Virgilian allusiveness, however, allows readers to see beyond the veneer of dismissal to a place where both Alcuin and Virgil seek a permanence and a perfect calm that can never, so both know, be achieved. Alcuin's poem has become, like Virgil's grafted tree, a medieval form containing to its astonishment classical parts growing in and out of it. It has become what it seeks to describe, an essence of beauty amid impermanence that even while it laments impermanence seeks itself to become permanent and so transcend its own nature.


  1. Fortunatus would be the only Merovingian poet of stature at the court of Charlemagne, where his verse was considered canonical. Unfortunately, no modern appraisal exists of the poetry of this important “représentant de la poésie latine dans la Gaule mérovingienne”, as he was called by D. Tardi, Fortunat, Paris, 1927, the last scholar to treat his poetry substantively. See also R. Koebner, Venantius Fortunatus: Seine Persönlichkeit und seine Stellung in der geistigen Kultur des Merowinger Reichs, Leipzig-Berlin, 1915; W. Meyer, Der Gelegenheitsdichter Venantius Fortunatus in Abhandlungen der Göttinger Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Berlin, 1901; C. Nisard, Le poète Fortunat, Paris, 1890; J. Szövérffy, Venantius Fortunatus and the Earliest Hymns to the Holy Cross in Classical Folia 20, 1966, p. 107-122; and also his À la source de l'humanisme chrétien médiéval: “Romanus” et “Barbarus” chez Vénance Fortunat in Aevum 65, 1971, p. 77-86; G. Davis, Ad sidera notus: Strategies of Lament and Consolation in Fortunatus' De Gelesuintha in Agon 6, 1967, p. 118-134; or F. Ela Consolino, Amor Spiritualis e linguaggio elegiaco nei Carmina di Venanzio Fortunato in Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa 8, 1977, p. 45-56. The dynamics of Merovingian literary culture relative to the classical and Carolingian periods also demand serious modern attention, not yet forthcoming, although one helpful short study would be A. Michel, La tradition de la poésie latine de Boèce à Blaise Cendrars in Estudios sobre Humanismo Clásico, Madrid, 1977, p. 11-47 and esp. p. 11-25. Cf. S. Mariner Bigorra, Prudencio y Venancio Fortunato: influencia de un metro in Helmantica 26, 1975, p. 333-340.

  2. The small body of work devoted to this most important poem of the Medieval Latin tradition is in agreement, for example, that a tension exists in the poem, that rhetoric is used to embody and exemplify that tension, that discords displayed through its rhetoric, enveloped in an over-arching concord that becomes the poem itself, serve as the fundamental architectonic idea for the poem, and, finally, that the poem is language set to motion, alternating between the discordance of Christian and classical voices but ultimately coming to express the concord of the poet's faith. P. D. Scott, Alcuin as a Poet: Rhetoric and Belief in his Latin Verse in University of Toronto Quarterly 33, 1964, p. 233-257, has admirably demonstrated how Alcuin relies upon a “careful rhetorical motion, set into play through an uncanny ability to move backwards and forwards between the rhetorical language of allusion and the direct language of statement” (p. 248). Such a motion implies movement between a love of earthly beauty and the seeking of heaven, the discord inherent in the understood concordia of Christian creation. This motion has been construed even more compellingly by P. Godman, Alcuin's Poetic Style and the Authenticity of O mea cella in Studi Medievali 20, 1979, p. 555-583, who has observed that Alcuin notes the elusiveness of the mutable world, the world of discord, “without succeeding in making it anything but hopelessly desirable” (p. 578). The poem can be read as rhetorical re-creation of concordia discors, whereby the motion of the poet's language introduces readers to the discors inherent within concordia (the poem itself) through the very act of reading, while ambiguously questioning its own intent. The sure-handed motions and polarities of the poem have lead Godman to question whether the apologia with which the poet ends the poem is not somehow countered by his implicit desire for mutable things, most notably, language itself. In such a light, it becomes hard not to read the middle portion of the poem, v. 17-32, as anything other than a lyric monologue on Alcuin's own poetic and emotional dilemma. That dilemma, simply put, entails the discords involved generally in being a poet in a Christian culture and those involved specifically in confronting one's own poetic priorities and making choices as to what value one will assign to poetry, to language, to beauty, to Christ and to faith. Cf. M. Uhlfelder, Classicism and Christianity: A Poetic Synthesis in Latomus 34, 1975, p. 224-231.

  3. On Alcuin's relation to the tradition of pastoral see P. D. Scott, Alcuin's Versus de Cuculo: The Vision of Pastoral Friendship in Studies in Philology 62, 1965, p. 510-530, esp. p. 510-513, and n. 1, 2, 4.

  4. In writing his own “pastorals”, Alcuin seems to have learned much of his craft from Virgil, specifically, a style of writing comparable to what J. Bayet, Un procédé virgilien: la description synthétique dans les Géorgiques in Studi in onore di Gino Funaioli, Milan, 1955, p. 9-18, as reported by L. P. Wilkinson, The Georgics of Virgil: A Critical Survey, Cambridge, 1969, p. 203, describes as Virgil's “description synthétique”. In carmen 59, this is manifested in Alcuin's superbly controlled manner in gliding his readers into the perceptual and intellectual worlds he creates. This is a complex dynamic: we perceive what Alcuin perceives, but strategies of allusion also enable readers to reconstruct intellectual patterns and habits of thought that symbolize the ways the poem was composed, the thoughts and imaginative processes that comprise the composition of the poem. Such a style of writing relative to Virgil has been discussed by M. C. J. Putnam, Virgil's Pastoral Art: Studies in the Eclogues, Princeton, 1970, p. 253-254, in a discussion of Robert Frost and Virgil. This kind of crafting, which Alcuin seems to have well learned from Virgil, allows, so Putnam writes, “the reader to make the transition from his own thoughts into the processes of Frost's (or Virgil's) imagination and thence into his book” (p. 254). Cf. n. 23 there on Rilke's membership in a group of similar-minded pastoral composers. This concept of crafting awaits substantive treatment relative to the poetry and poetics of Alcuin and I suggest it here simply to point up the sophistication implicit within Alcuin's verse.

  5. Scott offers a revision of Duemmler's text with a complete list of line sources and parallels in Alcuin as a Poet, p. 255. The poem appears in Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Poetarum Latinorum Medii Aevi, I, Berlin, 1881, p. 243-244. Godman, Alcuin's Poetic Style, p. 555-583, and his Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, Norman, 1985, p. 124-125, are recent and sound editions of this poem.

  6. This reminds of the lyrics of Sappho and Catullus in its sophistication and power, particularly Catullus 51 and the Sapphic original of which it is a translation. On these and the idea of distance see now W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry, Berkeley-London, 1983, p. 38 ff. and 108 ff.

  7. All texts of Virgil are from R. A. B. Mynors, P. Vergili Maronis Opera, Oxford, 1969.

  8. According to my perusal of H. H. Warwick, A Vergil Concordance, Minneapolis, 1975.

  9. On these lines see A. S. Pease, Notes on Ancient Grafting in TAPA [Transactions and Proceedings. American Philological Association] 64, 1933, p. 66-76; D. O. Ross Jr., Non Sua Poma: Varro, Virgil, and Grafting in Illinois Classical Studies 5, 1980, p. 63-71, and especially p. 65-68, and n. 6 and his book, Virgil's Elements: Physics and Poetry in the Georgics, Princeton, 1987, p. 110, and generally p. 104-109, and R. F. Thomas, Tree Violation and Ambivalence in Virgil in TAPA 118, 1988, p. 261-273, and on grafting specifically p. 271-273.

  10. I take the catalogue, for the most part, from Brooks Otis' careful consideration of the Georgics in his Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry, Oxford, 1966, p. 148-153.

  11. I follow G. B. Miles, Virgil's Georgics: A New Interpretation, Berkeley-London, 1980, p. 141-142. Cf. M. C. J. Putnam, Virgil's Poem of the Earth: Studies in the Georgics, Princeton, 1979, p. 101 ff., and E. Winsor Leach, Georgics 2 and the Poem in Arethusa 14, 1981, p. 35 ff.

  12. Green is an important color in book 6 of the Aeneid, in the second Georgic, and in the cell poem, and its play in the tone and meaning of these poems could form a study unto itself. Anchises is found by Aeneas penitus conualle uirenti (v. 679), thereby linking a dominant color of both Georgics 2 and O mea cella to the idea of discovery and revelation for Aeneas at Aeneid 6.

  13. Miles, Virgil's Georgics, p. 164.

  14. Ibid., p. 165.

  15. On the ways which problems in the Georgics are meditated on in the Aeneid see W. R. Johnson, The Broken World: Virgil and His Augustus in Arethusa 14, 1981, p. 49-56, and especially p. 52 ff.

  16. That is, as a poet concerned with the paradoxes and anxieties of last things; cf. Purg. II.

Mark Damien Delp (essay date 1992-93)

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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 able to acknowledge is that Alcuin was a great teacher and introduced important new material (such as the Pseudo-Augustinian Categoriae decem) to his contemporaries. On the contrary, however, Alcuin made important interpretations of his sources in De dialectica, and incorporated these interpretations in later anti-adoptionist treatises and letters.3 Thus, far from being an isolated compendium with a narrow educational purpose, De dialectica remained a useful reference work for Alcuin in his later years.

In his De dialectica Alcuin for the most part quite carefully follows source texts by either quoting verbatim or paraphrasing; and yet he also often uses and transforms select logical material for theological ends. For example, Alcuin usually defines substantia in terms of the secondary or universal substance of Categoriae decem: “definition begins from the primary breadth (latitudo) of substance, since whatever is found in nature can be called ‘substance.’”4Substantia, therefore, is defined as being latius or more inclusive than any of its specifications.

The comparative adverb latius, however, signifies more than mere logical generality for Alcuin, for—after paraphrasing Boethius' De differentiis topicis, wherein “the term ‘justice’ is greater than ‘person’ because it extends further (latius patet)”5—Alcuin gives his own example of the meaning of latius. Charlemagne exclaims:

It is amazing to me how an accident can be greater than a substance. A. What do you think: is the candle or the light that shines from it greater or better? C. The light of course. A. And isn't light an accident of the candle, and the candle a substance? C. It is, and now I recognize that the accident in it can be greater and better than the substance.6

In this example, Boethius' strictly logical adverb specifying the degree of generality becomes for Alcuin a metaphysical statement specifying the quality of being: major becomes synonomous with melius. For Alcuin, therefore, the value and meaning of substances and accidents can change depending on the theological context. Fire, with all its biblical connotations, is clearly superior to the candle of which it is predicated; but there can obviously be nothing that is latius in relation to the substantia of God.

It is precisely in considering God's special substance that Alcuin makes some of his most daring interpretations of his sources in De dialectica. For example, in coming to terms with God's sharing the commune nomen of substantia with the rest of creation, Alcuin makes the theological transition from a substance that possesses accidents to a supreme substance that is identical to its accidents. In section 973B of De dialectica Alcuin says to Charlemagne:

For every nature … can be called a substance, such as homo. And something happens to every nature except God alone, as heat in the human body, discipline in the soul. C. Does not goodness, justice and the other virtues happen to God? A. Goodness and justice do not happen to him, but he himself is Goodness and Justice, and the same must be thought concerning the other virtues.7

In a contrasting passage in section 967A-D Alcuin uses the mode of definition he calls privantia to speculate on the negativity of God's substantia:

Again, there is a definition by way of privation to the effect that, if one asks what a substance is, one receives the answer that it is neither quality, nor quantity, nor any kind of accident; for God can in every way be understood in terms of this kind of definition; for we can in no way comprehend what God is … but according to the philosophers he must be defined in terms of that which he is not.8

This rendering of substantia corresponds closely to the definition of primary usia in Categoriae decem, where the usia that cannot be defined has no genus or species, sustains all things, and is better (potior) than the secondary or generic substances precisely because it is “neither in the subject nor signified of the subject.”9

Therefore, in coming to terms with God as a substantia, Alcuin makes his own most daring interpretations of the term. The substance God becomes at once latius than any other substance, identical with its accidents, and in the final analysis definable only by negation. Therefore, although he closely parallels Boethius' De differentiis topicis and especially Categoriae decem, Alcuin none-theless ends up drawing conclusions of the most abstract kind in the area of theology.

Far from being ad hoc changes of his sources, Alcuin's interpretations of logical terms such as substance in De dialectica are both quoted and developed in his later writings. A good example of his consistent dialectical development is his letter to Arno, Bishop of Salisburg (dateable to around 80210), in which Alcuin contrasts substantia with essentia, a term not found in De dialectica. “[I]t must be known that essence is properly spoken of God who ‘always is that which He is,’ who said to Moses, ‘I am who am.’ For God alone ‘is’ entirely, because He is unchangeable …”11 Alcuin uses the term essentia here to describe pure being as opposed to the conditioned being of substantia, which he defines as “the common name of all things that are … all living things whatsoever are called substances.”12 Here the definition of substantia matches its definition in De dialectica: “Whatever belongs to natural things can be called substance.”13 Next, by means of a short syllogism, Alcuin proves that God is also a substantia: “For that which is not a substance is nothing all, therefore a substance is ‘to be something.’ Therefore God is a substance.”14 Up to this point Alcuin seems to have given mutually exclusive definitions of God: the first defines him as an eternal essence free from the mutability of accidents; the second defines him as a substance in the sense of a commune nomen like the moon or the sky, merely because he exists. Alcuin then finishes his syllogism, however, by incorporating the definitions of both essentia and substantia, thus qualifying the special way in which God exists: “And He is the highest substance (summa substantia) and the first substance (prima substantia) and the cause of all substances, because he is creator of all things.”15

Of special interest here is the juxtaposition of prima substantia and summa substantia which is so conspicuously lacking in De dialectica. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Alcuin referred to his own text on dialectic when writing this letter, for further on in the same letter he quotes himself verbatim in the context of a discussion of the Trinity: “for substance is so-called because it subsists.”16 The source is De dialectica, section 954D, where Charlemagne asks: “What is the source of the word “substance”? A. Substance is so called, because it subsists as does each nature in its own property.”17

Other traces of Alcuin's early dialectical work appear in his De trinitate ad Fredegisum Quaestiones XXVIII (circa 802), where he briefly discusses substance and its signification. When Charlemagne asks why, since we say there are three Persons in the Trinity, do we not say tres omnipotentes, nec tres magnos, and so forth, Alcuin responds:

Because God is omnipotent, great, good, and eternal, these are substantial names, and are directed toward God himself: therefore one is not permitted to say them in terms of a plural number, but in terms of the singular, and every name that signifies the substance or essence of God must always be cited in terms of a singular number.”18

The definition here of God's “substance or essence” corresponds closely with Alcuin's quotation of Categoriae decem in De dialectica 961A: “For it is proper to usia that it be singular and one in number, … as for example, a single person is an usia and of one number …”19

Furthermore, in Question 7 of Quaestiones ad Fredegisum Alcuin discusses relativa nomina and the category of ad aliquid in much the same language as his paraphrase of Categoriae decem in De dialectica 959A-B. In the Quaestiones ad Fredegisum he says:

According to dialectic, names are relative which are referred to some other thing, just as lord is referred to servant, and servant to lord, father to son and son to father. In short, when I say father, I simultaneously signify son, since there is no father without a son to whom he may be a father. Again, there is no son without a father to whom he may be a son.20

In De dialectica Alcuin phrases the issue as follows:

Therefore ad aliquid is said precisely when that which is joined is found during a single occurance or a single passing away, as for example servant and lord, both either exist simultaneously, or do not exist simultaneously. Therefore when you say lord, the servant necessarily exists; and when you take the lord away, neither does the servant appear.21

The use of the comparison servus/dominus to illustrate the category of ad aliquid is ubiquitous in Alcuin's theological writings and is a commonplace in Latin patristic writings on the Trinity. In this case, however, Alcuin's theological writings are the source for his De dialectica. For example, in the letter of the Frankish bishops on the occasion of the Council of Frankfurt, which possibly antedated De dialectica, Alcuin says:

If, therefore, the Son of God was conceived as God immediately from the moment of his conception, when was there a time when the man was without God, in which case he would become an adopted son? For just as there was never a time when God the Father was without God the Son, … so also there was never a time when the man Jesus was without God … For just as Arius separates the Son from the Father by saying, “There was a time when he was not Son of God,” so also you all separate the man Christ from God the Son through adoption.”22

In De dialectica Alcuin uses the same illustration of Arius' heresy to embellish the logical category of ad aliquid:

And such is the case concerning the Father and the Son. And therefore in view of this rule of category the stupid blindness of Arius and his friends is to be marveled at, or rather pitied. For they assert that the Son comes after the Father in time, while it is certainly the case according to dialectic that the Father is cosempiternal simultaneously with the Son. And if God the Father is eternal … therefore the Son is also eternal according to the necessity of dialectical reason.”23

The example made of Arius and his friends becomes for Alcuin a kind of refrain in De dialectica, and provides us with an important example of the way in which Alcuin associated dialectic with polemical theological issues.

In his anti-adoptionist writings, Alcuin uses the term proprium perhaps more than any other common technical term, and the range of its use parallels its different senses in De dialectica. In general, he uses the term either to describe the relationship of the name “son of god” to the man Jesus Christ, or to describe the relationship of Christ himself to the Father. In the former case the name “son of god” belongs to the man Jesus Christ as a proprium in the technical sence of De dialectica 953D: a property separates the species “from any commonality with other species.” Indeed, Alcuin commonly uses the phrase ab omni aliarum … communione separari in his anti-adoptionist writings to make it clear that the name “son of god” is properly applied exclusively to Christ's substance or Person. Furthermore, in the passage following from Epistula ad Elipandum we find other examples of the technical meaning of proprium developed earlier in De dialectica:

The [Fathers] understand some names in Christ to be proper to God and other names to be significative (significativa); you should discern which thing belongs to which category. Proper names are in Christ: only-begotten, first-born, God, Son of God, and Lord Jesus Christ. Significative names are because of certain actions which have been fulfilled in him: lion, stone, sheep, calf, worm, and many other things which must be discerned by reason.24

In this passage, Alcuin allows for the possibility of many proprietates for Christ, all of which serve to distinguish his substantia or Person from all others.25 On the other hand, the significativa nomina do not designate his substance strictly speaking, but rather his acts, and thus define indirectly what he is.

The distinction between defining a substantia in terms of properties on the one hand, or in terms of acts on the other hand, is found in De dialectica 967A-B. There Alcuin distinguishes between the definition “that demonstrates the substance of any proper nature”26 on the one hand, and the definition that “signifies a person's act, not the substance”27 on the other. The propria nomina in Epistula ad Elipandum are clearly meant to apply to Christ and Christ alone among men. The significativa nomina on the other hand are meant in the looser sense as having some special and, in this case, symbolic relationship to Christ's substantia. The propria nomina, in other words, define him by his substantia, whereas the significativa nomina define him by his actus.

Two other dialectical themes in De dialectica recur in Alcuin's later theological writings. In De dialectica 963D Alcuin discusses species of contrariety wherein the question arises whether evils are ever opposed to evils. Alcuin answers:

This is the case according to the philosophers, who have said that virtues are always middles (media), and that they have vices on either side. And it seems to me that the Apostle has signified this when he says: “We must walk the royal path (via regia) leaning neither to the right nor the left,” as for example more just or less just.28

Although the via regia is a ubiquitous theme in Alcuin's writings,29 it is often found in the more dialectical passages of Alcuin's anti-adoptionist works, although with a clever twist: whereas in De dialectica Alcuin uses the biblical analogy to illustrate the correct medium between two negative extremes of a virtue, in the context of the adoptionist controversy the via regia becomes the total rejection of a medium between truth and falsity.

In a letter to the monks at Metz Alcuin admonishes them to follow the via regia concerning the definition of proprium and adoptivum: “Follow the open road of Apostolic doctrine, and lean neither to the right nor to the left of the royal path when confronted with the byways (diverticula) of any novelty.”30 The diverticula cuiuslibet novitatis is of course the word adoptivum, which in turn has for Alcuin become almost synonomous with falsity.

The via regia is also used in the context of another common logical motif in Alcuin's anti-adoptionist writings, the difference between homo verus and homo pictus, which was originally quoted verbatim in De dialectica from Categoriae decem to illustrate the species of names called omonyma and similitudo:

Homonyms occur when two things receive a common name, but are separated by the interpretation of the thing, as for example a picture of a person (homo pictus) and a true person (homo verus). For there is one name in these things, but the reason or interpretation is different” (ratio … vel interpretatio diversa).31

Again, in 955D:

An example of a similitude is when homo pictus and homo verus are joined in similitude only.32

The comparison of homo pictus and homo verus, however, becomes in Alcuin's anti-adoptionist writings synonomous with the comparison adoptivum and proprium, or with the comparison non verum and verum.33

In Epistula ad Gundradam, discussed in more detail below, Alcuin plays with the notion of the medium in the context of the contrarietates of verum et non verum on the one hand, and homo verus et homo pictus on the other hand.

It must be asked (interrogandum est) what is the middle between true and not true according to the dialectical art, if one person can be both a true person and a picture of a person, who is not a true person. If one responds that it is not possible, it must be inferred (inferendum est) that neither in Christ, who is one person, can there be both true and not true in two natures, but rather whatever is in him is true, because he himself is completely God and completely Son of God and the truth in him is complete and he has no illusion in himself.34

Clearly, the contrarietas of homo pictus and homo verus, originally meant to illustrate the variety of verbal predication, is here transformed into an effective polemical tool, forcing the opponent to identify homo verus with proprium filium, and homo pictus with adoptivum filium, which in turn becomes a figmentum if applied to Christ. Ironically, to follow the via regia in the context of Alcuin's anti-adoptionist writings is precisely to acknowledge that there is no medium between proprium and adoptivum.

Perhaps Epistula ad Gundradam (c. 800-802) is the single most important illustration of the character and continuity of Alcuin's dialectical development. Showing clear signs in this short letter of borrowing from his own De dialectica, Alcuin first defines the term proprium in the context of the adoptionist controversy, and then proceeds to list in skeletal form most of the syllogisms used in his anti-adoptionist treatises and letters. What is most striking about the letter is that his list of syllogisms, which he calls interrogationes, takes a question-and-answer format that anticipates the scholastic method of quaestiones.35 Alcuin begins each question with the formula, interrogandum est, and then breaks down the main question into subsidiary questions, each of which he anwers with the formula inferendum est. Finally, he resolves the issue by a final objection which shows the error or absurdity of the earlier questions.

Epistula ad Gundradam indicates how far Alcuin had developed both his dialectical knowledge as well as his technique in communicating this still new discipline to his students. It is no accident, however, that this most condensed collection of syllogisms found in Alcuin's writings confronts the major issues of the adoptionist controversy. Since the letter was written only slightly later than Alcuin's most dialectical anti-adoptionist treatise, Septem Libri contra Felicem, which was composed in preparation for his first and only debate with Felix at the Council of Achen, it is likely that Alcuin was preparing for Gundrada a condensed outline of syllogisms originally worked out in the rigor of that same debate with Felix.36 In contrast to the years between his composition of the Frankish Synodica of 794 and his subsequent Libellus against Felix of 798, when the quoting of authorities clearly took precedence over dialectical argumentation, debate at the Council of Achen of 799 would have provided an occasion for Alcuin to introduce dialectical argumentation on a scale not seen before in his or his opponent's letters or treatises. Thus, since Alcuin's letter educates Gundrada in the art of dialectic precisely by means of a small arsenal of dialectical responses to the full range of adoptionist positions as Alcuin saw them, it can be viewed as a dialectical microcosm of Alcuin's engagement with his adoptionist opponents. In many ways, therefore, Epistula ad Gundradam fulfills Alcuin's declaration in his well-known letter to Charlemagne, introducing De fide, of the necessity of dialectical argumentation in seeking theological truths.37

With these few examples from Alcuin's De dialectica, it becomes clear that, by using and re-using the material in his De dialectica, Alcuin engages in an on-going glossing of his authorities, and in the process achieves a continuity of thought that has not been noticed by modern scholars. In order, therefore, to get a clear idea of Alcuin as both a master and practitioner of dialectic, his dialectical writings must be viewed as a whole, and in light of his entire theological corpus, rather than piecemeal, and on the basis of individual texts alone. It is to be hoped that the difficulty of evaluating an author who patches together verbatim quotations to the degree that Alcuin does will not dissuade scholars from taking a closer look at Alcuin's De dialectica.


  1. Carl Prantl, Geschichte der Logik im Abendland (Leipzig, 1927), I, 17; Prantl describes Alcuin's citations from Boethius' De differentiis topicis as “eine armselige Auswahl einiger Beispiele von hypothetischen Schlüssen, welche Boethius dort entwickelt …”

  2. A. van de Vyver, “Les étapes du développement philosophique du Haut Moyen-Age,” Revue belge de philosophie et d'histoire, 8 (1929), 431: “Si le De dialectica est considéré avec raison comme le plus médiocre traité d'Alcuin, c'est que son époque ne possédait encore qu'une connaissance bien rudimentaire de la logique. Par le nombre et l'importance de ses sources—le premier usage des commentaires de Boèce au Moyen-Age—on doit continuer à reconnaître au maître du Palais le rôle d'initiateur, en logique plus encore que dans d'autres domaines.”

  3. AIthough it is not possible to date De dialectica precisely, it is generally agreed that it was written no later than c. 796-797, which is the approximate date of the De rhetorica, the text most closely associated with De dialectica in the manuscript tradition. See Max Manitius, Geschichte der lateinischen Literatur tea Mitelalters 1 (1911), 282-283; and Donald Bullough, “Alcuin and the Kingdom of Heaven,” in Carolingian Essays: Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in Early Christian Studies, ed. Uta-Renate Blumenthal (Washington D.C: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1983), p. 37.

  4. De dialectica: PL 101,966: a latitudine substantiae primo haec incipit diffinitio; quia quidquid naturarum est, substantia dici potest.

  5. Ibid., 965A-C: [I]deo major terminus justitia est quam homo, quia latius patet. See Boethius, De differentiis topicis: PL 64,1175C. According to Van de Vyver, p. 431, there is no question of Alcuin's having used Boethius' text, but rather a lengthy citation from Boethius' text in the second redaction of Cassiodorus' Institutiones: PL 70,1176A-1177D, which Alcuin popularized. For this to be the case, however, one would have to explain why Alcuin paraphrases a passage from Boethius' text that is not in Cassiodorus' citation of the De differentiis topicis:

    De differentiis topicis, 1176: Conditionalium vero propositionum, quas Graeci hypotheticas vocant partes, sunt simplices propositiones, cujus quidem ea pars quae prius dicitur antecedens, quae posterius consequens appellatur, ut in hac propositione quae dicit: si rotundum est, volubile est. Rotundum esse antecedit, volubile esse consequitur.

    De dialectica, 965C: A. Sunt enim aliae propositiones argumentorum hypotheticae, id est, conditionalis. C. Quomodo conditionales? A. Quibus conditio aliqua supponitur; et sunt duplices, hoc modo, ut Omnis homo, si bonus est, justus est; ita tandem justus est homo, si bonitatem habet. Item: Coelum, si rotundum est, volubile est; ita tandem [Coelum] volubile est, si rotundum est.

    Since Van de Vyver gives no reason for the inaccessibility of the De differentiis topicis to Alcuin, I suggest that, because of the above close paraphrase of a portion of Boethius' text not in the Institutiones, one may assume that Alcuin could have had access to Boethius' text as well as Cassiodorus'.

  6. Ibid., 965B: C. Mirum mihi est, quomodo accidens major sit quam substantia. A. Quid enim, candela vel lux, quae de candela emicat, major vel melior? C. Utique lux. A. Nonne lux accidens est candelae, et candela substantia est? C. Est, et agnosco in eo accidens posse esse substantia melius et majus.

  7. Ibid., 973B: A. Nam omne nomen aliquid significat, visible vel invisibile, substantiale vel accidens. C. [Quomodo substantiale, vel accidens]? A. Omnis enim natura, quae substantia dici potest; ut homo. Et omni igitur naturae, praeter Dei solius, aliquid accidit; ut homini in corpore calor, in animo disciplina C. Nunquid non Deo accidit bonitas, justitia, et caeterae virtutes? A. Non accidit ei bonitas et justitia; sed [Al., quia] ipse est bonitas et justitia: ita est de aliis virtutibus sententiendum est. See Alcuin's De fide sanctae et individuae trinitatis: PL 101,24B, for a quotation very similar to this one. The quotation in the De fide is taken from the Ps. Augustine, De locutione divina: PL 67,l256.

  8. Idem.,967C-D: [I]tem fit diffinitio quaedam per privantiam, ut si quaeratur quid sit substantia, dicatur quod neque qualitas est neque quantitas, neque aliquod accidens; hoc enim genere diffinitionis et Deus utcunque intelligi potest; dum enim, quid sit Deus, nullo modo comprehendere valeamus, id est, naturam ejus, ut est, nullus effari potest; sed ex eo, quod non est, secundum philosophos, definiendus est; ut si dicamus: Deus neque corpus est, neque animal, neque ullum elementum, neque sensus noster, neque intellectus, neque aliquid, quod ex his capi possit.

  9. Ps. Augustine Categoriae decem, in ed. L. Minio-Paluello, Aristoteles Latinus I,1-5 (Bruges, 1961), p. 146: … neque in subiecto est neque de subiecto significatur.

  10. This letter to Arno should probably be dated closer to 802 rather than earlier, since his statement that God should properly be called essence closely matches his statement in the De fide: PL 101,24: Cui profecto ipsum esse, unde essentia nominata est, maxime ac verissime competit.

  11. MGH [Monumenta Germanide Historica] Epp. 4, no. 148, p. 426: Quod vero me interrogare vestram sancitatem placuit, quid sit inter substantiam, essentiam et subsistentiam? aut si dici fas sit sanctam Trinitatem esse naturam, sciendum est, quod essentia proprie de Deo dicitur, qui semper est, quod est, qui Moysi ait: Ego sum, qui sum. Deus enim solus fere est, quia incommutabilis est; quicquid enim mutabile est, quodammodo vere non est, quia esse poterit, quod non est, vel non esse, quod est.

  12. Ibid.: Substantia vero commune est nomen omnium rerum, quae sunt: caelum, sol, tuna, terra, arbores, herbae, animalia viventia quaeque, homines etiam, substantiae dicuntur.

  13. De dialectica: PL 101,966D: [Q]uidquid naturarum est, substantia dici potest.

  14. MGH Epp. 4, no. 148, p. 426: [Nam] quod nulla substantia est, nihil omnino est, substantia ergo aliquid esse est. Deus igitur substantia est.

  15. Ibid.: [E]t summa substantia et prima substantia, et omnium substantiarum causa, quia omnium rerum creator est.

  16. Ibid., p. 427: … nam substantia dicitur, quia subsistit.

  17. De dialectica: PL 101,954D: Substantia dicitur, quia subsistit, ut est unaquaeque natura in sua proprietate.

  18. De trinitate ad Fredegisum quaestiones XXVIII: PL 101,59C: Quia Deus et omnipotens, et magnus, et bonus, et aeternus, substantialia nomina sunt, et ad se dicuntur: ideo non licet ea plurali numero dicere, sed singulari; et omne nomen, quod substantiam Dei vel essentiam significat, semper singulari numero proferendum est. Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus sanctus, relativa sunt nomina, et ideo tres personae recte dicuntur.

  19. De dialectica: PL 101,961A: Nam usiae proprium est, ut sit singularis atque una numero, … ut puta, homo singularis usia est atque unius numeri … See Categoriae decem, p. 164.

  20. De trinitate ad Fredegisum quaestiones XXVIII: PL 101,59D: Secundum dialecticam relativa nomina sunt, quae ad aliud aliquid referuntur, sicut dominus ad servum, et servus ad dominum, pater ad filium, et filius ad patrem. Prorsus cum dico Pater, Filium [simul] signifo, quia non est Pater nisi Filius sit cui sit Pater. Item non est Filius nisi sit Pater cui sit Filius.

  21. De dialectica: PL 101,959A: Tunc ergo et vere et proprie ad aliquid dicitur, cum sub uno ortu atque occasu et id quod jungitur, invenitur; ut puta, servus et dominus, utrumque vel simul est, vel simul non est. Etenim cum dominum dixeris, necessario existet et servus; cum vero dominum tuleris, nec servus apparet.

  22. MGH Concilia 2, 1, 155: Si igitur mox a tempore conceptionis verus Deus Dei filius conceptus est, quando fuit, ut homo esset sine Deo, unde adoptaretur in filium? Sicut enim numquam fuit, ut Deus pater esset sine Deo filio, de quo dictum est: In principio erat verbum, ita numquam fuit, ut homo Iesus esset sine Deo … Sicut enim Arrius filium separavit a patre dicendo: Erat, quando non erat Dei filius, ita per adoptionem vos separatis hominem Christum a Deo filio. See Luitpold Wallach, Alcuin and Charlemagne, Studies in Carolingian History and Literature (Ithaca, NY, 1959), p. 147 ff., for the dating of the letter to 794, and its attribution to Alcuin.

  23. Ibid., 959B: Ita de patre et filio. Ac ideo secundum hanc categoriae regulam miranda est Arii, vel magis miseranda, et ejus quoque sociorum stulta caecitas; asserentes Filium secundum tempus Patri esse posteriorem. Dum omnino constat secundum dialecticam simul consempiternum esse Filium cum Patre. Et si Deus Pater … aeternus est, utique et Filius aeternus est secundum dialecticae rationis necessitatem.

  24. MGH Epp. 4, no. 166, p. 273: [I]ntelligentes alia nomina in Christo deo propria esse, alia significativa; et discernite, quid cui rei conveniat. Propria nomina sunt in Christo: unigenitus, primogenitus, deus, Dei filius, et dominus Iesus Christus. Significativa nomina sunt propter quasdam actiones, quae conplete sunt in illo: leo, lapis, ovis, vitulus, vermis, et alia plurima quae ratione discernenda sunt.

  25. Alcuin should be excused here for the ambiguity in his use of the term substance. His intent is more logical than theological insofar as he is working from the logical notion of substance in relation to accidents, rather than from the technical, Trinitarian meaning of the term. His purpose is to differentiate Christ from other men, and not from the other Persons of the Trinity.

  26. De dialectica: PL 101,967A-B: … quae substantiam cuiuslibet naturae propriae demonstrat …

  27. Ibid.: … actum hominis significat, non substantiam.

  28. Ibid., 963C-D: Etiam secundum philosophos, qui virtutes semper medias esse dixerunt, et ex utraque parte habere vitia. Et hoc reor Apostolum significasse, dum dicit via regia nobis gradiendum, neque ad dexteram, neque ad sinistram declinandum: ut plus justum, et minus justum.

  29. See Luitpold Wallach, Alcuin and Charlemagne, Studies in Carolingian History and Litterature (Ithaca, NY, 1959), pp. 67-72.

  30. MGH Epp. 4, no. 137, p. 211: Per apostolicae doctrinae publicam pergite stratam, nec per diverticula cuiuslibet novitatis in dexteram vel in sinistram a via regia declinate.

  31. Ibid.,955B: Omonyma sunt, cum suae res commune accipiunt nomen, rei vero interpretatione separantur; ut, homo pictus et homo verus. In his namque unum nomen est, ratio vero vel interpretatio diversa. See Categoriae decem, p. 135.

  32. Ibid.,955D: Similitudo, ut homo pictus et verus sola in similitudine copulantur … See Categoriae decem, p. 136.

  33. See Luitpold Wallach, “Libri Carolini and Patristics,” in The Classical Tradition, Literary and Historical Studies in Honor of Harry Caplan, L. Wallach ed., (Ithaca Cornell Univ. Press 1966), p. 457, for a comparison of the opposition homo pictushomo verus in Alcuin's De dialectica and the Libri Carolini. Wallach also discusses other logical terminology that the two texts share. See also Donald Bullough, p. 37, n. 80, for a criticism of Wallach's view that the Categoriae decem influenced the author of the Libri Carolini through the medium of Alcuin's De dialectica.

  34. MGH Epp. 4, no. 204, p. 339: quid sit medium inter verum et non verum secundum artem dialecticam, interrogandum est, si una persona possit esse homo verus et homo pictus, qui est non verus homo. Si dicit, non posse, inferendum est nec in Christo, qui est una persona, in duabus naturis verum esse potest et non verum, sed quicquid in eo est, verum est, quia ipse totus est Deus et totus verus filius Dei et tota veritas in eo est et nihil habet figmenti in se.

  35. Ibid., p. 338: Quia novi prudentiam vestram optime in dialecticis subtilitatibus eruditam esse, placuit paucas interrogationes dialecticae disciplinae huic nostrae cartulae iniungere, quibus evacuari possit adsertio adoptionis vel nuncupationis in Christo.

  36. See Bullough, p. 54-55.

  37. MGH Epp. 4, no. 257: [N]ecnon, ut convincerem eos, qui minus utile aestimabant vestram nobilissimam intentionem dialecticae disciplinae discere velle rationes, quas beatus Augustinus in libris de sancta Trinitate ad prime necessarias esse putavit, dum profundissimas de sancta Trinitate quaestiones, non nisi categoriarum subtilitate explanari posse probavit.

John William Houghton (essay date 1992-93)

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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 Franks “with olive oil from head to foot,” i.e., that the Bishop of Rome did not even know the proper form for anointing a Roman emperor.2 The Chapel which Odo of Metz designed for Charlemagne's palatium at Aachen invites, by its borrowings of plan and material, a comparison with its models, San Vitale in Ravenna and the chrysotriklinos, the imperial throne room in Constantinople; but today, as in the ninth century, such a comparison easily suggests that the Franks were not up to the task they set for themselves. Even modern scholars of the Carolingian period often find themselves assessing the Carolingians as derivative and unoriginal, mere compilers inferior to their sources. At one recent conference of medievalists, a speaker referred to the careful weaving of patristic materials by Hrabanus Maurus only to have the moderator respond, “Let's just call compilers compilers.” While neither of them gives an unnuanced assessment, Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe and Donald Bullogh illustrate the two positions (careful weaving or mere compilation) in their comments on Alcuin's Interrogationes (PL C,515-566). Investigation of two passages where Alcuin draws on both Bede and Augustine gives us a further insight into Alcuin's method, and helps to show him as weaver rather than compiler.

O'Keeffe compares Alcuin's work to Bede's; the latter writer, she seems to say, is a weaver, the former, a compiler.3 O'Keeffe first analyzes some typical examples of the several instances in which Alcuin quotes, either verbatim or in an edited form, statements from Bede's De natura rerum and In Genesim. Then she considers cases in which Alcuin differs with Bede's interpretation; finally, she examines instances in which Alcuin's quotations from Augustine can be shown to derive, in fact, from Bede's use of Augustine's commentaries.4 Bede's exposition, she says, strikes us as the more valuable, “an integrated work” with “careful structure and rhetoric.” In Alcuin's favor, O'Keeffe notes that his method of quotation results in “a commentary wholly orthodox, but bearing still the impress of his thought.”5 These favorable remarks must be taken, however, in the light of an earlier observation:

Bede's carefully structured commentary … is in marked contrast to Alcuin's Interrogationes. Seemingly an assemblage of various facts about Genesis, Alcuin's commentary has, in its own way, a distinct character with a rudimentary order and unifying concerns and interests.6

This is hardly a condemnation, but the contrast of “rudimentary order” to “careful structure” puts Alcuin distinctly in second place.7 The underlying scale of comparison in O'Keeffe's judgment is one of form: for her, Bede's work excels Alcuin's in terms of unity. Bede's work has careful structure and integrity, whereas Alcuin's is a compilation, with, certainly, a distinct character, but only a rudimentary order, unified in its concerns and interests and in the impress of its author's thought.

A different assessment of Alcuin's questions and answers is implicit in Bullogh:

Even when Alcuin uses sentences or phrases taken from earlier authors—principally but hardly exclusively Augustine—without change or with minor changes to expound his Genesis text, the context in which they occur and the adaptations (however slight) commonly have the effect of altering the sense of the source commentary.8

This “alteration of sense” in fact constitutes a new whole. An anthology might display a rudimentary order and bear the impress of its compiler's thought, as the Oxford Book of English Verse displayed the character of Quiller-Couch; but to give quoted material a new sense is to make a new thing, with its own integrity.

Consideration of two further examples of Alcuin's sources confirms O'Keeffe's account of his methods, but also suggests that we can, with Bullogh, be justified in bringing her contrast of Bede and Alcuin more closely into balance. Far from being a mere compilation, Alcuin's text in fact has a specific voice of its own. The first of these new examples is an instance of Alcuin quoting Augustine by way of paraphrasing Bede in Quaestio LXX. As O'Keeffe notes, tracing a paraphrase can be particularly difficult, but in this case, textual variants offer a shortcut to Alcuin's sources.9 The second example, Quaestio XXVIII, is a more complex case, in which Alcuin takes a position that differs materially from the ideas of Augustine and of Bede.


Quaestio XX reads:

Why, in their confusion, did they run to [MS, take refuge in] fig leaves (Gn 3:7)? Response—Because they had lost the glory of simple chastity, they fled the double itch of lust. [Thus the Lord Jesus said to Nathanael, “When you were under the fig, I saw you” (Jn 1:48), that is, when you were under the fig of original sin, I saw you in mercy and therefore I came down to set you free.]10

The three textual variants in this passage are clues to its sources. First, while the editio princeps of Molther has cucurrerunt, the reduplicative perfect form of currere, meaning simply “to run,” the two St. Emmerman MSS cited in Froben's Monitum Praevium (PL C,515-516) have concurrerunt, from concurrere, meaning at root “to run together, to concur,” but among many other extended senses, “to flee to, to take refuge in, to have recourse to.” Second, whereas the printed edition has the masculine ficulni, the MSS have the feminine, ficulneae. And, third, the manuscripts add the allegorical interpretation of Christ's words to Nathanael.

Simply on the level of sense, these variant readings seem somewhat more reasonable than the printed text. While there is no obvious reason why the fig tree which provided Adam's apron should have been female rather than male, it does make somewhat better sense to say that Adam and Eve resorted to fig leaves, rather than that they ran to fig leaves. In fact, the manuscript witness has clear parallels with Bede, who writes in In Genesim I, 1981-84:

Denique illa conturbatione ad folia ficulnea concurrerunt quae forte perturbati prima invenerunt, perizomata, id est succinctoria consuerunt. Et quia glorianda deseruerunt, pudenda texerunt.11

Then, in this turmoil, they had recourse to fig leaves (which were perhaps the first things they came upon in their confusion) to sew succinctoria, that is, aprons. And because they had abandoned the things which were to be gloried in, they covered the things of which they were ashamed.

We see in Bede's text both of the manuscripts' variant expressions, and, in addition, more distant verbal echoes such as conturbatione/ perturbati … turbati, or glorianda deseruerunt … gloriam amiserunt. It seems clear that Alcuin is here paraphrasing Bede. But, as is often the case, Bede himself is borrowing from Augustine's De Genesi ad litteram—specifically from XI,xxxii,42, the source of all the italicized words in the passage just quoted, including concurrerunt and ficulnea. The manuscripts variants, then, seem to be reliable witnesses to Alcuin's original text and his sources. It is difficult to imagine that a scribe would modify only two words out of a passage to make the text look more like Bede, and easy enough to believe that these two specific words might have been changed in transmission.

The interplay between Bede and Augustine bears upon the third textual variant in Quaestio LXX. In De Genesi ad litteram XI,xxxii,42, Augustine states his opinion that the fig leaves had no particular significance in themselves, but that the action of taking them and making the aprons was motivated by some deep instinct to draw attention to lust as a part of the penalty for sin. Bede quotes this opinion in full at In Genesim I,1985-89, but goes on to cite two mystical interpretations of the fig tree. The first of these allegories connects the tree with the fig under which Nathanael sat: though it is lowly in height, too fragile for work, too soft for use, and sterile in its fruit, the fig is more useful than the vine or the olive, for it overshadows the appealing desire for the delights of the world. Bede attributes this reading to Ambrose, but Jones, the modern editor, gives the despairing note, “Amb. ubi? ex florilegio siue glossulis?” The second figurative reading is identifiably from Ambrose's Paradise, though Jones indicates that Bede has quoted it via Augustine's Contra Julianum. This interpretation says that Adam should have girded himself with the fruit of chastity rather than with useless leaves.

Clearly, the manuscripts' indication of a Nathanael interpretation in Quaestio LXX fits with Alcuin's model in Bede, and we have already seen that the other two witnesses from manuscripts seem preferable to the printed text. One might argue that a later hand, recognizing Alcuin's use of Bede in the earlier part of the answer, has added the Nathanael tag to Alcuin's original response; but such a redactor would reasonably have gone on with the plan by giving a paraphrase of Bede's interpretation of the fig. Alcuin's actual reading, however, is not the Pseudo-Ambrosian one which Bede gives in In Genesim; rather, it is a paraphrase of Bede's own opinion, as stated in a homily on John.12 Moreover, we know that the Bedean homily was accessible to Alcuin, for he quotes from it at length, including this passage, in his own commentary on John (PL C,764C). The third manuscript variant, then, seems to be supported by external evidence, and points, as the earlier ones did, to the sources of Alcuin's paraphrase.

In Quaestio LXX, Alcuin has, in sum, followed Bede in the use of Augustine for the historical sense of the text, and followed Bede as well in rejecting Augustine's opinion (that the leaves have no figurative meaning) by connecting the passage in Genesis to a figurative reading of the one in John; but then he prefers the later Bede to the earlier by rejecting the Pseudo-Ambrosian interpretation for one of Bede's own. This is certainly a use of several sources, but it can hardly be labelled compilation.


The second Quaestio is number XXVIII:

What is signified by the name “heaven and earth,” when it is said, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth?” (Gn 1:1). Response—That unformed matter, which God made from nothing, was called heaven and earth: not because it was already that, but because it was already able to be that. For one reads that on the second day this starry heaven was made, and on the third day, earth appeared and began to be covered with flowers. Or, in the name “heaven and earth,” the spiritual and earthly creatures can be understood.13

The second of these possible answers is straightforward: heaven refers to the spiritual creatures, and earth to the terrestrial ones. The first answer is somewhat more involved. It depends upon the idea that in Genesis 1:2, Moses describes a stage in creation in which only unformed matter has been made. In answering Quaestio XIX (“How many modes of divine operation are there?”), Alcuin has already introduced this idea. He quotes and condenses the first section of Bede's De natura rerum: there are four modes: the eternal existence of things in the dispensation of the word of God, the simultaneous creation of things in unformed matter, the distinction of things through six days of creation, and the ongoing reformation of things in accord with the primordial seeds.14 By following Bede here, Alcuin has taken an anti-Augustinian path. Augustine, in De Genesi ad litteram, repeatedly teaches that the literal meaning of Genesis 1 is that God created all at once some things in their proper natures—such as the angels and the soul of Adam—and all other things in their seminal causes, which were either implanted in the appropriate element (e.g., the seminal cause of Adam's body in the earth) or reserved in God himself (in the case of miracles to come). This single simultaneous creation was revealed in a sixfold way to the angelic intelligences, and they praised God for what was revealed—this process of revelation and praise being the cycle of morning and evening. At the same time, as a seventh revelation, the angels also understood the stability of God as the unmoving transcendent in whom all creation is at rest. In this elaborate system, Augustine preserves the “all at once” character of creation which he finds in Genesis 2:4, “In the day in which God created heaven and earth,” and in Ecclesiasticus 18:1, “He who lives eternally created all things at the same time.” Augustine's reading also insists on the reality of the six- and seven-fold nature of creation and rest, though the repetitions in his system are not repetitions in time. (cf. De Genesi ad litteram V,xxiii,46, V,xxiv,35, VII,xxviii,42, etc.).

Bede specifically considers and rejects Augustine's reading in In Genesim, I,1250-1270, his argument being that if we are to read “day” at Genesis 2:4 in a non-literal sense, it is more congruent with scriptural usage to take “day” as meaning “a period of time” (Bede cites 2 Co 6:2, “Behold, now is the day of salvation”) than as meaning “the moment before all days of the world in which all things were created at once.” For Bede, then, there are two phases of creation: before time, the simultaneous creation in unformed matter, then in time, the works of the six days, beginning with the creation of light ex nihilo (De natura rerum II,2-3). Beryl Smalley points out that the divergence between Augustine and Bede on this issue was exploited throughout the medieval period: “Since Bede was immensely popular, exegetes could choose, if they had the courage, between his opinion and St. Augustine's. Arguments for and against the Creation simul are a normal part of the twelfth-century sentence book.”15 By using De natura rerum in Quaestio XIX, and referring to that same stage of unformed matter in Quaestio XXVIII, Alcuin has certainly shown the courage to choose Bede over Augustine; but in his further discussion of this unformed matter, Alcuin proves brave enough to strike out entirely on his own.

The unformed matter of this early stage of creation, Alcuin says, is called “heaven and earth” by anticipation: while it is not yet heaven and earth literally, the starry heaven will be made from it on the second day and the dry land on the third. Thus Moses calls the matter, still unformed, by the names it will deserve when it has been formed. This is quite different from Bede's reading of the text. For him, “heaven” refers here to the supernal heaven, the abode of angels, which is created in its perfection with God as its light: Bede notes that it is only the earth which is inanis et vacua (In Genesim I,34 ff.). “Earth,” on the other hand, does refer to unformed matter, for the earth, though it has the character which earth has even today when submerged, is at this point under water and unlighted, as succeeding verses of Genesis show (In Genesim I,41-120 and 400-05). Whereas in Bede heaven refers to the perfected angelic heaven and earth to the unformed matter, Alcuin takes “heaven and earth” together to refer to unformed matter, having in mind the starry heaven rather than the angelic.

Alcuin, then, has taken a position based in Bede's thought, but different from Bede's reading in its details. When Alcuin abandons one of his auctoritates, it is not unreasonable to suspect that he may have another patristic source at hand—the suspicion strengthened in this case by the fact that Alcuin's second explanation, that heaven and earth refer to two classes of creatures, is one of four proposed by Augustine in De Genesi ad litteram I,1. Augustine, as is his habit, begins his discussion of the literal meaning of Genesis by posing a barrage of questions and tentative answers: which of several possible senses of “in principio” should be understood? How can God produce temporal change while remaining eternal and immutable? What is meant by “heaven and earth?” To the last of these he proposes four answers, ringing the changes on two themes: whether the reference is to proper natures or unformed matter and whether it encompasses spiritual and corporeal creatures or only corporeal ones. Thus the four possibilities are that “heaven and earth” refers to:

(1) spiritual and corporeal creatures

(2) corporeal creatures only

(3) spiritual and corporeal unformed matter

(4) spiritual creatures in their perfection and unformed corporeal creatures

Possibility (4) is supported by the statement that earth was without form and void, though the reference to darkness over the face of the abyss might be understood with reference to spiritual substances, thus supporting the third position. After several chapters of discussion, Augustine settles (I,xvii,32) on the third position: “heaven and earth” refers to the unformed spiritual and corporeal matter, while “Let there be light” refers to the formation and illumination of the spiritual matter. The sequence, Augustine is at pains to point out, is merely narrative: matter cannot exist without form, and the angels are in fact formed in the very moment of the creation of their spiritual unformed matter.

Bede's reading, we may note in passing, is Augustine's fourth answer, which Augustine rejects because in saying that the angels are created in perfection and the world as unformed matter, it implies that such matter can exist without form, that there is some sequence between the instantaneous perfection of the angels and the perfecting of corporeal matter. Bede, whose formless matter seems less like the philosopher's hyle than the chemist's stock of elemental ingredients, has no objection to thinking of the temporal existence of such a substance.

Alcuin's second answer is the first of Augustine's rejected proposals: but his first response arrives at a permutation Augustine has not considered, by combining the reference to corporeal creatures only from possibility (2) with the idea of unformed matter from possibility (3) and possibility (4). In effect, Alcuin's reading is Augustine's possibility (4)—the same one used by Bede—with the angels stripped away.

Alcuin elaborates on this answer by explaining why it is true. … Moses refers to unformed matter in this circuitous way to point to what is to come from the mass. Curiously, this fillip is itself paraphrased from De Genesi ad litteram I,6, where Augustine writes: “Hence, in the very beginning of creation in its inchoate state, which has been called heaven and earth because of what was to be produced from it, it is the Blessed Trinity which represented as creating.”16 The parallel with Alcuin's expression is obvious: but in the original context, it is clear that Augustine's “what is to be produced” refers to more than Alcuin's starry heaven and dry earth. Augustine continues, “[we understand] by the name of principle the Son, who is the principle, not for the Father, but first and foremost for the spiritual beings he has created, and then also for all creatures.”17 For Augustine, “heaven and earth” anticipates “first and foremost” the spiritual beings, that is, the angelic heaven, not Alcuin's starry firmament. In his answer, Alcuin has taken up Augustine's insight into the rhetoric of Genesis, while leaving the saint's larger point behind.

This decontextualization of Augustine's insight is of a piece with the highly manipulated paraphrase we considered in Quaestio LXX. On O'Keeffe's evidence, both cases are typical of the treatment Alcuin gives Bede. O'Keeffe offers as an example Quaestio XLVI, where Alcuin's response is based on four lines from the very end of the passage in which Bede rejects Augustine's reading of Genesis:

The significance of the word “day” leads Bede to focus on the various ways “day” must be understood in order to comprehend Genesis 2:5. Alcuin ignores this issue of interpretation, shifting the emphasis to the speed of God's creation. In this way he uses Bede's words but gives his answer an entirely different point.18

In his explanation of the reason for calling unformed matter “heaven and earth,” Alcuin has gone even further, using Augustine's idea, if not his words, to make a point which is not merely different from, but actually antithetical to, Augustine's own views.


The integrity and unity by which O'Keeffe weighs Alcuin against Bede could be posited in the author's intention (“Did Alcuin mean to write a unified text, or merely a compilation?”)—or in the text itself, or in the audience's reaction (“Did Alcuin's intended readers see the Interrogationes as a unified text?”) The first of these points is both the hardest to know and, as a result, the least influential. Nonetheless, there are indications that Alcuin thinks of the work as his own, rather than as a report of the views of others. Within the Interrogationes, Alcuin shows that he is perfectly capable of citing his sources. He refers the reader to Jerome in Quaestio XXVII and Quaestio CCXLIII, and to Augustine in Quaestio CXV. He does not say why he does not offer similar citations for such questions as the ones we have been studying, but other parts of his work suggest an explanation. In the Libri septem contra Felicem, Alcuin argues from the principle that a writer cannot play havoc with a source and still claim the authority of the original writer. In Book VII, beginning at section v, Alcuin accuses Felix of making misleading citations by omitting words, adding words, or even changing one word to another in the texts of Athanasius, Augustine, and Ambrose.19 As we have seen, Alcuin is willing to employ any of these manipulations himself; but precisely by omitting citations, he refrains from claiming that his collage represents the thought of Bede or Augustine. Insofar as his intention can be divined, Alcuin seems to mean for us to take the Interrogationes as his thought, whatever the sources of the words in which that thought appears.

The integrity of Bede's text is reflected, for O'Keeffe, by its careful structure. We may observe from the start that while Alcuin's exposition certainly has some out-of-sequence questions (some of I-XXV, plus XCIII and XCIV), the greater part of the Interrogationes has precisely the same structural principle as Bede's In Genesim, that is, to comment on verses in the order in which they appear in the text. Of two hundred eighty questions in Alcuin's book, only about ten percent are out of place. There are other indications, however, of the integrity of the text. Some questions are, for example, syntactically or grammatically linked, as Quaestiones XXIII-XXIV, with the repetition of volubilis … volubile, or Quaestio XXVIII where illa materia apparently refers back to the first mention of prime matter in Quaestio XIX. The most prominent of these indicators of textual integrity is a result of that careful attitude toward sources which we have just discussed: precisely because its many quotations and paraphrases are not marked off and identified as such, Alcuin's text presents itself as a single voice. Indeed, contrary to Alcuin's practice in other question-and-answer texts, the Interrogationes is a monologue, not a dialogue: there are no characters here, neither Frank nor Saxon, Carolus nor Albinus.20 This emphatically single voice gives the exposition a fundamental unity, a basic textual integrity.

Authorial intention and textual characteristics might have led Alcuin's readers to take the Interrogationes as a unified whole: but Alcuin's freedom to distort and rework his sources would also have encouraged his intended audience to read his text as a single piece, rather than a compilation. His willingness to take Bede out of context, to replace the earlier Bede with the later, even to copy Augustine in the course of an anti-Augustinian remark, might go unnoticed by the rude reader for whom Bede had written. But Alcuin is explicitly writing for one who knows the fathers, the expert who cannot be bothered to carry some Carolingian version of Patrologia about with him, and wishes to have something to jog his memory. For such an erudite audience, the several instances of decontextualized, or even counter-contextualized, paraphrase and quotation will necessarily have the effect of recontextualizing all of Alcuin's borrowings by making them all his own. Even for a modern reader, much less accustomed to bearing in memory pieces of patristic commentary than any Carolingian scholar would have been, it is difficult to read more than a few sentences of Alcuin without thinking that one has seen this idea or that phrase somewhere before. But when one considers, on the one hand, the changes Alcuin has made to some of his “authoritative” texts, and, on the other, the overall structural integrity of his own work, one is forcibly reminded of the point already observed, that all of the discourse here is in Alcuin's own single voice.

The bronze of the lattice work in Charlemagne's palace chapel at Aachen is materially Roman, not Carolingian, and some of the lattice patterns are Roman as well; but other lattices show typical Northern interlace designs. In the midst of Odo of Metz's transformation—some would say, degradation—of late imperial architecture, all the screens, Roman and Northern alike, must be “read” in the Frankish architect's “voice,” not those of their first designers. So also with the patristic material incorporated into his own intellectual edifice by the master of Charlemagne's palace school: Alcuin's reworking of some of his patristic texts revalues all of them, appropriating all to his own discourse.


  1. I am indebted to John Cavadini and Mark Delp for advice on the ideas of this paper, and to the Episcopal Church Foundation for a fellowship which partially supported its preparation.

  2. The Chronicle of Theophanes, trans. Harry Turtledove (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), p. 155. For the interpretation of Theophanes' report as an insult, see Robert Folz, Le Couronnement impérial de Charlemagne (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), p. 194: “Le chroniqueur joint le sarcasme en racontant que le roi des Francs fut oint par Léon III de la tête aux pieds.” See also Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne, trans. Peter Munz (New York: Harper, 1964), p. 71, with references to earlier discussions.

  3. K. O. O'Keeffe, “The Use of Bede's Writings on Genesis in Alcuin's Interrogationes,Sacris Erudiri, 23 (1978-79), 463-83.

  4. In introducing her discussion of these secondary quotations, however, O'Keeffe notes that Alcuin was not driven to use Bede by some lack of Augustinian texts: “It is clear,” she says, “from Alcuin's use of these works that he had independent access to them (ibid., p. 476).

  5. Ibid., p. 480.

  6. Ibid., p. 468.

  7. As O'Keeffe points out, the assignment of Alcuin's work to an honorable second place only makes explicit what has been suggested before. She notes that Alcuin's question and answer form is a “time-honored, if time-worn, device” and cites G. Bardy, “La littérature patristique des ‘Quaestiones et Responsiones’ sur l'Ecriture Sainte,” Revue Biblique, 41 (1932), 210-36, 341-69; 42 (1933), 14-30, 211-39, 328-52; Alcuin, pp. 27-28, to support the opinion that by Alcuin's time, the form was merely “a vehicle for compilation” (ibid, p. 466).

  8. D. Bullogh, “Alcuin and the Kingdom of Heaven,” in Carolingian Essays, ed. Uta-Renate Blumenthal (Washington: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1983), p. 40.

  9. O'Keeffe, p. 473, n. 11.

  10. Inter. 70. Cur ad folia ficulni [Ms., ficulneae] turbati cucurrerunt [Ms., concurrerunt] (Gen. iii, 7)?—Resp. Quia gloriam simplicis castitatis amiserunt, ad duplicem libidinis pruriginem confugerunt. [Ideo Dominus Jesus dixit Nathanaeli: Cum esses sub ficu, vidi te (Joan. i,48), id est, cum esses sub ficu originalis peccati, per misericordiam vidi te, et ideo descendi liberate te.] PL C,523.

  11. Bedae Opera, Pars II, Opera Exegetica, 1, Libri quatuor in principium Genesis usque ad nativitatem Isaac et eiectionem Ismahelis adnotationum, ed. Ch. W. Jones. CCL 118a.

  12. Homelia I,xvii,201-10. Bedae Opera Pars III, CCL CXXII, 124-125. Bede says that the mystical sense of Jesus's remark “concerns the election of the spiritual Israel, that is, the Christian people, whom the Lord deigned to see in mercy when they had neither seen him nor been called by his apostles to the grace of faith, but were still hidden beneath the cover of concealing sin …” [super electione spiritalis Israhel, id est populi christiani, mystice intellegi quem dominus necdum se uidentem necdum per apostolos eius ad fidei gratiam uocatum sed sub tegimine adhuc peccati prementis abditum misericorditer uidere dignatus est …]

  13. “Quid in coeli terraeque nomine significatur, quando dicitur: In principio fecit Deus coelum et terram (Gn 1:1)?—Resp. Informis illa materia, quam de nihilo fecit Deus, appellata est primo coelum et terra: non quia jam hoc erat, sed quia jam hoc esse poterat. Nam secundo die coelum istud sidereum factum esse legitur, et tertio die terram apparuisse et vestiri floribus coepisse. Sive, in coeli et terrae nomine spirituales et terrenae creaturae intellegi possunt.” PL C,519.

  14. Inter. 19. Quot modis est in operatio divina?—Resp. Quatuor. Primo, quod in verbi [Dei] dispensatione omnia aeterna sunt. Secundo, quod in materia informi qui vivit in aeternum, creavit omnia simul (Si 18:1). Tertio, quod per opera dierum sex varias distinxit creaturas. Quarto, quod ex primordalibus seminibus non incognitae oriuntur naturae, sed notae saepius, ne pereant, reformantur.” PL C,519. Cf. Bede, De natura rerum I, “De Quadrifario Dei opere,” in Bedae Venerabilis Opera, Pars VI, Opera Didascalia, 1, ed. Ch. W. Jones. CCL CXXIIIa, 192. Compare, too, Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram V,12, where a threefold distinction is made between creation in the word of God, in the works of the six days, and in continuing temporal production: “Cum ergo aliter se habeant omnium creaturarum rationes incommutabiles in verbo dei, aliter eius illa opera, a quibus in die septimo requieuit, aliter ista, quae ex illis usque nunc operatur.” CSEL 28, pars 1, 155.

  15. B. Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1964), p. 132.

  16. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, S.J., Ancient Christian Writers 41 (New York: Newman, 1982), p. 25: “… in ipso exordio inchoatae creaturae, quae caeli et terrae nomine propter id, quod de illa perficiendum erat, commemorata est, trinitas insinuatur creatoris …” CSEL 28, pars 1, 10.

  17. Ibid.: “… intelligimus … filium in principii nomine, qui non patri, sed per se ipsum creatae primitus ac potissimum spiritali creaturae et consequenter et iam uniuersae creaturae principium est …”

  18. O'Keeffe, p. 471: It is not quite accurate to say that Alcuin “ignores the issue” of dies; in fact, he treats of it in Quaestio XLV, reducing Bede's twenty lines to five.

  19. PL CI,216 et seq. For example, VII.v begins, “De sancto Athanasio testimonium posuisti quod tuam sectam maxime destruit: et dum forte intelligeres quaedam in ejus testimoniis verba tuis sensibus contraria esse, omisisti in medio quae ait, ne contra te ipsum dicere videreris.”

  20. Cf. E. Ann Matter, “Alcuin's Question and Answer Texts,” Rivista di storia della filosofia, 45 (1990), 654: “In some sense, the presence of Sigulf is felt throughout, but the structure of the treatise, numbered questions set up as ‘Interrogatio/Responsio,’ is impersonal, lacking the characterization and exchange of voices we have seen in the Opera didascalica.

Martha Bayless (essay date 2002)

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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 include the answers, an omission that has provided happy occupation for decades of scholars. These two features—literary merit and mystery—also appear in what is perhaps a yet more remarkable riddle collection, the Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico of Alcuin.1 The Disputatio is unusual in that it intermingles prose riddles with wisdom literature; that, unlike all other examples of the form, it puts the dialogue in the mouths of contemporary interlocutors (one Alcuin, the other Pippin, the son of Charlemagne), and represents itself as conversation between them; and that, to a degree rarely seen in dialogues, it is playful, teasing and genuinely witty. For the most part, however, scholarship has ignored the Disputatio, and the text has yet to claim its rightful place as a remarkable reflection of the strength a dialogue could obtain in the hands of a master craftsman such as Alcuin.

The early medieval tradition of literary riddling was inspired by Symphosius (or Symposius), a Late Latin poet whose exact identity is uncertain.2 Symphosius' hundred riddles, each consisting of three verse lines, circulated widely in the medieval period; later riddle collections frequently rephrased those of Symphosius or simply borrowed riddles from him wholesale. The earliest surviving medieval collection is the Bern Riddles, apparently written in the seventh century by one Tullius, whose origins and provenance are not yet fully understood.3 Tullius, like Symphosius, wrote in verse; each riddle is six lines long. This period also saw a proliferation of riddle collections by Anglo-Latin writers. Latin riddle sequences were composed by the Anglo-Saxons Aldhelm (d. 709 or 710), Boniface (c.675-754), Tatwine (d.734) and Eusebius. Aldhelm's collection consisted of 100 verse riddles, varying in length, with an underlying theme of the wonders of creation, and culminating in an eighty-three-line riddle on ‘Creation’ itself.4 Boniface, missionary to Germany and author of a number of works, was the author of a strictly edificatory set of twenty riddles, ten on virtues and ten on vices.5 Tatwine, archbishop of Canterbury and the author of a Latin grammar, composed forty verse riddles, more didactic than descriptive, treating not only concrete objects but also abstractions such as ‘the four senses of Scripture’.6 These were rounded out to 100 by one Eusebius, perhaps to be identified with Hwætberht, abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early eighth century.7 Eusebius' sixty verse riddles are a hotchpotch of lofty topics (‘heaven’), opposites (‘land and sea’) and marvellous creatures (‘ship-retaining fish’).

These riddles all appeared as a part of formal collections, but there is also evidence that Latin riddles circulated independently and without the imprimatur of a named author. A number of riddles occur, inter alia, in the pseudo-Bede Collectanea, a compilation of materials assembled on the continent by an eighth-century cleric who had access to both Irish and English material.8 The assemblage includes five riddles of Symphosius and five of Aldhelm, as well as eleven anonymous prose riddles. Of the prose riddles, only two seem to have no extant analogues: the others are paralleled in Aldhelm, Eusebius and riddle collections of later centuries (the Lorsch collection, St-Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 196 and the Exeter Book). This may serve as a useful reminder that, despite the seeming monumentality of riddle collections, riddles at heart were a more informal genre, and must have circulated singly, orally and in prose, as much as in verse and in manuscript. No prose riddle collections are found in manuscript, however, until the late eighth century, with the appearance of two contemporary assemblages: the pseudo-Bede Collectanea and Alcuin's Disputatio Pippini.

Later centuries reflect a greater variety of registers and forms. The twelve riddles in the ninth- or tenth-century Lorsch collection appear in verse, but are only supplied with answers by the modern editor.9 Both formal and informal groups appear in the ‘Cambridge Songs’ manuscript, Cambridge, UL Gg.5.35, an eleventh-century classbook from Canterbury containing copies of the riddle collections of Symphosius, Aldhelm, Boniface, Tatwine and Eusebius. The manuscript also includes two other collections: a group of verse riddles on school subjects and nineteen prose Latin logogriphic riddles, riddles that encode the name of the object in the body of the riddle.10 The scribe who first wrote or copied out the logogriphic riddles provided no solutions, but a second hand of the same period both supplied and explained the answers. As the riddles' modern editor remarks, ‘his solutions, unlike so many of those fastened by modern scholarship upon early riddles, have the not small merit of really solving the problems to which they are attached’.11

Prose Latin riddles have also survived in other manuscripts of the period, such as St-Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 196, a manuscript of the tenth century that appends three prose riddles to those of Symphosius and a biblical curiosity dialogue.12 Verse riddles also occur singly, such as the Leiden riddle13 and the Latin verse riddle on ‘Æthelwold's bowl’ found in an eleventh-century manuscript.14 Finally, the vernacular tradition of riddles surfaces in the ninety-one or so Old English verse riddles of the Exeter Book, copied around the year 1000.15

Alcuin's dialogue thus forms a very early example of a more informal and conversational framework for riddles, although it is one that reflects their origins—as questions and answers, a guessing game between two people—more clearly than the monumental and often unguessable riddles of the verse collections. Uniquely among riddle collections, however, Alcuin's Disputatio also partakes of a second tradition, that of wisdom and curiosity dialogues.

Wisdom dialogues were question-and-answer texts that defined common objects or concepts in terms of metaphors.16 Typical examples included, for instance, ‘Quid est epistola? Tacitus nuntius’ and ‘Quid est somnus? Imago mortis’: ‘What is a letter? A silent messenger’ and ‘What is sleep? The image of death.’ In a sense, these were embryonic riddles, the building blocks of poetry. Curiosity dialogues, by contrast, were catechisms of biblical riddles, chiefly concerned with paradox: ‘Who died and was never born? Adam’, and so forth.17 Curiosity dialogues often incorporated items from wisdom dialogues, and paradox riddles were sometimes intermingled.18 These three forms—riddle collections, wisdom dialogues and curiosity dialogues—served similar functions: to evoke wonder at the glory of God and the everyday marvels of his world, which included his ability to unite opposites in paradox, and to provide pleasure while doing so.

Alcuin's Disputatio is confected from these three components: wisdom dialogues, curiosity dialogues and riddle collections. The framework of the text is adopted from a version of a widely circulating wisdom dialogue, the Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti philosophi.19 Where the Altercatio Hadriani remains sober and straightforward, however, Alcuin's dialogue goes wildly astray: the questioner and the respondent exchange roles, sombre metaphors are abandoned for spirited riddles, and the clarity of answers is cast aside for teasing, hinting and impish evasiveness.

Both the milieu—the high-spirited erudition of Charlemagne's court—and Alcuin's own character set the stage for the playfulness of the Disputatio. As master of Charlemagne's court school, Alcuin seems to have had a flair for imaginative and playful teaching. He is credited with introducing into circulation important texts that had been abandoned for centuries, among them Priscian's grammatical work the Institutiones grammaticae, and the treatise on logic De decem categoriis. Where texts did not exist, or where the available authorities were too dry or unsuitable, Alcuin composed his own texts.

Typical of these is the Dialogus Franconis et Saxonis de octo partibus orationis, a grammar in the form of a dialogue between a Frankish pupil and his Saxon comrade, with interventions from Alcuin himself.20 The dialogue recasts the information in Priscian's Institutiones grammaticae into more easily digestible form, and occasionally comments on the differences in the taxonomies set forth by Priscian and those of the other great grammatical authority, Donatus, in the way that such queries might be raised in lessons. The details of the students' ages suggest that the boys were actual pupils at the court school, and that the text served as a way of enlivening otherwise dull grammatical instruction, as well as giving the boys a vehicle for rehearsing the material among themselves. De rhetorica et virtutibus was another teaching dialogue, this one framed as a conversation between Alcuin and Charlemagne.21 Alcuin is also the likely author of a collection of story problems, the Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes.22 Many of these are number problems, but among them is the famous ‘About the wolf and the goat and the bundle of cabbages’, in which a man has to take a goat, a wolf and a bundle of cabbages across a river in a boat too small to carry more than one item at once.23 All of these teaching texts share Alcuin's stamp: a concern with engaging his pupils, with personalising his materials, and with expressing human warmth as he did so.

Alcuin's imaginative teaching style seems to have been part and parcel of Carolingian court life, which valued wit and play as well as learning.24 A poem by Theodulf, a member of the royal entourage, depicts the lively tenor of the court:

Ludicris haec mixta iocis per ludicra currat,
          Saepeque tangatur qualibet illa manu.
Laude iocoque simul hunc illita carta revisat,
          Quem tribuente celer ipse videbo deo.(25)
Let this poem romp amidst the mirth and amusements,
And may it often be held by every hand.
And, covered with praise and delight, may it return to him
Whom, God granting, I will see soon.

The poem portrays the court on an ideal day, with all its members present in their accustomed roles. Alcuin is depicted in what is presumably his typical occupation: in the midst of the court, setting problems on a variety of subjects for others to work out. As the poem is in praise of Charlemagne, Theodulf expresses his wishes that Charlemagne will be the one to solve the conundrums Alcuin sets:

Sit praesto et Flaccus, nostrorum gloria vatum …
Quique sophista potens est, quique poeta melodus,
          Quique potens sensu, quique potens opere est.
Et pia de sanctis scripturis dogmata promat,
          Et solvat numeri vincla favente ioco.
Et modo sit facilis, modo scrupea quaestio Flacci,
          Nunc mundanam artem, nunc redibens superam:
Solvere de multis rex ipse volentibus unus
          Sit bene qui possit solvere Flaccidica.(26)
Let Flaccus [i.e. Alcuin] be present as well, the glory of our poets …
He is a powerful scholar and a melodious poet,
Great in perception and great in his works.
May he propound the pious teachings of holy Scripture,
And loosen the chains of numbers with an encouraging jest.
Though sometimes Flaccus' questions may be easy, sometimes difficult,
Now on a worldly topic, now on higher things,
Among the many who want to solve the Flaccidities,
May the king himself be the one who can solve them well.

There is plentiful evidence of Alcuin's love of such puzzles and games. In addition to the Disputatio, he wrote at least seven surviving verse riddles, all of them apparently original: one on a comb, one on a furnace, and five logogriphic enigmata.27 He was so fond of the comb riddle that it appears again, paraphrased, in a letter.28 In addition to these examples of literary play, Alcuin composed acrostic verses and, indeed, appears to have introduced the form to the Carolingian court, starting a trend which resulted in the presentation of a set of such verses to Charlemagne.29 His letters also testify to the extent to which encoding was, for Alcuin, a sign of affection or familiarity.30 Even his habit of bestowing by-names on the members of the court is an expression of his delight in encoding and transforming things by the use of language.31

The court welcomed such diversions and entertainments, and riddling in particular became almost an heroic pastime among contending poets. Between 782 and 786 Charlemagne, Peter of Pisa and Paul the Deacon exchanged a series of riddle poems and challenges. One poem depicts Charlemagne challenging Paul the Deacon to solve a riddle overnight, and Paul trying to distract Charlemagne from the challenge by sending him a competing set of riddles.32

The Disputatio, then, is only one text in a lively tradition that combined learning and wit, that supplied new and engaging texts to pupils, and that trained those pupils to take their place in a milieu that valued learned amusement. As a man practised in both affection toward, and flattery of, royal personages, it was percipient of Alcuin to choose Pippin, the son of Charlemagne, as his dialogue partner.

To say that he chose Pippin, however, is to be less precise that one might think: in fact, Charlemagne's court was oversupplied with sons of Charlemagne named Pippin, there being two. The first was Pippin the Hunchback, Charlemagne's eldest son, born around 769 from a connection with a Frankish noblewoman, Himiltrude (it is unclear whether marriage was involved). In 777 Charlemagne's new wife, Hildegard, bore a son named Karlmann, who was destined early for great things. The boy was designated king of Italy at four, the same age in which he was baptised by the pope; at his baptism his name was changed to Pippin, for reasons that are not clear. It is almost certainly this younger Pippin who figures in the Disputatio.

To arrive at this conclusion requires some analysis of the likely date of the Disputatio and the circumstances of its composition. In so doing, it is necessary to pose a number of questions. First, does the Disputatio reflect a genuine conversation between Alcuin and Pippin? The answer here is certainly no: although the text is unique among literary dialogues for its moments of seemingly genuine and spontaneous exchange, as a whole it is much cleverer and more contrived—more literary—than real conversation. Secondly, was the dialogue intended to be presented to Pippin, or does it merely feature him as a character? It is unlikely that the text was intended exclusively for Pippin, as it is clearly a literary production; even Alcuin's letters, like the letters of many other medieval authors, although ostensibly addressed to a sole recipient, were accomplished showpieces of literary endeavour, which were certainly meant to circulate among a wider audience, as indeed they did. In similar fashion, it is likely that Pippin was addressed in the first instance, but that Alcuin also envisioned a secondary audience of schoolboys. Indeed, schoolboys are mentioned twice in the dialogue, once in reference to a number riddle, hereafter simply cited as the number in parentheses (‘Pueri in scola sciunt’, ‘The boys in the school know that one’ (100)), and again when the two interlocutors conspire to keep the answers a secret from them: (‘… sed pone digitum super os, ne pueri audiant quid sit’, ‘but put your finger on your lips, so the boys don't hear the answer’ (95)). In this latter case, the solution is never revealed overtly, so the schoolboys do indeed never ‘hear’ the answer. The dialogue implies that the conversation is taking place between Alcuin and Pippin in the foreground, with the schoolboys in the background listening, but this apparent spatial distinction may in fact be a temporal one: Pippin is the privileged first reader of the dialogue, but it will be passed on to the schoolboys in turn.

As head of the school, Alcuin would have been in charge of Pippin's education, and so it is a very reasonable assumption that he did indeed address the Disputatio directly to Pippin. This would be not merely a pedagogical move but also a flattering one, since Alcuin's model text, as Pippin must have known, was a version of the Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti philosophi. The strategy of casting Pippin in the role of Hadrian and himself in the role of Epictetus is of a piece with Alcuin's hallmark practice of assigning elevated classical identities to himself and the members of the court.

The question then remains: how old was Pippin when the dialogue was addressed to him? Certainly he is distinguished from the pueri, the boys in the schoolroom, not only by rank but also by age. Although the enjoyment of such dialogues was not confined to youngsters, dialogues and riddles have strong ties to early medieval school curricula, and the Disputatio in particular seems designed to appeal to youthful tastes.

Alcuin did not arrive to take charge of the court school until 781 or 782; he stayed at court continuously until 796 except for two sojourns in England, once in 786 and again from 790 to 793. Thus, when he arrived at court the elder Pippin, Pippin the Hunchback, would have been twelve or thirteen; at Alcuin's first return to England, seventeen; and at Alcuin's second journey, twenty-one to twenty-three. The younger Pippin would have been around four when Alcuin arrived, nine at his first journey, between thirteen and sixteen at his second, and nineteen when Alcuin left the court in 796 to become abbot of Tours. The most important question remaining, then, is whether the Disputatio was written while Alcuin was in residence at the court or while he was abroad. There are a number of reasons to believe that the latter is the case, and that the text actually formed a letter sent to Pippin by Alcuin. As I shall show, the theme at the close of the dialogue is epistola, and Alcuin depicts the text itself as a letter Pippin is holding in his hand. At another point Pippin is depicted as saying ‘Si scirem quid esset navis, prepararem tibi, ut venires ad me’—‘If I knew what a boat was, I would make one ready for you, so you could come to me’ (76). (This does not imply that Pippin was too young to be familiar with boats, but that he had not yet learnt the conventional wisdom-dialogue metaphor for boats, which Alcuin promptly supplies.) This suggests that Alcuin was overseas when he composed the text for Pippin, and thus the date can mostly likely be assigned to the period 790 to 793, when Alcuin's stay abroad was long enough to allow him the leisure to write. If one accepts the supposition that the dialogue is most likely to have been aimed at youthful tastes, then this would suggest the younger Pippin, who would be between thirteen and sixteen during these years, as its recipient.33 This would be in keeping with Alcuin's attentiveness to the nuances of winning royal benefaction: although details of Pippin the Hunchback's early career are obscure, he seems to have been out of favour at court, and indeed was banished from the court to the monastery of Prüm in 792, on the grounds of conspiracy. To cast him as an analogue of the emperor Hadrian, when he was not destined for rulership of any sort, would have been a gaffe of the first order.

It seems likely, then, that the text addresses the younger Pippin, who was probably between thirteen and sixteen at the time, and that Alcuin sent the text from abroad. Pippin had presumably been his student for some years, as Alcuin had arrived at court when Pippin was four, and so there was already a bond of affection between them, as well as a grounding in basic texts and the dialogue form, so that Pippin would have been alive to the changes rung by the Disputatio on the conventions of the genre.

The Disputatio begins in the form of a wisdom dialogue. Dialogues of this type go back to the late classical period, and a wilderness of related texts proliferated in the early medieval period. Unusually, Alcuin puts his Disputatio in the mouths of real interlocutors, but otherwise this section of the dialogue follows standard practice, with material borrowed, as usual, from the common store of proverbs and metaphors. The text consists of short and often poetic definitions of common concepts: Pippin asks, ‘Quid est homo?’, ‘What is man?’ and Alcuin answers, ‘Mancipium mortis, transiens viator, loci hospes’, ‘The slave of death, a traveller passing by, the guest of a place’ (8). ‘Quomodo positus est homo?’, ‘How is he situated?’ ‘Ut lucerna in vento’, ‘Like a lantern in the wind’ (10). ‘Quid est terra?’, ‘What is earth?’; ‘Mater crescentium, nutrix viventium, cellarium vitae, devoratrix omnium’, ‘The mother of growing things, the nurse of the living, the storehouse of life, the devourer of everything’ (56). Not all the questions have this sombre tone: the text also asks ‘Quid est venter? Custos fragilium’: ‘What is the belly? The guardian of crumbs’ (40); ‘Quid sunt pedes? Mobile fundamentum’: ‘What are the feet? Moveable pedestals’ (44). The subjects of enquiry are cosmic as well as pedestrian: ‘Quid est annus? Quadriga mundi. Quis ducit eam? Nox et dies, frigus et calor. Quid est aurgia eius? Sol et luna’: ‘What is a year? A four-horse chariot of the world. Who pulls it? Night and day, heat and cold.’ ‘Who is its charioteer? The sun and the moon’ (68-70). These are finely balanced between riddles and poetry, but their quality cannot be ascribed to Alcuin: the vast majority of the items he uses are paralleled in other wisdom dialogues.

Even at the beginning of the text, however, Alcuin displays a sharpness unusual to such dialogues. Other examples of the form shuffle the questions so that they appear in random order, but Alcuin begins with the building blocks of the enterprise. Pippin enquires, ‘Quid est littera?’, ‘What is a letter [of the alphabet]?’ Alcuin replies, ‘Custos historiae’, ‘The guardian of history’ (1). Pippin then expands his enquiry from the letter to the word: ‘Quid est verbum? Proditor animi’, ‘What is a word? The betrayer of the soul’ (2). The dialogue then moves into conventional formulae, but the theme returns in the final subject of enquiry, a letter (epistola)—what has finally been built up when the letters and words with which the dialogue began have been assembled.

After this beginning, the text continues in conventional form to the tune of seventy-three questions. Uniquely among wisdom dialogues, however, this rather poetic and hence contrived interchange is transformed into something like real conversation. Pippin has been enquiring about the heavens, but at a certain point, he balks: ‘Magister, timeo altum ire’, ‘Master, I'm afraid to go up high.’ Alcuin replies, ‘Si times, descendamus; sequar quocumque ieris’, ‘If you're afraid, let's go down; I'll follow wherever you go’ (74-5). This diversion into subjective commentary is unprecedented in the genre. This is not merely personal commentary, but an exploration of the possibilities of words. When Pippin protests that he is afraid to go ‘high’, he opens the door to multiple meanings. The Latin word altum refers both to heights and to depths, so Pippin has also been expressing his fear of going out upon the deep. In saying ‘let's go down’, Alcuin is alluding back to the last topic of enquiry, the heavens, but Pippin now turns the double meaning upon its hinges and begins to talk about the depths of the ocean. Afraid to venture out to the depths, Pippin says, ‘Si scirem quid esset navis, prepararem tibi, ut venires ad me,’ ‘If I knew what a boat was, I would make one ready for you, so you could come to me’ (76). This interchange involves an extraordinary convergence of images: the heights in the previous passages are transformed into the depths, and Pippin is afraid to set out upon these depths. The line also invokes the topos of beginning a literary enterprise as setting out across the sea, an image common to the period, employed both by Alcuin elsewhere and in a poem about Charlemagne ascribed to Einhard.34 As I have suggested above, the passage also alludes to the fact that Alcuin genuinely was residing across the sea from Pippin. The sea voyage Pippin wishes Alcuin would make for him, then, may not be merely a literary expedition but also a literal one, back to court to answer Pippin's questions.

Once Pippin, in the text, has mentioned a boat, Alcuin, back safely in the conventions of the wisdom dialogue, responds with a conventional string of metaphors for boat: ‘Navis est domus erratica, ubilibet hospitium, viator sine vestigiis, vicinus harenae,’ ‘A boat is a wandering home, a shelter anywhere, a traveller without footprints, a neighbour of beaches’ (76). Pippin makes a few more typical enquiries along these lines, on hope, friendship, faith and suchlike, when suddenly the dialogue again takes a turn away from formulaic phrases to original and self-reflexive answers. ‘Quid est mirum?’, ‘What is a wonder?’ asks Pippin (86). Alcuin responds not with a formulaic definition but with an example. More than that, his unconventional response, absolutely unparalleled in other dialogue literature, is a wonder itself; it constitutes its own definition. The exchange reads:

P. Quid est mirum? A. Nuper vidi hominem stantem, molientem, ambulantem, qui numquam fuit.


P. What is a wonder? A. Recently I saw a person standing, moving, walking, who never was.

So Alcuin responds to the question ‘What is a wonder?’ with something that does not define a wonder but that embodies it. A further source of dislocation is the fact that, at the word ‘wonder’, the tables have been turned: now Pippin is answering rather than asking, an about-turn also unknown in the dialogue tradition. Alcuin proposes that he ask Pippin ‘alia mira’—‘other wonders’—and Pippin agrees.

At this point the text has let loose of its moorings in the wisdom tradition. A cascade of riddles follows. These riddles, moreover, are not just enigmata, but are genuinely enigmatic: in all but the first few, the answer is never supplied. Pippin appears to guess every one correctly, but he only supplies veiled hints to the reader: it is as if Alcuin is teasing Pippin, and then Pippin is teasing us. Riddle 92 may serve as an example. The riddle performs the typical riddle trick of characterising an inanimate object as ‘dead’, and then constructing a paradox between ‘dead’ things and ‘live’ ones. In this case the objects in question are bells, although the text never reveals the solution. The riddle reads: ‘Audivi mortuos multa loquentes.P. Numquam bene, nisi suspendantur in aëre’, ‘I heard the dead speaking copiously.—P. Not very well, unless they're hanging in the air’—a response which at once hints at the answer and magnifies the complexity of the original riddle.

Through the course of this riddle dialogue, Pippin's understanding increases: where initially he needs to be told the answer, he is soon alluding to—but not revealing—the answer himself. In this first instance, where Alcuin provides a ‘wonder’—‘Recently I saw a person standing, moving, walking, who never was’—Pippin has to ask for the solution, and Alcuin reveals it: the person standing, moving and walking who never was is ‘imago … in aqua’, ‘a reflection in water’. Pippin laments, ‘Cur hoc non intellexi per me, dum toties vidi hunc ipsum hominem?’, ‘Why didn't I know that, when I've seen that person every day?’ (88). This is typical of the conversational and self-mocking tone of this section of the dialogue, quite at odds with the formulaic interchange of earlier sections. In another example, Alcuin propounds a riddle about a pot boiling over: ‘Vidi mortuum sedentem super vivum, et in risu mortui moritur vivus’, ‘I saw a dead one sitting on a live one, and in the laughter of the dead one the live one dies’ (94). The dead one is a pot of water, the live one the fire on which it sits, and when the dead one laughs—boils over—the fire dies. None of this is explained, however. Pippin merely hints at the answer, ‘Hoc coqui nostri norunt’, ‘Our cooks know that one’, and Alcuin increases the sense of collusion: ‘Norunt, sed pone digitum super os, ne pueri audiant quid sit’, ‘They do know it, but put your finger on your lips, so the boys don't hear what it is’ (94-5).

The rapport between the two even gets to the point where Pippin dares to tease Alcuin. Alcuin asks a chick-in-egg riddle: ‘Vidi quendam natum, antequam esset conceptus’, ‘I saw someone born before he was formed.’ ‘Vidisti et forte manducasti’, ‘You saw him’, says Pippin, ‘and perhaps you ate him’ (96). ‘Manducavi’—‘That I did’—says Alcuin (97). Here the conventions of the riddle form, propounded in the first person with the formulaic ‘I saw’ introduction, are transmuted into the concrete world of the personal: ‘You saw and perhaps you ate’, ‘So I did.’ Typically when the riddle is elevated into literature, it is cast in verse and made elegant. Alcuin's interest is not stylistic display but communication in the service of affection.

The Disputatio contains seventeen riddles in all: four of these have close parallels in Symphosius, from whom they were probably borrowed, and seven have analogues in other early medieval riddle collections: Aldhelm, the Ioca monachorum, St-Gall 196, pseudo-Symphosius, and the pseudo-Bede Collectanea.35 This leaves six that have no surviving analogues, but as the other questions in the Disputatio are derivative, it is probable that these riddles were part of the common stock of the time.

One surviving parallel provides an interesting contrast to the combination of succinctness, clarity and evasiveness that is the hallmark of this collection, as well as supplying an answer that has vexed a number of scholars. Alcuin's no. 101 is an animated paradox riddle: ‘Quid est cui si caput abstuleris, et resurgit altior?’, ‘What is it that when you take away the head, it springs back higher?’ As with the other riddles, Pippin only hints at the answer: ‘Vade ad lectulum et ibi invenies’, ‘Go to your bed and you'll find it there’ (101). The answer, as is clear from an analogue in Aldhelm, is a pillow: the trick of the riddle lies in the fact that it is the sleeper's head, rather than that of the object, that is taken away—an elegant example of the misdirection common to medieval riddles.36 In contrast to this simple formulation, Aldhelm's version is mired in the complexities of the rhetorical exercise:

Nolo fidem frangas, licet irrita dicta putentur,
Credula sed nostris pande praecordia verbis!
Celsior ad superas possum turgescere nubes,
Si caput aufertur mihi toto corpore dempto;
At vero capitis si pressus mole gravabor,
Ima petens iugiter minorari parte videbor.(37)
I do not want to strain belief, although these things may seem preposterous,
But open a trusting heart to my words!
I am able to swell toward the loftiest clouds on high
If the head is taken from me as the whole body is removed;
But if I am pressed down, burdened by the weight of a head,
Seeking the depths, straight away I will seem smaller in part.

Although Aldhelm's animated subject speaks in the first person, the poem itself is studiously impersonal; by contrast, Alcuin invites the listener not merely to guess from his own experience, but to bring his own world into the guessing-game of the riddle.

This use of familiar surroundings and practices is exemplified by one of the most problematic of the riddles, an example that has preserved its abstruseness to the present day. The riddle reads: ‘Vidi hominem octo in manu tenentem, et de octonis subito rapuit septem, et remanserunt sex’, ‘I saw a man holding eight in his hand, and from the eight he suddenly took away seven, and six remained.’ Pippin replies, ‘Pueri in scola sciunt’, ‘The boys in the school know that one’ (100). In fact the riddle is apparently a paraphrase of a verse riddle of pseudo-Symphosius:

De VIII tollas VII et remanet VI.
Nunc mihi iam credas, fieri quod posse negatur.
Octo tenes manibus, sed me monstrante magistro
Sublatis septem reliqui tibi sex remanebunt.(38)
From 8 you take away 7, and 6 remain.
Now you should believe me, it is possible to do what you might discount.
You hold eight in your hands, but, as the schoolmaster showed me,
Lift seven away, and six will remain.

The pseudo-Symphosius is not supplied with an answer either, but the references to school in both versions confirm Karl Menninger's suggestion that the riddle refers to finger-counting.39 The system of representing the numbers by the position of the hands and fingers goes back to the classical period, and descriptions of the technique occur in more than fifty manuscripts of the early Middle Ages, as well as in those of Bede's De temporum ratione, of which a treatise on finger-counting forms the preface.40 Bede's version 2 is typical:

Cum ergo dicis unum, minimum in laeua digitum inflectens, in medium palmae artum infiges. Cum dicis duo, secundum a minimo flexum, ibidem impones. Cum dicis tria, tertium similiter adflectes. Cum dicis quattuor, itidem minimum leuabis. Cum dicis quinque, secundum a minimo similiter eriges. Cum dicis sex, tertium nihilominus eleuabis, medio dumtaxat solo, qui medicus appellatur, in medium palmae fixo. Cum dicis septem, minimum solum, caeteris interim leuatis, super palmae radicem pones. Iuxta quem cum dicis octo, medicum.41

When, therefore, you say ‘one’, bend the little finger of your left hand and put the tip in the middle of your palm. When you say ‘two’, bend the second finger, next to the little one, and put it there likewise. When you say ‘three’, bend the third finger likewise. When you say ‘four’, raise the little finger again. When you say ‘five’, raise the second finger, next to the little finger, in the same way. When you say ‘six’, you should lift the third finger, with the middle one [between the third finger and the little finger—i.e. the ring finger], which is called the medicus, alone placed in the middle of the palm. When you say ‘seven’, put the little finger alone on the bottom of the palm, raising the rest. When you say ‘eight’, lay the ring finger next to it.

The sign for eight, then, is to bend the little finger and the ring finger down; the sign for seven is to hold only the little finger down; and the sign for six is to hold only the ring finger down. Thus to make the sign for eight—or, as Alcuin says, ‘hold eight in your hand’—and then suddenly to take away the sign for seven does indeed produce the sign for six.

There is also an identifiable source for the end of the Disputatio, and an examination of that source may reveal the skill with which Alcuin transformed standard texts into his own material. In a letter written sometime between 793 and 796, Alcuin quotes the wisdom dialogue that formed the inspiration for the Disputatio, the Altercatio Hadriani. Alcuin says:

De epistola interrogasti, quid esset? Nam ‘epi’ super, ‘stola’ habitus Grece dicitur. Unde Hadrianus imperator Epitetum philosophum inter alias inquisitiones interrogavit, quid esset cinctum? At ille videns eum epistolam manu tenentem respondit: ‘Quod manu tenes.’ Volens intellegere, quasi supercinctorium esset epistolae sigillum, quo a foris vestiatur cartula.42

You asked, what is a letter [epistola]? Epi means ‘upon’ in Greek, and stola means ‘garb’. For this reason the emperor Hadrian asked Epitetus the philosopher, among other things, what is ‘bound’? And he [Epitetus], seeing him holding a letter in his hand, answered, ‘What you hold in your hand.’ By this he meant that the seal of the letter was bound up, by which the document was garbed against the outside.

Alcuin was very fond of this image, of a letter being bound, and in a short poem he combines it with the image of opening, or solving; the image turns on the verb solvere, which has what in English is a double meaning, to open or solve, so that one opens or solves a letter as one might open or solve a riddle. His poem, enclosed with a letter, reads:

Nulla manus cartam discingat, ni tua, praesul;
Solve, pater sancte, et lege tu feliciter illam.
Succinctum solvat, cupiat qui abscondita scire …(43)
Let no hand unbind the letter, praesul, but yours;
Open [solve] it, holy father, and read it happily.
Let him solve [untie] the bound thing, who wishes to know hidden things …

Alcuin was so fond of the image of unbinding a missive that he used it in a different verse accompanying another letter.44 In all these instances, a letter carries with it, in the name epistola, its own definition (‘bound up’) in riddle form, so that every letter is an invitation to unbinding on several levels.

In the Altercatio Hadriani, Alcuin's model text, this initial riddle about a letter serves as a preface to the conventional metaphor for letter: ‘Quid est epistola? Tacitus nuncius’, ‘What is a letter? A silent messenger.’45 In Alcuin's version all these elements are transformed:

A. Quid est tacitus nuntius?—P. Quem manu teneo.
A. Quid tenes manu?—P. Epistulam tuam, magister.
A. Lege feliciter, fili!


A. What is a silent messenger?—P. What I hold in my hand.
A. What do you hold in your hand?—P. Your letter, master.
A. Read happily, my son!

The Disputatio is framed as a dialogue, but of course it is not a conversation; it is a text. One can imagine Pippin reading this text as Alcuin sent it to him, as part of a letter. From the text, Alcuin asks, ‘What do you hold in your hand?’ and the real Pippin can answer, ‘Your letter, master.’ The Disputatio, a letter, an epistola, is, as its name suggests, something that has to be unbound, a document of ‘hidden things’, and this particular document above all is created to embody its name, a closed thing, full of hidden things to be opened and solved.46



The text is reprinted from L. W. Daly and W. Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani; the punctuation of no. 88 has been altered.

  1. P. Quid est mirum?—A. Nuper vidi hominem stantem, molientem, ambulantem, qui numquam fuit.
  2. P. Quomodo potest esse? pande mihi.—A. Imago est in aqua.
  3. P. Cur hoc non intellexi per me, dum toties vidi hunc ipsum hominem?—A. Quia bone indolis es iuvenis et naturalis ingenii, proponam tibi quaedam alia mira; tempta si per te ipsum possis conicere illa.
  4. P. Faciemus ita tamen, ut si secus quam est dicam, corriges me.—A. Faciam ut vis.
  5. A. Quidam ignotus mecum sine lingua et voce locutus est, qui numquam ante fuit nec postea erit, et quem non audiebam nec novi.—P. Somnium te forte fatigavit, magister.
  6. A. Etiam, fili; audi et aliud: Vidi mortuos generare vivum, et in ira vivi consumpti sunt mortui.—P. De fricatione arborum ignis natus est consumens arbores.
  7. A. Verum est. Audivi mortuos multa loquentes.—P. Numquam bene, nisi suspendantur in aëre.
  8. A. Vere. Vidi ignem inextinctum pausare in aqua.—P. Silicem in aqua significare vis reor.
  9. A. Vidi mortuum sedentem super vivum, et in risu mortui moritur vivus.—P. Hoc coqui nostri norunt.
  10. A. Norunt, sed pone digitum super os, ne pueri audiant quid sit. Fui in venatione cum aliis, in qua si quid cepimus, nihil nobiscum portavimus, et quod capere non potuimus, domum portavimus nobiscum.—P. Rusticorum est hec venatio.
  11. A. Est. Vidi quendam natum, antequam esset conceptus.—P. Vidisti et forte manducasti.
  12. A. Manducavi. Quis est qui non est et nomen habet et responsum dat sonanti?—P. Biblos in silvis interroga.
  13. A. Vidi hospitem currentem cum domu sua, et ille tacebat et domus sonabat.—P. Para mihi rete, et pandam tibi.
  14. A. Quis est qui videre non potest nisi clausis oculis?—P. Qui stertit tibi ostendit illum.
  15. A. Vidi hominem octo in manu tenentem, et de octonis subito rapuit septem, et remanserunt sex.—P. Pueri in scola sciunt.
  16. A. Quid est cui si caput abstuleris, et resurgit altior?—P. Vade ad lectulum et ibi invenies.
  17. A. Tres fuere: unus numquam natus et semel mortuus, alter semel natus et numquam mortuus, tertius semel natus et bis mortuus.—P. Primus equivocus terre, secundus Domino meo, tertius homini pauperi.
  18. A. Dic tamen primas litteras nominum.—P..i.,.v.,.xxx.
  19. A. Vidi feminam volantem, rostrum habentum ferreum et corpus ligneum et caudam pennatam, mortem portantem.—P. Socia est militum.


  1. P. What is a wonder?—A. Recently I saw a person standing, moving, walking, who never was.
  2. P. How can that be? Tell me.—A. It's a reflection in water.
  3. P. Why didn't I know that, when I've seen that man every day?—A. Because you are a boy of good character and natural understanding, I will ask you some other wonders. Try and see if you can guess them yourself.
  4. P. Let's do it so that if I guess wrong, you correct me.—A. I'll do as you wish.
  5. A. A person I didn't know spoke to me without tongue or voice, who never was before nor ever will be, and whom I didn't hear or know.—P. Perhaps sleep had tired you out, master.
  6. A. That's it, my son. And I heard another one: I saw the dead give rise to the living, and in the wrath of the living the dead were consumed.—P. From rubbing wood together fire is born as it consumes the wood.
  7. A. It's true. I heard the dead speaking copiously.—P. Not very well, unless they're hanging in the air.
  8. A. True. I saw fire unextinguished in the water.—P. You mean flint in water, I'm thinking.
  9. A. I saw a dead one sitting on a live one, and in the laughter of the dead one the live one dies.—P. Our cooks know that one.
  10. A. They do know it, but put your finger on your lips, so the boys don't hear what it is. I was on a hunt with some other people in which if we caught something, we took nothing back with us, and what we could not catch, that we carried home with us.—P. That's a hunt familiar to countryfolk.
  11. A. It is. I saw someone born before he was formed.—P. You saw him and perhaps you ate him.
  12. A. That I did. Who is it that is not, and has a name, and gives an answer to a sound?—P. Ask the rushes in the woods.
  13. A. I saw a guest running along with his home, and he was silent and the home made noise.—P. Get me a net ready, and I'll show him to you.
  14. A. Who is it that can only see with his eyes closed?—P. He who snores shows him to you.
  15. A. I saw a man holding eight in his hand, and from the eight he suddenly took away seven, and six remained.—P. The boys in the school know that one.
  16. A. What is it that when you take away the head, it springs back higher?—P. Go to your bed and you'll find it there.
  17. A. There were three: one never born and died once, the second born once and never died, the third born once and died twice.—P. The first is equivalent to the earth, the second to my Lord, the third to a poor man.
  18. A. Tell me the first letters of their names.—P. 1, 5, 30.
  19. A. I saw a woman flying, with an iron beak and a wooden body and a feathered tail, carrying death.—P. That's a woman beloved of the soldiers.


I have not cited riddles on the same subject with no discernible relation to the phrasing or content of those found in the Disputatio. These are my own notes and do not draw on the work by Daly and Suchier except where noted.

  1. 86-7. A reflection in water. No known early medieval parallels extant.
  2. A man in a dream. No known early medieval parallels extant.
  3. Fire kindled from sticks. No known early medieval parallels extant.
  4. Bells. No known early medieval parallels extant.
  5. Flint. No known early medieval parallels are extant, although the final line of Symphosius no. 7647 is possibly related in sense: ‘Nec lignis ut uiuat eget, nec ut occidat undis.
  6. A pot on the fire. There are parallels in St-Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 196,48 pseudo-Bede Collectanea 197, and two late medieval German-language collections.49
  7. Lice or fleas. Paralleled by Symphosius no. 30.50
  8. Chick in egg. Paralleled by Symphosius no. 14.51 Tullius no. 8.52
  9. Echo. No known early medieval parallels extant.
  10. Fish in river. This is derived from Symphosius no. 12.53
  11. A dreamer. This may be related to Symphosius no. 99, on sleep, of which the last line is ‘Sed me nemo uidet, nisi qui sua lumina claudet’.54
  12. Scholastic finger-counting. This is paralleled by pseudo-Symphosius no. 4.55 On the solution, see explanation above.
  13. Pillow. There is a distant parallel in Aldhelm no. 41.56
  14. 102-3. Adam; Enoch or Elijah; Lazarus. The first two are paralleled in numerous versions of the Ioca monachorum and Adrianus et Epictetus.57 Early medieval dialogues containing versions of all three riddles (none with the answers encoded) include the B-version of the Ioca monachorum, contained in the Bobbio Missal58 and the pseudo-Bede Collectanea.59 The numerals ‘.i.’ and ‘.v.’ beginning the answers clearly refer to the place of the letter in the alphabet: ‘i’ is the A of Adam and ‘v’ the E of Enoch and Elijah. As Daly suggests,60 the number ‘xxx’ was represented by the Greek lambda in certain medieval documents, and the lambda then represents the L of Lazarus. Adam, being made from the earth, is equivalent to it; Enoch and Elijah serve as antetypes of Christ; and Lazarus was a poor man.61
  15. Arrow. No known early medieval parallels extant.


  1. The Disputatio is edited by W. Suchier in L. W. Daly and W. Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi (Illinois Studies in Language & Literature 24) (Urbana, IL, 1939), pp. 137-43. It is reprinted below. For bibliography on the text see M.-H. Jullien and F. Perelman, Clavis des auteurs latins du Moyen Age: territoire français 735-987, vol. II, Alcuin (Turnhout, 1999), pp. 164-5.

  2. For Symphosius' riddles, see Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis, CCSL 133A, ed. F. Glorie (Turnhout, 1968), pp. 611-721.

  3. MGH PLAC 4.2, ed. K. Strecker (Berlin, 1923), pp. 737-59, and Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum, CCSL 133A, ed. Glorie, pp. 541-610. On the collection and the varying contents of the manuscripts, see C. E. Finch, ‘The Bern Riddles in Codex Vat. Reg. Lat. 1553’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 92 (1961), pp. 145-55.

  4. Aldhelm's enigmata are edited by R. Ehwald, Aldhelmi Opera, MGH Auctores Antiquissimi 15 (Berlin, 1919), and reprinted in Variae, ed. Glorie, pp. 359-540. They are also reprinted and translated by J. Hall Pitman, The Riddles of Aldhelm (New Haven and London, 1925). On the riddles see M. Lapidge, ‘Introduction to the Enigmata’, in Aldhelm: The Poetic Works, ed. M. Lapidge and J. L. Rosier (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 61-9.

  5. MGH PLAC 1, ed. E. Dümmler (Berlin, 1881), pp. 3-15, and Variae, ed. Glorie, pp. 273-343.

  6. Tatwine's riddles may be found in Variae, ed. Glorie, pp. 165-208. See also F. H. Whitman, ‘Aenigmata Tatwini’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 88 (1987), pp. 8-17.

  7. Variae, ed. Glorie, pp. 209-71.

  8. Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 14), ed. M. Bayless and M. Lapidge (Dublin, 1998). On the riddles specifically, see the chapter by Bayless, ‘The Collectanea and medieval dialogues and riddles’, pp. 13-24.

  9. MGH PLAC 1, ed. Dümmler, pp. 20-3, and Variae, ed. Glorie, pp. 345-58.

  10. On the Cambridge Songs manuscript, see A. G. Rigg and G. R. Wieland, ‘A Canterbury classbook of the mid-eleventh century (the “Cambridge Songs” manuscript)’, Anglo-Saxon England 4 (1975), pp. 113-30 (esp. pp. 120-30). For the verse riddles, see Anecdota Bedae, Lanfranci et Aliorum, ed. J. A. Giles (London, 1851, repr. New York, 1967), pp. 50-3; for the logogriphic riddles, see F. Tupper, Jr, ‘Riddles of the Bede tradition’, Modern Philology 2 (1904-5), pp. 1-12 (at pp. 8-11).

  11. Tupper, ‘Riddles’, p. 7.

  12. The three riddles are printed in Daly and Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani p. 144, n. 91.

  13. For the Leiden riddle, see The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems (Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 6), ed. E. v. K. Dobbie (New York, 1942), p. 109. It and the Exeter Book version are translations of Aldhelm's ‘Lorica’ riddle; all three are printed by C. Williamson, The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, NC, 1977), pp. 88-9 and 243-4.

  14. See D. W. Porter. ‘A double solution to the Latin riddle in MS Antwerp, Plantin-Moretus Museum M16.2’, ANQ (American Notes & Queries) 9 (1996), pp. 3-9, and ‘Æthelwold's bowl and The Chronicle of Abingdon’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 97 (1996), pp. 163-7. On other early medieval riddles, see G. Polara, ‘Aenigmata’, in Lo spazio letterario del medioevo, series 1: Il medioevo latino, vol. I, La produzione del testo, ed. G. Cavallo et al. (2 vols., Rome, 1993), vol. II, pp. 197-216.

  15. The Exeter Book (Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3), ed. G. P. Krapp and E. v. K. Dobbie (New York, 1936), pp. 180-210, 224-5 and 229-43; Williamson, Old English Riddles.

  16. For the history of wisdom dialogues and many examples of the form, see Daly & Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani. Other wisdom questions are found in the dialogues printed by W. Suchier, Das mittellateinische Gespräch Adrian und Epictitus nebst verwandten Texten (Joca Monachorum) (Tübingen, 1955).

  17. The locus classicus for items of this type is the set of dialogues known as the Ioca monachorum, although they also appear in dialogues such as Adrianus et Epictitus. Both types are printed in Suchier, Gespräch. In other studies I have also referred to curiosity dialogues as trivia dialogues; they are the same form. See also Shanzer, above, pp. 26-7.

  18. These are of the briefest type, not the more complex paradoxes favoured by Alcuin and other named authors. For instance, Adrianus et Epictitus version AE2 asks ‘Quid tangitur et non videtur? Anima. Quid videtur et non tangitur?—Celum’ (Suchier, Gespräch, p. 33, nos. 49-50).

  19. The Altercatio is edited by Daly and Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani, pp. 104-7, along with a number of related texts. Alcuin's Disputatio borrows a number of elements from a lost recension of the text printed as the Altercatio, but other parts of Alcuin's text are more closely related to other wisdom dialogues, notably the Vita Secundi (ed. Daly and Suchier, pp. 152-9, esp. pp. 158-9) and an addition to Adrianus et Epictitus found in manuscript C (ed. Suchier, Gespräch, p. 37). It is also worth noting that some of these versions are retailed under the title Disputatio, so that Alcuin's title sets the text in the tradition of wisdom dialogues.

  20. The text is may be found in PL 101, cols. 854-902.

  21. For the De rhetorica, see PL 101, cols. 919-46 and Rhetores Latini minores, ed. C. Halm (Leipzig, 1863), pp. 523-50. Halm's edition is reprinted with a few changes, and a translation, by W. S. Howell, The Rhetoric of Alcuin and Charlemagne (Princeton, 1941). On Alcuin's dialogues, see also E. Ann Matter, ‘Alcuin's question-and-answer texts’, Rivista di storia della filosofia 4 (1990), pp. 645-56.

  22. The text is edited by M. Folkerts and H. Gericke, Die Alkuin zugescriebenen Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes (Aufgaben zur Schärfung des Geistes der Jugend)’, in Science in Western and Eastern Civilization in Carolingian Times, ed. P. L. Butzer and D. Lohrmann (Basel, 1993), pp. 283-362. On the text and transmission, see also M. Folkerts, ‘Die Alkuin zugescriebenen “Propositiones ad acuendos iuvenes”’, in Science in Western and Eastern Civilization, ed. Butzer and Lohrmann, pp. 273-81.

  23. Folkerts and Gericke, Propositiones, pp. 316-17 (no. 18).

  24. For further discussion of Carolingian courts and humour, see Innes, above, pp. 142-56.

  25. MGH PLAC 1, ed. Dümmler, p. 483, no. 25, lines 9-12; also repr. and trans. P. Godman, Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance (Norman, OK, 1985), no. 15, pp. 150-63; this passage is at pp. 150-1. The translations above are my own.

  26. MGH PLAC 1, ed. Dümmler, p. 486, lines 131 and 133-40; repr. and trans. Godman, Poetry, pp. 156-7.

  27. For these riddles, see MGH PLAC 1, ed. Dümmler, pp. 223 (no. 5, the comb riddle) and 281-3.

  28. MGH Epistolae 4, ed. E. Dümmler (Berlin, 1895) no. 26, p. 67. The riddle is discussed by P. Sorrell, ‘Alcuin's “comb” riddle’, Neophilologus 80 (1996), pp. 311-18.

  29. See M. Garrison, ‘The emergence of Carolingian Latin literature and the court of Charlemagne (780-814)’, in Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, ed. R. McKitterick (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 111-40, at pp. 121-2.

  30. See, for example, MGH Epistolae 4, ed. Dümmler, no. 176, p. 291, and the commentary by M. Garrison, ‘The social world of Alcuin: nicknames at York and at the Carolingian court’, in Alcuin of York: Scholar at the Carolingian Court (Germania Latina 3), ed. L. A. J. R. Houwen and A. A. MacDonald (Groningen, 1998), pp. 59-79, at pp. 74-5, n. 54. This encoding of words was not unique to Alcuin: another example from the Carolingian court is discussed by Keith Sidwell, ‘Theodulf of Orléans, Cadac-Andreas and Old Irish phonology: a conundrum’, Journal of Medieval Latin 2 (1992), pp. 55-62.

  31. On this see Garrison, ‘Social world of Alcuin’.

  32. The poems are edited by Karl Neff, Die Gedichte des Paulus Diaconus (Munich, 1908), nos. 16-22, pp. 82-105. See also Garrison, ‘Emergence of Carolingian Latin literature’, pp. 121-2. A library catalogue also gives evidence of riddles, now lost, composed by Joseph Scottus, a student of Alcuin from York also at the Carolingian court; see M. Garrison, ‘The English and the Irish at the court of Charlemagne’, in Karl der Grosse und sein Nachwirken: Charlemagne and his Heritage, ed. P. L. Butzer, M. Kerner and W. Oberschelp (Turnhout, 1997), pp. 97-123, at p. 105.

  33. There were also periods in which Alcuin remained at court and the younger Pippin was away in 787, when he was ten, for example, Pippin was involved in leading troops from Italy into battle—but the reference to Alcuin coming to Pippin via boat suggests that this is not the separation referred to in the text.

  34. Alcuin's example is in the ‘Versus de sanctis Euboricensis ecclesiae’: MGH PLAG 1, ed. Dümmler, p. 198, lines 1321-3; the image also opens the poem from Einhard (ibid., p. 366; repr. and trans. Godman, Poetry, no. 25, p. 196). On the topos of beginning a literary work as equivalent to setting out to sea, see E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W. Trask (London, 1953), pp. 128-30.

  35. On these parallels, see ‘Commentary.’

  36. The riddle has remained obscure in recent times, and modern scholars have tried to understand it as a logogriphic riddle. Friedrich Schwarz suggested that the answer might be ‘castrum astrum’, in line with the two logogriphic riddles of Symphosius (‘Das dritte der reichenauer Aenigmata Risibilia’, Zeitschrift für deutsches Allertum 63 (Neue Folge 51) (1926), pp. 268-69, at p. 269, n. 1). Bengt Löfstedt has also suggested ‘pediculus - ediculus’ as the solution (‘Zu den sog. Ioca Monachorum’, Eranos 94 (1996), pp. 34-6, at p. 35).

  37. Aldhelm no. 41: MGH Auctores Antiquissimi 15, ed. Ehwald, p. 115; Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 425. The poem is also reprinted and translated by Hall Pitman, Riddles of Aldhelm; the pillow riddle is on pp. 22-3. The translation above is my own.

  38. Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 723, no. 4.

  39. K. Menninger, Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers, trans. P. Broneer (Cambridge, MA and London, 1969), pp. 201-4. (The German original was Zahlwort und Ziffer, rev. edn 1958.) Menninger cites the pseudo-Symphosius version of the riddle, but was apparently unaware of Alcuin's version.

  40. See C. Cordoliani, ‘A propos du chapitre premier du De temporum ratione, de Bède’, Le Moyen Âge 54 (1948), pp. 209-23; Bedae Opera de Temporibus, ed. Charles W. Jones (Cambridge, MA, 1943), pp. 329-30; Bedae Venerabilis Opera, pars VI: Opera Didascalica 2, CCSL 123B (Turnhout, 1977); and, for a wider survey of finger-counting, A. Rieche, ‘Computatio Romana: Fingerzählen auf provinzialrömischen Reliefs’, Bonner Jährbücher 186 (1986), pp. 165-92.

  41. Bedae Venerabilis Opera, ed. Jones, p. 269.

  42. MGH Epistolae 4, ed. Dümmler, no. 88, pp. 132-3.

  43. MGH PLAC 1, ed. E. Dümmler, no. 29.2, p. 248.

  44. Ibid., no. 56.1, p. 268.

  45. Altercatio Hadriani, no. 2, in Daly and Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani, p. 104.

  46. For help and suggestions on this article I would like to thank Mary Garrison and Carol Lofmark. Any mistakes that remain are entirely my own.

  47. Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 697.

  48. Printed by Daly and Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani, p. 144, n. 91.

  49. See Bayless and Lapidge, Collectanea, pp. 144 and 245.

  50. Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 651.

  51. Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 635.

  52. Ibid., p. 554.

  53. Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 633.

  54. Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 720.

  55. Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 723.

  56. MGH Auctores Antiquissimi 15, ed. Ehwald, p. 115, and Variae, ed. Glorie, p. 425.

  57. Gespräch, ed. Suchier.

  58. The Bobbio Missal: A Gallican Mass-Book (MS Paris Lat. 13246), ed. E. A. Lowe (3 vols., London, 1917-24), vol. II, p. 6.

  59. Ed. Bayless and Lapidge, nos. 5 (p. 122) and 123-4 (p. 136), with commentary on pp. 202 and 228.

  60. Daly and Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani, p. 145, no. 103.

  61. On these clues see further Daly and Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani, p. 145.


Principal Works


Further Reading