Alcuin

by Alhwini

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Alcuin

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Article abstract: Although an Englishman, Alcuin became court tutor and educational and religious adviser to Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards. Reforms inspired by him made an indelible impression on the later traditions and practices of the Catholic church.

Early Life

Alcuin’s real name was probably Alhwini. He was an Anglo-Saxon, probably from Yorkshire, England. As he began to correspond and later to work with people who knew no English and used Latin as their professional language, however, his English name must have seemed difficult to spell, if not barbarous. It was accordingly latinized to “Alcuinus” or “Albinus.” The misnomer serves as a reminder that Alcuin was for much of his life an exile in a culture which, if not alien to him, was not native either.

In fact, Alcuin was a product of the first golden age of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. A hundred years before his birth, the northern area of England was still pagan; one hundred years after his death, it had once again passed under the control of pagans, this time Viking armies, a process whose beginning Alcuin lived to see. In the interval between these two heathenisms, Christian scholarship in England was developed, with Alcuin at its heart.

Alcuin was sent to the cathedral school at York Minster when only a small child. He must have been one of its first students, but it is not clear why his allegedly noble parents sent him there. It is unlikely that he was an oblate, a child literally “offered up” by its parents to the monastery, for although he ended his life as an abbot, strict monastic vows would have barred him from his life of travel and court service. Alcuin was also never ordained as a priest, signing himself always as “deacon” or as “humble deacon.” Alcuin seems in fact to have functioned as a pure scholar, not aiming primarily at ecclesiastical promotion. He entered the York school in the early 740’s and stayed there almost forty years. He clearly studied the seven “liberal arts,” which moved from grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics to arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry, and participated in the buildup of books at York, which he mentions with great pride in a poem written during that time, De pontificubus et sanctis ecclesiae Eboracensis (On the Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, translation date unknown).

Probably around 766 Alcuin became the scholasticus, or headmaster, of the cathedral school. On at least two occasions he went on officially sanctioned trips to the Continent. In 781, however, a new archbishop sent Alcuin to Rome to fetch the archbishop’s pallium from the pope. As he returned, Alcuin met Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards, at Parma. He was offered a post at the royal court, returned home to get permission from his king and his archbishop, and then accepted. Alcuin then traveled to France in 782, to begin the principal, if long-delayed stage of his career.

Life’s Work

Many have described Alcuin as a pedant, but this characterization is unfair: He was a schoolmaster. He did with the members of the royal family— Charlemagne, his wife, and his children—what he did with the boys at York: He taught them Latin grammar above all. His treatises on grammar and spelling survive and are now universally dismissed as obvious. They were, however, at the highest level for that period, and it may have been a considerable advantage to Alcuin to be English, a native speaker of a Germanic language. The native language of much of Charlemagne’s realm could be called either very early French or very...

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late, corrupt Latin. Thus, Frankish clerics were inclined to allow their Latin to be contaminated by the popular language used all around them. To Alcuin, Latin was the language of books. He spoke it as it had been written. Accordingly, his treatises are full of elementary advice: Do not confusebeneficus, a doer of good, with veneficus, a poisoner; do not confuse vinea, a vine, with venia, permission. Just the same, the advice was certainly necessary. Alcuin acted not as a researcher, but as a preserver of knowledge.

His position at the court also gave him immense influence. It seems very likely that Charlemagne, a king of great energy who was coming into a period of success against outside enemies such as the Saxons, the Lombards, and the nomadic Avars, was concerned about the poor quality and lax discipline of his own clergy. Around 787, a few years after Alcuin had joined him, he issued a capitulary giving wide-ranging instructions to senior abbots. The abbots were, he said, to keep their rules strictly and to study grammar. The letters the king had been receiving from monasteries were well-intentioned but uncouth in language. According to the ordinance, it was doubtful whether the writers could even understand the Bible. Charlemagne urged the abbots to select qualified schoolmasters and raise the standard of education. It is clear that Alcuin the ex-scholasticus was behind these reforms. Later instructions insist that not only would-be monks but also all male freeborn children should be educated (an extremely ambitious project for the time).

Alcuin seems, then, to have been influential in preserving good Latin. The point about understanding the Scriptures was also a concern. Several of his own commentaries on the Bible survive, but once again he was more influential on large-scale projects. He seems to have been responsible for the massive reorganization of the Frankish liturgy—that is, the instructions for what was to be said, read, and done at all services in all Frankish churches. Many of these decisions are still being followed in modern times.

In addition, Alcuin presided over a major revision and reediting of the increasingly corrupt and badly copied texts of the Latin Bible itself. It is true that no single copy of an “Alcuinian” Bible survives—not even the copy which Alcuin presented to Charlemagne as the only suitably magnificent gift on the occasion of Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the pope on Christmas Day, 800. This absence is, however, a proof of success. Like much of Alcuin’s work, the revised Bibles were “read to pieces.” They have not survived because they were in continual use. As with grammar and liturgy, though, in editing the Bible Alcuin may have done nothing new. What he did was to reduce error and introduce a correct standard.

Alcuin had other and more public triumphs. During the 790’s he confronted clerics of the Spanish church, who were promoting a new doctrine, Adoptionism, and rather unusually for the history of the Church reasoned them into retracting rather than having the king declare a crusade against them. Alcuin was also dispatched at least once to England, possibly to help smooth over dissension between Charlemagne and Offa, the powerful king of Mercia. Alcuin also enjoyed considerable literary prestige. His best-known poem is On the Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, which he wrote after he left York but which is filled with pride and affection. His other poems are generally believed to be correct and skillful rather than inspiring; more than was usual at the time, they stray from religious themes to imitation of pre-Christian Latin classics. Often they appear to have been written for a court coterie of writers in whom Charlemagne took great pride. Indeed, Alcuin is said to have reproved the king for wishing for more scholars than the King of Heaven himself could provide.

A further major body of work was written, however, after Alcuin had been given permission to retire in 796, taking up the vacant appointment of abbot at the abbey of Saint Martin of Tours. These are his letters, correspondence with Charlemagne and other kings, clerics, and senior political figures of England. In one letter, he grieves with the abbot of Lindisfarne after the first, horrible, unexpected assault of the Vikings on that island monastery. In another letter, Alcuin writes a famous condemnation of secular, native song, which many scholars have seen as the oldest allusion to orally transmitted poems such as the epic Beowulf (first transcribed c. 1000). In other letters, he writes warningly to the King of Northumbria and encouragingly to Offa. In yet another letter, written after the deaths of both Offa and his son, he makes it clear that he thought Offa’s reign was stained by judicial murder. These letters are among the clearest and most useful historical documents of the time. Their value is shown by the efforts made to preserve them.

Alcuin’s influence may indeed have continued beyond his retirement, for some believe that the elevation of Charlemagne to imperial status was masterminded by his faithful adviser and deacon. Certainly, in the last decade of his life Alcuin’s output remained extraordinarily high, amounting not only to hundreds of letters but also to several hagiographies and theological works. He died on May 19, 804, at Saint Martin’s abbey in Tours.

Summary

Alcuin represents a particularly successful example of “cross-fertilization.” In his maturity, the best scholarship in Europe was to be found in the northern part of England. Alcuin exported this scholarship to a country in sore need of it and set both religious and secular study on a sounder basis. The favor was to be returned, for as the Viking attacks on England grew stronger, both Christianity and learning fell into ignominious decline. Indeed, the great library at York, of which Alcuin was so proud, was in the end destroyed so thoroughly that not a single book from it is known to have survived. Learning was reestablished in England very largely by men from the Continent. If it had not been for Alcuin’s reforms, there might have been no such men to come to the rescue.

Alcuin’s effect in other areas is even harder to evaluate. No one sees him as a great literary figure, and his works are rarely translated. Yet it is quite probable that the entire daily practice of the Roman Catholic church—apart from its theory or dogma—was affected by Alcuin’s decisions as to which of many conflicting forms and rituals should become standard. It has even been suggested that Church Latin is an Alcuinian “invention,” Latin before that being read not as it was written but as native French or Italian speakers would naturally pronounce it. Alcuin and his colleagues brought a new rigor to the Frankish church and, indeed, to the whole of Western Christianity.

Bibliography

Duckett, Eleanor S. Alcuin, Friend of Charlemagne: His World and His Work. New York: Macmillan, 1951. This volume is a complete, straightforward biography. At times hagiographical in tone and reluctant to take a critical stance on politics or literary talent, Duckett has, nevertheless, written the most useful single book on Alcuin.

Ellard, Gerald. Master Alcuin, Liturgist: A Partner of Our Piety. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1956. Written by a Jesuit, this extremely technical work attempts, from admittedly inadequate evidence, to determine how much of later liturgical practice can be traced back to Alcuin. It makes good use of the otherwise inaccessible Latin “Life of Alcuin.”

Godman, Peter. Poets and Emperors: Frankish Politics and Carolingian Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. Alcuin is treated here as part of an entire “court circle,” and his works are set in the contexts of flattery, policy, and decision making. Included are valuable sections on Alcuin’s contemporaries, such as Theodulf of Orleans and Paul the Deacon.

Godman, Peter, ed. Alcuin: The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. The only complete edition of a major poem by Alcuin, with full commentary and introduction. Godman argues that the poem was written after Alcuin emigrated, although the poem is valuable chiefly as a guide to Alcuin’s early intellectual life.

Levison, Wilhelm. England and the Continent in the Eighth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946. A clear account of the relations between England and Europe in Alcuin’s century, including the missionary drive which Alcuin supported and the liturgical work. Levison points out that Alcuin himself was not always free of grammatical error.

Waddell, Helen, ed. and trans. Medieval Latin Lyrics. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1930. Graceful translations of several poems by Alcuin and other members of the “court circle.” Particularly charming is the “Disputation Between Spring and Winter,” which has been doubtfully ascribed to Alcuin yet is in a pastoral mode he employs elsewhere.

Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. and trans. English Historical Documents. Vol. 1, c. 500-1042. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1955. This volume includes translations of a dozen of Alcuin’s major letters. Also valuable are other items of correspondence to or from Charlemagne, referring to the political scene of Western Europe in Alcuin’s lifetime.

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