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.
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.
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 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 confuse beneficus, 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...
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