Alcuin: Charlemagne's Finest Scholar

Dan Graves, MSL

Alcuin: Charlemagne's Finest Scholar

England lost her greatest teacher and Western Europe gained one of the finest scholars it would see for centuries, when Alcuin of York in England, met Charlemagne in Parma in 781. The noble-born Englishman had risen to the leadership of the school at York, earning himself an international reputation. Charles convinced him to share his talents with his empire and bestowed on him the abbeys of Ferrières and St. Loup. Steeped in the pedagogical tradition of Bede, Alcuin stirred the Franks to acquire the little learning they were to possess in the so called "Dark Ages."

From 782 to 790 he transplanted Anglo-Saxon learning to the continent. In addition to preparing elementary textbooks in dialog form and brain teasers which called for the shrewd use of geometry and algebra, he reformed Frankish laws and advised the emperor. It was Alcuin who urged Charlemagne to delay answering Pope Leo III, forcing the prelate to come to the emperor. Unfortunately, the emperor did not listen when Alcuin urged him not to force conversion on the heathen Saxons, who eventually retaliated with war and slaughter.

Alcuin founded the Carolignian palace library and developed a script of small characters called Carolignian Minuscule which allowed more letters than before to be written on a single expensive page of parchment. Of great beauty, this script was later employed by the earliest printers. Manuscripts copied under Alcuin's headship were renowned for their calligraphy.

In 790 Alcuin returned to England but was recalled to the continent by Charlemagne within a few years. The teacher-priest was given the additional abbey of St. Martin in Tours. Immediately it became a Mecca for the scholars of Europe, eager to learn from the master. One of his most notable students was the encyclopedist Rhabanus Maurus. Alcuin summed up his own contribution, saying, "[I] dispensed the honey of the scripture, intoxicated my students with the wine of ancient learning, fed them the apples of grammatical refinement, and adorned them with the knowledge of astronomy."

Actually, Alcuin cared for astronomy only to the extent it was useful to calculate the Christians' all important date: Easter. Neither his astronomy nor his other writings were very original. His letters, however, open a window onto the age. 312 survive, addressed to recipients by some personal characteristic or by their latinized names. All were written in Latin, as were his sermons, poems, theology, epistles, and history.

Alcuin was strictly orthodox, a purveyor of the gospel and virtue. He raised the level of knowledge of churchmen and stimulated the mind of an age besieged by barbarian invasions. In doing so, he molded the tenor of Europe's subsequent thought and left a legacy of trained minds to keep alive the embers of religion, culture, and science in Europe. He died on this day, May 19, 804.

  1. "Alcuin." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  2. "Alcuin of York." Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
  3. Burns, J. A. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  4. Bury, J. B., et al. Cambridge Medieval History, Vol III. Germany and the Western Empire. Cambridge, England: University Press, 1957 - .
  5. Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Various editions.
  6. Kunitz, Stanley L. "Alcuin." British Authors Before 1800; a biographical dictionary. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1952.
  7. Runes, Dagobert D. A Treasury of Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1945.
  8. Shook, L. K. "Alcuin of York." Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Edited by Joseph R. Strayer. New York: Scribner's, 1982 - 1989.
  9. West, Andrew Fleming. Alcuin and the Rise of the Christian Schools. New York: C. Scribner's sons, 1892.
  10. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated April, 2007.

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