Alcuin of York

Letter from Alcuin, Harley MS 208 f. 34r (c) British Library

Letter from Alcuin, Harley MS 208 f. 34r (c) British Library

The 7th century polymath studied at York and became a leading figure of Charlemagne’s Renaissance, before ending his career as Abbot of Tours.

He was born in Deira (approximately modern Yorkshire). Little is known about his parents, although his own writings suggest his family owned land in Yorkshire.  As a child he was handed over to the Minster community under the care of Ecgbert. He was always a promising scholar: it is said that he had mastered the Psalms by the age of 11 and showed a precocious interest in the works of Virgil. 

Alcuin was probably the most famous alumnus of the school at York. A lberht, the master of the school, sought learning and rare books during his travels to the continent. He used them to establish a curriculum at York which surpassed, in the range of subjects taught, all other schools in England and Western Europe at the time. This curriculum was based on the Trivium and Quadrivium subjects of Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, and Astronomy, Geometry, Arithmetic and Music. Alcuin studied under A lberht, and took over as master of the school in 767 CE when A lberht became Archbishop, also inheriting his library.

After A lberht died, Alcuin was sent to Rome to collect the pallium for the new archbishop and on his return in March 781 CE, as we have previously discussed, he met Charlemagne. At this point Alcuin was not a famous scholar and Charlemagne was not an emperor, but they saw potential in each other. Within the year he had joined Charlemagne’s court and spent the rest of his life on the Continent, apart from a couple of visits home. He became Charlemagne’s chief adviser on religious and educational matters. 

As head of the palace school at Aachen, he established a great library.  As well as revising church liturgy and the Bible, Alcuin helped create the intellectual movement where schools of learning were attached to monasteries and cathedrals. This was under direction for Charlemagne, who had a great project in mind to restore learning, combined with a legislative programme for reform of the Frankish Church and society. To this end he gathered the greatest scholars available to help see it through. They collected classical texts, created books and studied writers such as Cicero and the Roman poets. According to J. A. Willis, 94% of classical Latin literature was lost in the period between the Fall of Rome and Charlemagne’s rise to power. The remaining 6% was saved by the scholars at Charlemagne’s court.

Alcuin, as the leading scholar of his time, wrote to Charlemagne that the king’s noble efforts had ‘brought about a rebirth of civilised standards in every kind of knowledge and useful erudition.’

Alcuin also left us his definition of the meaning of “Wisdom”:  ‘the knowledge of things divine and human’ which is sought by the whole people. In this search for wisdom, the scholar must debate with and learn from pagan, Jew and Byzantine alike, in his effort to catch a vision of a nobler, more truly Christian, society

He and Charlemagne were close, and in 796 CE the Emperor gave Alcuin the abbacy of St Martin at Tours, and this was where he finally died eight years later. Even after his retirement, Charlemagne would ask for Alcuin’s advice, invite him to visit and ask him to accompany the emperor on campaign.

Alcuin wrote endless letters as well as a famous poem about York. He retained a keen interest in events back home, writing about the Viking raid on Lindisfarne as well as providing advice and guidance.

Alcuin’s influence was profound. At court and later at Tours, he imported the York curriculum, reintroducing books and subjects which had been neglected for centuries but saved in Northumbria. His works covered every area of his time’s intellectual endeavour: grammar, astronomy, hagiography, biblical commentary and theology. His pupils came from all over the empire to study with the famous teacher, and went on to become abbots and bishops, including Rhabanus Maurus (Abbot of Fulda, Archbishop of Mainz) and Einhard (Charlemagne’s biographer).

Alcuin’s remarkable influence on contemporaries reflects not only his learning, piety, and prolific writing, but also the effects of his personality, especially his gift for friendship expressed in letters and poems. He inspired devotion from his students and corresponded with kings, abbots and bishops, as well as the Patriarch of Jerusalem. His letters were copied and preserved in monastic centres across Europe and his writings recopied in every century, until the age of print.    

And finally, he was an organised man – he even wrote his own epitaph:

“tu mihi redde vicem, lector, rogo, carminis huius

  et dic: ‘da veniam, Christe, tuo famulo.’

obsecro, nulla manus violet pia iura sepulcri,

  personet angelica donec ab arce tuba:

‘qui iaces in tumulo, terrae de pulvere surge,

  magnus adest iudex milibus innumeris.’

Alchuine nomen erat sophiam mihi semper amanti,

  pro quo funde preces mente, legens titulum.”

“Now I ask you, the reader of this poem, say:

‘O Christ have mercy on your servant here’

I pray that no hand violate the holy tomb

Until the Angel’s trumpet calls from heaven:

‘Arise from the dust of the earth, you who lie in this tomb.

For the Great Judge is here with countless throngs’

Alcuin was my name. I always loved wisdom.

Pray for me, as you read this.”