Alcuin of York (Latin: Alcuinus) or Ealhwine, nicknamed Albinus or Flaccus (730s or 740s – May 19, 804) was a scholar, ecclesiastic, poet and teacher from York, Northumbria. He was born around 735 and became the student of Ecgbert at York. At the invitation of Charlemagne, he became a leading scholar and teacher at the Carolingian court, where he remained a figure at court in the 780s and 790s. He was responsible for inventing lower case letters. He wrote many theological and dogmatic treatises, as well as a few grammatical works and a number of poems. He was made abbot of Saint Martin's at Tours in 796, where he remained until his death. He is considered among the most important architects of the Carolingian Renaissance. Among his pupils were many of the dominant intellectuals of the Carolingian era.
Alcuin of York had a long career as a teacher and scholar, first at the school at York now known as St Peter's School, York (founded AD 627) and later as Charlemagne's leading advisor on ecclesiastical and educational affairs. From 796 until his death he was abbot of the great monastery of St. Martin of Tours.
The majority of details on Alcuin's life come from his letters and poems. There are also autobiographical sections in Alcuin's poem on York and in the Vita Alcuini, a Life written for him at Ferrières in the 820s, possibly based in part on the memorisations of Sigwulf, one of Alcuin's pupils.
Alcuin was born in Northumbria, presumably sometime in the 740s. His parents are unknown and little in fact can be made of his family background and origin. In common hagiographical fashion, the Vita Alcuini asserts that its subject was "of noble English stock" and this statement has usually been accepted by scholars. Alcuin's own work only mentions such collateral kinsmen as Wilgils, father of the missionary saint Willibrord, and Beornred, abbot of Echternach and bishop of Sens, who was more distantly related. In his Life of St Willibrord, Alcuin writes that Wilgils, called a paterfamilias, had founded an oratory and church at the mouth of the Humber, which had fallen into Alcuin's possession by inheritance. Because in early Anglo-Latin writing, paterfamilias ("head of a family, householder") usually referred to a ceorl, Donald A. Bullough suggests that Alcuin's family was of cierlisc status, i.e. free but subordinate to a noble lord, and that Alcuin and other members of his family rose to prominence through beneficial connections with the aristocracy. If the locations of this land-holding and York are anything to go by, Alcuin's origins may lie in the southern part of what was formerly known as Deira.
At an early age, Alcuin came to the cathedral church of York in the golden age of Archbishop Ecgbert and Eadberht. Egbert had been a disciple of the Venerable Bede who urged him to have York raised to an archbishopric. Eadbert was the king and brother to Egbert. These two men oversaw the re-energising and re-organisation of the English church with an emphasis on reforming the clergy and on the tradition of learning begun under Bede. Alcuin thrived under Egbert’s tutelage who loved him especially. It was in York that he formed his love of classical poetry, though he was sometimes troubled by the fact that it was written by non-Christians.
The York school was renowned as a centre of learning not only in religious matters but also in the liberal arts, literature and science named the seven liberal arts. It was from here that Alcuin drew inspiration for the school he would lead at the Frankish court. He revived the school with disciplines such as the trivium and the quadrivium. Two codices were written, by himself on the trivium, and by his student Hraban. on the quadrivium.
Alcuin graduated from student to teacher sometime in the 750s. His ascendancy to the headship of the York school, which has subsequently become known as St Peter's School, began after Aelbert became Archbishop of York in 767. Around the same time Alcuin became a deacon in the church. He was never ordained as a priest and there is no real evidence that he became an actual monk, but he lived his life like one.
In 781, King Elfwald sent Alcuin to Rome to petition the Pope for official confirmation of York’s status as an archbishopric and to confirm the election of a new archbishop, Eanbald I. On his way home he met Charlemagne, though not for the first time, in the Italian city of Parma.
Alcuin was reluctantly persuaded to join Charlemagne's court. His love of the church and his intellectual curiosity made the offer one that he could not refuse. He was to join an already illustrious group of scholars that Charles had gathered around him like Peter of Pisa, Paulinus of Aquileia, Rado, and Abbot Fulrad. He would later write that "the Lord was calling me to the service of King Charles."
Alcuin was welcomed at the Palace School of Charlemagne in Aachen (Urbs Regale) in 782. The school had been founded under the king’s ancestors as a place for educating the royal children, mostly in manners and the ways of the court. However, King Charles wanted more than this – he wanted to include the liberal arts and, most importantly, the study of the religion that he held sacred. From 782 to 790, Alcuin had as pupils Charlemagne himself, his sons Pepin and Louis, the young men sent for their education to the court, and the young clerics attached to the palace chapel. Bringing with him from York his assistants Pyttel, Sigewulf and Joseph, Alcuin revolutionized the educational standards of the Palace School, introducing Charlemagne to the liberal arts and creating a personalised atmosphere of scholarship and learning to the extent that the institution came to be known as the "school of Master Albinus".
In this role as adviser, he tackled the emperor over his policy of forcing pagans to be baptised on pain of death arguing, “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe.” His arguments seem to have prevailed; Charlemagne abolished the death penalty for paganism in 797.
Charlemagne was master at gathering the best men of every nation in his court. He himself became far more than just the king at the centre. It seems that Charlemagne made many of these men his closest friends and counsellors. They referred to him as "David", a reference to the Biblical King David. Alcuin soon found himself on intimate terms with the king and with the other men at court to whom he gave nicknames to be used for work and play. Alcuin himself was known as "Albinus" or "Flaccus".
Alcuin’s friendships also extended to the ladies of the court, especially the queen mother and the daughters of the king. His relationships with these women, however, never reached the intense level of those with the men around him. Modern commentators , have identified, for example, the homo-erotic tone of some of Alcuin's poetry, emphasising the spiritual and idealistic aspects of his love for his friends and his pupils. While at Aachen, his pupils were given pet names, derived from classical allusions (mainly from Virgil's Eclogues).
In 790 Alcuin went back to England, to which he had always been greatly attached. He dwelt there for some time, but Charlemagne then invited him back to help in the fight against the Adoptionist heresy which was at that time making great progress in Toledo, Spain, the old capital town of the Visigoths and still a major city for the Christians under Islamic rule in Spain. He is believed to have had contacts with Beatus of Liébana, from the Kingdom of Asturias, who fought against Adoptionism. At the Council of Frankfurt in 794, Alcuin upheld the orthodox doctrine, and obtained the condemnation of the heresiarch Felix of Urgel. Having failed during his stay in England to influence King Aethelraed of Northumbria in the conduct of his reign, Alcuin never returned to live in England. Alcuin was back at Charlemagne's court by at least mid 792, writing a series of letters to Aethelraed of Northumbria, to Hygbald, Bishop of Lindisfarne, and Aethelheard, Archbishop of Canterbury in the succeeding months, which deal with the attack on Lindisfarne by Viking raiders in July 792. These letters, and Alcuin's poem on the subject De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii provide the only significant contemporary account of these events.
In 796 Alcuin was in his sixties. He hoped to be free from court duties and was given the chance when Abbot Itherius of Saint Martin at Tours died. Charlemagne gave Marmoutier Abbey into Alcuin's care with the understanding that he should be available if the king ever needed his counsel.
Alcuin died on May 19, 804, some ten years before the emperor. He was buried at St. Martin’s Church under an epitaph that partly read:
Dust, worms, and ashes now...
Alcuin my name, wisdom I always loved,
Pray, reader, for my soul.
He made the abbey school into a model of excellence, and many students flocked to it; he had many manuscripts copied, the calligraphy of which is of outstanding beauty. He wrote many letters to his friends in England, to Arno, bishop of Salzburg, and above all to Charlemagne. These letters, of which 311 are extant, are filled mainly with pious meditations, but they further form a mine of information as to the literary and social conditions of the time, and are the most reliable authority for the history of humanism in the Carolingian age. He also trained the numerous monks of the abbey in piety, and it was in the midst of these pursuits that he died.
Alcuin is the most prominent figure of the Carolingian Renaissance, in which three main periods have been distinguished: in the first of these, up to the arrival of Alcuin at the court, the Italians occupy the central place; in the second, Alcuin and the Anglo-Saxons are dominant; in the third, which begins in 804, the influence of Theodulf the Visigoth is preponderant.
We owe to him, too, some manuals used in his educational work; a grammar and works on rhetoric and dialectics. They are written in the form of dialogues, and in the two last the interlocutors are Charlemagne and Alcuin. He also wrote several theological treatises: a De fide Trinitatis, commentaries on the Bible, etc.
Alcuin transmitted to the Franks the knowledge of Latin culture which had existed in England. We still have a number of his works. His letters have already been mentioned; his poetry is equally interesting. Besides some graceful epistles in the style of Venantius Fortunatus, he wrote some long poems, and notably a whole history in verse of the church at York: Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae.
The textbook Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes (English: Problems to sharpen the young, proper title Propositiones Alcuini Doctoris Caroli Magni Imperatoris ad Acuendes Juvenes—English: Propositions of Alcuin, A Teacher of Emperor Charlemagne, for Sharpening Youths) is usually attributed to Alcuin. It contains about 53 mathematical word problems with solutions, in no particular pedagogical order. Among the most famous of these problems are four that involve river crossings, including the problem of three jealous husbands, each of whom can't let another man be alone with his wife (Problem 17), the problem of the wolf, goat, and cabbage (Problem 18), and the problem of "the two adults and two children where the children weigh half as much as the adults" (Problem 19).
At the end of his life, Alcuin had a reputation for holiness, yet he is not included in the canon of saints and never advanced to holy orders beyond those of deacon.
The following is partially based on an overview by Robert Levine and Whitney Bolton
Of Alcuin's letters, just over 310 have survived.
See also Charlemagne.
ALCUIN (ALCHUINE), a celebrated ecclesiastic and man of learning in the 8th century, who liked to be called by the Latin name of Albinus, and at the Academy of the palace took the surname of Flaccus, was born at Eboracum (York) in 735. He was related to Willibrord, the first bishop of Utrecht, whose biography he afterwards wrote. He was educated at the cathedral school of York, under the celebrated master !Elbert, with whom he also went to Rome in search of manuscripts. When !Elbert was appointed archbishop of York in 766, Alcuin succeeded him in the headship of the episcopal school. He again went to Rome in 780, to fetch the pallium for Archbishop Eanbald, and at Parma met Charlemagne, who persuaded him to come to his court, and gave him the possession of the great abbeys of Ferrieres and of Saint-Loup at Troyes. The king counted on him to accomplish the great work which was his dream, namely, to make the Franks familiar with the rules of the Latin language, to create schools and to revive learning. From 781 to 790 Alcuin was his sovereign's principal helper in this enterprise. He had as pupils the king of the Franks, the members of his family and the young clerics attached to the palace chapel; he was the life and soul of the Academy of the palace, and we have still, in the Dialogue of Pepin (son of Charlemagne) and Alcuin, a sample of the intellectual exercises in which they indulged. It was under his inspiration that Charles wrote his famous letter de litteris colendis (Boretius, Capitularia, i. p. 78), and it was he who founded a fine library in the palace. In 790 Alcuin returned to his own country, to which he had always been greatly attached, and st syed there some time; but Charlemagne needed him to combat the Adoptianist heresy, which was at that time making great progress in the marches of Spain. At the council of Frankfort in 794 Alcuin upheld the orthodox doctrine, and obtained the condemnation of the heresiarch Felix of Urgel. After this victory he again returned to his own land, but on account of the disturbances which broke out there, and which led to the death of King !Ethelred (796), he bade farewell to it for ever. Charlemagne had just given him the great abbey of St Martin at Tours, and there, far from the disturbed life of the court, he passed his last years. He made the abbey school into a model of excellence, and many students flocked to it; he had numerous manuscripts copied, the calligraphy of which is of extraordinary beauty (v. Leopold Delisle in the Memoires de l'Acade nie des Inscriptions, vol. xxxii., 1st part, 1885). He wrote numerous letters to his friends in England, to Arno, bishop of Salzburg, and above all to Charlemagne. These letters, of which 311 are extant, are filled chiefly with pious meditations, but they further form a mine of information as to the literary and social conditions of the time, and are the most reliable authority for the history of humanism in the Carolingian age. He also trained the numerous monks of the I. 34 abbey in piety, and it was in the midst of these pursuits that he was struck down by death on the 19th of May 804.
Alcuin is the most prominent figure of the Carolingian Renaissance, in which have been distinguished three main periods: in the first of these, up to the` arrival of Alcuin at the court, the Italians occupy the chief place; in the second, Alcuin and the Anglo-Saxons are dominant; in the third, which begins in 804, the influence of the Goth Theodulf is preponderant. Alcuin transmitted to the ignorant Franks the knowledge of Latin culture which had existed in England since the time of Bede. We still have a number of his works. His letters have already been mentioned; his poetry is equally interesting. Besides some graceful epistles in the style of Fortunatus, he wrote some long poems, and notably a whole history in verse of the church at York: Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae. We owe to him, too, some manuals used in his educational work; a grammar and works on rhetoric and dialectics. They are written in the form of dialogues, and in the two last the interlocutors are King Charles and Alcuin. He wrote, finally, several theological treatises: a treatise de Fide Trinitatis, commentaries on the Bible, &c. The complete works of Alcuin have been edited by Froben: Alcuini opera, 1 vol. in 4 parts (Regensburg, 1777); this edition is reproduced in Migne's Patrolog. lat. vols. c. and ci. The letters have been published by Jaffe and Diimmler in Jaffe's Bibliotheca reruln germanicarum, vol. vi. pp. 132-897 (1873). E. Diimmler has also published an authoritative edition, Epistolae aevi Carolini, vol. ii. pp. 1-481, in the Monumenta Germaniae, and has edited the poems in the same collection: Poetae latini aevi Carolini, vol. i. pp. 169-341.
Monnier, Alcuin et Charlemagne (Paris, 1863); K. Werner, Alkuin and sein Jahrhundert (Paderborn, 1876); J. Bass Mullinger, The Schools of Charles the Great and the Restoration of Education in the gth Century (London, 1877); Aug. Molinier, Les Sources de l'histoire de France, vol. i. p. 191; G. Monod, Etudes critiques sur les sources de l'histoire carolingienne, part i. (Paris, 1898); C. J. B. Gaskoin, Alcuin: His Life and his Work (London, 1903). See further U. Chevalier, Repertoire des sources, &'c., biobibliographic, s.v. Alcuin; Wattenbach, Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1904), i. p. 186. (C. PF.)