Alcuin of York

Alcuin of York
(ca. 735–804)
   Alcuin of York was the most influential scholar, teacher, and theologian of the Carolingian renaissance in late eighth-century Europe. In Alcuin the learning of Anglo-Saxon England that had thrived under the Venerable BEDE was disseminated throughout western Europe. As master of CHARLEMAGNE’s Palace School in Aachen, Alcuin was the driving force behind the rebirth of learning for which that era is famous. He established what became the standard liberal arts curriculum of medieval schools, and he was instrumental in preserving and copying ancient patristic and classical books. In addition, Alcuin wrote poetry, theological treatises, textbooks and many letters that have survived.
   Alcuin was born in Northumbria and educated at the cathedral school in York, where from an early age his native intelligence drew the attention of his schoolmaster Aelbert (a disciple of Bede) and the archbishop Egbert. In about 766, Alcuin succeeded Aelbert as master of the cathedral school. Over a period of 15 years, Alcuin made York a school with an international reputation. Students from all parts of England as well as the continent came to study at York, and Alcuin also gathered a substantial library, sometimes traveling to the continent to obtain or to copy manuscripts. In 781, after a trip to Rome,Alcuin met Charlemagne in Parma. The king, intent on reviving learning in his realm, convinced Alcuin to leave York and become the master of his Palace School in Aachen.Here Charlemagne himself became one of Alcuin’s pupils, along with the queen and the king’s sister and five children. Following this example, most of the highest nobility also attended the school. The school attracted some of the best scholars from Italy, Germany, and Ireland, and became the center for learning in the kingdom. In 794, Alcuin attended the Synod of Frankfort, a church council at which he was instrumental in the condemnation of the Adoptionist heresy. In his treatise against Felix of Urgel, chief proponent of Adoptionism, Alcuin argued against Felix’s idea that Jesus was only human until his baptism, when God adopted him as his son.
   In 796, Charlemagne appointed Alcuin abbott of St. Martin’s at Tours. It is doubtful that Alcuin, though a deacon of the church, ever was ordained a priest or joined the Benedictine order; nevertheless, he accepted the appointment and proceeded to establish another excellent school at Tours. He died there on May 19, 804.
   In his own time, Alcuin’s biggest contribution was undoubtedly as an educator. Charlemagne, appalled by the illiteracy among the priests of his kingdom, enacted legislation to ensure that his priests could read and write Latin and understand the Scriptures. He also issued an edict in 802 that the priest in every city and village in his realm should conduct free elementary schools in their parishes. It is certain that Alcuin, as head of the central Palace School, was instrumental in bringing about this educational revolution. The students that Alcuin taught at Aachen went on to instruct priests at liberal arts schools around the country.
   One of Alcuin’s innovations was the standardization of the LIBERAL ARTS curriculum, consisting of the trivium (comprising grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy)—a curriculum that remained in place throughout the Middle Ages. Alcuin composed textbooks for grammar, logic, astronomy, and rhetoric. These texts, written in the question and answer format of a dialogue, are not particularly original, though the treatise on rhetoric, called Compendia, did become widely used. At the same time, Alcuin established scriptoria for the copying of manuscripts, and he is credited for developing the Carolingian minuscule, a clear and standard cursive script that allowed for greater speed in writing. As a theologian, aside from his treatise against Adoptionism, Alcuin wrote nine scriptural commentaries and a collection of Latin sermons for priests to use.He wrote a very influential missal, and his modification of the Roman liturgy is the direct antecedent of the form in use in the Roman church to this day. In addition, Alcuin was instrumental in the development of a standard text of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible that, in the 400 years of scribal copying since St. JEROME composed it, had accumulated many copyists’ errors. Many of Alcuin’s letters survive, as well as some 170 Latin poems. Of these, two are of particular interest. One is a poem of consolation he wrote on the destruction of the monastery of Lindesfarne by Viking raiders in 793. The other, his longest, is a poem in 1,657 hexameter (six-foot) lines called On the Saints of the Church of York. Written presumably upon his leaving York for Aachen, the poem gives a history of the church, an idea of the academic life in Alcuin’s school, and a description of the contents of his library.
   ■ Bolton,W. F. Alcuin and Beowulf: An Eighth-Century View. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1978.
   ■ Cantor, Norman F.Medieval Lives: Eight Charismatic Men and Women of the Middle Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
   ■ Chase, Colin, ed. Two Alcuin Letter-Books. Toronto: Center for Medieval Studies, 1975.
   ■ Godman, Peter, ed. and trans. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
   ■ Scott, Peter Dale. “Alcuin as a Poet: Rhetoric and Belief in His Latin Verse,”University of Toronto Quarterly 33 (1964): 233–257.
   ■ Wilbur, Samuel Howell, trans. The Rhetoric of Alcuin and Charlemagne, 2nd ed. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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