Plaque to be erected on the Minster Library

Born in the kingdom of Northumbria, probably near York in around ad735, Alcuin (Albinus Flaccus) was first a pupil and, subsequently, headmaster (ad778) of the York cathedral school – from which St Peter’s School grew. Most sources suggest that he later became head of the Palace School at Aachen – Aix-La-Chapelle – and may have taught Charlemagne’s sons. He attended the synod of Frankfurt to help combat the Spanish Adoptionist heresy (that Christ was only the adopted son of God) in ad794 and travelled extensively on the Continent, often on Charlemagne’s business and often promoting education. One source even describes him as Charlemagne’s “Minister of Education” founding schools throughout his realm; others see him as Charlemagne’s close adviser and wary friend. He was also a poet, a prodigious letter writer and leading theologian supporting liturgical reforms, combating heresies and a scholar who helped foster the Carolingian growth of learning, paving the way for the later Renaissance.

When Alcuin was Abbot of St Martin’s in Tours, the monastery’s scriptorium refined the Carolingian minuscule form of handwriting – a ‘masterpiece of medieval calligraphy’ (Poulle, 1977, p.139) – and invented new conventions for punctuation and page layout. Long before printing, the clarity, speed of writing, and uniformity developed at Tours assisted directly the spread of learning across Charlemagne’s empire. Carolingian minuscule became the dominant “hand” in Europe for around 300 years and was later the model for printing’s roman fonts. Moreover, partly owing to its spacing, the script was especially helpful to mathematicians and important mathematical texts were recopied in minuscule.

1920s window by John Alder Knowles in St Lawrence Church York

The York years

Most of Alcuin’s first 50 years, however, were spent in York. He was born around the time of the death of the Venerable Bede, perhaps to minor nobility from whom he inherited land endowed with an oratory and monastery near the Humber estuary. He was taught by one of Bede’s pupils, Ecbert, Archbishop of York, and was especially attached to Ecbert’s successor, Ælberht, accompanying him on journeys in Europe and adding to the cathedral school’s library in the process. The library became a distinguished national collection from which Alcuin drew when in Tours.

He entered the cathedral school as a small child. By the age of 11, he is said to have mastered the psalms, was taking an interest in Virgil and was responding strongly to St John’s Gospel, probably in early adolescence. He took the clerical tonsure and, in 760, was ordained deacon which most sources claim he remained, while others argue that he became a priest, though only late in life, probably joining the Benedictine order, a departure from the non-monastic York tradition but matching the regime in Tours.

By his thirties, a revered teacher in the cathedral school, his work and reputation attracted new pupils from Britain and Europe, including Luidger, later the first Bishop of Münster (Westfalen), who preserved memories of Alcuin’s inspired teaching. Alcuin’s letters reveal that he was reading widely in history, theology and poetry at this time and, in his teaching, was following the traditional programme of the seven medieval liberal arts: grammar, logic and rhetoric (the trivium), with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music (the quadrivium). He was also composing didactic texts and was later to produce written versions of his oral teaching, early strands, perhaps, in the gradual strengthening of written culture that was finally consolidated only with mass printing and compulsory education more than 1,000 years later.

He travelled in Europe during the York years. In the 760s he went, in company with Ælberht, to Rome, taking in Murbach Abbey in Alscace and Pavia in Lombardy. He may have travelled again in the 770s; it is certain that he went to Rome around 780 to collect the pallium (the vestment worn by primates) for Eanbald I, Ælberht’s successor. Alcuin had co-operated with Eanbald in planning a church dedicated to Alma Sophia probably near the cathedral – perhaps explaining the alignment of the present chapter house – but just possibly in Bishophill. During this journey, he met Charlemagne, probably at Parma in 781, and was invited to join his court which he did in 782, remaining in Charlemagne’s service for the rest of his life. However, he returned with the pallium first, wrote a long poem in praise of York’s great men and may have joined the Papal legate to Mercia in 784.

At Charlemagne’s court

In the morning, at the height of my powers, I sowed the seed in Britain, now in the evening when my blood is growing cold I am still sowing in France, hoping both will grow, by the grace of God, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning …

In 768, Charlemagne, similar in age to Alcuin, inherited a part of the Frankish kingdom that embraced the coastal area extending from western France to the Netherlands and northern Germany. When his brother Carloman died three years later, he took over central France and south-west Germany too, beginning a period of rapid and sometimes brutal expansions, conversions to Christianity and conquests. Towards the end of his reign, now Holy Roman Emperor (for protecting the Pope from attack), Charlemagne’s territories included France, Belgium, the Netherlands, most of Germany, most of Austria, northern Italy, Switzerland, Bohemia and a part of northern Spain.

To unify such a large and disparate realm required more than force of arms. In due course, after ruling peripatetically, Charlemagne settled upon Aachen as his power base, far enough from Rome to be demonstrably independent but deploying the forces of education and Christianity as his civilising allies. This was the role of Alcuin and the other scholars whom Charlemagne sought out. In addition to its religious role, the literacy they taught was an instrument of administration. Expanding the numbers of monasteries and the schools commonly attached to them served both purposes.

Donald Bullough, a leading Alcuin scholar, has questioned the claim that he was head of the Aachen Palace school, seeing his work for Charlemagne as more varied and important. He found, for example, that Alcuin was granted considerable powers, including over five widely scattered monasteries, before being made abbot in Tours. Within the field of education, he collected, wrote, edited and disseminated texts. In the disturbance of wars and invasions, many ancient texts were lost, as when the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne. Alcuin ensured that monastic scriptoria preserved the remaining texts, whether Christian or Roman, by copying, storing and circulating them. It is owing to his initiative that numbers of classical texts have survived and he encouraged the acquisition of libraries in schools.

In particular, Alcuin gathered up ancient texts that might serve as text books. Similarly, he prepared compendiums – summaries and commentaries on earlier texts – for use by pupils, and composed basic texts on arithmetic, geometry and astronomy (a particular interest of Charlemagne), sometimes preparing them in Question/Answer format to assist learning. He is generally seen too as the compiler of Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes (Problems to Sharpen the Young), a collection of maths puzzles designed to educate and entertain. Similarly, he wrote two versions of a text on spelling, De Orthographia, that built on a work by Bede whom he revered throughout his life. He wrote too on grammar, on rhetoric and dialectics (deductive argument). One source even suggests that Alcuin may have started to organise studies on modern lines by dividing students into classes for subject teaching. If adopted then, it was a long time spreading; large classes in a single room remained common for centuries. None the less, his benign influence turned many of his pupils into leading clerics and teachers, so that, as one commentator noted, wherever significant literary activity was found in Europe, an Alcuin ex-pupil was probably leading it.

Beside his work in education, in his 22 years serving Charlemagne, Alcuin’s scriptural, theological and liturgical work belies all notion that his blood was growing cold. He oversaw the production of The Golden Gospels: illuminated codex manuscripts – in book form, not scroll – written mostly in gold on purple vellum. In a period when the Bible text was often corrupted, it is said that he re-edited the Vulgate Bible, trying to get closer to St Jerome’s version, though his role is disputed. However, he would plainly have overseen the Tours Bibles. He wrote nine commentaries on the scriptures, including a lengthy one on St John’s Gospel, and took a leading role in defending church authority whenever heresies blossomed. Alcuin formally debated against the Spanish bishop Felix and his Adoptionist heresy in Charlemagne’s presence when the bishop was summoned to Aachen in 799. But the heresy did not die immediately; Bishop Elipandus, also Spanish, failed to recant and it was Alcuin, though a deacon, who wrote refuting him.

As if that were not enough, Alcuin is seen as a major force in the liturgical reforms that bound together Charlemagne’s far-flung empire. Rites and practices varied widely and Alcuin began by publishing a collection of sermons – a Homiliary – for use by priests. When the technology eventually arrived, it was still important enough to be printed. Alcuin’s mass book, reinforcing Roman usage, was used throughout the Frankish domains. We also owe to Alcuin the scheduled readings of epistles on Sundays and Holy days. He introduced too the custom of singing the creed which derived from practice in his native Northumbria (itself influenced by Celtic ritual) and he scheduled votive masses for particular days in the week.

Selected Sources

Donald A. Bullough, Alcuin, Achievement and Reputation, (Leiden, The Netherlands, 2002)

D.A. Bullough, ‘Alcuin [Albinus, Flaccus] c.740-804’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)

Douglas Dales, Alcuin, His Life and Legacy (Cambridge, 2012)

Douglas Dales, Alcuin, Theology and Thought (Cambridge, 2013)

Emmanuel Poulle, (1977,) ‘Une histoire de l’écriture’, Bibliothèque de l’école des chartes, tome 135, livraison 1, pp137-144 (also online)

Angelo Raine, A History of St Peter’s School, York (London, 1926)

© Graham Frater