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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alcuin (735–804)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Henry Carpenter (1853–1936)
 
ALCUIN, usually called Alcuin of York, came of a patrician family of Northumberland. Neither the date nor the place of his birth is known with definiteness, but he was born about 735 at or near York. As a child he entered the cathedral school recently founded by Egbert, Archbishop of York, and ultimately became its most eminent pupil. He was subsequently assistant master to Ælbert, its head; and when Ælbert succeeded to the archbishopric, on the death of Egbert in 766, Alcuin became scholasticus or master of the school. On the death of Ælbert in 780, Alcuin was placed in charge of the cathedral library, the most famous in Western Europe. In his longest poem, ‘Versus de Eboracensi Ecclesia’ (Poem on the Saints of the Church at York), he has left an important record of his connection with York. This poem, written before he left England, is, like most of his verse, in dactylic hexameters. To a certain extent it follows Virgil as a model, and is partly based on the writings of Bede, partly on his own personal experience. It is not only valuable for its historical bearings, but for its disclosure of the manner and matter of instruction in the schools of the time, and the contents of the great library. As master of the cathedral school, Alcuin acquired name and fame at home and abroad, and was soon the most celebrated teacher in Britain. Before 766, in company with Ælbert, he made his first journey to Germany, and may have visited Rome. Earlier than 780 he was again abroad, and at Pavia came under the notice of Charlemagne, who was on his way back from Italy. In 781 Eanbald, the new Archbishop of York, sent Alcuin to Rome to bring back the Archbishop’s pallium. At Parma he again met Charlemagne, who invited him to take up his abode at the Frankish court. With the consent of his king and his archbishop he resigned his position at York, and with a few pupils departed for the court at Aachen, in 782.  1
  Alcuin’s arrival in Germany was the beginning of a new intellectual epoch among the Franks. Learning was at this time in a deplorable state. The older monastic and cathedral schools had been broken up, and the monasteries themselves often unworthily bestowed upon royal favorites. There had been a palace school for rudimentary instruction, but it was wholly inefficient and unimportant.  2
  During the years immediately following his arrival, Alcuin zealously labored at his projects of educational reform. First reorganizing the palace school, he afterward undertook a reform of the monasteries and their system of instruction, and the establishment of new schools throughout the kingdom of Charlemagne. At the court school the great king himself, as well as Liutgard the queen, became his pupil. Gisela, Abbess of Chelles, the sister of Charlemagne, came also to him for instruction, as did the Princes Charles, Pepin, and Louis, and the Princesses Rotrud and Gisela. On himself and the others, in accordance with the fashion of the time, Alcuin bestowed fanciful names. He was Flaccus or Albinus, Charlemagne was David, the queen was Ava, and Pepin was Julius. The subjects of instruction in this school, the center of culture of the kingdom, were first of all, grammar; then arithmetic, astronomy, rhetoric, and dialectic. The king himself studied poetry, astronomy, arithmetic, the writings of the Fathers, and theology proper. It was under the influence of Alcuin that Charlemagne issued in 787 the capitulary that has been called “the first general charter of education for the Middle Ages.” It reproves the abbots for their illiteracy, and exhorts them to the study of letters; and although its effect was less than its purpose, it served, with subsequent decrees of the king, to stimulate learning and literature throughout all Germany.  3
  Alcuin’s system included, besides the palace school, and the monastic and cathedral schools, which in some instances gave both elementary and superior instruction, all the parish or village elementary schools, whose head was the parish priest.  4
  In 790, seeing his plans well established, Alcuin returned to York bearing letters of reconciliation to Offa, King of Mercia, between whom and Charlemagne dissension had arisen. Having accomplished his errand, he went back to the German court in 792. Here his first act was to take a vigorous part in the furious controversy respecting the doctrine of Adoptionism. Alcuin not only wrote against the heresy, but brought about its condemnation by the Council of Frankfort, in 794.  5
  Two years later, at his own request, he was made Abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St. Martin, at Tours. Not contented with reforming the lax monastic life, he resolved to make Tours a seat of learning. Under his management, it presently became the most renowned school in the kingdom. Especially in the copying of manuscripts did the brethren excel. Alcuin kept up a vast correspondence with Britain as well as with different parts of the Frankish kingdom; and of the two hundred and thirty letters preserved, the greater part belonged to this time. In 799, at Aachen, he held a public disputation on Adoptionism with Felix, Bishop of Urgel, who was wholly vanquished. When the king, in 800, was preparing for that visit to the Papal court which was to end with his coronation as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he invited Alcuin to accompany him. But the old man, wearied with many burdens, could not make the journey. By the beginning of 804 he had become much enfeebled. It was his desire, often expressed, to die on the day of Pentecost. His wish was fulfilled, for he died at dawn on the 19th of May. He was buried in the Cloister Church of St. Martin, near the monastery.  6
  Alcuin’s literary activity was exerted in various directions. Two-thirds of all that he wrote was theological in character. These works are exegetical, like the ‘Commentary on the Gospel of St. John’; dogmatic, like the ‘Writings against Felix of Urgel and Elipandus of Toledo,’ his best work of this class; or liturgical and moral, like the ‘Lives of the Saints.’ The other third is made up of the epistles, already mentioned; of poems on a great variety of subjects, the principal one being the ‘Poem on the Saints of the Church at York’; and of those didactic works which form his principal claim to attention at the present day. His educational treatises are the following: ‘On Grammar,’ ‘On Orthography,’ ‘On Rhetoric and the Virtues,’ ‘On Dialectics,’ ‘Disputation between the Royal and Most Noble Youth Pepin, and Albinus the Scholastic,’ and ‘On the Calculation of Easter,’ The most important of all these writings is his ‘Grammar,’ which consists of two parts: the first a dialogue between a teacher and his pupils on philosophy and studies in general; the other a dialogue between a teacher, a young Frank, and a young Saxon, on grammar. These latter, in Alcuin’s language, have “but lately rushed upon the thorny thickets of grammatical density.” Grammar begins with the consideration of the letters, the vowels and consonants, the former of which “are, as it were, the souls, and the consonants the bodies of words.” Grammar itself is defined to be “the science of written sounds, the guardian of correct speaking and writing. It is founded on nature, reason, authority, and custom.” He enumerates no less than twenty-six parts of grammar, which he then defines. Many of his definitions and particularly his etymologies, are remarkable. He tells us that feet in poetry are so called “because the metres walk on them”; littera is derived from legitera, “since the littera serve to prepare the way for readers” (legere, iter). In his ‘Orthography,’ a pendant to the ‘Grammar,’ cælebs, a bachelor, is “one who is on his way ad cælum” (to heaven). Alcuin’s ‘Grammar’ is based principally on Donatus. In this, as in all his works, he compiles and adapts, but is only rarely original. ‘On Rhetoric and the Virtues’ is a dialogue between Charlemagne and Albinus (Alcuin). The ‘Disputation between Pepin and Albinus,’ the beginning of which is here given, shows both the manner and the subject-matter of his instruction. Alcuin, with all the limitations which his environment imposed upon him, stamped himself indelibly upon his day and generation, and left behind him, in his scholars, an enduring influence. Men like Rabanus, the famous Bishop of Mayence, gloried in having been his pupils, and down to the wars and devastations of the tenth century his influence upon education was paramount throughout all Western Europe. There is an excellent account of Alcuin in Professor West’s ‘Alcuin’ (‘Great Educators’ Series), published in 1893. See also C. J. Gaskoin’s ‘Alcuin, His Life and Work’ (1904) and R. B. Page’s ‘The Letters of Alcuin’ (1911).  7
 
 
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