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Alcuin of York (c.735-804)

Cathedral

Christians Who Changed Their World (2)

This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life. The first series of articles focuses on education.

Restoring order to Europe

With the collapse of Roman authority in the Latin speaking world, political power became more and more fragmented. Among the Franks, whose territory covered modern France and the western parts of Germany, a series of weak kings gave up so much political power to their nobles that the monarchy had become little more than an empty title.

This began to change when Pepin the Short became king in 752, ending the Merovingian dynasty and beginning the Carolingian. He was succeeded by his son Charlemagne in 768. Charlemagne expanded the borders of the kingdom tremendously: to defend the Pope, he conquered the Lombards in northern Italy; to protect his southern borders from the Muslims in Spain, he took an area in northern Spain that became known as the Spanish March; to stop raids from the Saxons, he conquered them; to protect his eastern border from the South Slavs and the Avars, he took some of their territory as well, which became known as the Eastern March (Ostmark, eventually becoming Austria).

Because of these military successes, Charlemagne became the first person since the fall of Rome to control the majority of continental Europe himself; the only others to do so were Charles V (during the Reformation), Napoleon, and Hitler.

Charlemagne realized that, given the size of his kingdom, he needed educated people to administer it. So he decided that he would start an education program, headed by the finest scholar he could find. He decided on someone from outside of his territory, a deacon and teacher in York, England, named Alcuin.

Alcuin and the palace school

The church in York had been founded by Irish missionaries, so not surprisingly it was a major center for education.[i] Alcuin was educated at York by Archbishop Egbert, a student of the Venerable Bede. When he completed his education, he became a teacher and then the director of the school at York. Among other things, he played a very important role in reviving the late Roman liberal arts in the school.

When Charlemagne’s call came, Alcuin responded somewhat reluctantly. He joined a group of scholars surrounding Charlemagne, but he quickly emerged as the leading light at court.

One of his first responsibilities was to revamp the palace school, which had been created by Charlemagne’s predecessors for the royal family but mostly only taught manners and etiquette. Charlemagne wanted a more academic curriculum, and Alcuin obliged by bringing the liberal arts back to education on the continent. He also taught Charlemagne, his children, and the clergy at the palace chapel.

Alcuin developed close relations with the court, giving the nobles and his students nicknames drawn from the Bible or classical literature. The typical evening entertainment included long theological and philosophical discussions in which Charlemagne himself actively participated.

Educational standards

Although the palace school was particularly important to Charlemagne, he realized it could not supply all the educated administrators he needed. Accordingly, Alcuin helped him set up schools in the cathedrals around the kingdom and in the monasteries that had already been providing what little education that was available prior to Alcuin’s reforms. Once again, Alcuin brought the liberal arts into these schools and increased the overall quality of education.  These schools would ultimately become the foundation of the later, larger revival of education in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

To help the kingdom run more smoothly, Alcuin believed in standardization. He not only standardized the curriculum in the schools, but in an era in which all books were hand copied and thus prone to error, he set out to provide standard versions of all texts, including the books used in schools, the liturgy, and monastic rules, among other things.

To do this, Alcuin studied the available copies and selected what he thought to be the best text for the document. He then had scribes prepare a number of master copies which were carefully checked against the original. From there, every copy of the document made within the kingdom had to be made directly from one of the master copies. That way, any copying errors would not be propagated further, and all the copies would be very close to the originals.

To make these copies as easy to read as possible, Alcuin and his successors adapted the Irish uncial letters into a new style of handwriting called Carolingian minuscules. These appeared first at the monasteries of Corbie (a daughter monastery of Luxeuil, founded by Columbanus) and Tours, where Alcuin would retire.

The systematic program of copying begun by Alcuin and continued by his immediate successors such as Servatus Lupus (c.805-c.862) was critical for the preservation of classical literature. Many of our earliest surviving copies of Latin literature date from the Carolingian period, a fact which led to some confusion in the Italian Renaissance.

Italian Renaissance scholars who were busy searching out ancient literature saw these obviously early texts written in their remarkably elegant handwriting and assumed they couldn’t possibly have been produced during the “Dark Ages,” and so assumed they had to be authentic Roman documents. They then patterned their own handwriting on Carolingian minuscules, creating a handwriting style known as Italic writing, which in turn is the foundation for our handwriting today.

Alcuin’s impact

Alcuin also did a significant amount of writing himself, including letters, poetry, theological treatises, Biblical commentaries, and textbooks on grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Most interestingly, he also produced a textbook on mathematics, which included 53 word problems including a number of river crossing problems that are still used in various forms today.

In addition to his work in education, Alcuin acted as an advisor to Charlemagne. For example, Alcuin convinced Charlemagne to stop forcing pagans to be baptized or face execution, a practice Charlemagne had begun as part of a program to pacify the Saxons. Alcuin argued that faith could not be coerced, so even if you force people into baptism it wouldn’t make them Christians. Even after Alcuin’s return to his beloved Northumbria in 790, Charlemagne asked him to return to help him deal with the Adoptionist heresy.[ii]

Alcuin’s impact was far reaching. Even though the palace school only survived for a few generations, the cathedral schools and especially the monastic schools would live on and would spearhead the revival of education centuries later. The liberal arts curriculum Alcuin set in place would be the foundation for education for well over 500 years and continues to have an effect today. His efforts to standardize texts and writing styles and the work of his team to preserve classical literature would be critically important to the intellectual development of the West for even longer.

But for Alcuin, his work was all about serving God and serving the church by serving Charlemagne. He saw this as a divine calling, even though much of what he did was not directly related to the church. And though he did have an important impact ecclesiastically and theologically,[iii] it is in his work in the “secular” arena of education and cultural transmission that he made his biggest mark in living out his faith and making full use of the gifts God had given him.

Next steps: Alcuin understood the importance of careful planning, a concise program, and faithful execution of his work as an educator. What about you? Do you have personal plan for study and growth in the Lord? Meet with a Christian friend and talk about whether having such a plan might not benefit you both. Set up a course of study to help you grow in the Lord over the next year, then plan to meet and share together what you’re learning and how you’re growing in the Lord.

Why_You_Think_the_Way_You_Do

If you have not yet read Glenn Sunshine’s book,
Why You Think the Way You Do, it would make an excellent basis for a personal study plan. Order your copy today from our online store. T. M. Moore’s article, “A Call to Learning”, might be a good essay to discuss with a friend as you begin making plans to study together.

[i] For more information on the Irish and education, see the article on Columbanus in this series, http://www.colsoncenter.org/the-center/columns/indepth/17053-st-columbanus-540-615.

[ii] Adoptionism taught that Jesus became God’s son as a result of his adoption by God at his baptism.

[iii] Not all of this was positive: the manuscript he chose as the exemplar for the Nicene Creed included an extra word, filioque, which would eventually contribute to the division between Eastern and Western Christianity.

 

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