Alcuin of York, also called Ealhwine, Albinus or Flaccus, was an English scholar, ecclesiastic, poet and teacher from York, Northumbria. He was born around 735 and became the student of Archbishop Ecgbert at York. At the invitation of Charlemagne, he became a leading scholar and teacher at the Carolingian court, where he remained a figure in the 780s and 790s. He wrote many theological and dogmatic treatises, as well as a few grammatical works and a number of poems. He was made Abbot of Tours in 796, where he remained until his death. "The most learned man anywhere to be found", according to Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, 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 was born in Northumbria, presumably sometime in the 730s. Virtually nothing is known of his parents, family background, or origin. In common hagiographical fashion, the Vita Alcuini asserts that Alcuin 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 so, Alcuin's origins may lie in the southern part of what was formerly known as Deira.
The young Alcuin came to the cathedral church of York during the golden age of Archbishop Ecgbert and his brother, the Northumbrian King Eadberht. Ecgbert had been a disciple of the Venerable Bede, who urged him to raise York to an archbishopric. King Eadberht and Archbishop Ecgbert oversaw the re-energising and re-organisation of the English church, with an emphasis on reforming the clergy and on the tradition of learning that Bede had begun. Ecgbert was devoted to Alcuin, who thrived under his tutelage.
The York school was renowned as a centre of learning in the liberal arts, literature, and science, as well as in religious matters. It was from here that Alcuin drew inspiration for the school he would lead at the Frankish court. He revived the school with the trivium and quadrivium disciplines, writing a codex on the trivium, while his student Hraban wrote one on the quadrivium.
Alcuin graduated to become a teacher during the 750s. His ascendancy to the headship of the York school, the ancestor of 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 as 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 the new archbishop, Eanbald I. On his way home he met Charlemagne (whom he had met once before), this time in the Italian city of Parma.
Alcuin's love of the church and his intellectual curiosity allowed him to be reluctantly persuaded to join Charlemagne's court. He joined an illustrious group of scholars that Charlemagne had gathered around him, the mainsprings of the Carolingian Renaissance: Peter of Pisa, Paulinus of Aquileia, Rado, and Abbot Fulrad. Alcuin would later write that "the Lord was calling me to the service of King Charles."
He was welcomed at the Palace School of Charlemagne in Aachen (Urbs Regale) in 782. It had been founded by the king's ancestors as a place for the education of the royal children (mostly in manners and the ways of the court). However, Charlemagne wanted to include the liberal arts and, most importantly, the study of the religion that he held sacred. He loved the thought of religion, and it was so important to him that he decided to share it with his country and others. From 782 to 790, Alcuin taught Charlemagne himself, his sons Pepin and Louis, the young men sent to be educated at court, and the young clerics attached to the palace chapel. Bringing with him from York his assistants Pyttel, Sigewulf, and Joseph, Alcuin revolutionised 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 a master at gathering the best men of every land in his court. He himself became far more than just the king at the centre. It seems that he 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 Charlemagne and the other men at court, where pupils and masters were known by affectionate and jesting nicknames. Alcuin himself was known as 'Albinus' or 'Flaccus'.
In 790 Alcuin returned from the court of Charlemagne to England, to which he had remained 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, the old capital 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 Northumbria to influence King Æthelred in the conduct of his reign, Alcuin never returned home.
He was back at Charlemagne's court by at least mid-792, writing a series of letters to Æthelred, to Hygbald, Bishop of Lindisfarne, and to Æthelhard, Archbishop of Canterbury in the succeeding months, dealing with the Viking attack on Lindisfarne in July 793. These letters and Alcuin's poem on the subject, De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii, provide the only significant contemporary account of these events.
In his description of the Viking attack, he wrote: "Never before has such terror appeared in Britain. Behold the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of God's priests, robbed of its ornaments."
Tours and death
In 796 Alcuin was in his sixties. He hoped to be free from court duties and was given the chance upon the death of Abbot Itherius of Saint Martin at Tours, when Charlemagne put Marmoutier Abbey into Alcuin's care, with the understanding that he should be available if the king ever needed his counsel.
Alcuin died on 19 May 804, some ten years before the emperor, and 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 was later canonised as a saint, and remains recognised within the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
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 memories of Sigwulf, one of Alcuin's pupils.
Alcuin made the abbey school into a model of excellence and many students flocked to it. He had many manuscripts copied using outstandingly beautiful calligraphy, the Carolingian minuscule based on round and legible uncial letters. He wrote many letters to his English friends, 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 form an important source of information as to the literary and social conditions of the time and are the most reliable authority for the history of humanism during the Carolingian age. Alcuin 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 a central place; in the second, Alcuin and the Anglo-Saxons are dominant; in the third (from 804), the influence of Theodulf, the Visigoth is preponderant.
Alcuin also developed manuals used in his educational work – a grammar and works on rhetoric and dialectics. These are written in the form of dialogues, and in two of them the interlocutors are Charlemagne and Alcuin. He wrote several theological treatises: a De fide Trinitatis, commentaries on the Bible, etc.
Alcuin is credited with inventing the first known question mark, though it didn't resemble the modern symbol.
Alcuin transmitted to the Franks the knowledge of Latin culture which had existed in Anglo-Saxon England. A number of his works still exist. His letters and his poetry are equally interesting. Besides some graceful epistles in the style of Venantius Fortunatus, he wrote some long poems, and notably he is the author of a history (in verse) of the church at York, Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae.
Use of eroticised language
Passages in Alcuin's writings have been seen to exhibit homosocial desire, possibly even homoerotic imagery. This is evident in both Alcuin's poems and some of his letters. The historian John Boswell cited this as a personal outpouring of Alcuin's internalized homosexual feelings. Others agree that Alcuin at times "comes perilously close to communicating openly his same sex desires", and this reflects the erotic subculture of the Carolingian monastic school, but also perhaps a 'queer space' where "erotic attachment and affections may be safely articulated”. Erotic and religious love are intertwined in Alcuin's writings, and he frequently "eroticizes his personal relationships to his beloved friends”. While at Aachen, Alcuin bestowed pet names upon his pupils – derived mainly from Virgil's Eclogues. Alcuin's friendships also extended to the ladies of the court, especially the queen mother and the king's daughters, though his relationships with these women never reached the intense level of those of the men around him.
However, the interpretation of homosexual desire has been disputed by Allen Frantzen who identifies Alcuin's language with that of medieval Christian amicitia or friendship. Clark suggests it is not possible to determine whether Alcuin's homosocial desires were the result of an outward expression of erotic feelings. Karl Liersch, in his 1880 inaugural dissertation, cites several passages from poems by Theodulf of Orleans. In these poems Theodulf reports that Alcuin had a female muse named Delia in the king's court (she was probably Charlemagne's daughter). Delia is also the addresse of several poems by Alcuin.
Nevertheless, despite inconclusive of evidence of Alcuin's personal passions, he was clear in his own writings that the men of Sodom had been punished with fire for "sinning against nature with men". Such sins, argued Alcuin, were more serious than lustful acts with women, for which the earth was cleansed and revivified by the water of the Flood, and merit to be "withered by flames unto eternal barrenness."
The collection of mathematical and logical word problems entitled Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes ("Problems to Sharpen Youths") is sometimes attributed to Alcuin. In a 799 letter to Charlemagne the scholar claimed to have sent "certain figures of arithmetic for the joy of cleverness," which some scholars have identified with the Propositiones. The text 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 anxious brothers, each of whom has an unmarried sister whom he cannot leave alone with either of the other men lest she be defiled (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). Alcuin's sequence is the solution to one of the problems of that book.
In several churches of the Anglican Communion, Alcuin is celebrated on 20 May, the first available day after the day of his death (as Dunstan is celebrated on 19 May).
Alcuin College, one of the colleges of the University of York, England, is named after him.