Monday, May 19, 2014

Alcuin of York and the Carolingian Renaissance

Carolingian Manuscript, Rabanus Maurus (left), with Alcuin (middle), dedicating his work to Archbishop Odgar of Mainz (right)
On May 19, 804 AD, English scholar, ecclesiastic, poet and teacher Alcuin of York passed away. At the invitation of Charlemagne, he became a leading scholar and teacher at the Carolingian court. He wrote many theological and dogmatic treatises, as well as a few grammatical works and a number of poems. According to Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, Alcuin was "the most learned man anywhere to be found".

Alcuin grew up in Yorkshire as the son of a nobleman. He attended the internationally well known school in York, mostly famous for its liberal arts, literature, and science, as well as in religious studies. He graduated, became a teacher and deacon in the church in the 750s. Even though he used to live his life as a monk, he was never ordained a priest or became a monk officially.

It is assumed that he met Charlemagne for the first time in 781 in Parma. He convinced Alcuin to follow his invitation to Aachen, where he was appointed teacher of a renowned school. Later on, Alcuin is believed to have said that "the Lord was calling me to the service of King Charles". He was welcomed at the Palace School of Charlemagne in Aachen around 782. The school was founded by Charles' ancestors as a place to educate the royal children. Charlemagne also wanted to include liberal arts as well as religion. Alcuin not only taught the royal children, but also the king himself and his sons Pepin and Louis. Alcuin managed to create a personalized atmosphere of scholarship and learning, and the school became later well known as the "school of Master Albinus". Alcuin had a great influence on the young elite of the area and was already considered as one of the greatest scholars of his time.

Next to his teaching duties, he took his role as a religious and political advisor very seriously and his ideas were highly respected by the emperor. Alcuin tackled him 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". These arguments seem to have prevailed, because Charlemagne decided to abolish the death penalty for paganism in 797. Charlemagne was known to befriend many of his men at court and they used to refer to him as 'David'. Also Alcuin found himself on intimate terms with Charlemagne and the other men at court.

Alcuin returned to England in 790, but came back to help Charlemagne in the fight against the Adoptionist heresy which was at that time making great progress in Toledo. Alcuin is believed to have had contacts with Beatus of Liébana, from the Kingdom of Asturias, who fought against Adoptionism. He 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 continued working at Charlemagne's court and retired from his duties in 796. Alcuin passed away on 19 May, 804.

During his lifetime, Alcuin wrote numerous letters that are now an important source of information concerning the literary and social conditions of the time and a reliable authority for the history of humanism during the Carolingian age. Today, he is considered as the most prominent figure of the Carolingian Renaissance.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture by Professor Paul Freedman, who discusses the Carolingian dynasty from its origins through its culmination in the figure of Charlemagne

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