Alcuin of York had a long career as a teacher and scholar, first at the school at York now known as St Peter’s School, York founded AD 627) and later as Charlemagne’s leading advisor on ecclesiastical and educational affairs. From 796 until his death he was abbot of the great monastery of St. Martin of Tours.
Alcuin came to the cathedral school of York in the golden age of Ecgbert and Eadbert. Egbert had been a disciple of the Venerable Bede who urged him to have York raised to an archbishopric. Eadbert was the king and brother to Egbert. These two men oversaw the reenergizing and reorganization of the English church with an emphasis on reforming the clergy and on the tradition of learning begun under Bede. Alcuin thrived under Egbert’s tutelage who loved him especially. It was in York that he formed his love of classical poetry, though he was sometimes troubled by the fact that it was written by non-Christians.
The York school was renowned as a centre of learning not only in religious matters but also in the liberal arts, literature and science named the seven liberal arts. It was from here that Alcuin drew inspiration for the school he would lead at the Frankish court. He revived the school with disciplines such as the trivium and the quadrivium.
Alcuin graduated from student to teacher sometime in the 750s. His ascendancy to the headship of the York 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 like 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 a new archbishop, Eanbald I. On his way home he met Charlemagne, though not for the first time, in the Italian city of Parma.
Alcuin was reluctantly persuaded to join Charles’s court. His love of the church and his intellectual curiosity made the offer one that he could not refuse. He was to join an already illustrious group of scholars that Charles had gathered around him.
Alcuin was welcomed at the Palace School of Charlemagne. The school had been founded under the king’s ancestors as a place for educating the royal children, mostly in manners and the ways of the court. However, King Charles wanted more than this – he wanted to include the liberal arts and, most importantly, the study of the religion that he held sacred. From 782 to 790, Alcuin had as pupils Charlemagne himself, his sons Pepin and Louis, the young men sent for their education to the court, and the young clerics attached to the palace chapel. Bringing with him from York his assistants Pyttel, Sigewulf and Joseph, Alcuin revolutionized 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”.
Charlemagne was master at gathering the best men of every nation in his court. He himself became far more than just the king at the centre. It seems that Charlemagne 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 the king and with the other men at court to whom he gave nicknames to be used for work and play.
Alcuin’s friendships also extended to the ladies of the court, especially the queen mother and the daughters of the king. His relationships with these women, however, never reached the intense level of those with the men around him. Modern commentators , have identified, for example, the homo-erotic tone of some of Alcuin’s poetry, emphasising the spiritual and idealistic aspects of his love for his friends and his pupils.
In 790 Alcuin went back to England, to which he had always been greatly 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, Spain, the old capital town 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 England to influence King Aethelraed of Northumbria in the conduct of his reign, Alcuin never returned to live in England. Alcuin was back at Charlemagne’s court by at least mid 792, writing a series of letters to Aethelraed of Northumbria, to Hygbald, Bishop of Lindisfarne, and Aethelheard, Archbishop of Canterbury in the succeeding months, which deal with the attack on Lindisfarne by Viking raiders in July 792. These letters, and Alcuin’s poem on the subject De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii provide the only significant contemporary account of these events.
In 796 Alcuin was in his sixties. He hoped to be free from court duties and was given the chance when Abbot Itherius of Saint Martin at Tours died. Charlemagne gave the abbey into Alcuin’s care with the understanding that he should be available if the king ever needed his counsel.
He made the abbey school into a model of excellence, and many students flocked to it; he had many manuscripts copied, the calligraphy of which is of outstanding beauty. He wrote many letters to his friends in England, 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 further form a mine of information as to the literary and social conditions of the time, and are the most reliable authority for the history of humanism in the Carolingian age. He also 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 the central place; in the second, Alcuin and the Anglo-Saxons are dominant; in the third, which begins in 804, the influence of Theodulf the Visigoth is preponderant.
We owe to him, too, some manuals used in his educational work; a grammar and works on rhetoric and dialectics. They are written in the form of dialogues, and in the two last the interlocutors are Charlemagne and Alcuin. He also wrote several theological treatises: a De fide Trinitatis, commentaries on the Bible.
Alcuin died on May 19, 804, some ten years before the emperor. He 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.
At the end of his life, Alcuin had a reputation for holiness, yet he is not included in the canon of saints and never advanced to holy orders beyond those of deacon.