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Alcuin

Alcuin

 

AlcuinAlquin, whose full Latin name was Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus, was one of those learned and modest ecclesiastics whose great influence on the events of their time is concealed behind the person of the sovereign they serve. It was the good fortune of Charlemagne to detect and appreciate the ability and merit of the English monk, and to secure his services in the great work of education which he saw to be necessary for the welfare of his subjects.

 

Alcuin was born in York, England, in 735. and was educated there under Archbishop Egbert, for whom he ever retained the warmest affection and gratitude. In his works he refers with admiration to the" Venerable Bede," who had at Jarrow conducted another famous school, and set all example of untiring literary industry, truly astonishing in those unsettled times but Alcuin was not a pupil of Bede, as some have affirmed. His intellectual ability caused him to be early made director of the seminary, and keeper of the Cathedral library, though it is said he was never advanced beyond deacon's orders. This library was one of the most famous in Christendom, and in his poem on the" Saints of the Church of York," Alcuin has left a metrical catalogue of its treasures.

 

There are records of three visits of Alcuin to the Continent before he took up his abode there. In 781 Alcuin was sent by Archbishop Eanbald to Rome to procure the pallium, and on his return met Charlemagne at Panna. The king had already been aware of Alcuin's reputation, and now embraced braced the opportunity of persuading him to join his court and become his preceptor. For this purpose he went to Aachen or Aix-Ia-Chapelle in 782, with three assistants. The subjects of study comprised rhetoric, logic, mathematics and divinity, in which be taught the King, his family, and his attendant clergy.

 

Alcuin was also employed in diplomatic errands, especially to his native England. But his greatest work was the establishment of institutions of learning in various parts of France. In 787 Charles issued a capitulary, addressed to the heads of the monasteries, enjoining upon them attention to the study of literature. A second capitulary followed in 789, enforcing the directions already given. Zealous prelates carried out these instructions. Though the revival of letters thus effected with the powerful aid of the Emperor was not more permanent than his kingdom, yet such learning as was found in the following century was; due to the fostering care of Charles and the example of Alcuin. Alcuin was also active in resisting heresies that threatened the peace of Christendom. He wrote treatises against the view of some Spanish bishops that Christ in his human nature was the Son of God by adoption, and procured the condemnation of this Adoptionism by the Council of Frankfort in 794. But he never asked the King to employ the civil power to suppress this heresy.

 

At the age of sixty·one, after having lived in the closest intimacy with the great Emperor for ten years, Alcuin was promoted to the direction of the famous and well endowed Abbey of St. Martin at Tours. Here the venerable Abbot devoted himself partly to the restoration of discipline, which had been relaxed, partly to his work of instruction, partly to authorship, yet still kept up correspondence with his patron, whom he encouraged and assisted in his many projects for the advancement of his subjects.

 

When Charles was preparing to go to Rome on that memorable journey in which he was crowned Emperor, Alcuin was invited to accompany him, but declined on account of the infirmities of age then creeping upon him. When the Emperor returned, Alcuin sent him by a special messenger a superbly-written copy of the Gospels, made in the monastery of Tours, as his most appropriate acknowledgment of the splendor of the imperial power." Alcuin had long desired to revisit his native land, and hoped to be buried there; but his desire was not to be gratified. He died at ;fours on the 19th of May, 804. His works comprise treatises on the Scriptures., on church doctrine and discipline, historical narratives, and even poems, He greatly excelled the other writers of his time in elegance and classical style.

 

THE ABBOT OF TOURS.

 

The year 794 may be looked upon as marking the time when Alcuin's reputation was at its highest. His fame was "in all the Churches; and few could have been found to call in question his signal services to both religion and learning or his just claim to distinguished reward. As yet, however, no adequate recompense had been vouchsafed him. His own avowal, indeed, is that no hope of worldly advantage, but a simple sense of duty to the Church, bad originally brought him to Frankland and detained him there. On the other hand, it is almost certain that, in resigning his office as Scolasticus at York, he had sacrificed his succession to the archtjshopric. It is not improbable, therefore, that Charles had already intimated that on the next vacancy in the abbacy of St. Martin of Tours the post would be offered to Alcuin. The latter, writing to the brethren of that venerable society in 795, openly confesses that he would gladly be of their number; and the opportunity arrived sooner perhaps than he anticipated, for in the following year the Abbot Itherius died, and Alcuin was forthwith nominated his successor.

 

The transfer of Alcuin from the Palace School to the abbacy at Tours was attended by results of no slight importance. On the one hand, it enabled him to give full and practical expression to his theory of monastic discipline and education; on the other, it opened up the way for the introduction of other teachers at the royal court, some of whom held doctrines little in harmony with those of their predecessor. Of his real sense of relief and satisfaction with his new sphere of duty there can be no doubt. He had received what was, perhaps, the most marked recognition of his services that it was in Charles' power to bestow. Already the abbey was the wealthiest in· Frankland, and the adjacent cathedral the most splendid of all her shrines. In days gone by, Tours and Poitiers had contended fiercely for the relics of St. Martin; the coveted prize had fallen to the former city, and its possession thenceforth appealed with singular force to the superstition of the time. Neither St. Remy nor St. Denys, as yet, could vie in saintly fame with the venerated founder of monasticism in Gaul. Tours rivalled Rome itself as a center of religious pilgrimage; both monastery and cathedral were lavishly enriched by the devout munificence of the Carolingian princes; and long after, when Hugh Capet sat on the throne of Charles the Great, he wore the ecclesiastical cope which bespoke him the Abbot of St. Martin of Tours. The landed possessions of the monastery were immense, fully equaling in extent an average modern department i the Archbishop of Toledo made it a reproach to Alcuin, that he was the master of 20,000 slaves.

 

With resources like these, it might well seem that the guardian of the interests and traditions of the faith might find full scope for every purpose. Here learning, treading ever in the safe and narrow path marked out by Gregory and Bede, might marshal illustrious recruits destined to bear her banners throughout the length and breadth of Charles vast domains. Here on the banks of the rushing Loire, the life of which St. Benedict drew the outlines might be lived again in all its purity and power. Here, on the boundary line 'twixt docile Neustria and half-tamed Aquitaine, religion might win new converts and achieve a conquest with which those of Charles Martel or his greater grandson might not compare, Such, as there is sufficient evidence to show, were the aims of Alcuin's ambition, as he looked forward to the crowning work of his career. Hi5 theory of education had not expanded with enlarged experience. No visions of science spreading and developing in the coming years, gilded the sunset of his days. Something rather of self reproach is discernible in his correspondence for so much time and labor already wasted on secular knowledge. Virgil, whom he had studied with loving ardor as a boy, now seemed to him only a collection of "lying fables," unfit to be read by those devoted to the religious life. "The sacred poets are enough for you," he said to the young monks at Tours; "you have no need to sully your minds with the rank luxuriance of Virgil's verse." He rebuked even his friend Rigbodus for knowing the twelve books of the Aeneid better than the four Evangelists. When Charles wrote to ply him with questions upon some new difficulties, he could not forbear, in his reply, from mildly expressing his surprise that his "dearest David II should wish to involve him again in "those old questions of the Palace School, and to summon back to the contending camps, and to the task of quieting the minds of the mutinous soldiery, the veteran who had served his time;"especially," he adds, "as you have by you the tomes both of secular learning and of the Church's wisdom, wherein the true answers may be found to all your queries.

 

Something of the enthusiasm of his early days came back to the weary old man as he welcomed at St. Martin the youthful neophytes who, attracted by his fame, came seeking admission within the abbey walls. His first aim was to provide them with a good library, such a library as he had himse1f watched over at York; and we accordingly find him writing to Charles, soon after his installation, to beg that he may be allowed to send some of the young monks to England, who might" bring back to France the Bowers of Britain,' It so that these may diffuse their fragrance and display their colors at Tours as well as at York. "In the morning of my life," he says, in the same letter, "I sowed in Britain; and now, in the evening of that life, when my blood begins to chill, I cease not to sow in France, earnestly praying that, by God's grace, the seed may spring up in both lands. As for my own frail frame, I solace myself with the thought to which St. Jerome, when writing to Nepotianus, gives expression; and reflect that all the powers might well decline with old age, but that, although the rest wane, wisdom augments in strength." What books his deputies brought back from York we have no evidence to show.

 

The reputation of the monastery of St. Martin ill former times harmonized well with Alcuin's design of making it a model for the religious life and discipline throughout Frankland. It had once been famous for both its learning and its austere rule. Sulpicius Severus, in his life of the founder, tells us that even the greatest cities preferred that their superior clergy should be recruited from those who had been educated at St. Martin and its aristocratic associations are probably indicated by the fact that its members, in their leisure hours, confined themselves entirely to the scholarly labors of the scriptonum. Even this occupation, however, was discarded by the older monks, who devoted themselves solely to prayer.

 

These is good reason for concluding that, in the interpretation given by Alcuin to the Belledictille rule, the classic authors-whose names occupy so prominent a place in his description of the library at York-were almost entirely forbidden, atleast to the younger monks. It is true that, in the letter to Charles above quoted, he says, that, Hiu compliance with the royal instructions and good pleasure, he shall give to some "the honey of the sacred writings," "shall gladden others with the vintage of tile ancient learning," and mete out to others the apples of grammatical subtlety but it appears not improbable that he concealed, to some extent, from bis royal patron those severer canons which closed to the junior students at St. Martin the page of pagan fancy and legend.

 

An incident recorded by Alcuin's unknown biographer dashes somewhat with the foregoing representations. Sigulfus, along with two others of the younger monks-Aldricus and Adalbert, afterwards abbot of Ferrieres-endeavored, notwithstanding the formal prohibition, to carry on the study of Virgil unknown to the abbot. They believed that they had effectually guarded against detection but one day Sigulfus received a summons to Alcuin's presence. "How is this, Virgilian," said the abbot, "that unknown to me, and contrary to my express command, thou hast begun to study Virgil?" The astonished monk threw himself at his superior's feet, and promised from that day forth to study Virgil no more. He was dismissed with a severe reprimand; and it may be inferred that all three laid the lesson well to heart, for two of the number lived to merit and receive Alcuin's warmest approval and praise.

 

Over the whole discipline of the monastery Alcuin watched with untiring vigilance. The points on which he especially insisted were a stricter observance of the Benedictine rule and the cultivation of sacred learning. He was unceasing in his exhortations to nightly vigils, to humility, obedience, and chastity. Verses full of wise precepts werce suspended in the refectory and the dormitories. He gave careful supervision to the work of the transcribers, whose art would appear to have sadly degenerated. Writing to Charles, in the year 800, he complains that the use of full-points, and, in fact, punctuation generally, had become almost entirely neglected. He hoped, however, to effect a reform in this as in other matters.

 

The fame of his teaching attracted disciples not only from all Frankland, but even from across the Channel. From England they came in such numbers as to excite the jealousy of the Neustrians. One day an Anglo-Saxon priest knocked at the gate of the monastery, and while he waited without, his appearance and dress were eyed by four of the monks who were standing by. They imagined, says the narrator, that he would not understand their speech, and he overheard one of them say, Here is another Briton or Irishman come to see the Briton inside. The Lord deliver this monastery from these British, for they swarm hither like bees to their hive!

 

It is not improbable that this jealousy was to some extent stimulated by the preference which, either from expediency or inclination, Alcuin evidently entertained for his own coutrymen. It was Witzo, one of his companions from York to Aachen, who taught for a time as his approved successor in the Palace School. Fredegis, who had also been educated at York, afterwards succeeded to the same post and was abbot, after Alcuin, at 'fours. Lindger, a native indeed of Friesland, but one of Alcuin's scholars in England, was raised by Charles, at his former instructor's suggestion, to preside over the newly created see of Munster. Sigulfus, the disciple most honored by Alcuin's confidence, was his chosen successor at Ferrieres. The impression that we thus derive of a certain amount of national prejudice on Alcuin's part, serves to illustrate the difference between his character and that of Charles. The latter in no way shared the feeling with which the young Neustrians at Tours regarded the new-comers from beyond the seas. To quote the expression of Einhard, "he loved the foreigner, "-exhibiting, in a marked degree, a characteristic rarely absent from administrative genius of the highestt order, the passion for studying the dissimilar.-J. B. MULLINGER.

 

Alcuin

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