Dictionary of National Biography – Alcuin

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Alcuin, or Albinus (735–804), celebrated as a theologian, man of letters, and more especially as the coadjutor of Charlemagne in his great educational reforms, was born at York in the year 735. His English name was Ealhwine. He was educated at the cloister school in his native city, and under the archbishop Egbert, and Ethelbert, the master of the school, a man apparently of wide attainments, acquired a training as many-sided as was possible for the time and with more of a literary tendency than was then usual, except in the Northumbrian and Irish schools. Virgil, in particular, is said to have been the author most studied and most beloved, and the Virgilian influence is distinctly traceable in the Latin poems which form no small part of Alcuin’s works. With his master, Ethelbert, Alcuin travelled, as was the custom then, to find something new of books or studies. On his return he began to assist in the conduct of the school, and an increasing share of the labour fell to him when Ethelbert in 767 was raised to the archbishopric of York. On Ethelbert’s resignation in 778 the archbishopric fell to one of his former pupils, Eanbald, who was not consecrated till 780, and the conduct of the school and of the rich library connected with it to Alcuin, with the title ‘Magister Scholarum.’ Three years later Alcuin, on his return from Rome, whither he had gone to procure the pallium for Eanbald, met Charlemagne at Parma in 781. Of Charlemagne he is said to have had personal knowledge at an earlier date, though there is no decisive evidence of the fact, and on this occasion the great monarch, who was then planning his organised attempt at elevation of literary studies in his empire, pressed Alcuin to take up his residence at Aachen and lend him the aid of his ability and experience. Alcuin, obtaining the permission of his ecclesiastical superior, yielded to the request and settled on the continent under the protection of Charlemagne, where, with the exception of a two years’ visit to England (790–792), he remained to the close of his life. He was sent to England in 790 to arrange a renewal of peace between Charlemagne, and Offa, king of Mercia.

For the first eight years of his long residence with Charlemagne, Alcuin, handsomely endowed by his patron with the abbeys of Ferrières, Troyes, and St. Martin at Tours, was occupied mainly with the education of the members of the royal family itself. The school of the palace was attended by the sons and other near relatives of the emperor, and not unfrequently by the emperor himself. Of the character of the instruction one can judge from the short treatises on grammar, logic, and other elementary disciplines which are extant in Alcuin’s works. The matter was the scanty remnant of the older culture that survived in the writings of Augustine and Boethius, in the compendia of Isidore, Capella, Cassiodorus, and in the grammatical writings of Priscian and Donatus. The form was generally the familiar scholastic device of dialogue, in which the master and pupil converse or catechise one another. On the whole there is no originality in these works of Alcuin, but there is a certain freshness which is quite in keeping with his character as not merely a scholastic teacher but a cultivated man of letters, capable of taking a lively interest in general affairs and of advising his great master on topics not ordinarily included in school instruction.

After his return from the brief visit to England, Alcuin was involved in some of the numerous ecclesiastical disputes of the time, and in particular had to exert himself, with pen and personal influence, against a form of the Adoptian heresy which seems to have been troubling the church. He took an important part in the council of Frankfort, at which this heresy was condemned, and compiled a book, ‘Liber Albini quem edidit contra Hæresin Felicis,’ to expose the errors of Felix, bishop of Urgel. In 796 he obtained permission from Charlemagne to withdraw from the stirring life of court and church, and settled at Tours, of which he had been created abbot. The school of Tours, once famous, had fallen into decline, but under Alcuin’s stimulating influence it acquired more than its former place, and became the nursery of many other seminaries of like character. It was for France what the school of York had been in England. Even in his retirement at Tours, however, Alcuin did not cease to be the right hand of Charlemagne in all educational matters. He corresponded constantly with him, and was ready with advice or with the aid of his presence on all occasions when required. A few years before his death Alcuin seems to have resigned the conduct of the two abbeys held by him—St. Martin of Tours and that of Ferrières—but still continued his headship of the school at Tours. He died in 804.

Alcuin occupies a distinguished place in the literary history of the middle ages, not on account of his actual writings, but through his position as foremost man of letters in the restoration of teaching under Charlemagne. He was not a profound writer on any subject, nor have his Latin poems much artistic merit, but he was the best representative of a cultured life in a somewhat uncultured time, and his lively, active disposition seems to have harmonised exactly with the functions he was called on to discharge. M. Guizot, in a very admirable lecture (Civ. en France, leç. xxii.), calls Alcuin a theologian, but this does him injustice. Ecclesiastical and theological his interests were, but only because in the church alone was there any intellectual life, and on no point of theological controversy does Alcuin show the temper or training of the theologian by profession.

The writings of Alcuin may be arranged in two groups, prose and verse, and the prose writings may again be distributed into (1) elementary scholastic works, including those on philosophical and scientific subjects, (2) theological works, (3) historical works, (4) letters. To the first subdivision belong the compendia of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics, with the cognate tracts on orthography and on virtues and the dialogue ‘Disputatio Pippini cum Albino Scholastico’ (Albinus was a name by which Alcuin was often known: he is also called Flaccus), also the essays ‘De Saltu Lunæ,’ ‘De Bissexto,’ and the better known work ‘De Ratione Animæ,’ which is founded on Augustine. To the second belong certain biblical commentaries or scripture interpretations, a treatise in three books ‘De Fide Sanctæ et Individuæ Trinitatis,’ and an essay on practical morals entitled ‘De Virtutibus et Vitiis.’ To the third belong four lives of saints, St. Martin, St. Vedast, St Richarius, St. Willibrord; of these the last is the only one of interest, Willibrord, the missionary to Friesland, having been a Northumbrian and a relative of Alcuin’s. The letters, 232 in number, fall into three groups, the first containing the letters to Charlemagne; the second, the letters to friends in England, mainly during the earlier part of his residence in France; the third, letters to Arnulf of Salzburg, his friend and pupil. A summary of the letters to Charlemagne is given by Guizot (as above); a brief account of the others will be found in Ebert (as below). They are all of high interest for the literary history of the period, and give a remarkable insight into the general condition of society. Of the poems the longest and most important is the ‘Carmen de Pontificibus et Sanctis Ecclesiæ Eboracensis,’ which is of great historical value, as giving a picture of the famous school and library at York. It was edited by Canon Raine in 1878 for his ‘Histories of the Church of York,’ in the Rolls Series. The ‘Carmen’ is in hexameter verse, but Alcuin practised himself in various poetical forms, lyric and elegiac, and in his epigrams, metrical epistles, and acrostics, attempts, not always with success, less common metres.

Alcuin’s works were first collected by Duchesne in 1617; a better edition is that by Frobenius, ‘B. Flacci Albini seu Alcuini Opera,’ Ratisbon, 1777, fol., 2 vols. in 4. Froben’s edition, with a commentary on Revelations, edited by Angelo Mai, is reprinted in Migne’s ‘Patrologiæ Cursus Completus,’ vols c.–ci., 1851. Supplements to these will be found in Jaffé’s ‘Monumenta Alcuiniana,’ Berlin, 1873, and in the ‘Rhetores Latini Minores,’ ed. Halm, 1863.

MLA Citation

  • Robert Adamson. “Alcuin”. Dictionary of National Biography. CatholicSaints.Info. 9 June 2013. Web. 25 November 2017. <>