Charlemagne and Alcuin
This Tiffany window (designed by Frederic Wilson) four panels collectively measure 6-by-14 feet. Two main panels portray the Emperor Charlemagne and monk Alcuin reading an astronomy book in the Palatine Chapel. As head of the Palatine school established by Charlemagne at Aachen, Germany, Alcuin (735-804) led the revival of learning known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian Renaissance was relatively short-lived, being a vision of Charlemagne and Alcuin that was in advance of the culture of the time, still largely barbarian. But it was a precursor of the successful integration of Christianity and what was good and true in the ancient Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome three centuries later, that gave birth to Christendom in the early Middle Ages, following the Dark Ages dominated by the barbarian invasions of Europe.
Western civilization, our civilization in the West, is the name commonly used following the political and theological division of Christendom in the Reformation period, and the subsequent collapse of Christendom as a political unity, which had lasted in some form until the end of WW I. Western civilization is thus rooted in the successful integration of Christianity and Classical civilization, which began at the Carolingian Renaissance. Hence the image of the two preeminent figures or leaders of the Carolingian Renaissance on the Universities of Western Civilization banner.
Just as restoring a damaged or partially dead bush or tree requires a pruning, sometimes cutting back to the roots – to rebuild our civilization, to restore its vitality, requires a return in some measure to its roots. The result with a pruned or cut-back bush or tree is a sort of rebirth, a renaissance. So with our civilization a return to its roots has the same results, as it did in the Renaissance period following the late Middle Ages. Such a return to our roots is needed again and is a goal of the Universities of Western Civilization.
The person of Alcuin (Alhwin, Alchoin; Latin Albinus, also Flaccus). Christian scholar, integrating within his character the wisdom of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the revelation of Christ, holds a particular attraction to us for that very reason. An eminent educator, scholar, and theologian born about 735; died 19 May, 804. He came of noble Northumbrian parentage, but the place of his birth is a matter of dispute. It was probably in or near York. While still a mere child, he entered the cathedral school founded at that place by Archbishop Egbert. His aptitude, and piety early attracted the attention of Aelbert, master of the school, as well as of the Archbishop, both of whom devoted special attention to his instruction. In company with his master, he made several visits to the continent while a youth, and when, in 767, Aelbert succeeded to the Archbishopric of York, the duty of directing the school naturally devolved upon Alcuin. During the fifteen years that followed, he devoted himself to the work of instruction at York, attracting numerous students and enriching the already valuable library.
While returning from Rome in March, 781, he met Charlemagne at Parma, and was induced by that prince, whom he greatly admired, to remove to France and take up residence at the royal court as “Master of the Palace School”. The school was kept at Aachen most of the time, but was removed from place to place, according as the royal residence was changed. In 786 he returned to England, in connection, apparently, with important ecclesiastical affairs, and again in 790, on a mission from Charlemagne. Alcuin attended the Synod of Frankfort in 794, and took an important part in the framing of the decrees condemning Adoptionism as well as in the efforts made subsequently to effect the submission of the recalcitrant Spanish prelates. In 796, when past his sixtieth year, being anxious to withdraw from the world, he was appointed by Charlemagne Abbot of St. Martin’s at tours. Here, in his declining years, but with undiminished zeal, he set himself to build up a model monastic school, gathering books and drawing students, as before, at Aachen and York, from far and near. He died 19 May, 804. Alcuin appears to have been only a deacon, his favourite appellation for himself in his letters being “Albinus, humilis Levita”. Some have thought, however, that he became a priest, at least during his later years. His unknown biographer, in describing this period, says of him, celebrabat omni die missarum solemnia (Jaffé, “Mon. Alcuin., Vita,” 30). In one of his last letters Alcuin acknowledged the gift of a casula, or chasuble, which he promises to use in missarum solemniis (Ep. 203). It is probable that he was a monk, and a member of the Benedictine Order, although this also has been disputed, some historians maintaining that he was simply a member of the secular clergy, even when he exercised the office of abbot at Tours.
I. EDUCATOR AND SCHOLAR
Of his work as an educator and scholar it may be said, in a general way, that he had the largest share in the movement for the revival of learning which distinguished the age in which he lived, and which made possible the great intellectual renaissance of three centuries later. In him Anglo-Saxon scholarship attained to its widest influence, the rich intellectual inheritance left by Bede at Jarrow being taken up by Alcuin at York, and, through his subsequent labors on the Continent, becoming the permanent possession of civilized Europe. The influences surrounding Alcuin at York were made up chiefly of elements from two sources, Irish and Continental. From the sixth century onward Irishmen were busy founding schools as well as churches and monasteries all over Europe; and from Iona, according to Bede, Aidan and other Celtic missionaries bore the knowledge of the classics, along with the light of the Christian faith, into Northumbria. Both Aldhelm and Bede had Irish teachers. Celtic scholarship appears, however, to have entered only remotely and indirectly into Alcuin’s training. The strongly Roman cast which characterized the School of Canterbury, founded by Theodore and Hadrian, who were sent by the Pope to England in 669, was naturally reproduced in the School of Jarrow, and from this, in turn, in the School of York. The influence is discernible in Alcuin, on the religious side, in his devoted adhesion to Roman, as distinguished from particular local or national, traditions, as well as, in an intellectual way, in the fact that his knowledge of Greek, which was a favorite study with Irish scholars, appears to have been very slight.
An important feature of Alcuin’s educational work at York was the care and preservation, as well as the enlargement, of its precious library. Several times he journeyed through Europe for the purpose of copying and collecting books. Numerous pupils, too, gathered around him, from all parts of England and the continent. In his poem “On the Saints of the Church of York”, written, probably, before he took up his residence in France, he has left us a valuable description of the academic life at York, together with a list of the authors represented by its catalogue of books. The course of studies embraced, in the words of Alcuin, “liberal studies and the holy word”, or the seven liberal arts comprising the trivium and the quadrivium, with the study of Scripture and the Fathers for those more advanced. A feature of the school that deserves mention was the organization of studies on the modern plan, the students being separated into classes, according to the subjects and divisions of subjects studied, with a special teacher for each class. But it was when he took charge of the Palace School that the abilities of Alcuin were most conspicuously shown. In spite of the influence of York, learning in England was declining. The country was a prey to dissensions and civil wars, and Alcuin perceived in the growing power of Charlemagne and his eagerness for the development of learning an opportunity such as even York, with all its pre-eminence and scholastic advantages, could not afford. Nor was he disappointed. Charlemagne counted on education to complete the work of empire-building in which he was engaged, and his mind was busy with educational projects. A literary revival, in fact, had already begun. Scholars were drawn from Italy, Germany, and Ireland, and when Alcuin, in 782, transferred his allegiance to Charlemagne, he soon found surrounding him at Aachen, in addition to the youthful members of the nobility he was called upon to instruct, a band of older learners some of whom were ranked among the best scholars of the time. Under his leadership the Palace School became what Charles had hoped to make it, the centre of knowledge and culture for the whole kingdom, and indeed for the whole of Europe. Charlemagne himself, his queen, Luitgard, his sister Gisela, his three sons and two daughters became pupils of the school, an example which the rest of the nobility were not slow to imitate. Alcuin’s supreme merit as an educator lay, however, not merely in the training up of a generation of educated men and women, but above all, in inspiring with his own enthusiasm for learning and teaching the talented youths who flocked to him from all sides. His educational writings, comprising the treatises “On Grammar”, “On Orthography”, “On Rhetoric and the Virtues”, “On Dialectics”, the “Disputation with Pepin”, and the astronomical treatise entitled “De Cursu et Saltu Lunae ac Bissexto”, afford an insight into the matter and methods of teaching employed in the Palace School and the schools of the time generally, but they are not remarkable either for originality or literary excellence. They are mostly compilations — generally in the form of dialogues drawn from the works of earlier scholars, and were probably intended to be used as textbooks by his own pupils.
Alcuin, like Bede, was a teacher rather than a thinker, a gatherer and a distributor rather than an originator of knowledge, and in this respect, it is plain to us now, the bent of his genius responded perfectly to the imperative intellectual need of the age, which was the preservation and the representation to the world of the treasures of knowledge inherited from the past, long buried out of sight by the successive tides of barbarian invasion. Disce ut doceas (learn in order to teach) was the motto of his life, and the supreme value he attached to the office of teaching is recognizable in his admonition to his disciples that the idle youth would never become a teacher in his old age (Qui non discit in pueritia, non docet in senectute, Ep. 27). Alcuin was eminently qualified to be the schoolmaster of his age. Although living in the world and occupied much with public affairs, he was a man of singular humility and sanctity of life. He had an unbounded enthusiasm for learning and a tireless zeal for the practical work of the class-room and library, and the young men of talent whom he drew in crowds around him from all parts of Europe went away inspired with something of his own passionate ardour for study. His warm-hearted and affectionate disposition made him universally beloved, and the ties that bound master and pupil often ripened into intimate friendship that lasted through life. Many of his letters that have been preserved were written to his former pupils, more than thirty being addressed to his tenderly loved disciple Arno, who became Archbishop of Salzburg. Before he died Alcuin had the satisfaction of seeing the young men whom he had trained engaged all over Europe in the work of teaching. “Wherever”, says Wattenbach, in speaking of the period that followed, “anything of literary activity is visible, there we can with certainty count on finding a pupil of Alcuin’s.” Many of his pupils came to occupy important positions in Church and State and lent their influence to the cause of learning, as the above-mentioned Arno, Archbishop of Salzburg; Theodulph, Bishop of Orleans; Eanbald, Archbishop of York; Adelhard, the cousin of Charles, who became Abbot of (New) Corbie, in Saxony; Aldrich, Abbot of Ferrières, and Fridugis, the successor of Alcuin at Tours. Among his pupils also was the celebrated Rabanus Maurus, the intellectual successor of Alcuin, who came to study under him for a time at Tours, and who subsequently in his school at Fulda, continued the work of Alcuin at Aachen and Tours.
The development of the Palace School, however, important as it was, was only a part of the broad educational plans of Charlemagne. For the diffusion of learning, other educational centers had to be established throughout the kingdom, and for this, in an age when education was so largely, under the control of the Church, it was essential that the clergy should be a body of educated men. With this object in view, a series of decrees or capitulars were issued in the name of the Emperor, which enjoined upon all clerics, secular as well as regular, under penalty of suspension deprivation of office, the ability to read and write and the possession of the knowledge requisite for the intelligent performance of the duties of the clerical state. Reading-schools were to be established for the benefit of candidates for the priesthood, and bishops were required to examine their clergy from time to time, to ascertain the degree of their compliance with these educational laws. A scheme for universal elementary education was also projected. A capitular of the year 802 enjoined that “everyone should send his son to study letters, and that the child should remain at school with all diligence until he should become well instructed in learning ” (West, 54). Following the decrees of the Council of Vaison, a primary school was to be established in every town and village to be taught by the priests gratuitously. It is impossible to say to what extent Alcuin deserves credit for the organization of the vast educational system which was thus set up, comprising a central higher institution, the Palace School, a number of subordinate schools of the liberal arts scattered throughout the country, and schools for the common people in every city and village. His hand is nowhere visible in the series of legislative enactments referred to; but there can be no doubt that he had much to do with the instigation, if not with the framing, of these laws. “The voice”, Gaskoin aptly says, “is the voice of Charles, but the hand is the hand of Alcuin”. It was with Alcuin, too, and his pupils that the responsibility rested for carrying out the legislation.
The measures planned and partially put into practice for the enlightenment of the people did not meet with complete success; the movement for the revival and diffusion of learning throughout the Empire did not last. Yet much was accomplished that did endure. The accumulated wisdom or the past, which was in danger of perishing, was preserved, and when the greater and more permanent renaissance of learning came, several centuries later, when the light began to pierce through the storm-clouds of feudal strife and anarchy, the foundations laid in the eighth century were still there, ready to receive the weight of the higher learning which the scholars of the new revival should build up” (Gaskoin, 209).