Alcuin of York – More Than a Scholar

Alcuin of York – More Than a Scholar

            In 781, a Saxon monk named Alcuin had an encounter that changed his life and became the catalyst of the dynamic but short-lived Carolingian Renaissance. The man he met was the Frankish King Charles (later known as Charlemagne). As many others him, Charles was struck by Alcuin’s intellect and abilities, and invited him to join a group of scholars at his court.

Tutor and Educational Reformer

            Alcuin – probably in his 40’s – accepted the offer, although he spent some time in transition between France and his native England. This commute was not in contrast with his new position, since Charles was also involved in English politics. Besides, at that time, the Frankish court was still somewhat itinerant and had not established itself at Aachen.

            Charles made Alcuin his personal adviser, and tutor to himself and his children. Later, he promoted him to head of the school. The two men became good friends. They shared a joy of learning, a robust piety, a keen sense of humor, a love for children, and the conviction that education was essential to the wellbeing of both church and state.

            In his capacity of headmaster, Alcuin devised a course of study that could apply to both Charles’ court and the clergy. He emphasized the seven liberal arts: the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music).

            His scholastic method of teaching in questions and answers is evident in a book of riddles and inquiries entitled Discussions between Pippin and professor Albinus – one of several of this kind. Pippin was one of Charles’s sons, and Albinus was one of Alcuin’s nicknames.

            The book is both instructional and philosophical – even poetical at times. For example, the answer to the question, “What is the sea?” is “The path of daring, the boundary of the earth, the separator of territories, the resting-place of rivers, the source of showers, a refuge in dangers, a grace among delights.”[1]

            A few questions and answers reveal some pessimism, probably because the work makes no mention of Christ. “What is a human being? A slave to death, a traveller passing through, a stranger in the place.”[2]

            Some puzzles are indecipherable today. The most familiar to Christians is this: “Three there have been: one never born and once dead; another once born, never dead; the third once born and twice dead.”[3]

            Overall, the members of Charles’ court shared a feeling of enthusiasm and an exciting awareness of being part of an extraordinary period of renewal.

The Importance of Preaching

            Alcuin’s education of the clergy aimed at equipping preachers. By the end of the eighth century, preaching was almost a lost art. It was left to the bishops, who were few in number, and preached mostly in their cathedral churches on feast days (not even on Sundays). Sunday worship included a simple reading from a collection of sermons called “homiliaries.” The problem intensified as Charles continued to conquer new territories. More lands required more qualified preachers.

            To remedy the situation, Charles demanded that all monasteries and abbeys adhere strictly to the Benedictine rules, and that priests and monks receive adequate education.

            Alcuin was supportive of this program. Besides providing educational material for the clergy, he contributed to a unified lectionary (a list of texts to be read in church) and to the diffusion of a clearly legible script, known as Carolingian miniscule, as ways to bring uniformity to the church in a growing empire.

            He also stressed the importance of consistent preaching and catechizing in territories where Christianity was still largely unknown – as opposed to the method of forced conversions Charles had employed after his victory over the Saxons.

            He was not afraid to express his disagreements with Charles on this issue, and to remind him not to make the same mistake with the newly-conquered Avars, a semi-nomadic people from Pannonia (corresponding approximately to today’s Hungary). He also questioned the suitability of collecting tithes immediately after conversion, when that collection could potentially offend new converts: “It is better to forego tithe than to lose faith.”[4]

            Likewise, he encouraged his friend Arn, archbishop of Salzburg, to exercise peace in his mission to the Avars. He advised him to concentrate his efforts on preaching and catechizing, and trust the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts.

            Apparently, his letters bore good fruit. In 796, Charles, Arn, and Paulinus (patriarch of Aquileia), met in Bavaria and decided against forced baptisms.

Doctrinal Concerns

            Two doctrinal concerns take prominence in Alcuin’s writings: the primacy of grace and the divinity of Christ.

            His treatises On the Trinity and a Commentary on St John's Gospel are firmly Augustinian and stress the antecedence of grace in salvation. Commenting on John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day,” Alcuin wrote: “One comes, whom the grace of God goes ahead of. … It will come before us so we can choose, and follow us so we can do.”[5]

            Like Augustine, Alcuin believed that free will, after Adam’s fall, does not include an ability to choose God, “because the goodness of the will was lost through [Adam’s] free will itself.”[6] Although his thought was not original, and his comments didn’t have the clarity of later Protestant Confessions, Alcuin stands as a testimony of the preservation of the doctrines of grace in the Middle Ages.

            Alcuin’s greatest battle, however, was against “adoptionism,” a heresy that sees Jesus as an adopted Son of God. Alcuin saw it as a variation of the old Nestorian heresy, because it made a sharp distinction between Jesus as God and Jesus as Man – where Jesus as Man, being empty of his divinity (a misreading of Philippians 2:7), shared with believers the human status of adopted son of God. This teaching was promoted first in Spain by Archbishop Elipand of Toledo, and later in France by Bishop Felix of Urgel. Alcuin wrote these men personal letters, followed by three treatises, and debated Felix personally at Aachen. The adoptionist teaching was officially condemned in 794 at the Council of Frankfurt.

Last Years and Accomplishments

            Alcuin retired to St. Martin’s Abbey at Tours in 796, and made it a center of Christian learning. After that, he had only infrequent contact with the Carolingian court – a situation which caused him some homesickness. He died in 804, four years after Pope Leo III crowned Charles Holy Roman Emperor.

            His accomplishments were numerous and varied, both for the church and the Carolingian court, and his impact on Charlemagne was probably more profound than the existing documents allow us to know. He also influenced generations of European thinkers, either directly or through the educational programs he designed.

            In 813, a church council met at Tours which ruled that the clergy should preach in the local language that people could understand rather than the classical Latin that had become a language of legal documents and scholars. Alcuin, who had insisted on the primacy of preaching, would have been pleased.

[1] Alcuin of York, The Debate between the princely and noble youth Pippin and Alcuin the Scholar, transl. by Gillian Spraggs,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. The answer is Adam, Elijah, and Lazarus.

[4] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, From Paganism to Christianity, New York: Henry Hold and Co., 1997, p. 221

[5] Alcuin, Commentaria in sacris Johannis evangelium, quoted in Francis X. Gumerlock, “Predestination in the Century Before Gottschalk, Part 1,” Evangelical Quarterly 81:3, July 2008, p. 11.

[6] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr