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Alcuin

Alcuin (c.735–804) was a Northumbrian, probably noble, deacon, adviser to Charlemagne, and architect of the Carolingian Renaissance. He was born between 735 and 745, and succeeded his teacher Ælbert as master of the school at York in 767. He travelled on the continent, with Ælbert, and for Archbishop Eanbald, and after meeting Charlemagne at Parma in 781 was invited to his court. Traditionally described as head of the palace school, he was more a personal tutor to Charlemagne, who gave him several monasteries, including that of St Martin's at Tours, where he died.

Alcuin became involved in political life and influenced Charlemagne's thinking. Authorship of some of Charlemagne's texts is still credited to Alcuin, though not as many as was once the case. He wrote against the heresy of adoptionism (a political as well as a religious concern), he probably composed the letter to Pope Leo III wherein pope's and king's functions are defined, and he may have been partly responsible for Charlemagne's taking the Roman imperial title in the west (in 800). His writings include one of the earliest, medieval, political essays. An ideal of warrior kingship is presented in Alcuin's poem on The Bishops, Kings and Saints of York, the first major extant Latin verse history in the medieval West, finished possibly as late as 792/3. This is a work of patriotism, centred on a unified Northumbria and the church at York; pro-Roman in outlook (omitting the controversies in the career of Wilfrid), it offers Edwin as supreme kingly example and Ælbert as ideal prelate, and advocates concord between political and spiritual rulers. It complements the exhortatory letters Alcuin sent to kings and his view of bishops.

Alcuin's correspondence also reveals that both he and Charlemagne were involved in English, particularly Mercian and Northumbrian, politics. Alcuin returned twice to England, once with papal legates (786) and in 790, for three years when he hoped to guide the conduct of King Æthelred of Northumbria.

Alcuin's writings include textbooks, saints' lives (including his kinsman Willibrord's in prose and verse), compilations of commentaries, missals, and other texts requested by correspondents, and Charlemagne's epitaph for Pope Hadrian I. His epitaph for himself became a literary model. His revisions of the lectionary (lessons to be read at mass) and of the (Latin) Vulgate text of the Bible became standard. He helped to introduce singing the Creed at mass and to disseminate the performance of penance on the continent. He encouraged the cults of the archangel Michael and the Virgin and of St Martin. His reception of visitors at Tours, and his acquisition of books from England, spread English influence. His pupils were many, often distinguished and influential.

Alcuin's thinking was influenced by Pope Gregory I and by Bede. His originality is to be found in his York poem, his intense interest in number symbolism, and his application of logic to theology.

He offers historians evidence (in his letters, more than 300 of which survive, mostly written between 794 and 804) for low standards in the late 8th-cent. English church and amongst the Northumbrian élite, and (in his York poem) for 8th-cent. Northumbrian history, the development of the York school, and York's wealth and commercial activity.

Alcuin's driving forces were friendship and teaching. Though devoted to Charlemagne, he protested against the treatment of the Saxons in conversion, and disagreed with him about the law of sanctuary. He believed it better to write books to serve the soul, than to dig vines for the body.

A. E. Redgate

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Alcuin

Alcuin (ăl´kwĬn) or Albinus (ălbī´nəs), 735?–804, English churchman and educator. He was educated at the cathedral school of York by a disciple of Bede; he became principal in 766. Charlemagne invited him (781?) to court at Aachen to set up a school. For 15 years Alcuin was the moving spirit of the Carolingian renaissance. He combated illiteracy with a system of elementary education. On a higher level he established the study of the seven liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium, which became the curriculum for medieval Western Europe. He encouraged the study and preservation of ancient texts. His dialogue textbook of rhetoric, called Compendia, was widely used. He wrote verse, and his letters were preserved. Alcuin's treatise against Felix of Urgel did much to defeat the heresy of adoptionism. He died as head of the abbey of St. Martin of Tours, where he had one of his most famous schools.

See studies by E. J. B. Gaskoin (1904), E. Duckett (1951, repr. 1965), and G. Ellard (1956).

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Alcuin

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