English Scholars, Thinkers, and Writers

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English Scholars, Thinkers, and Writers


Born c. 735

Died 804

English scholar and teacher

St. Anselm of Canterbury
Born c. 1033
Died 1109
Italian-English church leader and philosopher

Thomas à Becket
Born 1118
Died 1170
English church leader and chancellor

William of Ockham
Born c. 1290
Died 1349
English philosopher

Geoffrey Chaucer
Born c. 1340
Died 1400
English author and poet

"Defend me with your sword, and I will support you with my pen."

Promise allegedly made to Emperor Ludwig IV by William of Ockham

B ecause it is an island and geographically separated from the European continent, England's civilization became quite different from the rest of Europe. Successive waves of invasion gave it many influences, contributing to the broad reach of the English language. Likewise England developed an emphasis on freedom and individualism unmatched among European nations. These concepts became central to the foundation of America, and thus all Americans—regardless of ethnic heritage—can claim ties to the English traditions.

The five men profiled below, all noted as scholars, thinkers, and/or writers, each contributed to the development of the English mind. Each man deserves far more attention than space permits, because each in his own way changed the world.


A scholar trained in the church, Alcuin (AL-kwin) is best known for his work as headmaster over a school in France, a job he was given by Charlemagne (see entry) in 782. By that time he was almost fifty years old, and had long directed a cathedral school in England, but on returning from a trip to Rome, he met the emperor. It was a time known to some historians as the Dark Ages, when learning had nearly come to a standstill: few people could read and write, and even those literate few had a poor command over Latin, the language of the educated. Thus Charlemagne was badly in need of a scholar to teach the nobility and priests of his empire, as well as the royal family.

Under Alcuin's direction, the palace school at Charlemagne's capital trained a new generation of administrators in a manner that resembled that of the ancient Romans. This contributed significantly to the "Carolingian renaissance," a bright spot of renewed interest in learning during the dark centuries from 500 to 1000. Also notable was Alcuin's reorganization of the liturgy—that is, the procedural instructions for church services—in Charlemagne's empire. This would have an enormous impact far beyond Alcuin's lifetime: many of the reforms he established remain in use among French Catholics to this day.

So, too, would his training of the new educated class in France, Germany, and other lands ruled by Charlemagne. In the latter part of Alcuin's life, just after his retirement in 796, Viking attacks on the British Isles threatened to extinguish the lamp of learning: for instance, the library at York, one of the most important in England, was completely destroyed by the invaders. It was only through the efforts of men from the European continent—students of Alcuin's students—that the scholarly tradition was reestablished in England.

St. Anselm of Canterbury

Though born in Italy, Anselm is best remembered for his work in England. He first visited in 1078, when he was about forty-five and serving as an abbot, or head of a monastery, in France. Nine years later, a dying William the Conqueror (see entry) sent for Anselm to read him his last rites, but the abbot arrived too late.

At that time the Archbishop of Canterbury, leading priest among English Christians, was a former teacher of Anselm's named Lanfranc. Lanfranc died in May 1089, and William's son William II (sometimes known as William Rufus) was so determined to control the English church that he refused to appoint a new archbishop for four years. After he almost died in 1093, however, William became fearful that he was disobeying God by not appointing a new archbishop, and would be punished for doing so. He chose Anselm for the role.

The result was a series of conflicts between Anselm and William that would persist throughout the latter's reign. For instance, the king tried to stop Anselm from traveling to Rome in 1095 to receive a pallium, a woolen shoulder covering that symbolized papal approval, from Urban II (see box in Innocent III entry). Despite William's attempts to limit his influence, Anselm did his best to help the king, and personally blessed William before leaving on a second trip to Rome in late 1097. While he was away, Anselm completed his most important work, Why God Became Man; and William, who had tried to seize all of Anselm's property, died.

Initially Anselm's relationship with William's brother Henry I was no better than it had been with William, but the two finally reached an agreement in Normandy in July 1105. Soon afterward, at the Conference of Westminster, church and state spelled out their mutual obligations in a written agreement. The latter became the model for the Concordat of Worms (1122), which settled a similar dispute between the pope and the Holy Roman emperor. Anselm died in Canterbury on April 21, 1109, and in 1163 a new archbishop of Canterbury put him forward for canonization, or sainthood.

Thomas à Becket

That archbishop was Thomas à Becket (the à is pronounced "uh"; often he is simply called Thomas Becket). A member of a distinguished family, Thomas grew up to lead a life of privilege that included an education at Paris, then Europe's leading center of learning. His fortunes changed, however, when he was twenty-one: his mother's death and his father's subsequent financial problems forced his return to England.

Young Thomas soon became personal secretary to Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, and this job gave him considerable opportunities for travel. In 1154, when Thomas was thirty-six, a new royal house took control of England under the leadership of Henry II, husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of Richard I (see entries) and the future King John (see box in Eleanor of Aquitaine entry). Theobald recommended Thomas to Henry, who appointed him as his chancellor—one of the king's key advisors—in 1155.

For the next six years, Thomas enjoyed the power and privilege that went with a position at the king's right hand. Yet when Theobald died in 1161, events took a quite different turn. Henry appointed Thomas to the archbishop's seat in 1162, and probably assumed that his former chancellor would remain his faithful servant. Thomas, however, took the role of archbishop seriously, seeing himself as a representative of God rather than as a lackey to a king. This conviction would bring about his undoing.

The first major dispute between king and archbishop involved the legal rights of church officials who committed crimes under the secular (non-church) laws of the land. Henry maintained that they should be tried in government courts, whereas Thomas held that their trials should take place in church courts. This conflict became so heated that in 1164, Thomas fled England to seek refuge with Eleanor's former husband, Louis VII of France.

During his six years of exile, Thomas carried on lengthy negotiations with Henry, who in 1170 arranged for the coronation of his son, known to history as Henry the Young King. Infuriated that Henry would take it upon himself to crown a new king—a privilege that belonged exclusively to the archbishop—Thomas returned to Canterbury. Equally angered, Henry was at dinner one night when he demanded of his guests, "Who will rid me of the turbulent priest?"

Four knights responded, and hastened to Canterbury, where on December 29, 1170, they murdered Thomas while he was praying. As a result, Thomas became a widely admired martyr, canonized just three years after his death. The act of assassination had an effect exactly opposite of that which Henry had desired.

William of Ockham

Like the three men profiled above, William of Ockham (AHK-um; sometimes spelled Occam) spent his entire career as a member of the church. A Franciscan monk (see entry on St. Francis), he taught at Oxford University and is most often associated with his writings on the nature of ideas.

Ockham reacted against Scholasticism, a philosophical movement that attempted to bring together Christian faith, classical learning, and knowledge of the world. Scholasticism had represented a great move of progress when it had its beginnings with Abelard, and by the time it reached its high point with Thomas Aquinas (see entries), it became a solidly entrenched way of thinking among Western European philosophers. Ockham helped bring about the end of Scholasticism and the beginnings of modern thought. He effectively ended a long-running Scholastic debate over the nature of ideas, holding that there is no such thing as a universal, only individuals—for instance, there is no perfect form of red, only numerous examples of red objects.

In forming this argument, Ockham maintained that "entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied." This, the famous "Ockham's razor," means that people should always seek the most simple and straightforward explanation for something. For example, if a man's cap falls off while he is sleeping, it is probably because he leaned forward in his sleep and it slid off—not because angels and demons got into a tug of war over his hat until one of them dropped it.

Clearly, Ockham's reasoning went against the grain of the medieval mind. So, too, did his political beliefs: if Anselm and Becket leaned too far to the side of the church, Ockham was equally strident in his support of secular power, particularly that of Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig IV. Ockham became involved in a dispute between the Franciscans and Pope John XXII, and was forced to flee the papal court at Avignon (AV-in-yawn) in France in 1328. Most of his writings during the last two decades of his life involved political attacks on the pope, and support for secular rulers.

Geoffrey Chaucer

The career of Geoffrey Chaucer illustrated the transition from church power to secular power. Chaucer, known as "the father of English poetry" and the first widely celebrated writer in English, earned his living not as a priest or monk, but through the support or patronage of wealthy and powerful men such as the nobleman John of Gaunt. Chaucer's fortunes rose and fell with those of Gaunt and the royal house, including Gaunt's sons who became kings as Richard II and Henry IV.

Chaucer's first important work, Book of the Duchess, was written to comfort Gaunt following the death of his first wife, Blanche, in 1368. Later, in honor of Richard, he wrote House of Fame and Parlement of Foules. The former was said to have been influenced by Dante (see entry), and the latter was an allegory, or symbolic work of a type well known in the Middle Ages, discussing the nature of love. The spelling of the second title indicates that the English known to Chaucer is what today is referred to as Middle English, describing the period in the language's development between the Norman Invasion of 1066 and the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s.

Adapting an earlier work by Giovanni Boccaccio (see box in Murasaki Shikibu entry), Chaucer wrote Troylus and Criseyde (KRES-i-duh), set during the Trojan War in ancient Greece. Chaucer's last work, however, was his masterpiece: the Canterbury Tales. Begun around 1386, the poem involves a group of travelers on their way to Becket's shrine at Canterbury. They represent a spectrum of medieval society, from a highly respected knight to various peasants, and each has a tale to tell. These tales, most of which are just as entertaining today as they were six centuries ago, represent a spectrum of medieval themes, including courtly love, allegory, and stories of instruction.

It was a measure of the respect with which Chaucer was viewed that following his death on October 25, 1400, he was buried at Westminster Abbey, a great church in London. The abbey had formerly been reserved for burial of royalty, but Chaucer was the first of many distinguished commoners buried there. The section where he was laid to rest came to be known as Poet's Corner, and later housed the remains of several highly admired English writers.

For More Information


Corfe, Tom. The Murder of Archbishop Thomas. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1977.

Duggan, Alfred Leo. The Falcon and the Dove: A Life of Thomas Becket of Canterbury. Decorations by Anne Marie Jauss. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966.

McCaughrean, Geraldine, reteller. The Canterbury Tales. Illustrated by Victor G. Ambrus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Web Sites

"Alcuin (735–804) & Creative Quotations." Be More Creative. [Online] Available http://www.bemorecreative.com/one/1516.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Geoffreychaucer.org: An Annotated Guide to Online Resources." Geoffreychaucer.org. [Online] Available http://geoffreychaucer.org/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Medieval Sourcebook: England." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook1n.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Ockham, William Of." [Online] Available http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~maronj/text/ockham.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Thomas Becket." [Online] Available http://www.loyno.edu/~letchie/becket/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).

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English Scholars, Thinkers, and Writers

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