ALCUIN (730/40–804), also known as Albinus; educator, poet, theologian, and liturgist successively at York, the Carolingian court, and Saint-Martin's, Tours. The son of a Northumbrian small landowner, Alcuin joined the York cathedral community in boyhood; he maintained a lifelong devotion to it and to its magister Ælbert, whose influence on him was rivaled only by the writings of Bede. When Ælbert was archbishop (767–778/80), the deacon Alcuin was entrusted with the teaching of adolescents (age fourteen and upward), including some attracted from other lands. His devotion to York's "saints" (e.g., its bishops) but also his concern about the failures of recent Northumbrian kings were expressed in a long poem written in the 780s. In 781, while in Italy, Alcuin met Charlemagne, who invited him to his court. By the late 780s he stood out from other clerics and scholars there because of his influence on royal administrative and other texts, and because of his qualities as a teacher. He was again in York from 790 to 793, trying to guide a weak king; and while there he was asked by Charlemagne to comment on the problem of images. Returning to Francia, he was responsible for the Synod of Frankfort's major statements against the Spanish adoptionist heresy (794).
The teaching Alcuin provided in the spelling (and pronunciation) of Latin, in grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, was partly written down in the mid-790s. In the same period he was composing or adapting earlier prayers for private use and for new masses; the contention that he was responsible for the Supplement to the Roman Gregorian sacramentary cannot be supported. He argued strongly that conversion from paganism could only be by conviction and not imposed. Moving to Saint-Martin's as its abbot in 796/7, Alcuin engaged in an extensive correspondence with the king, fellow scholars, and former pupils; he also attracted younger scholars to Tours, in whose circle ancient logic was applied to theological problems. He produced increasingly elaborate critiques of adoptionism, drawing on a wide range of patristic and other texts; he wrote useful if hardly independent works of exegesis and a substantial work on the Trinity. He played a formative part in the preparation for the Imperial Coronation of 800, although the uniquely important part sometimes claimed for him is questionable. He supervised the production of an excellent working text of the Vulgate, widely disseminated in the ninth century by Tours scribes. One of his last works was a substantial handbook for private devotion. Much of his teaching was quickly out-of-date because his own pupils improved on it, but his personal reputation began to diminish only in the later ninth century. His pedagogic works were used by some eleventh- and twelfth-century cathedral schools, and ordinary parish priests read his work on the Trinity throughout the Middle Ages. Clergy and laity have prayed in Alcuin's words down to the present.
Bullough, Donald A. "Alcuin and the Kingdom of Heaven: Liturgy, Theology and the Carolingian Age." In Carolingian Essays: Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in Early Christian Studies, edited by Uta-Renate Blumenthal, pp. 1–69. Washington, D.C., 1983. A reassessment of Alcuin's achievement on the basis of the textual and manuscript evidence.
Gaskoin, C. J. B. Alcuin: His Life and Work (1904). Reprint, New York, 1966. Still the best book-length biography, although in need of correction in both emphasis and detail.
Godman, Peter, ed. Alcuin: The Bishops, Kings and Saints of York. Oxford, 1982. A fine edition of Alcuin's longest poem with an important introduction.
Wallach, Luitpold. Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Literature. 2d ed. New York, 1968. A major contribution by a philologist and textual scholar, although at times wrongheaded. Excellent bibliography.
Donald A. Bullough (1987)
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