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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 159. Alcuin.


I. Beatus Flaccus Albinus seu Alcuinus: Opera omnia, Migne, Tom. C. CI., reprint of the ed. of Frobenius. Ratisbon, 1772, 2 vols. fol. Monumenta Alcuiniana, a P. Jaffé preparata, ed. Wattenbach et Dümmler (vol. vi. Bibliotheca rerum germanicarum). Berlin, 1773. It contains his letters, poems and life of Willibrord. His poems (Carmina) have been separately edited by E. Dümmler in Poetae Latini aevi Carolini, I. 1. 169–351, and some additional poetry is given in Addenda, Tom. II. 692.

II. Vita (Migne, C. col. 89–106), anonymous, but probably by a monk of Ferrières, based upon information given by Sigulf, Alcuin’s pupil and successor as abbot of Ferrières. De vita B. F. Albini seu Alcuini commentatio (col. 17–90), by Froben, for the most part an expansion of the former by the introduction of discussions upon many points. Eulogium historicum Beati Alcuini (CI. col. 1416–1442), by Mabillon. Of interest and value also are the Testimonia veterum et quorumdam recentiorum scriptorum (col. 121–134), brief notices of Alcuin by contemporaries and others.

III. Modern biographies and more general works in which Alcuin is discussed. Friedrich Lorentz: Alcuin’s Leben, Halle, 1829, Eng, trans. by Jane Mary Slee, London, 1837. Francis Monnier: Alcuin et son influence littéraire, religieuse et politique chez les France, Paris, 1853, 2d ed. entitled Alcuin et Charlemagne, Paris, 1864. Karl Werner: Alcuin and sein Jahrhundert, Paderborn, 1876, 2d ed. (unchanged), 1881. J. Bass Mullinger: The schools of Charles the Great, London, 1877. Cf. Du Pin, VI. 121–124. Ceiller, XII. 165–214. Hist. Lit. de la France, IV. 295–347. Clarke, II. 453–459. Bähr, 78–84; 192–195; 302–341. Wattenbach, 3d ed. I. 123 sqq; Ebert, II. 12–36. Guizot: History of Civilization, Eng. trans, , Bohn’s ed. ii. 231–253. The art. Alcuin by Bishop Stubbs in Smith and Wace, Dict. Chr. Biog. (i. 73–76), deserves particular mention.


Flaccus Albinus, or, as he is commonly called in the Old English form, Alcuin11091109    Other forms are Ealdwine, Alchwin, Alquinus. (“friend of the temple”), the ecclesiastical prime minister of Charlemagne, was born in Yorkshire about 735. He sprang from a noble Northumbrian family, the one to which Willibrord, apostle of the Frisians, belonged, and inherited considerable property, including the income of a monastic society on the Yorkshire coast.11101110    Vita S. Willibrordi, I. i. (Migne, CI. col. 695). At tender age he was taken to the famous cathedral school at York, and there was educated by his loving and admiring friends, Egbert, archbishop of York (732–766) and founder of the school, and Ethelbert, its master. With the latter he made several literary journeys on the continent, once as far as Rome, and each time returned laden with MS. treasures, secured, by a liberal expenditure of money, from different monasteries. Thus they greatly enlarged the library which Egbert had founded.11111111    De pontificibus et sanctis eccles. Ebor., vv. 1453-56 (CI. Col. 841). In 766 Ethelbert succeeded Egbert in the archbishopric of York, and appointed Alcuin, who had previously been a teacher, master of the cathedral school, ordained him a deacon, Feb. 2, 767, and made him one of the secular canons of York minster. In 767 he had Liudger for a pupil. Some time between the latter year and 780,11121112    Mullinger (p. 47) says in 768. Ethelbert sent him to Italy on a commission to Charlemagne, whom he met, probably at Pavia. In 780 Ethelbert retired from his see and gave over to Alcuin the care of the library, which now was without a rival in England. Alcuin gives a catalogue of it,11131113    De pont. et Sanct. eccles. Eb. vers. 1535-1561 (Dümmler, l.c. 203, 204; Migne, CI. col. 843 sq. ). thus throwing welcome light upon the state of learning at the time. In 780 Alcuin again visited Rome to fetch the pallium for Eanbald, Ethelbert’s successor.

On his return he met Charlemagne at Parma (Easter, 781), and was invited by him to become master of the School of the Palace. This school was designed for noble youth, was attached to the court, and held whenever the court was. Charlemagne and his family and courtiers frequently attended its sessions, although they could not be said to be regular scholars. The invitation to teach this school was a striking recognition of the learning and ability of Alcuin, and as he perceived the possibilities of the future thus unexpectedly opened to him he accepted it, although the step involved a virtual abnegation of his just claim upon the archiepiscopate of York. In the next year (782), having received the necessary permission to go from his king and archbishop, he began his work. The providential design in this event is unmistakable. Just at the time when the dissensions of the English kings practically put a stop to educational advance in England, Alcuin, the greatest teacher of the day, was transferred to the continent in order that under the fostering and stimulating care of Charlemagne he might rescue it from the bondage of ignorance. But the effort taxed his strength. Charlemagne, although he attended his instruction and styles him “his dear teacher,” at the same time abused his industry and patience, and laid many very heavy burdens upon him.11141114    On this ground Guizot (l.c. 246-7) explains in part Alcuin’s frequent expressions of weariness. Alcuin had not only to teach the Palatine school, which necessitated his moving about with the migratory court to the serious interruption of his studies, but to prepare and revise books for educational and ecclesiastical uses, and in general to superintend the grand reformatory schemes of Charlemagne. How admirably he fulfilled his multifarious duties, history attests. The famous capitulary of 78711151115    There is an English translation in Guizot, l.c. 237, and in Mullinger, 97-99. which Charlemagne issued and which did so much to advance learning, was of his composition. The Caroline books,11161116    See pp. 465 sqq. which were quite as remarkable in the sphere of church life, were his work, at least in large measure. For his pecuniary support and as a mark of esteem Charlemagne gave him the monasteries of St. Lupus at Troyes and Bethlehem at Ferrières, and the cell of St. Judecus on the coast of Picardy (St. Josse sur mer). But the care of these only added to his burdens. In 789 he went to England on commission from Charlemagne to King Offa of Mercia, and apparently desired to remain there. Thence in 792 he sent in the name of the English bishops a refutation of image-worship. But in 793 Charlemagne summoned him to his side to defend the church against the heresy of Adoptionism and image-worship, and he came. In 794 he took a prominent part, although simply a deacon, in the council of Frankfort, which spoke out so strongly against both, and in 799, at the council of Aachen, he had a six days’ debate with Felix, the leader of the Adoptionists, which resulted in the latter’s recantation. In his negotiations with the Adoptionists he had the invaluable aid of the indefatigable monk, Benedict, of Nursia. In 796, Charlemagne gave him in addition to the monasteries already mentioned that of St. Martin at Tours and in 800 those of Cormery and Flavigny. The monastery of Tours11171117    Already spoken of in connection with Gregory of Tours. owned twenty thousand serfs and its revenue was regal. To it Alcuin retired, although he would have preferred to go to Fulda.11181118    See the old life of Alcuin, cap. VIII. in Migne, C. col. 98. There he did good work in reforming the monks, regulating the school and enlarging the library. His most famous pupil during this period of his life was Rabanus Maurus. In the year of his death he established a hospice at Duodecim Pontes near Troyes; and just prior to this event he gave over the monastery of Tours to his pupil Fredegis, and that of Ferrières to another pupil, Sigulf It is remarkable that he died upon the anniversary on which he had desired to die, the Festival of Pentecost, May 19, 804. He was buried in the church of St. Martin, although in his humility he had requested to be buried outside of it.

One of his important services to religion was his revision of the Vulgate (about 802) by order of Charlemagne, on the basis of old and correct MSS., for he probably knew little Greek and no Hebrew. This preserved a good Vulgate text for some time.

Alcuin was of a gentle disposition, willing, patient and humble, and an unwearied student. He had amassed all the treasures of learning then accessible. He led his age, yet did not transcend it, as Scotus Erigena did his. He was not a deep thinker, rather he brought out from his memory the thoughts of others. He was also mechanical in his methods. Yet he was more than a great scholar and teacher, he was a leader in church affairs, not only on the continent, but, as his letters show, also in England. Charlemagne consulted him continually, and would have done better had he more frequently followed his advice. Particularly is this true respecting missions. Alcuin saw with regret that force had been applied to induce the Saxons to submit to baptism. He warned Charlemagne that the result would be disastrous. True Christians can not be made by violence, but by plain preaching of the gospel in the spirit of love. He would have the gospel precepts gradually unfolded to the pagan Saxons, and then as they grew in knowledge would require from them stricter compliance. Alcuin gave similar council in regard to the Huns.11191119    He requested advice on this point from Paulinus of Aquileia. See p. 681. His opinions upon other practical points11201120    Froben in his life of Alcuin, cap. XIV., gives his doctrinal position at length. Migne, col. l.c. 82-90. are worthy of mention. Thus, he objected to the employment of bishops in military affairs, to capital punishment, to the giving up of persons who had taken refuge in a church, and to priests following a secular calling. He was zealous for the revival of preaching and for the study of the Bible. On the other hand he placed a low estimate upon pilgrimages, and preferred that the money so spent should be given to the poor.11211121    For the proof of the statements in this paragraph see Neander, III. passim.

Writings.—The works of Alcuin are divided into nine classes.

I. Letters.11221122    Epistolae, Migne, C. col. 139-512. A striking peculiarity of these letters is their address. Alcuin and his familiar correspondents, following an affectation of scholars in the middle age, write under assumed names.11231123    See above, p. 615 sq. Among his correspondents are kings, patriarchs, bishops and abbots. The value of these letters is very great. They throw light upon contemporary history, and such as are private, and these are numerous, allow us to look into Alcuin’s heart. Many of them, unfortunately, are lost, and some are known to exist unprinted, as in the Cotton collection. Those now printed mostly date from Tours, and so belong to his closing years. They may be roughly divided into three groups:11241124    Ebert, II. 32-35. (1) those to English correspondents. These show how dear his native land was to Alcuin, and how deeply interested he was in her affairs. (2) Those to Charlemagne, a large and the most important group.11251125    Guizot analyzes them (l.c. 243-246). Alcuin speaks with freedom, yet always with profound respect. (3) Those to his bosom friend, Arno of Salzburg.

II. Exegetical Miscellany.11261126    Opuscula exegetica, Migne, C. 515-1086. (a) Questions and answers respecting the interpretation of Genesis. (b) Edifying and brief exposition of the Penitential Psalms, Psalm CXVIII and the Psalm of Degrees. (c) Short commentary on Canticles. (d) Commentary on Ecclesiastes. (e) A literal, allegorical and moral Interpretation of the Hebrew names of our Lord’s ancestors (in which he makes much out of the symbolism of the numbers). (f) Commentary on portions of John’s Gospel. (g) On Titus, Philemon, Hebrews.11271127    That on Revelation in Migne is not his, but probably by a pupil of Alcuin. It is, however, a mere compilation from Ambrosius Autpertus (d. 779.) These comments, are chiefly derived from the Fathers, and develop the allegorical and moral sense of Scripture. That on John’s Gospel is the most important. The plan of making a commentary out of extracts was quickly followed and was indeed the only plan in general use in the Middle Age.

III. Dogmatic Miscellany.11281128    Opuscula dogmatica, Migne, CI. col. 11-304. (a) The Trinity, written in 802, dedicated to Charlemagne, a condensed statement of Augustin’s teaching on the subject. It was the model for the “Sentences” of the twelfth century. It is followed by twenty-eight questions and answers on the Trinity. (b) The Procession of the Holy Spirit, similarly dedicated and made up of patristic quotations. (c) Brief treatise against the heresy of Felix (Adoptionism). (d) Another against it in seven books. (e) A treatise against Elipandus in four books. (f) Letter against Adoptionism, addressed to some woman. These writings on Adoptionism are very able and reveal learning and some independence.

IV. Liturgical and Ethical Works.11291129    Opuscula liturgica et moralia, ibid. col. 445-656. (a) The Sacraments, a collection of mass-formulae, from the use of Tours. (b) The use of the Psalms, a distribution of the Psalms under appropriate headings so that they can be used as prayers, together with explanations and original prayers: a useful piece of work. (c) Offices for festivals, the Psalms sang upon the feast days, with prayers, hymns, confessions and litanies: a sort of lay-breviary, made for Charlemagne. (d) A letter to Oduin, a presbyter, upon the ceremony of baptism. (e) Virtues and vices, dedicated to Count Wido, compiled from Augustin. (f) The human soul, addressed in epistolary form to Eulalia (Gundrada), the sister of Adalhard, abbot of Corbie, in France. (g) Confession of sins, addressed to his pupils at St. Martin’s of Tours.

V. Hagiographical Works.11301130    Opuscula hagiographica, ibid. col. 657-724. (a) Life of St. Martin of Tours, rewritten from Sulpicius Severus. (b) Life of St. Vedast, bishop of Atrebates (Arras), and (c) Life of the most blessed presbyter Requier, both rewritten from old accounts. (d) Life of St. Willibrord, bishop of Utrecht, his own ancestor, in two books, one prose, the other verse. This is an original work, and valuable as history.

VI. Poems.11311131    Carmina, Ibid. col. 723-848. The poetical works of Alcuin are very numerous, and of very varied character, including prayers, inscriptions for books, churches, altars, monasteries, etc., epigrams, moral exhortations, epistles, epitaphs, enigmas, a fable,11321132    De gallo fabula, Ibid. col. 805. Dümmler, l.c. 262. and a long historical poem in sixteen hundred and fifty-seven lines upon the bishops and saints of the church of York from its foundation to the accession of Eanbald.11331133    Ibid. col. 814-846. Dümmler, l.c. 169-206. It is very valuable. In its earlier part it rests upon Bede, but from the ten hundred and seventh line to the close upon original information. It seems to have been written by Alcuin in his youth at York. Its style is evidently influenced by Virgil and Prudentius.

VII. Pedagogical Works.11341134    Opuscula didascalica, Migne, CI. col. 849-1002 (a) Grammar. (b) Orthography. (c) Rhetoric. (d) Dialectics. (e) Dialogue between Pippin and Alcuin11351135    Guizot gives a translation of this in his Hist. Civilization (Eng. trans. ii. 239-242. (f) On the courses and changes of the moon and the intercalary day (Feb. 24th). These works admit us into Alcuin’s school-room, and are therefore of great importance for the study of the learning of his day.

VIII. Dubious Works.11361136    Opuscula dubia , Migne, CI. col. 1027-1170. (a) A confession of faith, in four parts, probably his. (b) Dialogue between teacher and pupils upon religion. (c) Propositions. (d) Poems.

IX. Pretended Works11371137    Opuscula supposita ibid. col. 1173-1314. (a) The holy days. (b) Four homilies. (c) Poems.



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