Alcuin of York

The English churchman Alcuin of York (c. 730-804) was an educator, statesman, and liturgist. In the total range of his talents he was unequaled by any other man of his time.

Born in or near York, Alcuin was early entrusted to the cathedral school there under the master teacher, Egbert, who had been a pupil of the great English historian Bede. When Egbert became archbishop of York, Alcuin had the rare good fortune to study under the scholars Aelbert and Eadbert. With the former, Alcuin visited the Continent to secure books and art treasures to enrich the library at York, which until its demolition in the Danish wars was the greatest library in the Western world.

Alcuin's education was firmly classical, since at this time the vast resources of Mediterranean erudition were being poured into England by such men as Paulinus, Theodore, and Hadrian. And under the impact of Bede, such secular studies as literature, science, history, and music, which were uncommon in early monastic schools, were also included in the curriculum. Dedicated to learning, Alcuin was promoted by the time he was 30 from student to teacher, and later to master. In the meantime he was ordained deacon, but he never advanced to the priesthood.

Coming back from a visit to Rome in 781, Alcuin happened to meet the future emperor Charlemagne at Parma. The serious, learned, and sagacious teacher made a deep impression on the Frankish leader. He urged Alcuin to take charge of the palace school, which had been established not only to educate royalty and nobility, but also to prepare missionaries and scholars to instruct the heathen tribes he intended to integrate into his projected Christian empire. The proposal was approved by the Northumbrian bishops, and Alcuin gradually weaned himself from his beloved York. In 782 he joined Charlemagne in Frankland. From then on he visited England only occasionally as an agent and personal representative of Charlemagne.

Alcuin set about developing the school. His was not an original mind, but he brought to his task great persistence and a mind that was an extraordinarily capacious storehouse of knowledge. Gradually Charlemagne drew him into an ever-closer collaboration on matters of state-craft.

Besides establishing his school, which became a center of Western culture, Alcuin wrote important political and liturgical works. He composed a number of significant official documents, which were believed until recently entirely the work of Charlemagne. These included decisions of the thorny problems of iconoclasm and the Spanish heresy of adoptionism. Alcuin's liturgical guide took into account both universally and locally observed rites and served as the basis of the Missal until the Second Vatican Council.

After serving Charlemagne for many years, Alcuin withdrew to the abbey of St. Martin of Tours and died there in 804.


Further Reading on Alcuin of York

Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alcuin, Friend of Charlemagne: His World and His Work (1951), is a definitive study of Alcuin's life, times, and work. Luitpold Wallach, Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Literature (1959), concentrates on Alcuin's political influence and examines the question of authorship of the state papers prepared for Charlemagne. Gerald Ellard, a renowned liturgist, in Master Alcuin, Liturgist, a Partner of Our Piety (1956), shows how capably Deacon Alcuin reorganized the sacramentary at the behest of Charlemagne. The best background studies of the age of Charlemagne are in German and French, but for a study of England in the 8th and 9th centuries Peter Hunter Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (1956), is excellent. See also Philippe Wolff, The Cultural Awakening (trans. 1968).