Alcuin

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Alcuin : biography

735 – 804

York

The young Alcuin came to the cathedral church of York during the golden age of Archbishop Ecgbert and Northumbrian King Eadberht. Egbert had been a disciple of the Venerable Bede, who urged him to raise York to an archbishopric. King Eadbert and his brother Egbert oversaw the re-energising and re-organisation of the English church, with an emphasis on reforming the clergy and on the tradition of learning that Bede had begun. Egbert was devoted to Alcuin, who thrived under his tutelage. It was in York that Alcuin formed his love of classical poetry, though he was sometimes troubled by the fact that it was written by non-Christians.

The York school was renowned as a centre of learning in the liberal arts, literature, and science, as well as in religious matters. It was from here that Alcuin drew inspiration for the school he would lead at the Frankish court. He revived the school with the trivium and quadrivium disciplines, writing a codex on the trivium, while his student Hraban wrote one on the quadrivium.

Alcuin graduated to become a teacher during the 750s. His ascendancy to the headship of the York school, the ancestor of St Peter’s School, began after Aelbert became Archbishop of York in 767. Around the same time Alcuin became a deacon in the church. He was never ordained as a priest and there is no real evidence that he became an actual monk, but he lived his life as one.

In 781, King Elfwald sent Alcuin to Rome to petition the Pope for official confirmation of York’s status as an archbishopric and to confirm the election of the new archbishop, Eanbald I. On his way home he again met Charlemagne, this time in the Italian city of Parma.

Charlemagne

Alcuin’s love of the church and his intellectual curiosity allowed him to be reluctantly persuaded to join Charlemagne’s court. He joined an illustrious group of scholars that Charlemagne had gathered around him, the mainsprings of the Carolingian Renaissance: Peter of Pisa, Paulinus of Aquileia, Rado, and Abbot Fulrad. Alcuin would later write that "the Lord was calling me to the service of King Charles."

He was welcomed at the Palace School of Charlemagne in Aachen (Urbs Regale) in 782. It had been founded by the king’s ancestors as a place for the education of the royal children (mostly in manners and the ways of the court). However, Charlemagne wanted to include the liberal arts and, most importantly, the study of the religion that he held sacred. He loved the thought of religion, and it was so important to him that he decided to share it with his country and others. From 782 to 790, Alcuin taught Charlemagne himself, his sons Pepin and Louis, the young men sent to be educated at court, and the young clerics attached to the palace chapel. Bringing with him from York his assistants Pyttel, Sigewulf, and Joseph, Alcuin revolutionized the educational standards of the Palace School, introducing Charlemagne to the liberal arts and creating a personalised atmosphere of scholarship and learning, to the extent that the institution came to be known as the ‘school of Master Albinus’.

In this role as adviser, he tackled the emperor over his policy of forcing pagans to be baptised on pain of death, arguing, "Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe." His arguments seem to have prevailed – Charlemagne abolished the death penalty for paganism in 797.Needham, Dr. N.R., Two Thousand Years of Christ’s Power, Part Two: The Middle Ages, Grace Publications, 2000, page 52.

Charlemagne was a master at gathering the best men of every land in his court. He himself became far more than just the king at the centre. It seems that he made many of these men his closest friends and counsellors. They referred to him as ‘David’, a reference to the Biblical king David. Alcuin soon found himself on intimate terms with Charlemagne and the other men at court, where pupils and masters were known by affectionate and jesting nicknames. Alcuin himself was known as ‘Albinus’ or ‘Flaccus’.