Alcuin

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Alcuin : biography

735 – 804

Return to Northumbria and back to Francia

In 790 Alcuin returned from the court of Charlemagne to his own country, to which he had always been greatly attached. He dwelt there for some time, but Charlemagne then invited him back to help in the fight against the Adoptionist heresy which was at that time making great progress in Toledo, the old capital of the Visigoths and still a major city for the Christians under Islamic rule in Spain. He is believed to have had contacts with Beatus of Liébana, from the Kingdom of Asturias, who fought against Adoptionism. At the Council of Frankfurt in 794, Alcuin upheld the orthodox doctrine and obtained the condemnation of the heresiarch Felix of Urgel. Having failed during his stay in Northumbria to influence King Æthelred in the conduct of his reign, Alcuin never returned home.

He was back at Charlemagne’s court by at least mid-792, writing a series of letters to Æthelred, to Hygbald, Bishop of Lindisfarne, and to Æthelhard, Archbishop of Canterbury in the succeeding months, dealing with the Viking attack on Lindisfarne in July 793. These letters and Alcuin’s poem on the subject, De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii, provide the only significant contemporary account of these events.

In his description of the Viking attack, he wrote: "Never before has such terror appeared in Britain. Behold the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of God’s priests, robbed of its ornaments."

Tours and death

In 796 Alcuin was in his sixties. He hoped to be free from court duties and was given the chance upon the death of Abbot Itherius of Saint Martin at Tours, when Charlemagne put Marmoutier Abbey into Alcuin’s care, with the understanding that he should be available if the king ever needed his counsel.

Alcuin died on 19 May 804, some ten years before the emperor, and was buried at St. Martin’s Church under an epitaph that partly read:

Carolingian Renaissance figure and legacy

Literary influence

Alcuin made the abbey school into a model of excellence and many students flocked to it. He had many manuscripts copied using outstandingly beautiful calligraphy, the Carolingian minuscule based on round and legible uncial letters. He wrote many letters to his English friends, to Arno, bishop of Salzburg and above all to Charlemagne. These letters (of which 311 are extant) are filled mainly with pious meditations, but they form an important source of information as to the literary and social conditions of the time and are the most reliable authority for the history of humanism during the Carolingian age. Alcuin trained the numerous monks of the abbey in piety, and it was in the midst of these pursuits that he died.

Alcuin is the most prominent figure of the Carolingian Renaissance, in which three main periods have been distinguished: in the first of these, up to the arrival of Alcuin at the court, the Italians occupy a central place; in the second, Alcuin and the Anglo-Saxons are dominant; in the third (from 804), the influence of Theodulf, the Visigoth is preponderant.

Alcuin also developed manuals used in his educational work – a grammar and works on rhetoric and dialectics. These are written in the form of dialogues, and in two of them the interlocutors are Charlemagne and Alcuin. He wrote several theological treatises: a De fide Trinitatis, commentaries on the Bible, etc.

Alcuin is credited with inventing the first known question mark, though it didn’t resemble the modern symbol.Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2003. p. 76. ISBN 1-59240-087-6.

Alcuin transmitted to the Franks the knowledge of Latin culture which had existed in Anglo-Saxon England. A number of his works still exist. His letters and his poetry are equally interesting. Besides some graceful epistles in the style of Venantius Fortunatus, he wrote some long poems, and notably he is the author of a history (in verse) of the church at York, Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae.