Alcuin : biography

735 – 804

Modern debate

Alcuin’s friendships also extended to the ladies of the court, especially the queen mother and the king’s daughters, though his relationships with these women never reached the intense level of those of the men around him.

Passages in some of Alcuin’s writings have seemed to historians such as John Boswell to display homosocial desire, even homoerotic imagery,David Clark, Between Medieval Men: Male Friendship and desire in early medieval english which might be seen in both in Alcuin’s poems and some of his letters. Furthermore, while at Aachen, Alcuin bestowed pet names upon his pupils – derived from mainly from Virgil’s Eclogues).

Such an interpretation has been refuted by Allen FrantzenFrantzen, Before the Closet, University of Chicago, 2000See also Stephen Jaegar, "L’amour des rois", Annales 46 (1991) who identifies Alcuin’s language with that of medieval Christian amicizia or friendship. Clark suggests it is not possible to determine whether Alcuin’s homosocial desires were the result of an outward expression of erotic feelings.David Clark, Between Medieval Men: Male Friendship and desire in early medieval english

In spite of the modern debate, Alcuin himself was clear (Interrogationes Sigewulfi in Genesin – AD 792-96) that the men of Sodom had been punished by God for committing same-sex acts. Such sins, argues Alcuin, are more serious than lustful acts with women, and merit more punishment after death:

Inter. 191 Quare diebus Noe peccatum mundi aqua ulciscitur, hoc vero Sodomitarum igne punitur? – Resp. Quia illud naturale libidinis cum feminis peccatum quasi leviori elemento damnatur : hoc vero contra naturam libidinis peccatum cum viris, acrioris elementi vindicatur incendio : et illic terra aquis abluta revirescit; hic flammis cremata aeterna sterilitate arescit.

Q: why in the days of Noah was the sin of the world punihed by water, and that of the Sodomites punished by fire? A: because the former, sinning by natural desire with women, was condemned with a slighter element, while the latter, sinning against nature with men was avenged more severely by fire. There the earth was purified by water, here it was withered by flames unto eternal barrenness. J. -P. Migne Patrologiae Curus Completus, Tomus C, p. 543


The collection of mathematical and logical word problems entitled Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes ("Problems to Sharpen Youths") (English: Problems to sharpen the young, proper title Propositiones Alcuini Doctoris Caroli Magni Imperatoris ad Acuendes Juvenes—) is sometimes attributed to Alcuin.Atkinson, L. 2005. ‘When the Pope was a mathematician’. College Mathematics Journal 36 (November): 354–362 In a 799 letter to Charlemagne the scholar claimed to have sent "certain figures of arithmetic for the joy of cleverness,"Epistola 172, MGH Epistolae 4.2: 285: "aliquas figuras arithmeticae subtilitatis laetitiae causa" which some scholars have identified with the Propositiones.Marie-Hélène Jullien and Françoise Perelman, eds., Clavis scriptorum latinorum medii aevi: Auctores Galliae 735-987. Tomus II: Alcuinus. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999, 482-3.A more skeptical attitude toward Alcuin’s authorship of this text and others is taken by Michael Gorman, "Alcuin Before Migne," Revue bénédictine 112 (2002); 101-130. The text contains about 53 mathematical word problems (with solutions), in no particular pedagogical order. Among the most famous of these problems are: four that involve river crossings, including the problem of three anxious brothers, each of whom has an unmarried sister whom he cannot leave alone with either of the other men lest she be defiled (Problem 17); the problem of the wolf, goat, and cabbage (Problem 18); and the problem of "the two adults and two children where the children weigh half as much as the adults" (Problem 19). Alcuin’s sequence is the solution to one of the problems of that book.