In the 8th century, the time in which Alcuin lived, Europe was in a sorry state. In the 5th century the Roman Empire had fallen before the barbarian hordes that swept over Europe, and the old Graeco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire had been destroyed. In its place,the roving and militant tribes of uncivilized barbarians had inhabited Europe and a great darkness had settled on the continent. Although by the 8th century a great deal of missionary work had ben done, Europe remained for the most part under the control of illiterate and superstitious pagans who had obliterated all learning and reduced Europe to chaos.
It was not as if mission work had not been done in earlier years, but the constantly migrating and fighting barbarians had made the work ebb and flow like the tides of the sea.
Europe's most powerful kings were to be found in what is now France. The Merovingian Dynasty ruled there, not powerful by today's standards, but nevertheless the strongest among all the barbarians. While national boundaries had not yet been formed, the power of France's kings was expanded throughout much of present-day France and into Germany. This dynasty had however been forced out of power by papal intrigue and the connivance of high officials in the realm. The Carolingian Dynasty had taken its place.
The first and greatest ruler of the Carolingians was Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne. He was the founder and first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire -- which some waggish historian has characterized as neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But it was important, for it was the realization of papal dreams: a political empire under the rule and control of the bishop of Rome, the pope.
Alcuin was the educator of this kingdom during the time of Charlemagne.
His Early Life
Alcuin was born in England in the year 735, in the shire of York, now known as Yorkshire, and near the city of York, where now stands one of England's great cathedrals, Yorkminster. He was born of royal blood, was left an orphan while still an infant, but remained heir to many possessions of his parents. Because of the untimely death of his parents, he was given over to the monastery in York, known then already as Yorkminster. Here he was well cared for by the abbot, Ethelbert, who was also his teacher.
Alcuin soon showed signs of great ability and became a favorite of the abbot. He was given perhaps the best education available in England at the time, for the monastery in York possessed one of the greatest libraries in the whole kingdom. It contained manuscripts from the church fathers and from ancient Roman authors, and it gave Alcuin access to classical Roman thought as well as church theology. Alcuin found himself in a literary paradise, and he eagerly devoured every scroll he could find.
Not only was the library the best in England, but Ethelbert was himself a great lover of books. Periodically he traveled to the monasteries of Europe and to other centers as far south as Italy to search for books. He had the financial resources available to him to spend vast sums of money in the acquisition of such books as, in his opinion, would enhance the value of his library. When Alcuin was a bit older he accompanied his master on these trips and Alcuin gained additional respect for his broad knowledge and learning and unerring instinct for good books.
In 766 Ethelbert became Archbishop of York, and Alcuin became headmaster of the monastery school, responsible for the education offered there. He served with distinction in this capacity for 15 years.
In 780 Ethelbert was awarded the "pallium" and Alcuin was sent to Rome to fetch it. The pallium was a yoke-like garment worn over the shoulders, and indicated that the wearer had a share in the pontifical office. In more recent times, all archbishops petition for and receive it as a condition of office, but in the days of Alcuin it was a distinction of honor. Alcuin's errand was a high privilege. While in Rome he met Charlemagne, a meeting which was to change his entire life.
Alcuin's Work in France
It is at this point that Charlemagne enters the story.
Charlemagne was one of Europe's great kings. He was a monstrous man, seven feet tall, and so huge that he needed a special horse to carry him. He was a mighty man of war who waged many campaigns against the Saxons of Germany and finally subdued them, forcing them to become Christians under penalty of death. He gave 2,000 Saxons the choice of being baptized or losing their heads. It is not difficult to surmise what option the Saxons preferred.
Charlemagne was a strange man of complex character. He was a friend of the church and, outwardly, a pious and faithful member. One of his "capitularies" reads: "It is necessary that every man should seek to the best of his strength and ability to serve God and walk in the ways of His precepts; for the Lord Emperor cannot watch over every man in personal discipline." But his private life left much to be desired. He combined in his character a generous disposition with murderous and brutal hatred of his enemies. He had four wives and numerous concubines and lived immoderately. He was himself never completely literate, although he strove mightily to learn to read and write. In his kingdom he opened roads, gave his attention to the smallest details of the empire, introduced a settled order in the realm, and welded many different barbarian tribes into a political and economic unity. But his main interest was in education. He gathered about him the ablest scholars of Europe and enjoined education on all males within his realm.
It was in connection with this latter that he persuaded Alcuin to come to France and help him in his educational enterprises.
Charlemagne established what we can probably call a court school, over which Alcuin was the head. To this school came Charlemagne himself, plus the members of the royal family and court. Here Alcuin began his important work of bringing education to barbarian France.
The court of Charlemagne was a migratory court, moving about from place to place as Charlemagne waged his wars against the Saxons and sought to bring effective rule to his empire. This gave Alcuin the opportunity to work at the establishment of schools throughout France and parts of Germany, something at which he was very successful. From 781 to 790 he busied himself in this work. Because his interest had always been in books, he was instrumental in building libraries wherever he went and bringing to his schools valuable and important works from all over Europe.
In 790 Alcuin returned to England, but came back to France in 796, settling in Tours, where he established a famous abbey school and built an extensive library. While heading this school, he not only developed educational theories, but also supervised the copying of ancient manuscripts, including those of the Bible. These latter became part of the great body of manuscripts which form the basis for our King James Version of Scripture. Here he died peacefully in 804.
Charlemagne so thoroughly trusted him that all kinds of difficult and wearisome responsibilities were laid upon him. He took part in various doctrinal controversies, was constantly sought for advice on all sorts of political questions, was given responsibilities for supervision of various imperial enterprises, and was called upon to engage in almost constant preaching. All these activities were more than he could perform, and his health was almost completely undermined. This may very well have been one reason why he retreated to England, and returned again to France only when he could enjoy the relatively peaceful life of the abbey in Tours.
Not only was he the heir of his father's fortune, but Charlemagne, in appreciation for all his labors, gave him additional estates. Most of his vast fortunes were used in the paying of the expenses of the schools he established and in the acquisition of manuscripts (books) to fill the libraries. He was a moral reformer of no little ability and was instrumental in bringing morality and piety to the monasteries and churches of Charlemagne's empire.
He was a man of gentle disposition, willing, patient, and humble, and an unwearied student. He mastered Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as well as his native language and the barbaric "French" of Charlemagne's empire. He constantly protested Charlemagne's determination to force Christianity on the conquered, but with little success. Charlemagne was too drunk with the notion that to Christianize the pagans (even at the point of the sword) was faithfulness to the church.
Many of Alcuin's works are extant. He wrote widely in the fields of exegesis, theology, liturgy, ethics, biography, and education. Nearly 300 of his letters are still available, letters which are enormously important for an understanding of the times in which he lived.
His Influence in Education
His educational theories included a stress on the mastery of the ancient classics of Rome, along with a study of the church fathers and various theological works. This labor was to have great influence on education in Europe. Alcuin is really the father of Europe's educational system. He began the famous monastery schools, schools which later developed into France's famous universities. His theories of education and his development of the curriculum were to be continued in Europe for hundreds of years, and even today much of education owes its ideas to Alcuin, the educator of France.
As Europe was gradually Christianized under the efforts of the Romish church, education became a part of this process. It is true that, after Charlemagne, the Renaissance of France disappeared and France too sank into intellectual darkness. Charlemagne's empire was divided among his three sons, and the great work of Charlemagne did not long endure. Yet Alcuin's work was preserved in the monasteries, and the time of its full blossoming came when Europe emerged from the "Dark Ages."
As Rome worked her will on Europe, it was through education that Europe became Christian. The spread of the gospel brought the principles of Christianity to barbarians. Along with this gospel went the forces of education, for Christianity is always vitally interested in education and considers education an integral part of her calling. When Europe was civilized through education, it was also Christianized, and the principles of Christianity were woven into the warp and woof of all the institutions of society. Thus Europe (and America, settled by Europeans) became the Christian nations that they are. In God's eternal purpose, this was brought about through education. In this Alcuin played a major role.