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Death: Alcuin of York (804)

Submitted by Ludwig von Rege... on May 19, 2015 - 10:52pm

Here, I beg thee, pause for a while, traveler,
And ponder my words in thy heart,
That thou mayest understand thy fate in my shadow:
The form of thy body will be changed as was mine.

Alcuin was born in Northumbria sometime around around 735 and about the only thing known about his family is that his father's name also started with an "A".  He was educated at York by Ecgbert who had been a student of Bede; and Alcuin eventually became a deacon.

In 782, Alcuin was recruited by Charlemagne, whom he had met on a couple of trips to Europe.  Charles had surrounded himself with the best scholars eighth-century Europe had to offer, and Alcuin was given the prime job of tutoring the royal family.  He taught the trivium, quadrivium and religion, and tried to moderate Charles in his desire to convert the newly conquered Saxons and Avars.  In 792, Alcuin spear-headed opposition to the Adoptionist heresy, eventually convincing the heresiarch, Felix, to renounce his position; this is the only documented case in history of someone changing their mind as a result of reasoned discussion*.

In 796, Alcuin went into semi-retirement as the abbot of the Marmoutier at Tours.  Whilst he was home-sick for England, the destruction of Lindisfarne had provided a powerful argument for remaining in France.  It was a good decision: the vikings wouldn't ruin it for another 50 years.  Charles often wrote to Alcuin, asking him to visit, but he never did.  In his sixties, it is not clear whether he was too tired of travel, or too tired of Charles. 

One of Charles' great cultural acts was the instigation of a massive copying program for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge.  To this end, a new script: "Carolingian miniscule" was developed.  Inspired by insular (i.e. Irish and English) models, this script was fast to write, but easy to read (which minimised transmission errors).  Alcuin put the scriptorium at Tours to work preserving the past, as did scholars across the Empire.  This period is a watershed in European history: thousands of documents survive from the eighth and ninth centuries.  It is quite terrifying to contemplate how much of Antiquity survives only because Alcuin and his colleagues chose to preserve it.

Whilst Alcuin's original scholarship was slight, his influence as an educator was massive.  In ninth century Europe, wherever the liberal arts were pursued, there were Alcuin's students.  In addition to works on astronomy, theology, grammar and rhetoric, he left us his epitaph.

I implore thee, let no hand profane the holy rights of this tomb,
Until the angelic trumpet announces from Heaven high:
“Thou who liest in the tomb, rise from the dust of the earth,
The Mighty Judge appears to countless thousands.”
My name was Alcuin, and wisdom was always dear to me.
Pour out prayers for me when thou quietly readest this inscription.

Alcuin's epitaph is translated in full at:

* True fact!


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