SHORTLY after Alcuin’s arrival in his native country, there occurred one of those revolutions, of which the annals of Northumberland present so many instances. The division of the natural strength of the kingdom, the mixed population, and the vicinity of the Scottish frontier, beyond which every rebel found safety, and frequently support, facilitated and occasioned sudden changes in the government. One king hurled another from his throne, only to give place in his turn to a third within the space of a few years. Alchred was scarcely seated on the throne, when those who had elevated him to it deserted him. He took refuge in Scotland and resigned his crown to Ethelred, against whom the thanes, Ethelwald and Heardbert, raised the standard of rebellion in 778, and compelled him to seek safety by flight. The sceptre was now transferred to the hands of Alfwold, who wielded it with sufficient vigour to retain it for the space of ten years. He could not, however, eventually escape the fate of his predecessors; like them, he fell a victim to the inconstancy and treachery of the nobles of Northumberland, in the year 7881. Alchred’s son, Osred, took possession of the vacant throne, which he occupied at the period of Alcuin’s arrival at York, in 790. A strong party, however, was already formed against him, who were desirous of recalling Ethelred from exile, after a banishment of twelve years. Alcuin was a witness of Ethelred’s success, and of the revengeful cruelty with which he punished the injuries he had formerly received, and whereby he endeavored to secure the future stability of his government. The country continued for two years in a state of distraction, when the imprisonment and execution of Osred terminated for a while these intestine commotions. These events again involved Alcuin in occupations from which he had hoped to escape at York, and rendered him the more disposed to return to the court of France, where the supreme power being lodged in the hands of an energetic ruler, repressed the aristocracy, instead of becoming their tool. A similar scene of confusion was soon repeated, which so disgusted Alcuin with his own country that he sought in France, and at length obtained in the abbey of Tours, the repose and advantages no longer to be found at York. He was, moreover, recalled to the continent by pressing letters from Charlemagne, who needed Alcuin’s counsel and learning, not only for the purpose of investigating and suppressing a religious doctrine which had sprung up within his dominions, and threatened a dangerous schism, but also of opposing the pretensions of the Byzantine court, which demanded that the resolutions adopted at its instigation by the pseudo-ecumenical council at Nice, with regard to the worship of images, should be binding upon the churches of the West as well as of the East. Both points were of too vital importance to the theory, as well as the practice of religion, and affected too nearly the peace of the kingdom, to allow Alcuin to remain indifferent. He displayed in the management of both, the greatest and most praiseworthy zeal; and happily succeeded in securing the maintenance of the orthodox doctrine, and the public tranquility. The first point was concerning a new view of the relation of Jesus to God as Father.


1.—Rise and Progress of the Doctrine of the Adoptionists.


No sooner was Christianity secured from external persecution by becoming the prevailing religion of the state, than disputes respecting doctrines and opinions rendered it dangerous to the government by which it had been embraced. No language can express, and no imagination conceive, with adequate distinctness and accuracy, that which was the subject of controversy. Hence the adjustment of one cause of contention originated a new subject of strife. The temporal power which had regulated spiritual affairs during the time of paganism, was no longer in a condition to interpose; for, with Christianity, an organized ecclesiastical body had forced its way into the political constitution, and arrogated to itself the sole right of determining points of doctrine. The temporal power, therefore, could not interfere in these controversies without appearing as a party desirous of securing the victory, and a solid foundation for its own favourite sentiments, under the pretence of an anxiety to maintain the public tranquillity. In every contest of that description, it had to encounter the opposition of those who struggled for the triumph of their own opinions, regardless of existing circumstances, and even of the danger of involving in one common ruin the altar and the throne. The only means, therefore, of preserving the tranquillity of the state, was to summon an ecumenical council; but if such an assembly were with much difficulty convened, and if after many fierce debates, it came to a decision, this very decision usually proved the fruitful germ of cruel persecutions, and of conflicts still fiercer and more dangerous. In subsequent times wherein different interests prevailed, and colder spirits received the dogmas of the church with indifference, or regarded them as absurd, these controversies have been considered errors of the understanding, and deplored as the lamentable result of ignorance and superstition. Such a view, however, is too partial and circumscribed to be correct. It is always gratifying to contemplate the mind in a state of activity, under whatever form it may develop itself; and the object to which intellectual power is directed, is of far less importance than the amount of the force which is employed. It is among the noblest benefits conferred by Christianity on mankind, that at a time when political freedom was groaning under the iron yoke of despotism, throughout the whole extent of the Roman empire, she opened new prospects to the mind, inspiring apathy itself with animation, and supplying men with courage and strength to support their convictions in the face of tyranny, or to die in their defence. Freedom and energy of mind forsook politics, and fled within the precincts of religion; and although the contentions concerning the Trinity and the nature of Christ have not the same practical utility as the disputes upon political rights and the best form of government, yet they are equally important in the history of the human intellect. Convictions are errors only in the eyes of those who do not participate in them. So long as they serve to stimulate the powers of investigation, they are deserving of respect; and if in later times they appear absurd or trifling, it is because we forget the fate of all human efforts which, with the change of the objects of interest, cease to be interesting.

The mystical portion of the history of the founder of the Christian religion was a boundless field of contention, and an inexhaustible armoury for the controversialists of the primitive church. The relation of Jesus to his Heavenly Father, and to the third person in the mysterious union of the Trinity, long agitated the Christian world. At length, after many furious debates, and when the passions of mankind had been exhausted in persecution, the decision of the first ecumenical council at Nice prevailed, and the divinity of Christ, as well as his identity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, became an established principle of the orthodox church. Arianism, on the ruin of which the orthodox system was founded, was speedily avenged by the startling consequences to be deduced from it. Out of the controversy upon the Trinity, arose the yet fiercer contest concerning the single, or the double nature in Christ. The orthodox doctrine of the union of the Divine Spirit with a human soul and human body, was unsatisfactory, in proportion to the incomprehensibility of the connection, and the unwillingness of mankind to resort to faith in all doubts of the understanding. It was impossible to prove the union of the two natures, without new doctrines, new sects, and new disputes. Some, in order to avoid dishonouring the Divine Spirit by any gross admixture with a material substance, supposed Christ to have had a merely apparent, not a real body; others endeavored to avoid the admission that God had permitted himself to be born of a woman in the ordinary way of human birth, by regarding Jesus merely as a perfect man who was filled, at his baptism, but not before, with the Logos or Divine Spirit. So little effect had these and similar views in removing previous convictions, that the worship of the Virgin Mary as the mother of God began to be universal. Such a practice, which was nowhere authorized in Scripture, was revolting to the mind of Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople. He vented his indignation in sermons couched in the most violent language; and was led on from one position to another, till he at length asserted that the two natures of Christ were distinctly separate. He allowed that God and man were united in Christ, but maintained that all that was exalted and sublime in him was to be ascribed to the divine, whilst all that was inferior or ordinary must belong to the human nature. The elevated station of the patriarch gave considerable weight to his opinion, and his doctrine found some partisans, but a still greater number of opponents, who, after many turbulent synods, finally succeeded in depriving the heretical patriarch of his see, driving him into exile, and surrendering his adherents a prey to persecution. The council held at Chalcedon in 451, at last established, on the authority of Pope Leo, the doctrine received to the present day by both the Catholic and Protestant church,—that there existed in Christ two natures, but only one person.

This decision, instead of putting an end to the controversy, only gave it a new direction, and theology continued to nourish the flame of spiritual excitement in the Byzantine empire, and often kindled it into a frightful conflagration. The west of Europe enjoyed, in this respect, a much greater degree of tranquillity. The Western monarchs had too little taste for theological inquiries, the clergy, at least the greater part of them, were too ignorant, and the people too much occupied by other interests, to admit of such commotions as those which agitated the East. Since the extinction of Arianism, the Pope had become the champion of Western orthodoxy, the representative of the West at the Eastern councils, and the source of the true and only saving faith. The ignorant and the indolent were well content to acquiesce in this arrangement, and to pronounce, without further examination, a sentence of condemnation against all who differed from them. Before the time of Charlemagne especially, the French clergy were better qualified to use temporal weapons against the enemies of the country, than to wield the spiritual sword against the enemies of the church. Since the accession of Charles, society had undergone so great an alteration, that men of ability and intelligence were no longer wanting both for attack and defence in a religious dispute. When, therefore, even in the kingdom of France, people began to entertain views of the doctrine out of which the Arian, Nestorian, and so many other disturbances had arisen, differing from those already established, the example of former times and the actual situation of the Byzantine empire, where the flames of discord were raging at that very time, served as a warning of the consequences of a schism in religion. Charles’ interference, therefore, in a dispute concerning an obscure and abstruse doctrine of religion, is to be regarded less as a proof of his piety than of his anxiety for the welfare of his subjects. His duty as a sovereign required that he should stifle at its birth a contest, in which excited passions and conflicting interests might easily overstep the limits of a theological controversy, and form the commencement of a violent and protracted struggle, which would shake the church and state to their foundations. The mode of his interference is remarkable; and his whole behaviour in this affair, affords the honourable testimony, that he paid such regard to the exercise of the reason and the freedom of investigation, as to authorize an impartial examination of truth. Instead of persecuting with fire and sword those who dissented from the established doctrine, he gave them an opportunity either of proving their opinions by argument, or of submitting to a triumphant refutation. This moderation is the more commendable, as the new doctrine was first advanced in a Mahommedan country.

Whilst Spain was under the dominion of the Saracens, the Christian religion was tolerated there, as in all other Mahommedan countries; but the slight connection of the Spaniards with the rest of the Christian world, the passiveness of the temporal government with respect to the creed of its subjects, and the scoffs of the infidels which compelled an examination of many of the dogmas of Christianity, concurred in rendering them liable to deviate from the orthodox faith. Hence the defection of Archbishop Elipandus of Toledo. He had probably heard so many doubts respecting the divinity and incarnation of Christ, that his belief began to waver. He was impressed with the idea, that Christ, as man, could not stand in the same relation to God, as Christ, as God; and that what might justly be attributed to the divine nature of the Redeemer must be denied to his human capacity. Distrustful of his own powers of comprehension and elucidation, he was anxious to resort to the counsel and assistance of others, and accordingly applied to Felix, bishop of Urgel, one of the most esteemed prelates in that part of Spain which, since the year 778, had been incorporated with the kingdom of France. Felix had so distinguished himself by his learning and virtues, that Alcuin, at an earlier date, had entered into a correspondence with him. The answer of the bishop was such as to confirm his doubts. A contemporary chronicler says, “he most imprudently, thoughtlessly, and in opposition to the doctrines of the Catholic church, not only replied that Christ was the adopted son of God, but in some books written to the aforesaid bishop, endeavored most obstinately to defend the wickedness of his opinion”. Elipandus was so convinced by his reasoning, that he immediately assented to his proposition. The tenets of the new doctrine represented Christ in a double relationship as Son and God. According to his divine nature, he was a real, as man he was only an adopted son of God; and his Godhead itself was, in the former case, a true, in the latter, a merely nominal, or titular divinity.




Elipandus now endeavored to disseminate his opinions with all the zeal of a new convert, and to persecute those of a different faith with all the fury of bigotry. It was natural, that one placed in his exalted station should gain many proselytes, and thereby become more firmly persuaded of the correctness of his own views; but the number of his adversaries was by no means inconsiderable. Amongst these, Etherius, bishop of Uxama, or Osma, and the presbyter Beatus, were the most distinguished. The bishop of Toledo loaded both with such accusations, that they deemed it due to their own honour and the welfare of the church, to expose the errors of the doctrine of the Adoption. As touching the doctrine itself, they appealed in their writings to faith. The proofs which they adduce from the testimony of the apostles, the miracles of Jesus, the words of the Redeemer himself, and also from the confessions of the devils, are calculated rather to justify faith, and to expose the errors of their opponents, than to render the subject itself more clear and distinct. They maintained that faith must precede knowledge, and be, in religious matters especially, the preponderating principle, because, in every investigation, we incur the hazard of falling into the snares of destruction. To the confession of faith of the Adoptionists, they opposed the orthodox symbol of faith, and demonstrated that their deviation from it was unauthorized by the books of the Old or New Testament. In order to terrify the heretics, they exhibited the splendid array of faithful and triumphant heroes who adorned their ranks. “With us”, said they, “is David, that magnanimous hero who struck the infidel Goliath in the forehead with a little stone, and with one blow felled him to the earth : with us is Moses, who overwhelmed Pharaoh with the Egyptian host in the Red Sea, whilst he led his own people through on dry land : with us is Joshua who shut up five kings in a cave, after he had defeated Amalek : with us is father Abraham, who, with his three hundred servants, overcame and spoiled five kings : with us is the bravest of mankind, Gideon, who with the assistance of his three hundred chosen men, discomfited the Midianites as one man : with us is Samson, who, stronger than a lion and firmer than a rock, overthrew, alone and unarmed, a thousand armed men : with us are the twelve patriarchs, the sixteen prophets, the apostles, the evangelists, with us are the martyrs and ministers of the church : with us is Jesus, son of the Virgin, together with the whole church which has been ransomed by his blood, and extended throughout the world”. In consequence of the struggle respecting the new doctrines, a more exalted and divine position was assigned to the Man in Christ, whom the Adoptionists regarded as an ordinary man. In this the two prelates were very successful. The pure and immaculate conception, of course, makes a wide distinction between the incarnate God and ordinary men who are conceived and born in sin; besides, nothing is impossible with God, and the miracle consists in the fact that God remained God even as man. The doctrine of the Adoptionists is repugnant in itself; for the separation between a true and an adopted Son, destroys the Son, as effectually as the assertion that God may be partly God, and partly not God, annihilates the Godhead. Moreover, the human body of Christ typically represents the church, of which Christ is the head. On the other hand, all who secede from the orthodox church, represent the body of the devil who is Antichrist. To prove this position, and thus overturn the doctrine of Elipandus, is the object of the second book of the work quoted above.

From this refutation, which is written with considerable spirit and animation, though deficient in acute logical reasoning, it is evident that the passions of the parties in Spain had been sufficiently enkindled to burst forth into a flame which might have proved dangerous to the state, had Elipandus possessed the power of attacking his adversaries with other weapons than those of calumny. The Saracenic government, however, paid little regard to the theological disputes of the Christians; and in the Christian kingdom of Asturias, Etherius and Beatus were careful to suppress the heresy. Still, through the medium of Bishop Felix, the contagion spread to the Spanish frontier; and in consequence of the connection of these provinces with France, it soon extended itself beyond the Pyrenees, and raged in Septimania with such violence as to awaken the attention of Charles. On this account, a provincial synod was held at Narbonne in 788, but separated without even examining, much less coming to a decision upon the new doctrines. As they continued to acquire credit and celebrity, the danger increased, and the necessity for the interference of the sovereign became imperative. A more timid prince would have interposed the strong arm of power; but Charles was too just to condemn, unheard, a man renowned for wisdom and morality; and as he possessed sufficient authority to hold the passions of the contending parties in check, he was enabled to show the deference due to learning, without hazarding the repose of the state. He therefore commanded an investigation, and summoned a synod at Ratisbon in 792, before which he cited Bishop Felix to appear, in order to justify himself and his opinions from the reproaches wherewith they had been assailed. Felix obeyed; but failing, either in learning or courage, to defend his opinions in the presence of the assembled bishops, he abjured them as heretical and deserving the condemnation pronounced upon them by the synod. From Ratisbon, he was sent to Rome, accompanied by Angilbert, in order to renounce his confession of faith in the presence of Pope Hadrian I. Here he again recanted his errors, and declared (confirming the declaration with a solemn oath) that he regarded Jesus Christ, not as the adopted, but as the real and beloved son of God. Felix then returned to Urgel; but here he encountered so many reproaches from his followers for his fickleness, that he yielded to the urgent entreaties of his friends, and, unmindful of his oath, again returned to his former doctrines.

Charles might now have punished him as a relapsed heretic, and have suppressed, by forcible means, errors which had been condemned by their very author; but it is probable that Felix justified his relapse by fresh arguments, so that the king deemed it more advisable to oppose argument by argument. This determination may have been also in some degree influenced by the situation of the Spanish frontier. A violent persecution might easily induce the Adoptionists to throw themselves into the arms of the Saracens ; and to seek under their dominion that toleration which Elipandus enjoyed, but which was denied to them by a Christian king. Charles therefore wrote to Alcuin, inviting him to return, and entreating that he would not withhold his assistance in an affair of such moment both to the church and to his kingdom. He could not have selected an abler or more zealous champion of orthodoxy than Alcuin, nor one more ready to oppose the innovations of the heretics. He had been educated in the church, all his studies had been directed to theology, and his soul clung to the orthodox doctrines. It may be proper here to exhibit his theological views, and his mode of interpreting the Bible. The best means of accomplishing this, will be to characterize and exhibit some specimens of his exegetical works.


2.—Alcuin’s Theological Opinions.


If the Christian religion be not regarded as the summit of devotional feeling, but only as the immediate revelation of God, afforded to us by the books of the New and the preparatory writings of the Old Testament, it appears as an isolated historical fact. The mode of conduct which it prescribes, becomes a law for all succeeding ages; and it is only necessary to oppose that which has been, in order to refute any deviation from it. Whatever the Holy Scriptures, according to their usual interpretation contain, and whatever the distinguished and recognized Fathers of the church have taught, is received as truth, and is sufficient to suppress every other doctrine. The struggle is not for truth as such, but for the maintenance of an historically authenticated and acknowledged truth. This position, which by a new party-name may be denominated that of a supernaturalist (in contradistinction to a rationalist) was that assumed by Alcuin in theology. In the Bible, he discerns not only the spirit, but the words of God; and perceives in the sacred writings of the Jews, the latent indication of a future salvation and mercy, which has been realized in the New Testament. In order to maintain this position, it was necessary to have recourse to mystical interpretations and dialectic subtleties; both of which peculiarities distinguish the explanatory works of Alcuin. To ordinary expressions an importance is attached which renders them extraordinary; and arguments are substituted for the simple meaning which often surprise us by their ingenuity, or please by their spiritual turn, but which, on closer inspection, are found to be devoid of foundation. We have a short commentary of Alcuin’s, in the form of question and answer, on the first book of Moses or Genesis, the object of which is to point out the revelations and latent indications of a future salvation contained in the simple and sublime tradition of the Hebrews respecting the origin of the world, the state of innocence and simplicity in which our first parents lived, their elevation from this condition to that of self-consciousness and intellectual perception, and the historical description of the patriarchs. The account of the creation of the woman, for example, gives occasion to the following questions :—“Why was the woman made of the rib of the man whilst he was sleeping, instead of being formed like him out of the dust?” The answer to which is, “Evidently on account of the mystery, to indicate that Christ, out of whose side the source of our salvation flowed, for the sake of the church fell asleep on the cross”.

Q. What reference to Christ has the following passage, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife?”

A. The Redeemer left his father, because he appeared to men not in the form in which he resembles the Father : he left his mother, inasmuch as he renounced the synagogue of the Jews, of whom he was born after the flesh, in order to cleave unto the church that was to be gathered together from among the heathen.

Even the most secret thoughts and designs of the Almighty are made the subjects of interrogation; and Alcuin is so little at a loss for an answer, that one might suppose he had sat in council at the creation of the world.

Amongst his explanatory works, we also find a Short Explanation of the Ten Commandments. He divides these, according to their respective characters, into two parts. The first three refer to the Holy Trinity, but the rest to the interests of man. The first commandment exhibits God the Father as the only object of our worship; the second forbids us to regard the Son of God as a created being, because every created thing is perishable; the third relates to the Holy Spirit, through whom we are promised eternal rest.

The Psalter was, at that time, one of the most im­portant and favorite books of the old Testament. The fine selection it offers of sacred songs, was so well suited to the service of the church, as to render it indispensable in divine worship. Such a strains of feeling pervades the psalms in which David breathed out his noble spirit; his repentance for former sins, his mourning were afflictions and perplexing events, his rejoicing at the help vouchsafed by the Lord, and his praise of God’s greatness and glory, are expressed with such truth of nature and such poetical beauty, as cannot fail to touch every human heart. In addition to this interest, which Alcuin experienced in common with the rest of mankind, he felt the peculiar satisfaction of discerning, in these sacred songs, the latent mysteries of the Christian religion, and saw everywhere the Redeemer and his redeemed church glorified. In his exposition of some of the psalms of David, he either amplifies the idea, subjoins to the words of the psalmist some moral precepts, pious meditations, and beautiful thoughts, or discovers and explains an allegorical meanings. The latter is especially remarkable in his exposition of the Song of Degrees, or the fifteen psalms of David in full choir. These, according to his view, constitute the steps by which we mount upwards to the joys of the Lord. Humility is placed lowest as the first step; this leads us to the second step, Faith, and thence to the third, Desire after the heavenly Jerusalem. The fourth step, Confidence, and the fifth, Patience, must be surmounted before we can attain on the sixth the firmness of the eternal Jerusalem, and those who are striving after it. Here, repose from the exertions that have been made, and the delightful view of the lovely prospect is granted, On this account, the psalmist celebrates in the succeeding psalm (cxxvi.) the praise of our Redeemer, and our deliverance from the bondage of the Devil, and the chains of sin. In like manner, each of the following psalms forms one of the higher steps which conduct to the habitation of the Lord. On reaching the topmost, which is placed immediately before the entrance (Ps. cxxxiv.) we are instructed in the duty which those have to perform who are admitted; and what could this duty be, but to praise the Lord with heart and voice

In the commentary on the Song of Solomon, Alcuin not only endeavours to prove that all the expressions in the Old Testament have a reference to the future redemption of man by Jesus Christ, but also attempts to explain the mystical signification of the numbers that occur therein. As specimens of the most remarkable passages have already been given, and as opportunities will yet occur of exemplifying his peculiar style, we will merely observe, with regard to this treatise, that neither the amorous expressions, nor unequivocal admiration of female beauty, which so strikingly characterize this portion of Scripture, prevent the commentator from discerning in them a representation of the Christian church under the figure of the bride of Christ.

Alcuin wrote a commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes for the benefit of his pupils, Onias, Candidus and Nathanael, after, as he expresses it, “they had flown from the nest of his paternal care into the open firmament of worldly occupation”; that is, after they had repaired to the court of Charlemagne, where they continued to be the objects of his unceasing anxiety, and of the hope that they would not disgrace their teacher. No book appeared to him better calculated to arm them against the allurements of worldly grandeur, by exhibiting its nothingness and vanity, and to turn their hearts to that which is eternal and unfading, than the book of Ecclesiastes. The greatest part of the commentary is copied from St. Jerome; a fact which Alcuin by no means desired to conceal, nor indeed had he any cause to be ashamed of it, for, as I have already had occasion to remark, the scarcity of books in those times, rendered an accurate. copy of a useful work as valuable as a correct edition of an ancient author is at the present day.

Alcuin concludes his exposition of the Old Testament with an interpretation of the names of all the ancestors of Christ, according to their literal, allegorical and moral sense. For example : Abraham signifies literally the father of many nations. The name, taken in an allegorical sense, may be understood to signify the father of all believers, to whom we must all cry, Abba, Father. The moral lesson to be deduced from this name is, that we should be the fathers of many virtues, and possess by inheritance, an accumulation of good works.




All the peculiarities which are observable in the dissertations upon the Old Testament from which we have quoted, are combined in the exposition of the Gospel of John. A work which affords more than any other, an opportunity for speculation, allegory, and the mystical interpretation of numbers. Whenever an established principle of religious doctrine is in danger of being unsettled, or violated by the explanation, the exact literal sense is contended for with dialectic acuteness. In other places, where this is not the case, a free and arbitrary construction overleaps all the limits of fair interpretation; in order to exalt the most ordinary into extraordinary circumstances, and to transfer the scenes of simple and natural life into the regions of the sublime and heavenly. The extraction of a few passages will enable the reader to judge of the manner, and thereby of the spirit of the times.

Gospel John I. 1. — “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. This may be understood in two ways. The Father is the beginning, therefore the expression is synonymous with, in the Father. In the Father is the Son, whom the Evangelist calls the Word. We must not, however, be led into error from the answer of the Son of God, who, in the course of this Gospel, replies to the question of the Jews, “Who God himself was?”— “The beginning, I, who now talk with you”. If then the Son is the beginning who has a father, how much more must God the Father be the beginning, since he has a Son of whom he is the father? For the Son is the Father’s Son, and the Father truly the Son’s Father, and God the Father; but not God of God whilst the Son is God of God. The Father is light, but not of light; the Son is also light, but light of light. So the Father is the beginning, but not of the beginning; the Son is the beginning, but a beginning of a beginning. That which was in the beginning no more terminates with time, than it commences with the beginning. The Son, therefore, as the beginning, ceases not with time, nor was he preceded by the beginning, whether we refer the passage, in the Beginning was the Word, to the beginning of creation or of time. Every created thing which had a beginning, was then the word of God, by which all things are made. The Evangelist, therefore, repeats four times was, was, was, was, in order to express that the co-eternal Word of God the Father preceded all time. The other Evangelists relate that the Son of God appeared suddenly among men; but John declares that he had been with God from eternity, for he says, “and the Word was with God”. The others call him “very man” ;but John assures us that “he was very God”, in the expression “and the Word was God”. The others say, that “he lived among men for a time as man”; John, on the contrary, represents him as God with God from the beginning; for he says, “the same in the beginning was with God”.




The latent meaning which Alcuin discovered in this passage, and explained according to the received doctrine, he transfers by means of allegorical interpretations to passages wherein it does not exist. He considers every number to involve some mysterious meaning, and the name of every place to imply something beyond the mere appellation. When the Evangelist relates : “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana”;—both the number and the place appear to the commentator to be important and mysterious. For example, the third day, indicates the third grand epoch in the development of the human race, on attaining which, they are worthy to receive the divine doctrine of Christ. The time when men lived merely in imitation of the example of the patriarchs, constituted the first epoch; that of the written law under the prophets, the second; and the third and last, the period when the Redeemer himself appeared in the flesh. “In Cana of Galilee”, signifies that the marriage was celebrated in the zeal of perfected conversion, emblematically representing that those are chiefly deserving of the favour of Christ, who, in the zeal of pious enthusiasm and devotion, have by good works passed from vice to virtue, and from earthly to heavenly things. The conversion of water into wine indicates the purifying of the ancient doctrine, which had been defaced and corrupted by the Pharisees. Here, again, Alcuin’s strong bias towards allegory, leads him to seize and expatiate upon the most trivial circumstances. And there were set six water-pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins a piece. The six vessels which held the water, are the pious hearts of the saints, whose perfect life and faith, during the six ages that preceded the announcement of the Gospel, remain as a pattern to the human race. The vessels are, with propriety, of stone, because the hearts of the just are strong, having been strengthened by faith in, and love for, that stone which Daniel saw, “torn without hands from a mountain, and which became so great a mountain, that it filled the whole Earth” (Dan. II. 34-35). Zachariah, speaking of it, says : —“Upon one stone, are seven eyes” (Zach. III.9.); that is, in Christ dwells the universality of spiritual knowledge. The apostle Peter alludes to it in the following words, “to whom ye are come as to a living stone ye also as lively stones are built up a spiritual house”. (1. Pet. II. 4-5.) With propriety, also, were the water-pots set after the manner of the purifying of the Jews; for to the Jewish nation only was the Law given by Moses; but Christ has imparted the grace and truth of the Gospel both to heathens and to Jews. We are told that each contained “two or three firkins a piece”, to intimate that the writers of the Holy Scriptures, sometimes speak only of the Father and the Son, for instance ; “You had made all things in wisdom” : for the strength and wisdom of God is Christ. Sometimes also they mention the Holy Spirit, as in that passage of the Psalms; “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth”. The Word, the Lord, and the Spirit, constitute the triune Jehovah. Quite as great a difference as between water and wine, was there between the sense in which the Holy Scriptures were understood, previously to the coming of the Redeemer, and that in which he himself expounded them to the Apostles, and their disciples bequeathed as a perpetual rule. The Lord, who at the commencement of creation made all things out of nothing, could indeed have filled empty water-pots with wine, but he chose rather to make wine of water, in order, emblematically, to teach that he came into the world, not to relax or abolish, but rather to fulfil the law and the testimony of the Prophets.




It would be unjust to desire that our knowledge, and the degree of moral and political civilization which we have attained, should be regarded as the sole criterion of judgment, instead of using it as a mere standard of comparison between earlier times and the present. The contemptuous shrug, and the scornful smile of compassion with which we are apt to regard the efforts of past ages, may one day be bestowed upon many of our pursuits, should posterity feel equally disposed with ourselves to overlook that which is really good, and to see that only which is defective, We should look back upon the former state of intellectual culture, upon the steps whereby society has risen to its present grade of refinement, with the same respect as that with which a man of mature age regards the feelings and ideas of his youth, There seems, therefore, little cause to fear that the portions of Alcuin’s works which we have noticed, will tend to diminish the merit of his laudable exertions in the opinion of the reader, especially, as notwithstanding the weakness of argument, so much talent is displayed, that even in those who had no concern in ecclesiastical affairs great interest was excited. Omitting the commentary on St. Paul’s Epistles to Titus, Philemon and the Hebrews, which are composed in a manner precisely similar to those already quoted, we will adduce in proof of our observation, a letter which also exhibits the participation of Charlemagne and his courtiers in these theological investigations.

An officer in the army of Charlemagne, who probably felt particularly interested in the account of the zeal with which Peter drew his sword in the defence of Jesus, and smote off the ear of Malchus, was unable to reconcile the passage in which Jesus bids his disciples buy a sword, (Luke XXII. 36.) with another passage in the Gospel of St. Matthew, wherein he says, “all they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword”. (St. Mat. XXVI. 52.) He, therefore, applied to the king for an explanation. Charles was so thoroughly acquainted with Alcuin’s manner, that he would not have hesitated to explain the sword as meaning, allegorically, the word of God; had it not involved the contradiction. that all they that take God’s word must perish by God’s word. In this dilemma he had recourse to his oracle in spiritual matters, Alcuin, and laid before him his own and the soldiers’ scruples. Alcuin solved the question, by directing the king’s attention to the different circumstances under which the same word is used in these two different passages. By the sword mentioned by Matthew, is to be understood revenge for injuries sustained, because whoever practices this crime brings ruin upon himself. The sword spoken of by Luke signifies, throughout, the word of God, which we must purchase with all our possessions; as it alone can enable us to resist the devices of the old serpent.

The king also desired to know what Jesus meant to imply by the words, “He that bath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip : and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one” ; and why, when the disciples replied that they had two swords, he said, “It is enough?”. Alcuin interpreted the purchase of the sword to signify the renunciation of the world, he supposing that by the purse is to be understood private, by the scrip public property; and the word garment denotes sensual pleasures, which must be resigned before we can become soldiers of Christ worthy of wearing that sword. The two swords indicate body and soul; because, if we do the will of God with these, it is enough. Alcuin requested the king to communicate this explanation to the warrior; and then, for the benefit of the king, proceeded to remove a difficulty in which he had entangled himself while unravelling this knotty point. The question arose, Why does the sword, if it is the word of God, cut off the ear of his adversaries; as it is through the ear that the word of God penetrates to the secret recesses of the heart? “What”, exclaims Alcuin, “what does it import but that the ear of unbelief is cut off to be healed again by the application of divine mercy, and that, by putting away the old man, we may be transformed into new creatures. On this account also the servant was named Malchus, for Malchus means, by interpretation, king, or one who is to be king (regnaturus); because we, in our old state, were the slaves of sin, but in the new state, when healed by God’s mercy, shall be kings and rulers in common with Christ. In order to impress upon us that everyone who confesses Christ must never cease to forgive his enemies, he himself omitted not to heal his persecutors, even during the period of his agony”.

It had already been attempted to establish the principle that the Scriptures should remain closed to the laity, in order that they might produce more magical effects in the hands of the clergy. Alcuin was far from entering into the narrow policy of desiring to base the power of the clergy on the ignorance of the people; but rejoiced that the laity had at length begun to occupy themselves with the Gospel, and wished that the king possessed many such soldiers as him, to whose questions he had replied.

Alcuin’s intimate acquaintance with the sacred scriptures, and the works of the Fathers, his anxious care for the purity of doctrine, and his skill in maintaining it with the light weapons of dialectic art, or the weighty arms of learning, rendered him the fittest champion of the orthodox church against the innovations of the heretics. His aim was neither to establish any new, nor to destroy any ancient principle, but simply to uphold and confirm those which already existed, and which he recognized as true. His presence was the more desirable to Charles, as besides the controversy respecting the adoption, he was engaged in a theological dispute connected with his diplomatic relation to the Byzantine empire. This was no other than the contention regarding image-worship, which was at length decided, after having for many years excited the most violent commotions in the Christian world in the East; and after having caused the Pope to separate himself from the Byzantine empire, thereby paving the way for the restoration of the western Roman empire. The decision, however, was such as accorded neither with the religious sentiments of the western part of Christendom, nor with the political pretensions of Charlemagne. A short review of the whole subject may, therefore, be proper, before we proceed to consider this decision, which, as well as the determination upon the doctrine of the Adoptionists, resulted from the synod held at Frankfort-on-the-Maine; we shall thus be better enabled to judge of Alcuin’s participation therein.


3.-History of the Controversy respecting Image-worship.


The primitive Christians derived their aversion to image-worship from the Jews; and the more they endeavored to mark the distinction between the new religion and pagan idolatry, the more confirmed became their abhorrence. The adoration of Gods, the work of men’s hands, was so strictly prohibited by the Mosaic law, and so totally irreconcilable with the doctrine of Christianity, which teaches that God must be worshipped only in spirit and in truth, that the introduction of a custom derided and despised by the Christians, into the Christian church, seemed of all evils that which was least to be feared. Yet, no sooner had the religion of Jesus become predominant, than the great mass of mankind, who had been led to embrace Christianity, less from conviction than from expediency, transferred some of the customs and sentiments of paganism to the religion of the state. These abuses obtained a firm footing with the greater facility, since the chasm which had divided paganism from Christianity, was filled up by the overthrow of the former, and as the latter had no longer to encounter opposition, the vigilance of jealousy was relaxed. The feelings of the people, which require to be excited by some material impression, were readily indulged with a visible object of reverence; and it was permitted to honor the cross as the symbol of our redemption, or relics of the saints as cherished memorials of the excellence of distinguished and pious men. There was, however, but one small, almost imperceptible, step from the relics to the images of saints; and from regarding them with respect, to worshipping them with devotion. If God, as such, could not be depicted, still his incarnation afforded an opportunity both to the pencil and the chisel, of presenting him in a visible form to the worship of the faithful. His divine mother also became a subject for art and adoration. Miracles were related of the images, which magnified their importance arid increased their number; and in a short time, all the churches and chapels in the Byzantine empire were filled with pictures of Jesus, of Mary, of saints, and of angels. Since the sixth century, believers had again bowed the knee to images, and probably even worshipped, in the ancient deities of Olympus, the heroes of the Old Testament, or the saints of the Christian church. A mere alteration of the names of many statues of pagan times, was all that was requisite to adapt them to the system of the new church. How easy was it to convert the god of poetry and music into the royal psalmist of the Old Testament, or to give to the lion-taming Hercules a scriptural allusion under the name of Samson; and by a similar alteration to secure safety and respect to the images of other Gods. Art is more indebted than religion to this evil thus introduced into the church. To it she owes the preservation of the classical designs of antiquity; and if no new works were produced, still the practice was maintained, which would have entirely ceased, had the same abhorrence of the arts of painting and sculpture prevailed in the Christian, as in the Mahommedan world. Religion, on the contrary, felt that she was acting in opposition to her precepts, and was placed in an element, which to her, was not only foreign, but adverse. It was only necessary, once boldly to avouch, and to prove this fact, in order to create a formidable party. The lower order of the people were too much attached to images, easily to suffer themselves to be deprived of them : the monks who derived a considerable revenue from the preparation and sale of these objects of adoration, were too much interested in the maintenance of that species of worship, not to offer the most violent opposition to every attempt at its abolition. The ignorant fanaticism of the people inflamed by the selfishness and superstition of the monks rushed to the protection of the images, when the Byzantine emperor Leo, the Isaurian, urged their removal. Political interests mingled in the contest, and gave it an extension and an importance which few theological controversies have attained.

The Isaurian Leo the III was indebted to his military talents for his elevation to the throne of Byzantium, already tottering from internal convulsions, and assailed by external foes. He merited, however, his good fortune by the vigour with which he defended the state from the attacks of the Arabs, and protected its internal tranquillity from the plots of traitors. With his reign, therefore, a period of prosperity might have commenced to the Byzantine empire, had not his repugnance to images involved him in a quarrel with his subjects, in which he and his successors impaired the strength without increasing the glory of the state. His adversaries have endeavored to trace this repugnance from the most impure source; but it probably sprang from his intercourse with the Arabs, and his efforts to convert the Mahommedans and Jews in his dominions. Their abhorrence of the image-worship of the Christians was the great stumbling block to their conversion, nor could force compel, nor persuasion induce them to exchange their worship of the one true God for Christian idolatry. The determination of the emperor to remove this obstacle by reforming the service of the church, became the more confirmed, in proportion as he became convinced, by a comparison of the present state of Christian worship with that of the primitive church, and with the precepts of the Old and New Testament, of the justice of the reproaches cast upon Christianity. This comparison, also rendered it the more easy for those ecclesiastics who were favourable to his views to prove, by philosophical and historical reasons, the sinfulness of image-worship, and the right possessed by the sovereign of checking by his imperial authority a dangerous abuse. The difficulties, however, attending the measure, restrained the emperor from any rash or violent proceeding. He first, though unsuccessfully, endeavored to draw over to his interests the theological academy at Constantinople, a learned institution connected with the public library. The members, consisting partly of monks, of course opposed a system which would deprive the monastic order of a lucrative branch of their profession, and destroy their chief influence with the people. Leo retired from the struggle for the moment, but only to wait for a more favourable period, which, appearing to have arrived in the year 726, he assembled a Silentium or secret council of clerical and lay officers, and required them to declare the worship of images to be unlawful, and dangerous to the salvation of the soul. In pursuance of this sentence, all the images in the churches were removed from the altars and lower parts of the building, and placed at such an elevation as to be inaccessible to the devout touch of the faithful. These half measures, however, only rendered the emperor odious without attaining their object; and two years later, he found himself compelled to command, in a second edict, what he had merely advised in the first, viz. that all images of angels, saints, and martyrs, should be entirely removed from the churches. The refusal of the patriarch Germanus to subscribe this decree, delayed its execution till the year 730, when he resigned; and Anastasius, an ecclesiastic who was more favourable to the system of the emperor, took possession of the patriarchal see. Resistance now commenced on the part of the monks, and the people whom they had instigated to rebellion. Their first attack was made upon a statue of Christ, which was placed over the gate of the palace Chalke. The captain of the body-guard mounted a ladder in open day, and endeavored with an axe to hew down the image which was in high reputation, on account of its wonder-working power. The concourse of people attracted by this outrage first used entreaties, but finding these ineffectual, they had recourse to violence. The ladder was overthrown, and the captain and his companions slain. Once freed from restraint, the passions of the people hurried them on to the commission of still greater excesses; they attacked the palace of the patriarch, and yielded only to the military force which the emperor dispatched to restore tranquillity. The attachment of the troops enabled the emperor to enforce obedience to his commands; but he did it at the peril of his throne, and with the loss of a province of his empire. The defenders of the images fled with the objects of their veneration to the islands of the Archipelago. There, their fanatic zeal and hopes of assistance from heaven induced them to collect a fleet, with which they boldly appeared before Constantinople, for the purpose of hurling the enemy of Christ from his throne. But as the expected miraculous assistance was not vouchsafed, they were easily defeated and punished. Italy, however, lay at a greater distance, and possessed in Pope Gregory II a stronghold, to which the enemies of the Iconoclasts could flee. The pope renounced all connection with the Byzantine empire; and, to protect himself against the Greeks and Lombards, entered into that alliance with the French, which was afterwards productive of such important consequences. His exhortations and example, together with the writings of John of Damascus, kept alive the spirit of contention in Byzantium itself. An earthquake, which in 741, converted many of the most magnificent cities of Asia and part of Constantinople into heaps of ruins, afforded the monks an opportunity of representing this calamity as the effect of the wrath of God at the impious attacks upon the images, and of exasperating the minds of the people against the emperor, who had rendered himself still more obnoxious, by the imposition of taxes, for the purpose of rebuilding the cities which had been overthrown. Such was the situation of affairs at the time of Leo’s death, which took place in 741. He bequeathed to his son, Constantine V, who had already been associated with him in the government, the empire, and the task of executing the measures which he had begun. The Byzantine historians describe the emperor Constantine as an incarnate devil, they do not allow him one good quality; and yet, what they themselves relate of his actions, contradicts their sentence, and is indeed as convincing a proof of the consummate talent of Constantine, as of the falsehood of the calumnies propagated by his enemies. The severity and cruelty which he exercised towards a faction which was labouring for his overthrow, and either defied his authority by open rebellion, or sought to undermine it by secret intrigues, instead, of being matters of reproach to the emperor, were, in fact, the mournful consequences of the necessity in which he was placed, either of giving up his convictions, or of establishing them on the ruin of his adversaries. The implacable hatred of the monks had manifested itself at the beginning of his reign, in a way which put it out of his power to adopt milder measures. The advocates for the use of images had formed themselves into a political party, and cast their eyes on Artabasdus, brother-in-law to the new emperor, who secretly favoured image-worship, or at least professed to do so in order to gain popularity, and thereby the throne. The suspicions of Constantine were indeed awakened, but he durst not make any attempt against his brother-in-law in Constantinople, and, therefore, under presence of needing his advice, ordered him to join him in an expedition against the Arabs, which he undertook immediately after his coronation. The guilty conscience of Artabasdus divined the motive of this command, and urged him to anticipate the emperor. He appeared at the head of an army, and had almost succeeded in capturing the surprised Constantine. This step rendered the breach decisive, and whilst Constantine was assembling a force in his native country, Isauria, for the purpose of repossessing himself of the throne, Artabasdus was crowned emperor at Constantinople, and immediately restored the worship of images. The patriarch Anastasius changed his sentiments, and under Artabasdus defended the images with as much vehemence as he had opposed them under Leo and Constantine. The civil war which was now breaking out was so intimately connected with the dispute regarding images, that they must stand or fall according as the one or the other party should prove victorious. On the side of Artabasdus was the advantage of a greatly superior force, on that of Constantine energy of mind and military talents, which compensated for the deficiency in the number of his troops. The unskillfulness of his adversaries afforded him an opportunity of attacking them singly : he defeated Artabasdus himself at Sardio, and his son Nicetas at Ancyra. The same month, September 743, he appeared before the walls of Constantinople; but, as his adherents within the walls durst not hazard any attempt to deliver it into his hands, he was compelled to besiege it. Artabasdus had thrown himself into the capital, and defended it with the greatest obstinacy, hoping to be relieved by Nicetas, who was endeavouring to form an army in Asia from the wreck of his party. In October, Nicetas approached with an armed force, but was driven back to Nicomedia by Constantine, and there not only defeated in a general engagement, but himself taken prisoner. The perseverance with which Artabasdus, notwithstanding this disaster, continued the defence of Constantinople only delayed his inevitable fate. Constantine took the city by storm on the second of November, and his enemy, who had vainly attempted to escape, not long after falling into his hands, he, as well as his son, was punished by the loss of sight.

Constantine, being once more in possession of the throne, endeavored to secure it by the total destruction of the opposite party. Search was made for those who had adhered to his enemy, and all were punished either with death or mutilation. The contemptible character of the patriarch Anastasius, which rendered him a useful instrument in the hands of the emperor, saved him from receiving any other chastisement than that of insult; and he retained the highest ecclesiastical dignity in the empire. The more reason the emperor had to dread a political faction in the defenders of images, the more imperative it became upon him to maintain and propagate his own opinions. The abolition, therefore, of image-worship was not merely a matter of religious discipline, but a necessary measure for the security of his person and dynasty. The danger from which he had escaped had, however, taught him sufficient prudence to delay the execution of his design until he had restored tranquillity to the distracted empire, and associated his son with him in the government. In the year 753, he ventured to hold several Silentia, in which the decrees against image-worship were renewed and rendered still more severe. Preparatory to their publication throughout the empire, he introduced them in those provinces, the governors of which were devoted to his views. The simplest means would have been to have it abolished by a resolution of a general council; but as neither Leo nor Constantine could calculate upon the majority of the bishops being favourable to their system, this method had hitherto been unattempted.

However ready an individual ecclesiastic may be, when opposed singly to the temporal power, to submit to its decisions, he assumes a very different position when the support of a numerous body invested with the right of examining and determining, raises him above the influence of fear. The spirit of opposition, which in individuals is dumb from conscious weakness, then displays itself openly and vigorously. This impediment, so justly to be feared, seemed, however, to be removed by the death of Anastasius, which left the patriarchal see vacant. The hope of obtaining the first ecclesiastical dignity in the kingdom was a bait at which Constantine felt certain the bishops would catch, and by which they would suffer themselves to be taken. As it was easy to foresee that the emperor would be guided in his choice of a patriarch, by the degree of zeal displayed in his cause, he might reasonably look for support rather than opposition from the bishops, among whom there were few who did not aspire to the patriarchate. Relying on this circumstance, Constantine summoned a council at Constantinople, in the year 754, which so well answered his expectations, that the assembly, consisting of three hundred and thirty-eight bishops, acceded to his wishes, and adopted them as a law of the church. Image-worship was rejected as an invention of the devil to allure mankind to a new species of idolatry, and the emperor represented as an Apostle, inspired by God himself to frustrate this device of Satan. In conclusion, a curse was pronounced upon all the worshippers of images, especially upon the former patriarch Germanus, and the monk John of Damascus.

The emperor had now succeeded in obtaining, in a canonical manner, the right of suppressing image-worship; and, accordingly, commanded that all images should be removed from the churches and sacred edifices, but with as little violence as possible; wishing merely to deprive them of their sanctity in the eyes of the people, and the adoration paid to them, without denying their merit and utility as works of art. But it was no easy task to put the decision of the council into execution. First, as regarded the pope, he was placed at so great a distance, and was so secure under the protection of the French, that he would not fail both to persevere in his opposition to the Iconoclasts, and, probably, widen the breach with the Byzantine court to an irreparable extent. Any attempt to reduce him to obedience by force would have been as expensive as ineffectual; no other course, therefore, remained to the emperor but that of endeavouring to withdraw from him the protection of France, and thus compel him to resume the relation in which he formerly stood to the empire, if he would avoid becoming the prey of the Lombards.

For the accomplishment of this purpose, Constantine entered into negotiations with the French king, Pepin, whom he sought to attach still more firmly to his interests by proposing a matrimonial alliance between his son Leo and the princess Gisla, the sister of Charlemagne, who has already been introduced to the reader as the diligent pupil of Alcuin. The pope saw and warded off the threatening danger; he frustrated the union, in order to render his own connection with the French monarch still firmer; and effected his project with a facility proportioned to its tendency to promote their common interest. The controversy upon images, therefore, severed one of its fairest provinces from the Byzantine empire, placed the pope in an independent position, and laid the foundation of a princely power established in his own territories, which amply indemnified him for the loss of the revenues he had derived from Sicily, and also furnished the French king with an opportunity of obtaining a firm footing beyond the Alps.

It was not, however, in the West only that the spirit of opposition continued to rage; it still remained unsubdued in the Eastern provinces, and even in the capital itself, notwithstanding the decision of the council of Constantinople. The fanaticism of the monks considered no means as unlawful in the defence of a sacred cause, and feared no punishment which might obtain for them the crown of martyrdom. Their pious zeal irritated and wearied the patience of the emperor; and from 761, scarcely a year elapsed wherein we do not find recorded some act of violence against the images, and of cruelty towards their worshippers. But as the persecution of individuals only increased the obstinacy and fury of the rest, the emperor was compelled to subdue resistance by force. In pursuance of this design, all the bishops were deposed who refused to subscribe to the decrees of the council. In the year 768, the monasteries at Constantinople were dissolved, and the buildings either demolished or converted into barracks. The monks were compelled either to marry, or to evade the severity of the emperor by a voluntary banishment. These measures were also extended to the refractory provincial monasteries, and carried into execution by military force, for the army was devoted to their victorious sovereign, and attached to his principles. There can be no question that a commission entrusted to such rough hands was often executed with as little regard for the preservation of literature and arts, as for right and justice; but the impossibility of suppressing an exasperated faction, and at the same time keeping within the bounds of moderation and equity, and the necessity of exercising severity towards all who refused to comply with the decree for the abolition of images, which had been regularly issued by a convocation of the clergy, will sufficiently excuse the emperor in the opinion of every impartial mind.

Constantine was indebted to the energy of his character, for the satisfaction of seeing the public worship of images abolished before his death, and of receiving a guarantee for the future, in the oath taken by his subjects, that they would never again pay them adoration. This oath would have been performed, had his successor prosecuted his measures with the same energy and firmness with which he had adopted them; but Leo IV, who ascended the throne in 775, was of too feeble a character to execute such a task. Under the influence of his wife Irene, who concealed her veneration for images and monks, that she might be enabled to promote their interests the more effectually, he annulled some of the statutes of his father, and mitigated others. The apparent state of public tranquillity led him into making concessions, which contained the germ of future disturbances; and by granting the monks permission to return and hold high offices in the church, he again introduced into the state practices subversive of the existing order of things. When he discovered the images of saints secretly adored by his wife, it was too late to repair his error; for, before he had arrived at any determination on the subject, he died, September the 8th, 780. Irene, as guardian to her son, Constantine VI, who was yet a minor, was now entrusted with the reins of government; and nothing but the fear of resistance, especially on the part of the army, withheld her from immediately legalizing the introduction of images. She, however, commenced preparations for this measure by putting a stop to all persecutions, and placing no impediment in the way of erecting images in various places. At the same time she made advances to the Roman pontiff, and entered into so close an alliance with Charlemagne, that she betrothed her son, Constantine VI, to the French princess, Rotrudis. But, notwithstanding that she openly displayed her predilection for images, it was long before she ventured upon taking any decided step.

More than half a century had elapsed since the commencement of the controversy, so that the greater part of the existing generation had been educated in the prevailing opinions, and most of the bishoprics were occupied by men who owed their elevation to their hostility to image-worship. The empress, therefore, durst not attempt so important a change as the restoration of image-worship without some plausible pretext. This was immediately afforded by the patriarch Paul, who, as had been previously concerted, publicly resigned his dignity. Paul had been appointed to the patriarchal throne by Leo IV, after he had, in presence of the emperor, solemnly declared himself inimical to images. In the year 784, he suddenly abandoned the archiepiscopal palace, and betook himself to a cloister, where he professed to all those who visited him, either at the instigation of the empress, or from motives of curiosity, that remorse had driven him from a see, the acceptance of which had excluded him from communion with other churches, and deprived him of the favour of the saints; that he could only hope to obtain pardon for his sin by deep repentance; and that there was no other means of averting the curse which was hanging over the empire, than that of annulling the impious statutes against the images. A way was thus opened for the accomplishment of the project which the empress had most at heart : the execution of which devolved upon the successor of Paul, whose death occurred in that same year.

Irene took care to render the interests of the church dependent upon her will, by raising her private secretary, Tarasius, to the patriarchate. The pliant courtier testified equal readiness to comply with her wishes, by the condition which he annexed to his acceptance of the highest ecclesiastical dignity, namely, that a general council should examine anew the lawfulness or unlawfulness of image-worship. In consequence of a flattering letter of invitation, Pope Hadrian I sent two nuncios to Constantinople, and, by adopting the artifice of admitting some ecclesiastics as ambassadors from the patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, the synod assumed the authority of an ecumenical council. Although the adverse party was unable to prevent the summoning of this synod, they appeared in great numbers to express their disapprobation, and were encouraged in their opposition to the court by the veteran troops of Constantine, who declared themselves ready to protect them, and to defend the principles of their revered general. When, therefore, the first session was opened in the Church of the Twelve Apostles, August 7th, 786, the soldiers, who had taken possession of the church on the preceding day, rose and excited such a tumult that the patriarch was unable to obtain a hearing, and the empress herself was compelled to request the assembly to yield to a force which it was useless to resist, and to break up the meeting. After the departure of the court party, the Iconoclasts remained in the church under the protection of the soldiers, and confirmed all the decrees against images.

The failure of this first attempt on the part of the empress, rendered her aware of the obstacles to be surmounted before she could make a second and more successful effort. Regardless of the interest of the state, she artfully contrived to disarm and disband the veterans; and, after having surrounded herself with a guard of newly levied troops, she summoned, in September 787, a council at Nice, not daring to trust the citizens of Constantinople. On this occasion she had the prudence to invite only such bishops as were favourable to her plans, or who at least showed themselves willing to change their sentiments. A detachment of the new legions was dispatched thither to be ready in case of need. Under these circumstances, there could be no doubt as to the result of the deliberations of the assembly. The resolutions of the council of Constantinople were refuted and condemned, together with all who adhered to them, and the worship of images again made an ordinance of the church, with, however, the nice distinction, that to the saints and images only prostration of the body was due, whilst the worship of the heart belonged to God alone. Thence the council removed to the capital, in order there to confirm their resolutions. In that city also, measures had been so well concerted, that everything passed off with the utmost tranquillity. Amidst loud acclamations of joy, the empress, together with her son, subscribed the decree, which, as the act of an ecumenical council, was to be received as valid by the whole Christian world. It was, therefore, sent to Pope Hadrian I, in order that he might communicate it to the sovereigns of the West.

In the West of Europe, a proper position, in relation to divine worship, had hitherto been assigned to images. They served rather to ornament sacred edifices, and to deepen the solemn impression which such places are calculated to make, than to awaken or become the objects of devotion. The predilection for image-worship, which the Romans had transferred from paganism to Christianity, was unfelt by the Germans who had adored their former deities, not so much in artificial representations as in natural objects. Superstition existed nevertheless among them also, but under a different form. They worshipped the relics rather than the images of saints, and expected to receive from the former, what the Greeks hoped to obtain from the latter—assistance in the time of need, protection in the hour of danger. The decree of the Nicene council was the less likely to meet with a favourable reception among the Germans, as prostration of the body, in the Greek sense, conveyed a totally different meaning to the natives of the West, from that which it imparted to the subjects of Oriental despotism. The free-born German was accustomed to behold in his feudal sovereign, only the first among his equals, and to bow his knee to God alone; whilst the Greek would not think of denying to the saints the homage which he offered to the emperor. Neither the language nor the habits of the Western nations accorded with a practice, which, being familiar to the inhabitants of the Byzantine empire, might be adapted to religious purposes, without exciting in them any painful feelings. In addition to the aversion of the Western church to image-worship, the friendly correspondence between the Byzantine and French courts was at the same time broken off; the blame of which, indeed, rested entirely with Irene. The ambitious empress was not disposed to suffer the reins of government to be wrested out of her hands; and the friends of image-worship, who had everything to hope from Irene, and, on the other hand, everything to fear from the dubious sentiments of the youthful Constantine, encouraged her in her purpose of retaining possession of the throne to the prejudice of her son’s rights. She could not, however, but regard the projected marriage of Constantine with a daughter of Charlemagne as an impediment to her design, as it was easy to foresee that the French monarch would not permit the degradation of his son-in-law. She, therefore, annulled the contract betwixt her son and Rotrudis, and forced him to accept an Armenian maiden as a consort. At the same time, she entered into an alliance with Charles’ enemies, the duke of Beneventum and Prince Adalgis of Lombardy, and endeavored to put an end to the French influence in Italy, by restoring to the Lombard kingdom its former constitution, a plan which, as has been already related, entirely failed.

Under these circumstances, it may easily be imagined that the pope found himself placed in a dilemma, on receiving the resolutions of the Nicene council for the express purpose of communicating them to Charlemagne. He was aware of the aversion felt by the French clergy to image-worship, and of the just displeasure entertained by Charles against a court which had so grievously offended him. Hadrian had, therefore, abstained from giving him any intimation respecting the council at Nice, and of the part taken by himself in their deliberations, but had endeavored to keep him in ignorance of the whole transaction. Now, however, that concealment was no longer practicable, he dispatched a copy of the Nicene resolutions to Charles in the year 792. The French monarch would, at any time, have hesitated to concede to an assembly, summoned without his knowledge or consent, and in which the West of Christendom was represented only by two nuncios from the pope, a right to impose laws on the whole Christian world; but he had now a double motive for refusing to permit a hostile court to prescribe to him the course he was to pursue. He, therefore, resolved not to submit to the resolutions of the Nicene council, but to reject them through the instrumentality of a general council, to be held in the West of Christendom. He sent a transcript of the acts to England, and requested Alcuin to refute them, and to procure their condemnation in that country; then he begged him to return to the continent, in order to be present at the council, which he proposed summoning to decide upon this matter, and upon the doctrine of the Adoptionists. Alcuin composed a treatise, in which he proved that the worship of images was inconsistent with the doctrines of Scripture, and the authority of the Fathers. This treatise determined the sentiments of the English princes and bishops : the Nicene council, though attended and sanctioned by the pope, whose authority had formerly been undisputed by the Anglo-Saxons, was pronounced to be illegal; and Alcuin was invested with full powers to impart their decision to the French monarch.


4.—Decision of the Council of Frankfort upon the Doctrine of the Adoptionists and Image-worship.


Alcuin returned to Charlemagne at the conclusion of the year 792, or the commencement of the following year, attended, as ambassador of the Anglo-Saxon church and state, by a retinue of English ecclesiastics. Their presence was necessary to give the conference, which was about to be held, the authority of a general council of Western Christendom; for the king’s command could ensure the attendance of the bishops and abbots residing in all the German states, which had been Christianized and united under the French sceptre. But Britain was sufficiently independent of France, to refuse, if she pleased, all participation in this assembly; and, from her insular situation, so secure, as to be under no apprehension from the resentment of a king who was destitute of a navy. That she nevertheless showed herself willing to unite with the French, is to be attributed to the influence of Alcuin.

Previous to the convocation of the council, Alcuin endeavored to convince the Adoptionists of their error. He wrote to bishop Felix, earnestly importuning him to renounce his heresy : “Venture not”, he exclaims, “to enter upon a useless contest. The truths of the Gospel illuminate the whole earth. Let us only maintain and propagate the doctrines it teaches. What can we, frail mortals, amongst so many of whom love begins to grow cold, imagine better than to adhere to the principles of the Apostles and Evangelists, with all the firmness and fidelity of true faith, without inventing new names, bringing forward strange conceits, or desiring to acquire a vain reputation by some novelty in doctrine, whereby we may bring upon ourselves censure, whilst we hoped to obtain praise?”. The tone of this letter was not calculated to produce a favourable result. Alcuin too hastily presupposed Felix to be in the path of error, and exalted himself above him with too much arrogance, not to provoke a quarrel. Felix consequently composed a treatise in defence of his opinions, and in opposition to Alcuin; but before he had completed and transmitted it to him, the Spanish bishops, who concurred in the new doctrine, appealed to the justice of King Charles, representing, in their letters, that their opponents were heretics, whilst they, on the other hand, only endeavored to uphold the true faith in its purity. Nothing, therefore, remained to be done, but to refer the matter to the decision of an ecclesiastical council, which was accordingly summoned by the king, in the year 794. The place appointed for the conference was Frankfort, a royal villa on the banks of the Maine. This place was then of recent origin, and owed the foundation of its future splendour to the number of bishops and abbots, and the vast concourse of lay nobility, who were attracted thither from all parts of the French kingdom.

The natural consequence of numerous and frequent convocations, and of the more than usually long residence of the court and its retinue, was to draw together a number of people, anxious to supply the demands for the commodities of life which were thus created. Artisans and merchants took up their abode there for the purposes of trade, and the place being favourable for traffic, they made a permanent settlement. The frequent mention of Frankfort, subsequently to the year 794, proves that the prosperity and importance of this town began and increased with the meetings which were held there. The number of bishops is said to have been three hundred, in which computation the abbots and clergy who accompanied them are not included. Many years had elapsed, since the West of Europe had beheld so splendid an assemblage of church dignitaries as the present council presented. It is, also, the first which was constructed on principles which formed henceforth the basis of the political and ecclesiastical privileges of the West; and therefore the form and manner of its constitution possess claims to our attention independently of the importance of the subject of its deliberations. It consisted of the three following divisions occupied by the members according to their nation and rank. The church of Rome, which was represented by the Pope’s legates, Stephen and Theophylactus, naturally took the precedence as guardian of the Apostolical traditions. Next in order, came the church of Lombardy, at the head of which stood the archbishop of Milan and the patriarch of Aquileia; the third part was formed by the Cisalpine clergy. To these three constituent parts, which were of a spiritual character, was added a fourth, consisting of Charles, as the son and protector of the holy church of God, and his chief lay nobility; for their consent was essential, in order to execute by temporal means, that which might be spiritually determined. To the king likewise, belonged the right of introducing the matters to be treated of, and of appointing the order in which they should be brought forward.

Amongst the subjects proposed for the deliberation and decision of the council, the doctrine of the Adoptionists and the worship of images came first under discussion; and as it was with these two points only that Alcuin was engaged, they merit a detailed and exclusive narrative. Alcuin was recommended to the assembly by Charles himself, and on this powerful recommendation admitted. It appears that he took with him the first book which he had written in refutation of the sentiments of Felix, and in which he had collected the testimony of the Fathers against the new doctrines. At least, it is certain that he presented it to the Abbot Benedict of Anian, who was then at Frankfort, to take it home with him, in order to fortify the clergy of Septimania against the dangerous influence of their heretical neighbours. Neither Felix, nor any of the Adoptionists, attended the conference of Frankfort; consequently there was no one to be found who possessed either the desire or the ability to oppose the testimony of the fathers, the decree of the pope, and the majority of the bishops, whose adherence to the ancient doctrine was probably the result more of convenience than conviction. The decision of the council at Frankfort was, therefore, a ratification of the sentence of condemnation which had been pronounced two years previously at Ratisbon. The resolutions of the council were communicated to the Archbishop Elipandus, and the bishops residing in those parts of Spain which were subject to the Saracens, by means of a document transmitted in the name of the king; but in consideration of the independent position of Elipandus, it was in the form less of a rigorous command than an urgent and convincing exhortation.

The principle that so numerous an assembly of the church could not err, was therein assumed; for if the Lord had promised that where two or three were gathered together in his name, he would be in the midst of them, could anyone doubt that he had been with, and enlightened the minds of a venerable assembly convened for his honour?

The Adoptionists were required to return into the bosom of the church, and to subscribe the annexed orthodox confession of faith, or to prepare themselves to be denounced as heretics, and excluded from communion with that church in which alone salvation was to be found. In this document, no notice was taken of Felix, because it seemed evident that he, as a French bishop, must acknowledge the authority of a council summoned by the king, and ratified by the pope, and submit to its decisions. We shall, however, presently see that he did neither the one nor the other, but, on the contrary, brought forward new arguments in favor of his opinions, which appeared to the king of sufficient importance to call for a fresh examination.




For the present, however, the affair seemed to have been settled in a legitimate way, to the great satisfaction both of the king and the pope. Their views differed with regard to the decision of the second point—image­worship. Regarded as a matter of religion, image-worship was an abomination to the inhabitants of Cisalpine Gaul. Considered in a political point of view, the unreasonable demand of the Byzantine court, that a council summoned by its authority should be recognized as ecumenical, and that resolutions adopted in a great measure by military constraint, should be received as general laws of the church, was a claim which wounded the pride of the French king. Willing, as Charles might be, to concede to the pope, as head of a church which inherited the Apostolical traditions, a superiority in wisdom, and authority in ecclesiastical matters; still the pope had not been represented at the council of Nice as the head of the church, but simply as an equal among equals. There, he was no more than any other archbishop of the Byzantine empire, a rank which was no longer reconcilable with his totally altered position.

In the course of the controversy upon images, the relation in which he stood to France, had procured for him so much influence with that nation, and so important a part in its constitution, that it was impossible for him to return to his former position with regard to the court of Byzantium, without causing the utmost confusion. By the reintroduction of image-worship, the cause of disunion had indeed been removed; but it was not so easy to annihilate consequences as to annul resolutions, or to restore a state of things, when once it had passed away, as statues and pictures. It was necessary, therefore, to substitute a new subject of dissension for the opposition to images, which, for the moment at least, way terminated. A declaration of independence on the part of the Western church, in no way affecting the supremacy of the pope, would prevent him from renewing his alliance with the Byzantine empire, and lead him by the natural course of events to contribute to the foundation of a Western empire, independent of the East.

Whilst Charles was endeavouring, at the expense of religion, to disengage politics from the confusion in which they were involved, he rendered the most essential service to the papal authority. The defenders of the interests of the holy see have cause to be dissatisfied with the decision of the council of Frankfort, only in so far as it rejected a doctrine which has subsequently become prevalent in the Catholic church. It may, however, afford them some consolation to know, that the assembled fathers were led astray by misunderstanding and passion. For in the manner in which Charles had the subject laid before them, it could not but meet with unanimous opposition and rejection : but it is difficult to determine whether ignorance of Greek or wilful misrepresentation was the cause of the misconception. In the first place, the council summoned by Irene was not acknowledged as ecumenical. It may, indeed, appear strange, that in the official documents, Constantinople is mentioned as the place of that meeting; but this change of name is easily accounted for by the fact, that the legates of the pope were summoned originally to Constantinople; and when the council, after having commenced its deliberations in the capital, was compelled to dissolve in consequence of the tumultuous proceedings of the soldiers of Constantine, they remained, in order to accompany the assembly to Nice, without requiring or receiving any fresh credentials. The Synod at Nice was considered by them merely as a prolongation of that at Constantinople, and the more so as on the breaking up of the assembly, the members returned to Constantinople for the purpose of procuring the signature to their resolutions. The less importance is to be attached to this discrepancy in the names, as, in the first place, it is not entirely groundless, and in the next place, the fathers assembled at Frankfort were not ignorant of the real place of meeting. But the resolutions of the Byzantine council were perverted, and brought before the council at Frankfort in a hateful form; for, regardless of the distinction made by the Greeks between worship of the heart and prostration of the body, the very principle, viz., that the same reverence was due to images as to the Holy Trinity, which had been disclaimed by the Nicene council, was represented as the decision of that body. This principle was naturally denounced as heretical.

It is impossible to avoid suspecting that the king abused his privilege of propounding the subjects of deliberation, and by a false representation endeavored to excite the passions of the assembly, and bring them over to his interests. Although nuncios from the pope were present, and could have explained to the members that they were under a mistake, it does not appear that they either did so, or had any authority so to do. The Catholic church, therefore, can more easily get over the decision of the council at Frankfort, which was the result of a false statement, than the treatise which appeared in the name of Charlemagne, justifying the rejection of image-worship. This work is best known under the title of the Carolingian Papers, and would deserve especial notice, as one of the most remarkable literary productions of that period, even were Alcuin not its supposed author. As it attacks in forcible and vehement language, and not without considerable strength of argument, an object which has become dear to the Catholic church, it could not remain free from hostile assaults.

The first printed edition appeared in the year 1549, without the name of the printer and editor, who did not venture to declare himself; but it is known that we are indebted for it to Jean de Tillet, a French bishop. It was immediately reprinted in Germany; but the scarcity of the two first editions proves how eagerly and successfully the Catholics sought to suppress them. Fortunately, the Protestants took under their protection a treatise exposed to such danger, and thus rescued it from the annihilation which threatened it. The Roman hierarchy, having thus failed in suppressing the work, endeavored, at least, to cast a suspicion upon its authenticity. Taking advantage of an external similarity, the Catholics asserted it to be the production of Karlstadt, who, in the beginning of the reformation at Wittenberg, began, and preached in favour of the destruction of images, although the contents throughout clearly refuted this statement. It is only necessary to read the Carolingian Papers, and see how exalted a position is assigned to the Pope and church of Rome, to be persuaded that so zealous a reformer as Karlstadt could not have had the remotest share in such a composition. The sentiments therein expressed, as well as the language and style, belong much more to the time of Charlemagne ; and no impartial reader will doubt its genuineness, when to these internal evidences is added the incontestable historical testimony afforded by a passage in a letter from Archbishop Hincmar to his nephew, wherein he not only mentions that he had read the Carolingian Papers, when a pupil at the court-school, but also quotes an entire chapter from them.

Almost as little doubt can exist, that Alcuin was the author of this production, as of its authenticity. Whilst in England, he had written a treatise against image-worship, which he took with him to the council at Frankfort. He was therefore better entitled than any other man to prosecute the subject, and was called upon to do so by the confidence of the king, which no one possessed or deserved in a higher degree than Alcuin. In this work, abounding in quotations, both from the Fathers and classical authors, we discern no symptom of a paucity of books, the want of which, Alcuin, some years later, felt so much in France; which also furnishes a proof, that the greater part of it was written in England. The style confirms, instead of contradicting this assumption. But the treatise may so far deserve to bear the name of Charles, as it is throughout stamped with the impress of his mind. The feeling which he entertained towards the court and pretensions of Byzantium, transfused its bitterness into the pen of Alcuin, and led him not merely to expose and systematically refute the errors of the Nicene council; but also prominently to exhibit everything that might wound the pride of the empress Irene, or render the vanity of the Greeks ridiculous. This is apparent in the criticism upon the letter of Irene, addressed to Pope Hadrian, with which the Carolingian Papers commence, and likewise in the manner in which the pope is placed in his relation to the imperial court. The principles avowed in this work are in perfect accordance with the sentiments of Alcuin, which have already been expressed, regarding the dignity and infallibility of the papal see. It is proved by the example of St. Jerome, that in all times the most learned and enlightened men had not held their own judgment in such high estimation, as to allow them to dispense with the advice of the pope. The avowal which the author makes in the name of the king is very remarkable; he declares that he had endeavored, from the commencement of his reign, to form the Cisalpine churches on the model of that of Rome, and to establish a perfect unanimity with that church, to the head of which the keys of heaven were committed. So far, the advocates for the rights of the Roman church have no reason to complain of a treatise which satisfies their most ambitious wishes. But the pope had declared himself the protector of images, and the author of the Carolingian Papers was decidedly opposed to them. In a series of chapters, he refutes, following step by step the acts of the Nicene council, the arguments drawn from the Bible in favour of image-worship. This refutation constitutes a large and important portion of the work, but requires the less minute description, as it is throughout written in the style of Alcuin, which has already been sufficiently exhibited. The Nicene council, for example, had adduced as a proof of the admissibility of image-worship, that Solomon set up the images of oxen and lions in the temple. In refutation of this, the author observes, that he himself did not condemn images when used as memorials or ornaments, but only when they were regarded as objects of sinful adoration; but as to the images in the Temple at Jerusalem, it was manifest that the Nicene council had been under the influence of a lying spirit, when it sought to support its errors by a circumstance which signified a mystery of the church. For the oxen and lions were symbolical figures of the apostles, and their successors placed by Christ in his church, who were to display towards the good and the penitent the patience of oxen, but who were to exercise towards the obdurate the fury of a lion.

In the third book, the author proceeds from the consideration of the general testimony of the Holy Scriptures, to the particular decrees of the bishops forming the council of Nice; and could with the greater facility refute them both by argument and ridicule, as they were in contradiction not only to the manners of the West of Europe, but likewise to common sense. It was not difficult to demonstrate that the reverence paid to the statues of the emperor was no justification of that shown to the images of saints, but that the one was as objectionable as the other. If heathen customs were to be adopted in the churches, then it would soon come to pass that the houses of God would be turned into theatres, and the abode of peace be filled with the performances of gladiators. The apostle, however, enjoined us not to take the emperor and the world for our examples, but said, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. XI. 1). “There­fore”, exclaims he, “far be it from the Catholic religion, that the perverted customs of profligate heathenism should be imitated and adopted by Christian sobriety”. To various weak points of this description, which the Nicene council had exposed to attack, by resting their arguments upon local interests, instead of general and rational principles, maxims were added which were revolting to the moral feelings. They adduced, for example, the following anecdote, as an evidence of the lawfulness of image­worship :—A certain monk had been so long and grievously tempted by the devil to sensual indulgence, that he longed to rid himself at any price of the torment; and at last, at the desire of his tormentor, sacrificed to him the worship of images, binding himself with a solemn oath never again to offer adoration to an image. No sooner did his abbot hear of this, than he cried out in a transport of rage. “It had been better for thee to have visited every brothel in the city, than to have denied to the images of the Lord, or of his Holy Mother, the adoration that is due to them”. The council at Nice assented to this principle, by inserting the story in their acts, and by bringing it forward as an argument. “Is not this”, exclaims Alcuin, or the author of the Carolingian Papers, “is not this an unparalleled absurdity? a ruinous evil? an insanity wilder than has ever yet been known? It had been better for him, he says, to have been guilty of an action forbidden both by the law and the Gospel, than to abstain from that which is commanded by no law, either human or divine! It had been better for him, he says, to have committed a crime, than to have avoided a crime; better to defile the Temple of God, than to despise the worship of senseless statues! Let him tell us, whether he can anywhere find that the Lord has said, ‘Thou shalt not refuse to worship images’; whereas, it is known to all the world that he has commanded this, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. Let him tell us, whether he can anywhere find that the Lord has declared, ‘If thou seest an image and adorest it not, thou hast sinned’; while everyone knows that he has said, ‘Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart’. Whoever attempts to support his assertions by such examples as this, proves that he possesses folly of no ordinary kind, but that it surpasses that of all others”.




The Greeks had carried their opinions both for and against image-worship to extremes, and consequently supported them rather by sophistry than solid argument. The author of the Carolingian Papers, on the contrary, had assumed a moderate position between the contending parties, and was thereby enabled, unfettered by partiality, to rebut all their fallacies, and expose the absurdities of their speculations. He often feels himself obliged to reiterate the declaration that he did not prohibit the possession, but the adoration of images; that he desired not that men should turn away with disgust from the images which had been placed in churches either as decorations or memorials, but that it was the superstitious abuse of them which he condemned. Having taken this position, the decree of the Iconoclasts at the council of Constantinople, appeared to him just as reprehensible as the opposite error into which that of Nice had fallen, whilst the result of his investigation was recommended by the approbation of Western Christendom, by the assent of the understanding, and by the authority of one of the most eminent among the Popes, Gregory the Great. In pursuance, therefore, of the sentence of this pope, it was enacted as a fundamental law of the Western churches, that images should be permitted to remain outside the churches, and that it was equally unlawful to insist upon their adoration, and to consent to their destruction.

Charlemagne transmitted, by the hands of the abbot Angilbert, the acts of the Frankfort council, together with the work composed in his name, to Pope Hadrian; requiring him not merely to confirm the decisions of the said council, but also demanding, with a passionate eagerness, resulting from his personal feeling of hostility towards the Byzantine court, the formal condemnation of the Emperor Constantine, and his mother, Irene. This placed the pope in an embarrassing situation. On the one hand, he durst not be guilty of the inconsistency of condemning a council to which he himself had sent a legate, and of which he had approved; and, on the other, it was equally impossible to refute the arguments, and overcome the aversion of the French clergy as to dispute the authority of Gregory the Great. This occurrence might easily have produced a breach between the French monarch and the papal see, had Hadrian not been a man of too peaceful and estimable a character to sacrifice, to the passion of the moment, the advantages which the Roman church derived from her close alliance with France, and the respect and regard which he entertained for the king. He pursued the line of policy by which the papal power has become so enormous—that of never attempting to wrest from circumstances what they did not warrant freely, or, at least, apparently. The Carolingian Papers offered advantages to the papal see which easily induced him to forget or overlook those which they refused. The recognition of his supremacy by a general council of the West, sufficiently indemnified him for a departure from the opinions which both he and some of his predecessors had cherished, in reference to image-worship, especially, when, as in this case, the personal authority of these popes could so easily be secured, by ascribing to their views motives which coincided with the principles of the Frankfort council. For Hadrian could excuse the opposition of his predecessors to the Iconoclasts, on the ground recognized even by that council, that the destruction of images was as great a crime as their adoration; and exonerate himself on the plea of desiring to terminate the dissensions between the Eastern and Western churches. This consideration induced him once more to lay before the king some arguments in justification of image-worship; but as he at last granted that the views of Gregory were correct, the king waved his unreasonable demand of a formal declaration of hostility against the Byzantine court; and thus the clouds dispersed which had for a while obscured their amicable relation to each other.

The decree of the Frankfort council was confirmed anew by the synod held at Paris by Louis the Pious, in the year 825, on account of the controversy which had again arisen in Byzantium, respecting images. But, in process of time, this subject, as well as others of more importance to the church, lost its interest; and as the images remained in the churches, and, as it was left to the conscience of each individual to determine in what light they were to be regarded, the worship of images, which had been so strenuously resisted by Charlemagne and his contemporaries, gradually insinuated itself into the Catholic church. The elements were in existence; and it would have afforded cause, both for surprise and regret, had they not developed themselves. In a state of civilization, such as that produced by the exertions of Charlemagne, a sensible object of adoration was requisite. It is true, that relics afforded such an object; and in that point of view retained their importance: but, besides these dark and gloomy objects, images presented themselves in a brighter and more cheerful light, and maintained the reputation which miracles had conferred upon them, by miracles. So long as the efforts of art are principally exercised upon subjects possessing a religious interest, we find, universally, rude and barbarous conceptions corresponding with religious narrow-mindedness. An interesting proof of this fact is furnished by the stiff and uniform figures which constituted the first attempts of the Greek art of sculpture, as well as by the spiritless pictures of saints and gods, which were the humble beginning of an art which has since been carried to such perfection. Art was contented to be the hand-maid of religion, until she acquired an independent position, and laid claim to an intrinsic interest, besides that derived from religious association. The sanctity and reputation of miraculous power belonging to an ancient picture, conferred on it an importance which would never have been accorded to it as a work of art. But the Jupiter of Phidias, or a Madonna of Raphael, instead of borrowing splendour from, reflected a lustre upon religion. In proportion as art had freer scope, and increased in energy, religious views were expanded; and as religion, by allowing the use of images, contributed to accelerate the perfection of art, so she, in her turn, advanced the interests of religion. But this beneficial result would not have been attained, had the Frankfort council carried their principle to the extreme; and not only prohibited the worship of images, but also excluded them from sacred edifices. The plan pursued respecting images does honor to the intelligence and sagacity of the men who devised it. The animation of style, ingenuity of argument, and extent of learning, displayed in the Carolingian Papers, render them a striking monument of the high state of mental cultivation of that period, and of its intellectual superiority to the succeeding centuries. It is no slight praise to them that the Romish hierarchy disputed their authenticity, and ascribed their origin to a period eminent for intellectual energy, and which, by emancipating the mind from many of the fetters of prejudice and superstition, facilitated the progress of religious independence and enlightenment.


5.—Alcuin’s Permanent Settlement in France, and his Participation in the Complete Suppression of the Doctrine of the Adoption.


Two years elapsed between the period of the Frankfort council and Alcuin’s permanent settlement in France; during which time, he appears to have remained in his former relation to the King. At the request of Charles, he delayed his return to England, without altogether relinquishing the design, and without suffering his attention to be withdrawn from his native country, the state of which filled him with the greatest anxiety. The Normans, those bold navigators, were then beginning to extend their voyages, and to make their unwelcome descent upon more distant shores. The skilful measures taken by Charlemagne, deterred them from repeating their fruitless attempt upon the coasts of his kingdom : but England, divided among weak princes, was a tempting and easy prey. In the year 793, they landed at Lindisfarne, devastated the country with fire and sword, profaned the sanctuary, murdered some of the monks belonging to the monastery of that place, and dragged away others into captivity. Alcuin was on the continent when this event took place. He regarded it with more anxiety, perhaps, than others of his contemporaries; for, taught by the experience of the past, he had a deeper insight into the future. A comparison between the present state of England, and the condition of Britain at the time of the invasion of the Saxon pirates, forced itself upon him; and the similarity which he fancied he discovered, afforded him little consolation. Every letter, therefore, addressed by him to his friends in England at this period, contains a warning of the threatening danger, and an exhortation to maintain internal tranquillity, in order to be able better to repel an external foe. “Our ancestors”, he writes to the archbishop of York, “although heathens, acquired possession, with God’s assistance, of this country. What a reproach would it be to lose as Christians, what they gained as heathens! I allude to the scourge which has lately visited those territories, which have been inhabited by our ancestors for nearly 350 years. In the book of Gildas, the wisest of the Britons, we read, that these very Britons lost their country in consequence of the rapacity and avarice of their princes, the corruption and injustice of the judges, the carelessness and indolence of the bishops in preaching, and the licentiousness and immorality of the people. Let us take heed that these crimes prevail not in our times, that the blessing of God may preserve our country in that prosperity which his mercy has condescended to bestow”. He concludes his letter with an exhortation to keep a vigilant eye upon the morals of the people, that the mournful catastrophe might be averted which he saw but too distinctly approaching, if the disturbances which had so often convulsed the kingdom of Northumberland were not speedily terminated. In order to contribute to the extent of his ability towards the maintenance of internal tranquillity, he addressed a letter to king Ethelred, and to the nobles and people of Northumberland, wherein he adduces examples from the earlier history of the country, to enforce his earnest exhortations; and endeavored, by depicting hell in the most appalling colours, to deter the king from injustice, the nobles from sedition, and the people from disobedience. At the same time he resolved to return to York, that his personal authority might add weight to his admonitions. He had already obtained the consent of Charlemagne to this journey, and received from him presents for Offa, and other Anglo-Saxon princes, when, in the year 796, Ethelred was murdered. Alcuin saw, with equal indignation and sorrow, that his deluded country was beyond the aid of exhortation or advice, which he alone could offer; and therefore abandoned the idea of returning home, and resolved to make France his permanent abode. This resolution remained unaltered, when, a few months after Ethelred’s murder, the death of Eanbald I archbishop of York, which took place on the 29th July, 796, opened to him the most certain prospect of obtaining the vacant see. There is not the slightest doubt that he would have been elected, had he accepted tilt invitation which he received as a member of the church of York. As, however, he conjectured that he was invited not to assist in the election of another, but to be raised himself to the archiepiscopal throne, and as he had no desire to purchase, at the expense of repose, high ecclesiastical dignity, he excused himself on the plea of sickness and King Charles' absence in Saxony; and merely admonished his spiritual friends in York to regard merit and worth only, in their choice, and to beware of simony, a crime which he compared to the treachery of Judas : for whosoever betrays and sells the church, betrays and sells the Lord Jesus Christ, with whom it forms one body. Alcuin had the pleasure of seeing his former pupil, Eanbald II chosen. Had he himself been ambitious of church preferment, the highest dignity in the kingdom of France would not have been withheld from him; but his wishes were confined to a station which would afford the repose necessary to his years and constitution, enfeebled by sickness, and enable him to devote himself entirely to his favourite occupations. A residence at court was less adapted to this purpose than the tranquillity of a cloister; and he therefore requested permission of Charlemagne to retire to the monastery of St. Boniface at Fulda, and to distribute its revenues, which had been assigned him, amongst his pupils.

The king did not entirely accede to this request, considering it unbecoming to suffer a man like Alcuin to live as a simple monk, under the control of an abbot. But Itherius, late abbot of the monastery of St. Martin, at Tours, dying at this identical period, the king appointed Alcuin to his office; thereby providing for him the tranquillity he desired, and affording him an opportunity of extending his labours for improving the condition of the clergy and the younger part of the population. The monks of St. Martin lived in a manner which was anything but becoming their profession; and Charles knowing Alcuin’s vigour of mind and exemplary conduct, expected that when the community was placed under his management, the abuses which prevailed there would cease. We shall hereafter see how far Alcuin justified these expectations. This section will conclude with a connected account of his participation in the complete suppression of the doctrine of the Adoption.

Although he had retired from the world, he had involved himself too deeply in the controversy, and considered resistance to the new doctrines too meritorious a work to desist from it. Besides, he had received a personal affront from his adversaries. Felix had composed a book in answer to the letter in which Alcuin had exhorted him to abandon his errors, and, having completed it, sent it first to Elipandus and the other adherents of his doctrine, and then, by their advice, not to Alcuin himself, but to King Charles, from whom they hoped to experience more equity and impartiality. Charles transmitted it to Alcuin, against whom it was chiefly directed, charging him at the same time to reply to it. As Alcuin, however, saw, from the tone which the Adoptionists had assumed towards him, that his arguments alone would make no impression upon them, he entreated the king to transfer the commission to more suitable persons, at the same time exhorting him to take more vigorous steps, and use his temporal power for the suppression of the heresy. “Arise”—he thus concludes his letter, “arise, thou champion of Christ, chosen by God himself, and defend the bride of thy Lord! Think how thy enemy would rejoice were thy bride dishonoured! Reflect that the wrong which thou sufferest to fall upon thy son, will recoil upon thyself. How much more oughtest thou to avenge with all thy might, the injury and reproach cast upon the Son of God, thy redeemer, thy protector, the dispenser of all thy blessings! Come forth valiantly in the defence of her whom God has entrusted to thy guidance and protection, in order that temporal power may assist thee in acquiring the treasures of spiritual glory”. This letter is evidently dictated by a spirit of anger, on which, perhaps the wound inflicted on his vanity had no little influence. Charles, however, did not comply with Alcuin’s wish of immediately interposing with passion and violence, but had sufficient forbearance to submit the matter to another examination. For this purpose, he required Alcuin to nominate the persons whom he desired to have as his coadjutors in the dispute with Felix. It is interesting to discover on this occasion, which, amongst Alcuin’s learned friends in France, enjoyed most of his esteem. He, of course, first nominated the Pope as being the source of the true faith; then the Patriarch Paul, of Aquileia, Bishop Richbod of Treves, and Bishop Theodulph of Orleans. Charles selected from the names submitted to him, besides the Pope, the Patriarch Paul. Pope Leo, successor of Hadrian I, proclaimed his sentiments, not by a written manifesto, but through the organ of a synod of Italian clergy assembled at Rome. The doctrine of the Adoption was, as might be anticipated, again rejected, and Charles urgently required to execute a sentence which had been pronounced for the third time. In consequence of this, the king summoned in May 799, a numerous meeting of the bishops and theologians of his kingdom at Aix-la-Chapelle, and dispatched Archbishop Leidradus, of Lyons, to Urgel, to bring Bishop Felix himself by force. It was insisted upon, that he should here, in person, either prove the truth of his opinions to the satisfaction of all, or solemnly and penitentially abjure them.

Alcuin was selected by the king to oppose Felix, and to dispute with him publicly. He had prepared and brought with him his seven books against Felix, which he afterwards published, and from which we may judge of the manner in which he handled the subject in the disputation, which was held in the middle of May. The words of Scripture, taken in their strictest sense, and the decrees of the fathers, were to him sufficient arguments to refute the new doctrine. That the name Adoption, is to be found neither in the Old nor the New Testament, nor yet in the works of the Fathers, ought of itself to have convinced Felix of his error. “Could God”, asked Alcuin, “produce from the flesh of a virgin, a real son or not? If he could not, he is not omnipotent; if he could and would not, then you must give a reason why he has not chosen to do so. But, if you can tell that, then the will of the Most High God is comprehensible by the human mind, and the Apostle’s assertion, that God is incomprehensible, is false”.

In a similar manner, he avails himself of the words of the Holy Scriptures. When, for example, it is said, that at the baptism of Christ by John, the voice of God proclaimed “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. III. 17), Alcuin asks to which person of Christ does this refer? If the voice refers to Christ as one person, then this one person to whom the words were addressed is altogether God’s beloved Son, although of two natures; if it refers merely to the divine nature, then this only was baptized and not the human nature, for it was to that which had received baptism that the voice was addressed. But it was not God, but the Man in Christ that was baptized by John in Jordan; it was therefore the man in him that was called by God the Father, the Son of God, “upon who, (it is thus that Alcuin proceeds) “the Holy Spirit also descended in the form of a dove, to prove that he who was baptized, even he was the Son of God. And on this point the baptizer himself says : And I saw and bare record that this is the Son of God”.

In a similar strain of argument, and with consummate learning, Alcuin contended with his opponent at the synod of Aix-la-Chapelle, in the presence of Charlemagne, numerous prelates and learned men. It is to be regretted that we are not in possession of the arguments brought forward by the opposite party; but that they were weighty, and that Felix acquitted himself valiantly this time, may be inferred from the fact that the disputation lasted nearly a week. He was, however, ultimately compelled to recant his error a second time, and abjure it with a solemn oath. The issue of a conflict in which he stood alone against a host, the advocate of an opinion contrary to the authority of the fathers, whom his adversary regarded as the sole standard of truth, and by whom he would have justified any innovation, could not be otherwise than disastrous to Felix. But as there was reason to doubt the sincerity of his recantation, and in order that he might be punished for the obstinacy with which he had defied the authority of the Pope and the council, he was not permitted to return to his bishopric, but was publicly deposed and consigned to the custody of the Bishop of Lyons, who assigned him a monastery within his diocese for his residence. Although Felix here composed and published his confession of faith, he appears in his heart to have continued attached to his old opinions until his death, which took place in the year 818. But after the disputation at Aix-la-Chapelle, he sank into insignificance, and his doctrine was suppressed in France. It seems, from Charles’ conduct towards the Adoptionists, that the principle of the priests—that all things are lawful against heretics, was at that time unknown, or else that Charles was too honourable to admit or practice it. It was not until after he had allowed Bishop Felix a second time to defend a doctrine which had once been condemned by its author, and then rejected by a general council, that he punished him, and that not by the stake, but by deposition and banishment to a monastery.

The orthodox party being now victorious, could employ the enormous power of the French monarch against Felix and his adherents on the Spanish frontier, and enforce their arguments by menaces and violence; but Elipandus cared little for the decrees of the French clergy and councils against his favourite tenets. His years, and the pertinacity with which old age adheres to its opinions and prejudices, rendered Alcuin’s attempts to convert him ineffectual. He wrote to him in the year 799, and transmitted the letter by the envoy whom the king had commissioned to bring Felix from Spain. He addressed him in the most affectionate terms, imputing the whole of the fault to Felix; but Elipandus was so satisfied of the truth of his opinions and the error of his opponents, that he wrote a bitter reply, the offensive vehemence of which appeared even in the style of the address. In this he calls him a new Arius, an opponent of the holy Fathers, and hopes if he should be converted, that he may have everlasting salvation, but if not, eternal damnation. The tone of this epistle convinced Alcuin that all his efforts to persuade the old man would be unavailing, but he thought it due to his injured honour and the well-being of the church, to answer it, “in order”, as he says, “that the minds of any may not be led astray by the perusal of that letter; for we have heard that it has fallen into the hands of others before it reached us to whom it was addressed”. This was the origin of the four books against Elipandus, in which Alcuin again refuted the assertions of the Adoptionists, by citing passages from Scripture and the works of the Fathers. That they effected the conversion of the archbishop of Toledo, is not probable; but he was silenced : and the tempest which had threatened the unity of the Western church passed away, without injury to the constitution of the church or state. We must not, however, on that account, be restrained from considering the contest in all its political importance, and from ascribing to Alcuin, as the principal and successful opponent of the new sect, a large measure of the applause due to the preserver of the tranquillity of the west of Europe.