LIFE OF ALCUIN
A.D. 724 - 802
DR. FREDERICK LORENZ
TRANSLATED FROM THE GERMAN
JANE MARY SLEE.
Alcuin’s Theological Opinions.
History of the Controversy respecting
Decision of the Council of Frankfort upon the Doctrine
of the Adoptionists and Image-worship.
Alcuin’s Permanent Settlement in France, and his
Participation in the Complete Suppression of the Doctrine of the Adoption.
2.—Concerning Charles’ Endeavors to improve the
National Language, and the Academy he is said to have founded.
3.—The Friends and Pupils of Alcuin.
4.—Alcuin as Director of the Monastic School at Tours.
5.—Alcuin’s Philosophical and Historical Works.
6.—Concerning Alcuin’s Poetical Writings.
7 .—Renewal of the Roman Empire in the West.
8.—Dissension between Alcuin and Theodulph.
9.—Death of Alcuin.
The totally different aspect presented by the West of Europe, after the
destruction of the Western Roman Empire, combined with the degenerated state of
Roman civilization, necessarily required a new development of the minds of
those whose energy and valour had subdued the degraded descendants of
cultivated antiquity. Great as were the powers of mind possessed by these hardy
conquerors, the rude and warlike habits acquired in their native forests were
too firmly interwoven with their very nature, to be immediately exchanged for
the refinement of the country they had vanquished. The effeminate Romans
accommodated themselves more readily to the manners and customs of the
invaders; and hence, in a short space of time, the remembrance, and a few
fragments, of former civilization alone remained—the frail memorials of
departed grandeur. It was, therefore, unaided by external influence, that the
faculties of the northern warriors item developed. The process was indeed,
slow; so slow, that the lapse of a thousand years was requisite to enable them
to profit by the arts and sciences, which, on their first approach, had been
overwhelmed by the tide of barbarism. This insensibility to external influence
tended essentially to the preservation of their independence. Fortunately, most
fortunately, the heartless, prejudiced, enervated character of the then modern
Roman, who possessed not faculties even to comprehend, far less to imitate, the
glory of his ancestors, remained totally alien to the new possessors of the
soil, who imbibed only the vivifying element of Christianity. The Christian
religion was the main spring of all intellectual efforts, during the whole of
the interval that elapsed between the loss and the recovery of ancient
civilization; and literature was altogether under the conduct and control of
her ministers. Few were the intellectual luminaries that shone forth in those
days of darkness, very few were so brilliant as to exercise any direct
influence on the present age. The venerated names, the hallowed writings of
that period, ceased to retain the importance with which opinion had invested
them, so soon as the progress of intellect enabled mankind to appreciate and to
study those models which a gracious Providence had rescued from destruction and
oblivion. Their labours, however, have not been in vain, their utility has
surpassed their fame. To extend the knowledge of the merits of a celebrated man
of this period, and to render a tribute to his memory, by redeeming a portion
of that debt which mankind should gratefully acknowledge to one who laboured so
zealously and so actively for their benefit, is the object of this work.
We may venture to assert that the time of Charlemagne is more celebrated
than known, and that the founder of the new Roman German empire has found more
panegyrists than historians. A character like that of Charles is too dazzling
to admit of our beholding, at the first glance, the surrounding objects so as
to distinguish them clearly. But after accustoming ourselves to gaze longer
upon it, the inquiring eye will discover other forms beaming, not undeservedly,
with a ray of glory reflected from the principal figure. The more accurately we
can judge of men by those who surround them, the more necessary and instructive
becomes the contemplation of their characters. A prince who is a mere warrior
delights only in those hardy pursuits inseparable from a soldier’s life, and
seeks his friends and confidants in the army. A ruler who is a mere politician
prefers the statesman to the soldier. When, however, a prince like Charlemagne,
and others who have shared, or at least deserved to share, the same epithet,
combines the ardour for conquest with the love of literature, the sword and the
pen will be held in equal estimation; he will attach himself most intimately to
those who have won his confidence by a similar direction of mind, and have
manifested the desire and the ability to promote the welfare of his subjects.
One single man, even on a throne, can accomplish but little without the
cooperation of kindred spirits. When, therefore, a sovereign possesses an
intellect sufficiently capacious to embrace noble designs, and an eye to
discern, amid the multitude, those whose energy and talents best fit them for
the execution of his plans, he is justly celebrated; his memory is held in
grateful honour, and his example commended to posterity. To him belongs the
rare talent of availing himself of the various powers of others, and of uniting
them for the attainment of one object. Not equity alone, therefore, requires, but
it is indispensable to the right understanding of facts, that justice should be
rendered to the individual who laboured successfully for this object. The man
whose life forms the subject of this work, devoted his energies to the
execution of Charles’ noble project of advancing his subjects towards that
civilization, the light of which still lingered on the ruins of antiquity. This
man was Alcuin; and who can be a more proper representative of this honourable
and distinguishing characteristic of Charles’ reign, than he to whom the king
was indebted for the chief of his learning, his children for the whole of their
mental attainments, and such of the young Franks as evinced either inclination
or ability for study, for all their knowledge? He formed, to a certain extent,
the centre of the awakened energies of this period; not because he was the only
man remarkable for literary acquirements, but because he had pursued all the
paths of knowledge which at that time lay open to the human mind. Neither
splendid actions nor marvellous adventures, nor any of those striking incidents
that are calculated to arouse and gratify curiosity, distinguish the life of
Alcuin from that of ordinary men; for his combats with the devil, and his
miracles, belong to legends rather than to history. But the successful labours
of the confidant and instructor of Charlemagne will prove, to the reflecting
lover of history, a more effectual recommendation than the most dazzling
achievements of others more renowned. If the investigation of the development
of the human mind under its different manifestations, be the most important
subject of history, our attention must be chiefly directed to those individuals
who have prosecuted, with the greatest ardour and success, some one of the
pursuits of their day. Their influence upon their own times increases in
proportion as they are animated by the universal spirit of the community,
comprehend and unite in themselves the various attainments of individuals, and
advance them to a perfection sufficient to constitute a new era in the progress
of the human mind. In times so remote, so destitute of various and complicated
interests, and so deficient in contemporary records as those of Charlemagne, we
must be contented to produce the king as the representative of the political
and military state, and one other personage to represent the literary and
religious character of the times. With this view, we have examined and
exhibited the life and works of Alcuin. We shall first describe the state of
Anglo-Saxon civilization at that period, in order to show more clearly Alcuin’s
literary attainments. We shall afterwards accompany him to a more extensive and
interesting sphere of action, where, without the adventitious aid of external
dignity, which his modesty always declined, he for years effected more than was
accomplished by prelates adorned with the most splendid titles.