EDUCATION AND CIRCUMSTANCES OF ALCUIN UNTIL HIS FIRST APPEARANCE AT THE COURT OF CHARLEMAGNE. AD 735-782.
THE eighth century after the birth of Christ commenced under circumstances the most unfavourable to the arts and sciences of the western world. The successful irruption of the Arabs into Spain, repelled the civilization introduced by Christianity, and confined it to the mountains of Asturias and Biscay. The constant feuds between the Lombards and the Greeks, scared the gentle muses from the north of Italy; and they found no refuge amongst the Franks, now immersed in barbarism, and distracted by internal discord, in consequence of the weakness of the Merovingian house. Germany and Scandinavia were still under the dominion of Paganism. The kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons alone offered them an asylum. The Anglo-Saxons had been converted to Christianity by the immediate influence of Rome, and were therefore in more intimate union with the papal see than any other of the western churches. The archbishop of Canterbury dying at Rome in the year 668, whither he had gone to solicit the pontifical ratification of his title, the pope Vitalianus determined to raise to the archiepiscopal throne a prelate elected by himself. He nominated Adrian, an African, who declined the proffered dignity, and recommended a monk in Rome named Theodore, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, whom, at his own request, he promised to accompany. The Anglo-Saxons made no opposition to the right thus arrogated by the pope. Theodore accepted the appointment; and at the age of sixty-six departed with his friend Adrian for England. These men were well versed in Latin and Greek literature; and, speaking those languages with equal fluency, they awakened among the Anglo-Saxons an ardent desire for learning, and drew around them a multitude of scholars, several of whom made such progress that, according to Bede, they were as well acquainted with Greek and Latin as with their mother tongue. After having held the archbishopric twenty-one years, Theodore died : his friend Adrian survived him nearly eighteen years. Their pupils diffused the knowledge they had acquired throughout England, and established schools in every monastery, for the education, not only of the clergy, but also for such of the laity as evinced any inclination for literature. The only deficiency was a competent supply of books. Theodore had brought with him Josephus, the poems of Homer, and probably several other works of inferior note : still they were inadequate to assuage the thirst for knowledge which had been excited. Many journeys to Rome were therefore undertaken, in order to augment the number of books from the collections in that city; and a library began to be the pride and ornament of monasteries. Benedict, the founder of the abbey at Weremouth, distinguished himself by repeated visits to Rome, for the sake of introducing into his own country many works then entirely unknown. From his school, issued one of the most influential scholars of the early part of the middle ages, the venerable Bede, whose learning and writings embraced the most opposite branches of knowledge, and were held in equal estimation with those of the early fathers of the church. At that period Aldhelm and Winfrid were no less celebrated; the former for his skill in the learning of the schools and the cloister, the latter for his indefatigable zeal in preaching the faith of Christ to the heathen population of Germany. The merit of these men consists, not so much in any new discoveries in the field of literature, as in their preservation and diffusion of existing knowledge. They erected a barrier against the threatening tide of barbarism; and in the seclusion of the cloister, unruffled by the storms that agitated the world, they cherished the glorious flower of learning, until a more propitious season again called it forth into the light. The object of the monasteries being thus attained, their utility ceased; and any attempt now to restore them for the purpose of intellectual improvement, would be to retrograde instead of to advance. Amongst the schools thus established in the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons, that at York became the most famous, after Egbert had been appointed archbishop of York and director the school. Youths of the noblest families were here instructed in the rules of grammar, in the other liberal arts, and in the various branches of theology.
Alcuin was born at York about the year 735: at least some inference to that effect may be deduced from a letter written by him to the fraternity of that city, in which he observes that it had watched over the tender years of his childhood with a mother’s love, had borne with his thoughtless boyhood with pious patience, and with fatherly chastisement had brought him up to man’s estate. He was of noble origin; but neither the name of his parents, nor any particulars of his family, have been transmitted to posterity either by himself or others. Having in early youth been designed for the church, he was brought up in a monastery, and after a suitable preparation, entered Egbert’s school. The archbishop himself, and Aelbert one of his relations, who afterwards succeeded him in that dignity, superintended the school. They divided the subjects of instruction between them, Egbert undertaking the explanation of the New Testament, and Aelbert the sciences and general literature. Alcuin enumerates the various subjects in which the latter gave instruction: Grammar, Rhetoric, Jurisprudence, Poetry, Astronomy, Physics, and the explanation of the Old Testament. It is to him, therefore, that he ascribes the greater part of the advantages received by himself and the young people of York. He applauds Aelbert’s endeavours to draw around him youths of distinguished talents, and to attach them to him by his instructions and his kindness. This Alcuin himself experienced. Nothing shows more conspicuously the high estimation in which he was held by his master, than the fact, that he selected him for the companion of his expeditions to foreign countries for the purpose of transplanting to his native soil whatever he might discover of novelty and value either in books or in the pursuits of science. The age of Alcuin at that time probably exceeded twenty, and he, was qualified both by years and education to avail himself of all the advantages which such a journey offered to the lover of literature. They travelled through France into Italy, and to their ultimate destination—Rome.
He mentions neither the impression made upon his young mind by his wanderings among the Franks, nor the feelings awakened in him by the first view of the city of Rome. We may, however, suppose that the ignorance and rude manners of the Franks tended to make Rome appear to still greater advantage. For if any place in the western world could captivate a young mind ardent in the pursuit of knowledge, it was Rome—once the metropolis of the civilized world, and whose very ruins recalled to mind the magnificence of by-gone centuries, and the once flourishing state of science and of art. Even at that time, Rome, more than any other spot in the west of Europe, was the abode of the sciences; and had already laid the foundations of a new universal dominion, which, more powerful than that destroyed by the Germans, was to be upheld not by force of arms, but by spiritual power; and which, by means of prejudice and superstition, was one day to bind the nations of the earth in inextricable chains. Alcuin’s residence at Rome probably strengthened the ideas he had early conceived of the dignity of the pope, and prepared him to contribute a stone to the boldly constructed edifice of the hierarchy.
After his return, Alcuin remained at York as assistant to his master Aelbert, till the latter was appointed to the archbishop’s see on the death of his relation Egbert, which took place on the 11th of November, 766. Being prevented by his office from devoting the same care as formerly to the school, Aelbert consecrated Alcuin deacon, and inducted him into the situation he himself had occupied, and committed to him the superintendence of the library attached to the school. If we compare this collection of books with the admiration and excessive encomiums of contemporaries, and consider that throughout the whole kingdom of France, its equal not only did not exist, but could not be procured, we may form some idea of the state of literature at that period, and of what Charles and Alcuin effected. “Here”, says Alcuin, in a poem, wherein he celebrates the church of York, its superintendents and its saints, “here may be found monuments of the ancient fathers, works produced in Latium by the Romans themselves, and those which were transferred to them from the glorious land of Greece; truths received by the Hebrew nation from above, which Africa has with pure light extended”. If the following list does not comprise all the books, we may rest assured that the principal are enumerated. Aristotle, Cicero, Pompeius (Justin’s Abridgment), Pliny, Virgil, Statius, Lucan and Boethius are the only classical authors whom he specifies. In addition to these, a few ancient grammarians, some Christian poets, and the fathers of the church, in the Latin tongue, are mentioned. Even in those days, as in the times of antiquity, instruction was chiefly oral, the art of printing not having as yet given rise to the great and extensive prevalence of books. A school was therefore elevated into importance by the fame of an able teacher; and the flourishing institution at York derived this advantage from Alcuin : even foreigners resorted thither to pursue their theological studies. Liudger, a native of Friesland, of noble birth, who was afterwards canonized, repaired to York, and perhaps many others, whose names being unaccompanied by any remarkable event, have not descended to posterity. Alcuin maintained a correspondence by letter with the most distinguished among his scholars, many of whom were subsequently summoned to fill the highest offices.
Aelbert died on the 8th November, 780, and was succeeded by Eanbald, a pupil in the school at York. In order to obtain for him the archbishop’s pall, Alcuin the following year travelled to Rome. At the same time, Charles, king of France, accompanied by his family, was on his way back from that city, where he had passed the winter. He was returning to his own country, meditating splendid projects for the amelioration of his people, but in considerable embarrassment as to the means of effecting his wishes. A great mind, like that possessed by Charles, could not behold the ruins of antiquity, without regretting that so highly cultivated an era should have passed away, and without wishing again to call it into existence. A fortunate chance led him to Parma, whilst Alcuin was there, who, if not personally, was at all events by reputation well known to him. After a conversation, in which the king probably communicated to him his designs for the improvement of his people by education, and his difficulty in finding competent instructors, he requested Alcuin to become the organizer of all the institutions which he meditated establishing in France. Alcuin promised to comply with the king’s wishes, if permitted by his superiors, and, in that case, to return to him after the completion of his present commission.
On his arrival at York, he easily obtained the permission required, and returned, accompanied by some of his pupils as assistants. Amongst these were Wizo surnamed Candidus, Fredegisus or Fridugisus surnamed Nathaniel, and Singulfus, all of whom we shall have occasion to mention frequently, and who deserved and enjoyed his confidence for the faithful service which they rendered him. Osulf, however, who likewise followed him, had not sufficient firmness to withstand temptation, but yielded himself up to a course of life unworthy of a scholar, and still more unworthy of an ecclesiastic. Alcuin tried every means to bring him back into the right path. He wrote three letters to him, the language of which is forcible and earnest, addressing him in terms alternately eloquent and feeling. “Why”, he exclaims in one passage to his lost son, “why hast thou abandoned thy father who has educated thee from thy childhood, who has instructed thee in the liberal sciences, and led thee in the ways of virtue, and furnished thee with the doctrines of eternal life? Why hast thou joined thyself to a troop of harlots, to the revels of the drunkard, to the follies of the vain? Art thou that youth who was praised by every tongue, lovely in every eye, commended to every ear? Alas! alas! now thou art censured by every tongue, hateful to every eye, and cursed to every ear”. He represents to him, in the strongest colours of those times, the torments of hell and the joys of heaven. Then he attempts to work upon his feelings of ambition, and proposes to him, as an example, his fellow-pupil, Eanbald of York. But neither the hopes nor fears of an obscure futurity, nor the sentiments of honour had the effect upon him which Alcuin desired to produce.
With these pupils, as assistants in his new and important vocation, Alcuin arrived in France in the year 782.