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The sentiments of Alcuin with regard to the war in which Charlemagne was engaged with the Saxons, deserve some notice, although they had no influence on the course of events. He could not but applaud the efforts of the king to introduce the Christian religion among the Saxons; but the manner in which he strove to accomplish his wish by no means met his approval. Men of energetic character, like Charles, are usually inflexible in the prosecution of their designs, and look upon every concession to existing circumstances as a proof of weakness. The acceptance of Christianity by the Saxons, as Charles desired, involved not merely a change of their religion, but also of their civil constitution, which was founded upon it; so that the nobility, whose pre-eminence was derived solely from their priestly office, struggled less for their gods than for their rank and political existence. Alcuin was aware of the manner in which his pagan ancestors, who were descended from the same stock, and had professed the same religion as the Saxons, had been converted to Christianity. He knew that it had not been effected by external violence, but by permission. The king and his nobles willingly resigned the influence they possessed as priests, since the new religion secured to them equal influence through the medium of bishoprics and abbacies. He thought it his duty to recommend to the king a similar mode of proceeding. He counselled him to present Christianity to the Saxons under its fairest aspect, and to alleviate the burthens attached to it as much as possible at its introduction. Above all things, he warned the king against the immediate imposition of tithes. The Christian clergy were indebted for this tribute (the idea of which was borrowed from the Old Testament) to the artfulness with which they laid claim to the position of the Jewish priesthood, thereby transferring to themselves the advantages enjoyed by that body. Alcuin’s reasons do honour both to his heart and to his understanding, since they prove that he was entirely free from the blind zeal of the priests. He doubts, in the first place, whether the tithe be a necessary burthen upon Christianity, as it would be difficult to find an instance wherein the Apostles exacted this tribute, or bequeathed to their successors any right so to do. If Charles, however, were determined to insist on the tithe, he entreats him at least to consider, that a tax which the established Christians reluctantly consented to pay, would naturally alienate the minds of new converts from a doctrine which they saw to be oppressive even at its announcement. In his opinion, the introduction of the tithe system would not be advisable, until Christianity bad been acknowledged by the Saxons as the means of salvation, and had become endeared to them in such a degree, that they would consider no burthen connected with it as too heavy. He urges, therefore, the sending of such of the clergy as were more concerned for the welfare of the church than for their own advancement, and whose characters were calculated to enforce the doctrines which they taught. In conclusion, he mentions three subjects with which converts should become acquainted, previous to their baptism; first, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, with a description of the joys prepared for the good in heaven, and the torments which await the wicked in hell; then that of the Holy Trinity; and lastly, the most important doctrine, that of the redemption of mankind by Jesus Christ. Charles did not follow this salutary advice; and to his obstinacy, may be attributed the long continuance of the Saxon war for years, and which he could not bring to a conclusion until he had executed some of his chief adversaries, banished others, and conciliated the rest by the grant of fiefs.

In what other political affairs, Alcuin was engaged during his first residence of eight years at the Frank Court, we are ignorant, as the portion of his extensive correspondence, which is extant, refers to a later period, but we know that his thief efforts were directed to literature, for not only the king, but his sons and daughters likewise were under his tuition. The more Charles felt the value of a learned education, the more anxious he became that his children should he carefully instructed, that he might never hear from them the reproach which he, perhaps, sometimes silently cast upon his father. Under such circumstances, however, education easily takes a wrong direction, for if it endeavour too greatly to accelerate the progress of cultivation at a time when it is neglected by the many, and appreciated only by the few, it inevitably tears asunder all sympathy between the pupil and his contemporaries. Whilst he looks upon them as Barbarians, they regard him as a Sybarite, and thus is engendered a feeling of mutual hostility which cannot but be injurious to the state. A proof of this was exhibited in the education, and consequent fantastic schemes of Otho III, king of Germany, and emperor of Rome. Charles, however, was wise enough to avoid this error by combining intellectual instruction with the national studies of the Franks. The beautiful simplicity of those times may be seen in a picture, sketched by Einhard, of the domestic life of Charlemagne. Whilst the sons perfected themselves in corporeal exercises, rode with their father to the chase, or accompanied him to battle, that they might acquire under his own eye that proficiency in the use of arms so necessary to a Frank prince, the daughters remained at home occupied in weaving or spinning. At dinner, the whole family assembled at the same table. When travelling, the king rode between his sons, and his daughters followed likewise on horseback. Both were instructed by Alcuin in all the learning of the times. A small treatise still to be found among Alcuin’s works containing the substance of a conversation between himself and Charles’s second son Pepin, shows the method by which he endeavored to quicken the faculties of the mind, and impart a facility of expression. For example, Pepin is asking for information respecting certain words, Alcuin explains them, not by giving their precise signification, but by circumlocution, or by rendering the sense with a poetical turn of expression. Many of the answers are sufficiently striking and acute to awaken reflection. The prince asks for instance, “What is the liberty of man?” and receives for answer, “Innocence”. To Pepin’s question : “What is the Moon?” Alcuin replies, “The eye of night, the dispenser of dew, the herald of tempests”. These are attributes of the moon belonging either to its nature or its effects, arrayed in the mantle of poetry. At the conclusion, they exchange parts, and Alcuin proposes to his pupil problems to solve, and questions to answer, calculated to habituate the mind to quickness of apprehension, and a facility in discovering the most comprehensive terms to express every idea. We perceive from Alcuin’s letters, that at a later period, the princes Charles, Pepin, and Louis, honoured and respected him as their master, and that the king’s sister and daughter, Gisla, sought his instructions, both verbally and by writing.

In the year 796, Louis having made a successful campaign against the Avari, and taken numerous prisoners, Alcuin wrote to King Charles, entreating him to ransom them, which request, being seconded by the prince, was granted. Alcuin expressed his gratitude in a letter to the prince, and annexed to it a list of exhortations which deserve to be quoted as a specimen of his style, and as illustrating the position in which he stood towards his royal pupil, “Most illustrious prince”, he writes, “seek to adorn thy noble rank by noble deeds, endeavour with all thy might to do the will and promote the honour of almighty God, that through his favor, which is above all price, the throne of thy kingdom may be exalted, its limits extended, and the people subdued to thy government. Be liberal to the poor, be kind to strangers, devout in the service of Christ, and hold in reverence the ministers of his church, whereby thou wilt receive the assistance of their fervent prayers. Let thy conduct be upright and chaste. Love the wife of thy youth, and suffer no other woman to share thy affections, that the blessing of God that rests upon thee may descend to a long line of thy posterity. Be formidable to thy foes, be true to thy friends, favourable to Christians, terrible to Heathens, accessible to the poor, prudent in following counsel. Listen to the counsel of the old, but employ the young to execute it. Let justice and equity prevail, and let the praise of God resound at the appointed hours throughout thy kingdom, but especially in thy presence. Such pious regard to the duties prescribed by the church, will render thee acceptable to God, and honoured by man. Let feelings of humility dwell in thy heart, the words of truth on thy lips, and let thy life be a pattern of integrity, that it may please God to prosper and protect thee”.

Alcuin is fond of indulging in such exhortations to young people, though nothing can be more inefficacious than a list of precepts. In communicating the doctrines of morality, they must be addressed either to the feelings, or to the understanding; a cold enumeration, therefore, of virtues that imparts no distinct ideas to the one, nor any glow to the other, must necessarily fail to produce the desired effect. Alcuin himself was a living example to the pupils who immediately surrounded him; but to his friends at a distance, he wrote these, as they seem to me, well intended rhetorical flourishes.

Two letters addressed to Charles the younger, the king’s eldest son, contain similar sentiments. The first congratulates him on his coronation, an event with which we are made acquainted only by these letters, and which must have taken place in the year 800. It admonishes him to fulfil the duties of his high station, and advises him to take his father as a model for his conduct. Although Charles the younger exactly resembled his father, and was his favourite, Alcuin does not seem to have been well satisfied with him. The mind of this active prince was more disposed for the stirring business of life than for the stillness of contemplation, and was less influenced by the exhortations of his master, than the latter hoped and expected; perhaps also, like Charlemagne in his younger days, he was more attached to the society of women than accorded with Alcuin’s views. At all events, he thought it necessary to ask his permission to lay before him, in a friendly correspondence, some remarks on many parts of his conduct which he considered censurable. He proposes to him as an example, his brother Louis, who not only listened to his counsel, but followed it. None of his letters to Louis are extant; but from the passage just quoted, we may infer that he held the highest place in his estimation, and that he expected France would enjoy golden days under his administration. The submission to the will of God, which Alcuin admired so much in Louis, and his humility towards the ministers of the church, were qualities that originated less in real piety than in a want of independence of spirit. It is, therefore, a mark of narrow-minded partiality, if Alcuin wished that Louis might become the sole successor of his father, and no proof of his great political sagacity, if he considered him the most worthy. The very docility which, in his youth, Louis displayed towards Alcuin, became afterwards ruinous to the French empire. A prince must, at all times, but especially under circumstances such as those of France, at that period, be something more than a learned and a benevolent man.




It was, however, quite natural that the female part of the family of Charlemagne submitted to Alcuin’s instructions with unlimited confidence, and found his system of Theology so much the more pleasing, the more scope it afforded for the exercise of the feelings, and the less it required the exertion of the understanding or of speculative reasoning. Charles’s sister, Gisla, often applied to him for consolation and information; he wrote expressly for her, and one of her Christian friends, Richtrud, or Columba, a commentary on the Gospel of St. John, of which I shall hereafter speak more particularly.

It is natural to suppose that Charles’s daughters enjoyed similar advantages. This supposition is indeed partly confirmed by facts. Alcuin, in a letter to the king, requests him to reply to some questions which had been proposed to Alcuin by one of the princesses. In a psalm sung during divine service, she had been struck by these words, “All men are liars”. She enquires, therefore, whether this applies to infants, and dumb persons, whose lips have never uttered a word? She asks farther for the explanation of a passage in the same psalm, which is to her incomprehensible. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me”. In another psalm, it seems to her, that the assurance, “The sun shall not burn thee by day, nor the moon by night”, is falsely expressed; as she cannot understand how the same property could be ascribed to the moon, whose nature is cold and damp, as to the sun.

The ardour with which Charles studied the sciences, and caused his family to be instructed therein, could not fail to influence all around him. As the taste of the Court refined, a literary tone became predominant, which none but those whose minds harmonized with it, could appreciate or enjoy. It was, however, principally the immorality of the clergy that shocked the religious feelings of Charles, and their ignorance that disgusted his cultivated understanding. Whoever, therefore, now aspired to preferment, either in the church or state, was obliged to imitate the example of the king, and obtain his favour on conditions entirely different from those of former times. Thus, without any compulsory edict, reform rapidly advanced; and Alcuin hoped to see a new Athens arise in France, possessing privileges higher than the ancient, in proportion to the superiority of the wisdom of Christ to the philosophy of Plato. In the new system of civilization, Charles was, as it were, the sun, whose light illuminated, first the narrow sphere of his own family, then the more extensive circle of his immediate acquaintance, and was finally to spread over the ever-widening orbit of the whole nation. The establishment of schools was, however, requisite for the attainment of this object; and this became Charles’s first care, as soon as he had awakened a desire for improvement, and procured competent teachers.