Alcuin of York

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Lindisfarne, or the Holy Isle, off the coast of Northumberland, England.

In undergraduate days, aside from all the usual general education courses, I focussed on the liberal arts and majored in French and German. Then some years later, after some major twists and turns in my educational, career and life paths, I completed a graduate degree in English with a specialty in the field of translation–something I really enjoyed and did merely because I wanted to. One of my professors, the lone medievalist on campus, suggested that I follow in her footsteps, and for awhile I was devouring back issues of the medievalist journal ‘Speculum’ and page after page of fantastic Anglo-Saxon texts, before I realized I had simply stumbled onto all that too late. Other obligations ensued, and I have had all kinds of other adventures since, but I still return to those medieval treasures on a regular basis. I may not be writing scholarly papers in minor pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon dialects as one of my precocious fellow students delighted in doing, but I still have fun. 

And so for the last couple of weeks I have been reading things related to the life and work of that great and somewhat mysterious Carolingian figure, the scholar and educator Alcuin of York (died 804). I first encountered him a quarter of a century ago in some courses on the Carolingian Renaissance, and he periodically haunts me in a very charming way. Because he’s connected to all kinds of places and people I find intriguing: the late 1st millennium Germanic world; the great Northumbrian monasteries at Lindisfarne, Wearmouth and Jarrow; ecclesiastical and cultural figures like Bede the Venerable and Sts. Willibrord and Boniface; the incredible figure of Charlemagne and his successful efforts to unite much of western Europe into a cohesive empire based on military, cultural and religious foundations. Alcuin was involved in much of what Charlemagne accomplished, though education was his forte. And he has left us some marvelous quotations, like ‘Oh how sweet life was when we sat quietly…midst all these books’; ‘And do not listen to those who keep saying, “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” because the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness’; and the inscription on his own tomb reading ‘What I now am, you will soon be’. 

You can instantly download all kinds of free books on Alcuin of York and his times from the California Digital library, copies of books long since out of print and difficult to find otherwise. There are ‘The Life of Alcuin’ by Frederick Lorenz (1837), for example, ‘The Letters of Alcuin’ by Rolph Barlow Page (1909) and ‘Alcuin’ by E.M. Wilmot-Buxton (1922). You can also download complete copies of  many of Alcuin’s own works, available in the original Latin on various websites, things like his influential treatise ‘On the Virtues and Vices’ (De Virtutibus et Vitiis), his hundreds of extant letters, and his works on grammar, dialectic, rhetoric and astronomy. And, if you become thoroughly addicted to Alcuin, you can seek out the many works of the German 19th century Alcuin and Carolingian scholar , Ernst Drümmler, including complete original texts of just about everything Alcuin and his associates have left behind. As for me, I’m hoping to recover from this mania before I’m anywhere near that far gone. 

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