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Alcuin of York ( ) or Ealhwine, nicknamed Albinus or Flaccus (730s or 740s – May 19, 804) was a scholar, ecclesiastic, poet and teacher from Yorkmarker, Northumbriamarker. He was born around 735 and became the student of Ecgbert at York. At the invitation of Charlemagne, he became a leading scholar and teacher at the Carolingian court, where he remained a figure at court in the 780s and 790s. He was responsible for inventing lower case letters. He wrote many theological and dogmatic treatises, as well as a few grammatical works and a number of poems. He was made abbot of Saint Martin's at Tours in 796, where he remained until his death. He is considered among the most important architects of the Carolingian Renaissance. Among his pupils were many of the dominant intellectuals of the Carolingian era.


Alcuin of York had a long career as a teacher and scholar, first at the school at York now known as St Peter's School, Yorkmarker (founded AD 627) and later as Charlemagne's leading advisor on ecclesiastical and educational affairs. From 796 until his death he was abbot of the great monastery of St. Martin of Tours.

The majority of details on Alcuin's life come from his letters and poems. There are also autobiographical sections in Alcuin's poem on York and in the Vita Alcuini, a Life written for him at Ferrières in the 820s, possibly based in part on the memorisations of Sigwulf, one of Alcuin's pupils.


Alcuin was born in Northumbria, presumably sometime in the 740s. His parents are unknown and little in fact can be made of his family background and origin. In common hagiographical fashion, the Vita Alcuini asserts that its subject was "of noble English stock" and this statement has usually been accepted by scholars. Alcuin's own work only mentions such collateral kinsmen as Wilgils, father of the missionary saint Willibrord, and Beornred, abbot of Echternach and bishop of Sens, who was more distantly related. In his Life of St Willibrord, Alcuin writes that Wilgils, called a paterfamilias, had founded an oratory and church at the mouth of the Humber, which had fallen into Alcuin's possession by inheritance. Because in early Anglo-Latin writing, paterfamilias ("head of a family, householder") usually referred to a ceorl, Donald A. Bullough suggests that Alcuin's family was of cierlisc status, i.e. free but subordinate to a noble lord, and that Alcuin and other members of his family rose to prominence through beneficial connections with the aristocracy. If the locations of this land-holding and York are anything to go by, Alcuin's origins may lie in the southern part of what was formerly known as Deira.


At an early age, Alcuin came to the cathedral church of York in the golden age of Archbishop Ecgbert and Eadberht. Egbert had been a disciple of the Venerable Bede who urged him to have York raised to an archbishopric. Eadbert was the king and brother to Egbert. These two men oversaw the re-energising and re-organisation of the English church with an emphasis on reforming the clergy and on the tradition of learning begun under Bede. Alcuin thrived under Egbert’s tutelage who loved him especially. It was in York that he formed his love of classical poetry, though he was sometimes troubled by the fact that it was written by non-Christians.

The York school was renowned as a centre of learning not only in religious matters but also in the liberal arts, literature and science named the seven liberal arts. It was from here that Alcuin drew inspiration for the school he would lead at the Frankish court. He revived the school with disciplines such as the trivium and the quadrivium. Two codices were written, by himself on the trivium, and by his student Hraban. on the quadrivium.

Alcuin graduated from student to teacher sometime in the 750s. His ascendancy to the headship of the York school, which has subsequently become known as St Peter's School, began after Aelbert became Archbishop of York in 767. Around the same time Alcuin became a deacon in the church. He was never ordained as a priest and there is no real evidence that he became an actual monk, but he lived his life like one.

In 781, King Elfwald sent Alcuin to Romemarker to petition the Pope for official confirmation of York’s status as an archbishopric and to confirm the election of a new archbishop, Eanbald I. On his way home he met Charlemagne, though not for the first time, in the Italian city of Parma.


Alcuin was reluctantly persuaded to join Charlemagne's court. His love of the church and his intellectual curiosity made the offer one that he could not refuse. He was to join an already illustrious group of scholars that Charles had gathered around him like Peter of Pisa, Paulinus of Aquileia, Rado, and Abbot Fulrad. He would later write that "the Lord was calling me to the service of King Charles."

Alcuin was welcomed at the Palacemarker School of Charlemagne in Aachenmarker (Urbs Regale) in 782. The school had been founded under the king’s ancestors as a place for educating the royal children, mostly in manners and the ways of the court. However, King Charles wanted more than this – he wanted to include the liberal arts and, most importantly, the study of the religion that he held sacred. From 782 to 790, Alcuin had as pupils Charlemagne himself, his sons Pepin and Louis, the young men sent for their education to the court, and the young clerics attached to the palace chapel. Bringing with him from York his assistants Pyttel, Sigewulf and Joseph, Alcuin revolutionized the educational standards of the Palace School, introducing Charlemagne to the liberal arts and creating a personalised atmosphere of scholarship and learning to the extent that the institution came to be known as the "school of Master Albinus".

In this role as adviser, he tackled the emperor over his policy of forcing pagans to be baptised on pain of death arguing, “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe.” His arguments seem to have prevailed; Charlemagne abolished the death penalty for paganism in 797.

Charlemagne was master at gathering the best men of every nation in his court. He himself became far more than just the king at the centre. It seems that Charlemagne made many of these men his closest friends and counsellors. They referred to him as "David", a reference to the Biblical King David. Alcuin soon found himself on intimate terms with the king and with the other men at court to whom he gave nicknames to be used for work and play. Alcuin himself was known as "Albinus" or "Flaccus".

Alcuin’s friendships also extended to the ladies of the court, especially the queen mother and the daughters of the king. His relationships with these women, however, never reached the intense level of those with the men around him. Modern commentators , have identified, for example, the homo-erotic tone of some of Alcuin's poetry, emphasising the spiritual and idealistic aspects of his love for his friends and his pupils. While at Aachenmarker, his pupils were given pet names, derived from classical allusions (mainly from Virgil's Eclogues).

Return to England and return to Francia

In 790 Alcuin went back to England, to which he had always been greatly attached. He dwelt there for some time, but Charlemagne then invited him back to help in the fight against the Adoptionist heresy which was at that time making great progress in Toledo, Spainmarker, the old capital town of the Visigoths and still a major city for the Christians under Islamic rule in Spainmarker. He is believed to have had contacts with Beatus of Liébana, from the Kingdom of Asturias, who fought against Adoptionism. At the Council of Frankfurt in 794, Alcuin upheld the orthodox doctrine, and obtained the condemnation of the heresiarch Felix of Urgel. Having failed during his stay in England to influence King Aethelraed of Northumbria in the conduct of his reign, Alcuin never returned to live in England. Alcuin was back at Charlemagne's court by at least mid 792, writing a series of letters to Aethelraed of Northumbria, to Hygbald, Bishop of Lindisfarnemarker, and Aethelheard, Archbishop of Canterbury in the succeeding months, which deal with the attack on Lindisfarne by Viking raiders in July 792. These letters, and Alcuin's poem on the subject De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii provide the only significant contemporary account of these events.

Tours and death

In 796 Alcuin was in his sixties. He hoped to be free from court duties and was given the chance when Abbot Itherius of Saint Martin at Tours died. Charlemagne gave Marmoutier Abbeymarker into Alcuin's care with the understanding that he should be available if the king ever needed his counsel.

Alcuin died on May 19, 804, some ten years before the emperor. He was buried at St. Martin’s Church under an epitaph that partly read:

Carolingian Renaissance figure and legacy

Literary influence

He made the abbey school into a model of excellence, and many students flocked to it; he had many manuscripts copied, the calligraphy of which is of outstanding beauty. He wrote many letters to his friends in England, to Arno, bishop of Salzburg, and above all to Charlemagne. These letters, of which 311 are extant, are filled mainly with pious meditations, but they further form a mine of information as to the literary and social conditions of the time, and are the most reliable authority for the history of humanism in the Carolingian age. He also trained the numerous monks of the abbey in piety, and it was in the midst of these pursuits that he died.

Alcuin is the most prominent figure of the Carolingian Renaissance, in which three main periods have been distinguished: in the first of these, up to the arrival of Alcuin at the court, the Italians occupy the central place; in the second, Alcuin and the Anglo-Saxons are dominant; in the third, which begins in 804, the influence of Theodulf the Visigoth is preponderant.

We owe to him, too, some manuals used in his educational work; a grammar and works on rhetoric and dialectics. They are written in the form of dialogues, and in the two last the interlocutors are Charlemagne and Alcuin. He also wrote several theological treatises: a De fide Trinitatis, commentaries on the Bible, etc.

Alcuin transmitted to the Franks the knowledge of Latin culture which had existed in England. We still have a number of his works. His letters have already been mentioned; his poetry is equally interesting. Besides some graceful epistles in the style of Venantius Fortunatus, he wrote some long poems, and notably a whole history in verse of the church at York: Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae.

Alcuin as a mathematician

The textbook Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes (English: Problems to sharpen the young, proper title Propositiones Alcuini Doctoris Caroli Magni Imperatoris ad Acuendes Juvenes— ) is usually attributed to Alcuin.It contains about 53 mathematical word problems with solutions, in no particular pedagogical order. Among the most famous of these problems are four that involve river crossings, including the problem of three jealous husbands, each of whom can't let another man be alone with his wife (Problem 17), the problem of the wolf, goat, and cabbage (Problem 18), and the problem of "the two adults and two children where the children weigh half as much as the adults" (Problem 19).

At the end of his life, Alcuin had a reputation for holiness, yet he is not included in the canon of saints and never advanced to holy orders beyond those of deacon.

Alcuin Collegemarker, one of the colleges of the University of Yorkmarker, is named after him.

Selected Works

The following is partially based on an overview by Robert Levine and Whitney Bolton

  • Carmina, ed. Ernst Dümmler. Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini. vol 1. Berlin, 1881.
    • Godman, Peter (tr.). Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. 118-49.
    • Isbell, Harold (tr.). The Last Poets of Imperial Rome. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.
  • Epitaph for Cone
  • Poem on York, Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae, ed. and tr. Peter Godman, De pontificibus et sanctis Ecclesiae Eboracensis, The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
  • De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii, "On the destruction of the monastery of Lindisfarne

Epistolae (Letters)
Of Alcuin's letters, just over 310 have survived.
  • Dümmler, Ernst (ed.). 'Alkuini Epistolae' in MGH Epistolae IV (Berlin 1895) 1-493.
  • Jaffe, Philipp, Ernst Dümmler, W. Wattenbach (eds.). Monumenta Alcuiniana, Berlin, Weidmann, 1873, pp. 132-897.
  • Chase, Colin (ed.). Two Alcuin Letter-books. Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1975.
  • Allott, Stephen (tr.). Alcuin of York, c. AD 732 to 804. His life and letters. York, 1974.
  • Sturgeon, Thomas G. (tr.). The Letters of Alcuin: Part One, the Aachen Period (762-796). Harvard University Ph.D. Thesis, 1953.
  • Dorothy Whitelock (tr.), English Historical Documents.

Didactic works
  • Ars grammatica
  • De orthographia, ed. H. Keil, Grammatici Latini VII, 1880. 295-312.
  • De dialectica
  • Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi juvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico "Dialogue of Pepin, the Most Noble and Royal Youth, with the Teacher Albinus", ed. L.W. Daly and W. Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi. Urbana, 1939. 134-46; ed. Wilhelm Wilmanns, "Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi juvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico." Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum 14 (1869): 530-55, 562.
  • Disputatio de rhetorica et de virtutibus sapientissimi regis Carli et Albini magistri, ed. and tr. Wilbur Samuel Howell, The Rhetoric of Alcuin and Charlemagne. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965 (1941); ed. C. Halm, Rhetorici Latini Minores. 1863. 523-50.
  • De virtutibus et vitiis, also De vitiis et virtutum (moral treatise dedicated to Count Wido of Brittany, 799 x 800), ed. J.P. Migne. PL 101. Paris, 1851. 613-639 ( transcript available online). A new critical edition is being prepared for the Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis.
  • De animae ratione (ad Eulaliam virginem) (written for Gundrada, Charlemagne's cousin)
  • De Cursu et Saltu Lunae ac Bissexto, astronomical treatise.

  • Vita II Vedastis episcopi Atrebatensis. Revision of the earlier Vita Vedastis by Jonas of Bobbio.
  • Vita Richarii confessoris Centulensis. Revision of an earlier anonymous life.
  • Vita Willibrordi archiepiscopi Traiectensis, ed. W. Levison, Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici. MGH Scriptores Rerum Merovingicarum 7/2. Hanover, 1920. 81–141.


  1. Asimov's Chronolgy of the World, Asimov, I. (1991) HarperCollins. 1st ed., p. 127
  2. Bullough, Alcuin, p. 164.
  3. Bullough, Alcuin, p. 164.
  4. Bullough, Alcuin, pp. 146-7, 165.
  5. Bullough, "Alcuin."
  6. Bullough, Alcuin, p. 165.
  7. Needham, Dr. N.R., Two Thousand Years of Christ’s Power, Part Two: The Middle Ages, Grace Publications, 2000, page 52.
  8. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
  9. David Bromell in Who's who in Gay and Lesbian History, London, 2000 (Ed. Wotherspoon and Aldrich)
  10. The first few problems of Alcuin's on original Latin
  11. Ivars Peterson's MathTrek Nov 21, 2005
  12. Atkinson, L. 2005. 'When the Pope was a mathematician'. College Mathematics Journal 36 (November): 354-362
  13. Animation of the problem of the three jealous husbands (German)

Secondary sources

  • Bullough, Donald. Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation. Leiden, 2003.
  • Bullough, Donald. "Alcuin." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Further reading

  • Alcuin of York, his life and letters, Stephen Allot ISBN 0-900657-21-9
  • Alcuin and the Rise of the Christian Schools by Andrew Fleming West ISBN 0-8371-1635-X
  • Alcuin, Friend of Charlemagne, Eleanor Shipley Duckett, 1951
  • Carolingian Portraits, Eleanor Shipley Duckett, 1962
  • The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, F. L. Ganshof, ISBN 0-582-48227-5
  • Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, John Boswell, ISBN 0-226-06710-6
  • Friendship, and Community: The Monastic Experience, Brian P. McGuire, ISBN 0-87907-895-2
  • Medieval Latin Love Poems of Male Love and Friendship, Thomas Stehling
  • Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, Peter Godman, ISBN 0-7156-1768-0
  • Page, Rolph Barlow. The Letters of Alcuin. New York: Forest Press, 1909.

External links

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