Alcuin of York

IMAGINE IF YOU CAN: aworldwithoutcapitallettersorspaces. Perhaps you owe the fact that you can read this article today to Alcuin of York.

Alcuin was one of Charlemagne’s devoted advisors and a major figure in educational, biblical, and liturgical reform. Alcuin reformed education at court and established a palace library. He also tutored Charlemagne and was the head of the palace school at Aachen. (On the facing page, you can see a famous dialogue he supposedly conducted to help educate Charlemagne’s son Pippin: the “Debate between the princely and noble youth Pippin and Alcuin the Teacher.”)

An important goal of the Carolingian reforms was establishing accuracy and uniformity in textual sources for study. To that end, Alcuin worked to revise and standardize the Bible. In 796 he became the abbot of St. Martin’s at Tours, the most powerful abbey in the kingdom, and remained there until his death in 804. Under his supervision, several pandects (complete editions) of the Bible were produced at the abbey, written in newly developed Carolingian minuscule script, much easier to read and write than older ones. For the first time, both capital letters and spaces between words were standard features of writing!

During his time at Charlemagne’s court, Alcuin brought over many English books and entertained many English visitors. He was also influential as an outspoken opponent of the Adoptionist heresy, a teaching that Jesus had been adopted as God’s son at some point in his earthly life.

A prolific writer, Alcuin authored poems, saints’ lives, textbooks, political essays, and hundreds of letters. His incorporation of logic into the study and writing of theology paved the way for later thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas.

He also influenced the later church by revising the liturgy and standardizing the text of the Latin Bible. One phrase in a letter shows his characteristic intellectual humility: “Man thinks, God directs.”

By Jennifer Awes Freeman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #108 in 2014]

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