The Emperor's Scholar

Born in Northumbria, England, around 740, Alcuin showed intellectual promise from an early age—promise that bore fruit when he entered the cathedral school in York to study under Aelbert. The young scholar did so well in his studies of theology and the liberal arts that, when Aelbert was made bishop of York, Alcuin became the new schoolmaster.

One benefit of being Aelbert's protégé was the opportunity to accompany the bishop on his trips to the continent. There Alcuin met the young Frankish king Charles, who eventually became known as Charlemagne. Soon Alcuin was teaching in Charles's palace school and helping to engineer the Carolingian Renaissance, a heady period of church reform, literary productivity, and artistic exploration.

This was an age when many Western Christians had forgotten their ancient heritage, and illiteracy among the clergy had led to some strange beliefs and even stranger practices. The missionary monk Boniface complained to the pope that he had heard an ignorant priest baptize someone in nomine patria et filia, that is, “In the name of the fatherland and the daughter.” The church was sorely in need of reform, and Alcuin was just the man to lead it.

Alcuin was a remarkable scholar. He wrote biblical commentaries, theological treatises, and biographies of the saints, but his most important work was supervising the production of Bibles. Charlemagne wanted an accurate, official version of the Bible. Furthermore, gospel books were needed for the new churches and monastic libraries springing up all over Europe.

In 796, Alcuin became abbot of the monastery of St. Martin of Tours, though he probably never took full monastic vows. From St. Martin's, he continued to write and to consult with the court of Charlemagne until he died in 804, assuring his continuing influence on European Christianity for years to come.

By Garry Crites

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #93 in 2007]

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