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Known as Alcuin of York. Born in Yorkshire, England, 735, Alcuin led a life completely dedicated to the advancement of a learning renaissance in medieval Europe. Beginning as a student at the school of Archbishop Ecgberht, Alcuin stayed as a teacher, and became headmaster of the school in 778. During that time, he would build up one of the finest libraries in Europe at that time. Alcuin eventually died in 804, in Tours, France.

His main contributions were to various areas of mathematics, but he also is credited with the translation of a number of Latin documents. Alcuin is said to have created cursive, a form of script that enabled scribes to pen copies of original works faster, and also to have coined the phrase, "Vox populi, vox dei".

Alcuin popularized a style, or form, of writing known as Carolingian miniscule, which was a significant improvement over the messy and rather indecipherable late Merovingian scripts. After leaving Charlemagne's court, Alcuin founded a scriptorium at the St. Martin monastery at Tours, where he was abbot. They meticulously edited Bible texts and other liturgical works (however, the Carolingian miniscule was developed at a different abbey).

Born: c735 in Northumbria
Died: 19 May 804 in Tours, France

Although barely remembered today, Alcuin was one of the most influential men of his century, renowned throughout Europe, becoming the foremost scholar of that revival of learning known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

Biography

Alcuin was born around the year 735 within the kingdom of Northumbria and educated at the cathedral school of York where he later became a monk and teacher before becoming headmaster of the school in 778. At that time the school boasted one of the finest libraries in Europe, containing works from a wide variety of classical sources. It had been compiled mainly by Alcuin's mentor Archbishop Aelberht, but was also enlarged by Alcuin himself, and helped make York one of the intellectual centres of Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries. (1)

In 781, when serving as the deacon of York, Alcuin made a visit to Rome, and on his return met Charlemagne, emperor of the Franks at Parma. Charlemagne was obviously impressed by Alcuin's abilities and offered him the position of head of the palace school at his court in Aachen (now in modern Germany). He also became a personal friend to Charlemagne himself and the teacher of his two sons, also serving as one of Charlemagne's chief advisers and helped to shape Frankish policy in religious and educational matters.

In 796 Alcuin was rewarded with the position of abbot at the monastery of Saint-Martin at Tours where he established a school and library before his death there in 804.

His Importance

As headmaster of the palace school at Aachen Alcuin was responsible for exporting the intellectual achievements of the eighth century Northumbrian Golden Age into continental Europe. The curriculum developed at York was essentially transferred to Aachen and later to Tours. This led to the re-introduction of books and subjects that had been neglected since the fall of Rome centuries before.

At Aachen he gathered many of the leading scholars of the age, and together with Theodulf of Orleans he was responsible for the intellectual movement known as the Carolingian Renaissance which led to a revival of learning throughout the realm of Charlemagne and led to the re-establishment of Latin as the leading language of literary and intellectual discourse in Europe.

Alcuin's gifts were however not those of original or innovative thought, rather he was a teacher and a scholar. He wrote essentially educational manuals, producing elementary texts on arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, concerned primarily with the dissemination of learning derived from the texts of classical authors.

Alcuin was however a copious writer of letters; and his correspondence was clearly considered to be of importance and value as it collected and copied for distribution even during his lifetime. These letters, which have survived, are often one of our best sources of information for the later eighth century British and particularly Northumbrian events.

His one original creation was the development of the Caroline miniscule script, the ancestor of modern Roman typefaces. (2) His life is best summed up in his own words,

In the morning, at the height of my powers, I sowed the seed in Britain, now in the evening when my blood is growing cold I am still sowing in France, hoping both will grow, by the grace of God, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning

Works:

  • Cella Alcuini
  • Conflictus Veris et Hiemis
  • Contra Haeresim Felicis
  • De Fide Sanctae et Individuae Trinitatis
  • De Luscinia
  • De Pontificibus et Sanctis Ecclesiae Eboracensis
  • De Virtutibus et Vitiis
  • Epistulae
  • Epitaphium
  • Sequentia de Sancto Michaele
  • Versus de Cuculo
  • Vita Martini Turonensis
  • Vita Richarii sacerdotis Centulensis
  • Vita Vedasti episcopi Atrebatensis
  • Vita Willibrordi Trajectensis episcopi


NOTES

(1) Unfortunately, nothing now survives of the great cathedral library at York as it was completly destroyed during the Viking attack in 866.

(2) The development of which apparently had a significant impact on the history of mathematics as it was used to copy most of the works of the ancient Greek mathematicians during the ninth century, and it is through these copies that these works have generally survived.


SOURCES

A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain by Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby (Seaby 1991)

Online biographies located at www.bbc.co.uk/history/lj/conquestlj/alcuin_01.shtml?site=history_vikings and www-groups.dcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Alcuin.html

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