The French historian and minister of education (1832–7) Guizot may have dubbed Alcuin of York ‘Charlemagne’s minister of education’, but Alcuin himself looked upon his role, as did many aristocratic Anglo-Saxon churchmen, as that of a warrior in the service of Christ. Writing to Charles from his retirement at the abbey of Tours about 802, he begs not to be called once more to fight again and ‘sweat under the weight of armour’ having ‘laid aside the soldier’s belt’.1 He was well aware of the honoured place the war belt with its costly buckle enjoyed in the rating of a warrior’s equipment – the buckles at Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell tell the story.

Alcuin was born, it is now thought, about the year 740, into a well-connected kin group, perhaps of the minor nobility. He had also inherited ‘by legitimate succession’ the monastery of St Andrew built near the mouth of the Humber by Wilgils, father of St Willibrord, on little parcels of land given to him by kings and nobles. The career of Wilgils was not untypical of devout countrymen turning to the life of religion and attracting a small, sometimes ‘distinguished’ following so that their hermitage might evolve into a modest minster.

Alcuin’s kinsmen included Willibrord, whose biography he wrote, and also Willehad, a cousin who would become the first bishop of Bremen. We have already noted that he almost certainly had relatives in Northumbrian court circles (see chapter 3). Another was Beornred, to whom he dedicated his two biographies of St Willibrord and whom he nicknamed Samuel. (The biblical Samuel, it will be remembered, had sponsored King David and ‘David’ was Charles the Great in Alcuin’s system.) Beornred, who was abbot of Echternach from 775 and ten years later archbishop of Sens, was an important figure among the Anglo-Saxons in the Frankish administration of state as well as church: in 785–6 he shared with the abbot of St Vaast a two-man commission from King Charles to report on the condition of the church in Italy, which would also include the state of the papacy.

The aristocratic world of the court and the warrior is never far from Alcuin’s correspondence. Writing to Archbishop Simeon of York in 801, who was at odds with King Eardwulf of Northumbria (the ‘tyrant’ as Alcuin dubs him), he urges him to resist and stand bravely like the standard-bearer in Christ’s battle line, for if the standard-bearer leave the field what is the army to do? Later in the same letter Christ himself is compared as a war leader ‘going before the ranks of his host . . . [who] first bore his cross to his Passion’.

Clerics shared the heroic and military culture of their class. Writing to another churchman, Alcuin seems to give us a glimpse round the screens of a cathedral monastic refectory where the readings, which should be from scripture or some improving book, may sometimes in fact have been from bardic lays or from Beowulf itself, with musical accompaniment. Specifically, Alcuin complains about the story of Ingeld or Hinield, a prince of the Heathobards, probably the one featured in the Beowulf epic, being declaimed to harp or lyre accompaniment. ‘What has Ingeld to do with Christ?’ he exclaims, ‘Your house cannot have room for both.’2 Since at least one modern scholar has surmised that Beowulf itself may actually have been composed in a clerical community, Alcuin’s allusion becomes the more intriguing.3

Alcuin entered the cathedral school at York under Archbishop Ecgberht (d. 766), brother to the king. He made precocious progress, showing mastery of the Psalms of David and fluency in the works of Virgil well before the age of ten. They were happy days. His teachers seem to have been more indulgent than Alcuin himself would be with advancing age. We are told that Sigulf, a favourite pupil who followed him to the Continent and became an assistant teacher at Tours, would read Virgil with his own pupils but in secret because Alcuin would not approve.

The school at York was a stronghold of learning and its library ‘a wondrous treasure’ of many books under a single roof. In his long verse history of the church and saints of York, considered the first historical epic to survive in the literature of the medieval Latin west,4 Alcuin recalled works in Hebrew and Greek, as well as the major Latin grammarians and classics such as Cicero and Virgil, but the library also held in its catalogue books by English scholars such as Bede and Aldhelm. In fact the library, built up by archbishops Ecgberht and Ælbert (d. 780) in the tradition of Benedict Biscop at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, won repute throughout Europe for the range and depth of its learning. Alcuin, who in the 760s graduated to a teaching post in the school of York, was also becoming known on the Continent.

But he was deeply proud of the ‘famed’ city of his birth. His verse history tells of the high walls and towers of the Roman castrum Eboracum, which he believed had been built with the collaboration of the local tribes. The Britons of those days were not cowed and resentful, but worthy to stand as partners in an empire ‘whose sceptre ruled the world’. By contrast their descendants had been cowardly and incompetent before the onslaught of a warrior race from distant Germany called ‘Saxons’, so called because they are ‘hard as stone’. (No doubt Alcuin reckoned the derivation from the Latin word saxum, ‘stone’, more flattering than the one from the Germanic seaxa, the short stabbing knife, the Saxons’ traditional weapon.) And there is a vivid landscape of the York, the emporium, he knew:

a merchant town of land and sea . . . where sailors haste to heave their hausers out and ride at rest . . . a town . . . whose river flows through flowery meads to haven for its ships . . .5

The scholar never lost his loyalty to Northumbria, the country of his birth. Both as courtier and scholar he honoured the name of its warrior patron saint Oswald, describing him as a man powerful in virtue and the guardian of the fatherland (‘vir virtute potens, patriae tutator, amator’).6

At about the time his reputation was taking off outside England, Alcuin made his first visit to Rome on the school of York’s business travelling via the important abbey of Murbach in Alsace and the Lombard capital at Pavia. In 778–9 he was sent on a mission to the Frankish court and apparently made useful network connections with courtiers on his journey up the Rhine, though not meeting the king on this occasion. But the following year he was again in Rome to collect the pallium, or scarf of office, for York’s archbishop Eanbald from the pope On his way back he had a momentous interview in the north Italian city of Parma with Charles the Great, king of the Franks, in March 781. As a result he was to become the leading member of the palace school, though perhaps not ‘head’ in a formal sense.

Ten years before he encountered Alcuin, Charles the Great had become sole ruler of the Frankish lands following the death of his brother Carloman. Called by Alcuin the father of Europe (an early instance of the use of that word in common parlance), he was a man of towering stature and ambition, bent not only on conquest and power but also on a cultural programme to revive learning we know as the Carolingian Renaissance (from Carolus, Latin for Charles). It was the view of the late Professor Elton that ‘learned Englishmen like Alcuin . . . helped to civilize the court of Charlemagne.’7 The English were not alone, as Alcuin indicated in one of his letters, where he speaks of a new Athens in Francia (Athens having attracted men from all over ancient Greece) and perhaps rather flatteringly praises Charles as an example of Plato’s philosopher king. A man of great intellect and wide familiarity with the studies of the men he recruited, Charles was also a ruthless evangelist determined to make the heathen, and above all the Saxons, ‘submit to the mild and sweet yoke of Christ’, whatever the cost in blood. War rumbled on round the more conventional missionary efforts of the churchmen. Back in the 740s these had already established an institution that would be vital to his great cultural initiative and that Charles himself was to enrich with valuable endowments – the monastery of Fulda, inspired by Boniface.

Fulda, foundation for the future

The building of Fulda had been a classic case of the application of practicalities to the achievement of great ideas. Having decided on the site, Boniface had gone to the man in authority, Carloman, the current mayor of the palace. A religious man who would later retire into a monastery, he willingly granted the site whole and entire, together with all the land that he may be ‘supposed to possess’ within a radius of three miles. The area in question is termed ‘wilderness’ and property boundaries are vague. In these last years of the Merovingian dynasty titles of authority are vague too: one source calls Carloman ‘king of the Franks’, another ‘king of Austrasia’. Strictly speaking, he was not king at all.

A charter was drawn up and signed by the ‘king’ and an assembly of nobles of the region, who are told that the king ‘requires’ them to give any land they may hold in the area for the use of the monastery. Towards the end of March ‘in the year of the Incarnation [i.e. AD] 744’ (note the Bedan date)8, Boniface visited the site. He was accompanied by a body of labourers and their supervisors who cleared the site of trees and undergrowth. A year later building work was well advanced and the archbishop came again, this time to give instruction in the Rule of St Benedict. It is apparent that the abbey already had a thriving water-powered craftwork production. Sturm had recruited workmen to divert a channel from the River Fulda under the abbey workshops, which ‘conferred great profit upon the brethren . . . as is still obvious to those who use it . . . to this day’.9This strongly suggests that the abbey had installed a horizontal wheel water mill, no doubt similar to the type of machine, dated to about AD 700, of which traces were excavated at Ebbsfleet, Kent, in 2002 (as reported in Current Archaeology, no. 183).

While the king pursued his missionary work ‘partly by conquest . . . partly even by bribes’, Abbot Sturm focused on the cult centres, cutting down sacred groves and destroying temples. Not surprisingly the Saxons, clearly ‘a depraved and perverse race’, responded in kind. In 778 a particularly violent resurgence forced the community at Fulda to quit the monastery and carry the body of Boniface to temporary refuge at Hammelburg. Local forces in fact drove the Saxon threat back but Charles returned with a new army. Yet more campaigns against the Saxons under their famous ‘duke’ Widukind followed: in the mid-780s we find Abbot Beornred giving hospitality to his fellow Englishman Willehad, forced to abandon his missionary work because of the war. When Widukind finally submitted to the Frankish king and his religion of love in 785, Willehad ‘resumed his work among the Saxons with obvious success’. He was consecrated bishop of Bremen on Charlemagne’s orders.

The Sword in the Book – martyr and patron

The continuing influence of Alcuin’s scholarship and teaching ran deep. More dramatic are the memories of Willibrord of Utrecht and Boniface, the patron saint of Germany, who ended his life in martyrdom. In his seventies he had decided to return to the mission field of Frisia. There on 5 June 754, as he and his party were reading in their tents, they were set upon by a robber band and the saint felled by a sword cut to the head – he died, we are told trying to fend off the blow with the Gospel book in his hand.

Today it is tourists as much as pilgrims whose money bulks the municipal income of Echternach on the celebration of Willibrord’s saint’s day (7 November), but for Roman Catholics in the Netherlands after its independence as the United Provinces, he and his great assistant Boniface meant much more than a holiday. In 1583 the archbishopric of Utrecht was dissolved by the Protestant States General and Roman Catholicism outlawed, following the tyranny of the former ruler, Philip II of Spain. The religion went underground. Its spiritual leader was a priest from Delft, Sasbout Vosmeer, with his seat at Utrecht. According to the German historian Michael Imhof (2004), the cults of Willibrord and Boniface enjoyed a resurgence and Vosmeer compared himself, surrounded by heretics, to St Boniface surrounded by heathen. So, at the very time when the English Protestant state, like the Dutch, was proscribing Roman Catholicism, two Englishmen were venerated as spiritual champions by an oppressed Catholic minority on the Continent.

As to St Boniface himself, his cult in Germany flourished vigorously at the time of the Counter-Reformation with paintings and sculptures portraying him at his martyrdom or brandishing the sword transfixing the Gospel book; this image became his emblem. A fine statue of the saint (restored and refurbished in 2002–3) stands in the main square of Fulda. For the purposes of this book, however, it is a nice thought that this Anglo-Saxon gentleman from Wessex, whose kin no doubt caroused to the lays of Beowulf, also found himself, under the auspices of nineteenth-century greater German nationalism, listed with Luther, Goethe, Beethoven, Mozart and other German worthies as Walhalla Genossen, ‘Companions of Valhalla’, the hall of the gods in Germanic legend.

Cultural campaign

The death of Boniface provoked controversy as to his body’s final resting place. His relic, full of numinous spiritual power, would be a strong protector for the place where it lay: a generator of miraculous manifestations, and a powerful magnet for pilgrims and the wealth they would bring. The chief contenders for the prize were the saint’s cathedral city of Mainz and its bishop, his friend and successor Lull, and Abbot Sturm at Fulda.

‘A certain deacon’ had a vision in which the dead saint had insisted on burial at Fulda. The body was duly laid to rest there. Abbot Sturm and his monks gave thanks to God. The following day Bishop Lull, ‘together with the throng of clerics and [towns] people’ who had come with him to protest, had to accept defeat and return to Mainz. When Sturm was exiled to Jumièges in Normandy, people said that Bishop Lull bribed King Pippin to place the monastery under his jurisdiction. In the end Sturm was reinstated. The controversy had temporarily sapped the energies of the community at Fulda, but it recovered and grew in numbers and wealth as noblemen competed in munificence of endowments. It was to become a premier centre of learning under Abbot Rabanus (803–40), a pupil of Alcuin.

In the opinion of one historian, the cultural contribution made to scholarship and learning in Europe by both Boniface and Alcuin may have been in part responsible for the decline of both in England. ‘Just as in Southumbrian learning one can trace a notable decline once Boniface took a whole generation of the learned aristocracy off to the Continent to convert the Germans, so too Alcuin’s departure to serve as chief adviser to Charlemagne marks a clear decline in Latin learning in the schools of Northumbria.10

Travellers and expatriates

Any study of the Anglo-Saxon intervention on the Continent, which for many of the men and women involved meant a permanent new home abroad, inevitably raises the question of why so many of them made the move. Travelling abroad for one’s health, in other words flying for one’s life into exile, was for a courtier a common hazard of existence. Eadburh, the daughter of King Offa of Mercia who married King Beorhtric of Wessex, ended her days in poverty in Pavia, we are told. In West Saxon tradition she emerges as a Lucrezia Borgia figure, manipulating court politics and disposing of rivals by poison. When the king himself fell victim to severe stomach pains, Eadburh supposedly escaped with as much of the royal treasure as she could conveniently carry and fled to the court of Charles the Great. Following a romantic episode with Charles himself and his son she once more took to the road in disgrace, heading south. Given its position on the approaches to the Alpine passes, Pavia was host to many such travellers.

But deeper motivations were at work for most of the Anglo-Saxon men and women who devoted themselves to the service of religion in the great age of the English missions. The anonymous Frankish biographer of St Lebuin (Leafwine) of Ripon, writing in the ninth century, describes England as a country ‘productive of holy men [where] one finds laymen devoted to the service of God, virgins of exceptional virtue and monks of outstanding generosity’; then he goes on to explain that many had left their own country ‘for the Lord’s sake, either to expiate their sins, or benefit pagans and Christians by their teachings’.11 In a religious age such motivations are to be expected; many also were fired by the call of Boniface to come over and help lead their cousins, ‘the Old Saxons’, into the way of heaven.

In addition to Christian altruism one is bound to suspect that for the English, then as now, simple curiosity about foreign parts was a powerful incentive. In the previous chapter we learnt something of an Anglo-Saxon view of the Middle East through the eyes of Willibald, bishop of Eichstätt, and he started life as a self-admitted travel enthusiast. Recalling his young experiences en route to the Holy Land one June day to an admiring circle in the monastery of Heidenheim, where he was presiding at the translation of his brother Wynnebald’s remains, he explained that his plans for a pilgrimage had also been devised in part as ‘a means of journeying to foreign countries that were unknown to him . . . and to find out all about them’. As he reminisced, Sister Huneberc (or Hygeburgor) of Heidenheim made notes so as to gather ‘a kind of bouquet of the virtues [of this soldier of Christ] . . . and the scenes where the marvels of [Jesus Christ] were enacted’.12

Willibald persuaded his reluctant father ‘to detach himself from the false prosperity of wealth’ to go with him. They sailed on a west wind from Hamwic ‘with a high sea running [and] the shouts of sailors and the creaking of oars’, buffeted by the wind. The father died at Lucca, where he was venerated as a saint, and his son went on to Rome where he stayed for three years before getting the itch to travel again. In the Holy Land he saw the place in the River Jordan where Jesus Christ was baptized and the very cave where Christ was entombed, with its great square stone a replica of the one the angel rolled away. Leaving the Holy Land he coolly smuggled a calabash of expensive ointment or balsam resin through the Arab customs. Before presenting it for inspection he concealed a little cylinder of petroleum so that when the officers prised open the cover they would smell only the petrol fumes. He spent two years in Constantinople; he visited Sicily, and the volcano on the isle of Vulcano, where a Gothic king had been thrown into Hell for imprisoning a pope. Unfortunately Willibald could not look down into the crater because of the mounds of black ‘tartar’ drifting like black snow, as he told Huneberc. From Sicily he travelled to Monte Cassino and lived in the monastery there for ten years. Then, at last passing through the Trentino via Lake Garda and so through Bavaria, in 740/41 he arrived at Eichstätt, where he was ordained priest by Boniface and later consecrated as bishop. The travelogue of St Willibald as written down by Huneberc, who seems to have coined its title Hodoeporicon, is one of the most intriguing documents to have survived from the Middle Ages . . . and has already detained us far too long.

In her way, the authoress is also most interesting. A contemplative rather than a traveller, she seems a measure of the quality of woman to be found in the communities founded in the wake of the Bonifacian missions to Germany. Besides the Life of Willibald (Vita S. Willibaldi), of which the Hodoeporicon is part, she did a Life of his brother St Wynnebald (d. 761). Probably a Mercian or West Saxon, she, like St Boniface himself and many English writers, modelled her style on the ornate, mannered and neologistic Latin of Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Since Huneberc may well have entered Heidenheim during the abbacy of Walburga, Wynnebald’s sister and successor, it is a pity that she did not write a biography of her.

A nun in the abbey at Wimborne, Walburga was sent to join Abbess Lioba, probably a kinswoman of hers, in Germany before taking up the position at Heidenheim that she inherited from her brother. Of the various monasteries founded by the Anglo-Saxons in Germany, Heidenheim is the only double house, for men and women. After her death in 780 this venerable abbess suffered the fate of having her memory embroiled with the pagan fertility goddess Waldborg, celebrated on 30 April, May Day Eve. Since the relics of Walburga were moved from Heidenheim to Eichstätt on May Day itself, the event came to be confused with the folklore excesses of the witches’ Sabbaths supposedly held on the Brocken in the Harz Mountains on Walpurgisnacht.

English networking in action

The career of the Frisian Ludger, who died in 809 as bishop of Münster, is a marker for English networking in the Carolingian age. Born about 744 near Utrecht, the pioneering see of the English mission, the young Ludger went to England where he studied under Alcuin at York until about the age of thirty. In 775 he was posted, presumably at Alcuin’s suggestion, to Deventer in Friesland to reinvigorate the community that had been established there by another Anglo-Saxon, Lebuin of Ripon. Later in life he established the bishopric of Münster, with its ‘minster’. Years later the memory of Alcuin’s teaching at York was still remembered with respect in the cathedral school of his old pupil.

There were family contacts that give the lie to any idea that pre-Conquest England was cut off from the Continent. As we shall see, a German churchman, Egbert of Trier, was proud to trace his ancestry back to King Ecgberht of Wessex, as was Abbess Matilda of Essen. It was for her that Ealdorman Æthelweard (d. 998), a distant kinsman, wrote his Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He recalls anecdotes about the Anglo-Saxons’ origins ‘in the forests of Germany’ to be found neither in Bede nor the Chronicle itself and wrote asking her for any information she might have about their family’s doings in Germany. Right at the end of the period (1051) the marriage of Earl Tostig of Northumbria to Judith, half-sister of the Count of Flanders, had its own cultural resonance. When, after his death at Stamford Bridge, she married Welf I of Bavaria the dynastic union opened other avenues of influence linked to the cult of St Oswald in southern Germany.

Thus, it was Oswald of Northumbria, a man who never set foot outside the British Isles, whose cult left its mark at local level on the landscape and folklore of the continent from northern Italy to Scandinavia and Iceland, from the region around Metz (now in France) through Austria and Switzerland to parts of Eastern Europe. Its spread was, in part no doubt, thanks to the wide diffusion of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, but the admiring followers of the Northumbrians Wilfrid and Willibrord could be relied upon to sing the praises of the famous saint king of old Northumbria.

Bede’s influence is to be traced in the biography of Oswald written about 1050 by the Flemish monk Drogo, though he also evidently had Continental sources to hand. In the next century the saint blossomed into a figure of romance as the eponymous hero of the ‘Oswald’ Spielmannsepike, the kind of ‘minstrel’s epic’ popular in aristocratic circles of the German empire. More than 3,500 lines long, and probably written at the imperial city of Ratisbon (modern Regensburg) during the reign of the crusader emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, the poem tells how Oswald falls in love with the daughter of a pagan king, Aron. The royal love quest involves the king’s raven, magically able to speak; an expedition of warriors all fitted out with golden crosses at the king’s expense; Oswald’s marriage; and, need one add, King Aron’s conversion to Christianity. In the tenth century the nun and playwright Hrotswitha of Gandersheim (d. 1000) wrote a book extolling the achievements of Emperor Otto I (d. 973) and claimed that his Anglo-Saxon wife Eadgyth, daughter of Edward the Elder, king of Wessex, also numbered Oswald among her ancestors. The genealogy is dubious but perhaps Hrotswitha took it for granted that any royal Englishwoman taken to wife by the German emperor must have the blood of England’s most famous saint king in her veins. (This royal biographer also wrote a number of Latin plays, which she hoped would replace the works of the pagan Terence in monasteries. They probably did since, an advocate of chastity, Hrotswitha outlined in some detail the temptations attendant upon it.)

The place to stay

In the 790s Alcuin opened the pilgrim hostel of St Judoc’s, near Quentovic, with funds provided by Charles the Great. This place, now St Josse sur Mer, near Etaples, had associations with English pilgrims since at least the days when St Boniface and his party had pitched their tents there back in the 720s. It soon became a natural rendezvous point for the English on business to the Continent. It would remain tied into a network of Anglo-Saxon/Frankish connections for generations. Alcuin was an important part of the explanation. Founder of the hostel, he was also made abbot of Ferrières by Charles the Great, where he was succeeded by one of his pupils from the York school, the Northumbrian monk Sigulf. Noted as a singer and an expert in the Roman style of plainchant,13he also developed Alcuin’s traditions of learning at Ferrières. The house reached its peak as a centre of the late Carolingian Renaissance during the abbacy of Servatus Lupus (c. 850–62), like Alcuin also abbot of St Judoc’s.

As a letter-writer Lupus prefigures aspects of Italian humanism; as a churchman he was very much involved in the correspondence networking patterns of the ecclesiastical confraternities (one might almost call them ‘prayer gilds’) introduced to the Continent from England. The house liber vitae, ‘book of life’, in which the names of departed brothers or of benefactors were inscribed so that they might be remembered in the monks’ prayers, was basic. At first little more than single-fold ‘diptyches’, over the years these expanded into sizeable volumes as individual names were added. Sometimes an entire community would ask to be remembered in the prayers of a brother house, sometimes a neighbour, sometimes someone overseas. When he had finished his lives of St Cuthbert, Bede asked the monks of Lindisfarne to record his name in the ‘album’ of their house and hence of their confraternity.

Common in early English monasticism, the ‘confraternity’ was extended into a support network and bonding in the mission field. The letters of Boniface and Alcuin contain many examples of bishops, abbots and even kings included in their prayer families. There is also an excellent letter from Æthelberht II of Kent (725–62) to Boniface in which he mentions a saintly kinswoman of his and recalls how she told him Boniface had agreed to remember her in his prayers. He then asks if the saint would do the same service for him and draws attention to a couple of extremely valuable gifts he is sending with the bearer. Only in the last paragraph does he come to the point – a request for a quite specific and very clearly described type of falcon, which he is sure the churchman should be able to find without too much difficulty.

It was no doubt through his connections with the ‘societies’ between Ferrières and York that Abbot Lupus first got wind of the famous victory of Aclea won by Æthelwulf of Wessex over the Danes in the year 851. At the time the abbot was in desperate need of lead for the roof of his abbey’s church of St Peter and was clearly well aware of the lead mines of Devon, by this time part of Wessex. He wrote to praise the king for God’s grace in granting him the victory, praises him for his fabled generosity and offers him the chance of benefiting his soul by sending a sizeable supply of roofing material. He signed off not as abbot of Ferrières but of St Judoc’s, knowing the English sentimental attachment to this saint. (In the early tenth century, when King Edward the Elder of Wessex had completed the building of his splendid New Minster at Winchester, the relics of the saint were translated there from across the Channel – as was recorded in the liber vitae of the Minster.) The links between England and the Continent forged in the era of the Anglo-Saxon missions would stretch across the centuries.

Distinguished guests expected and received distinguished treatment. On their journey to Rome in 855 the boy Prince Alfred of Wessex and the royal entourage of his father, King Æthelwulf, crossed the Channel to Quentovic where they were handsomely received at St Judoc’s; from there they were escorted to the court of Charles the Bald at Soissons. After the mandatory exchange of diplomatic gifts, their host provisioned them for the onward journey and sent them under escort to the borders of his kingdom.14From there the way was through the lands of Charles’s older brother, Emperor Lothar. The well-mounted column with its escort of household warriors passed unmolested along roads where bandits would pick off less well-protected travellers. It would have been well worth their attentions. Æthelwulf’s treasure-house of gifts to St Peter included the sword of a warrior inlaid with gold and a crown of pure gold, four pounds in weight. Fortunately the successors to the Fisherman of Galilee have never had trouble in accommodating such largesse. The populace in general, cleric and lay, were treated to a distribution of gold and silver. Great men liked to make their mark at Rome and one imagines the West Saxon monarch succeeded.

Alcuin and his circle

From the year he joined the Frankish royal court, when he was about fifty, Alcuin passed much of the last twenty-two years of his life on the Continent. His advice was sought by both Frankish and Mercian churchmen. He was in England in 786, the year of church Councils in both Northumbria and Mercia, and again in Northumbria from 790 to 793.15 Back with the Carolingian court, at Frankfurt, in the following year, he kept in touch with news from home. For example, a little later we find him writing of the affront offered to God by King Eardwulf (‘the tyrant’), who is reported to have put away his wife and be living openly with his concubine. Considering that Charlemagne had repudiated a wife and kept six concubines, this seems a bit harsh on Eardwulf!16

Alcuin’s was not an original mind (he adopted ‘Albinus’, from a second-century AD Greek summarizer of Plato, as his nickname); in fact Latin grammar was his chief expertise. But this suited the times. Charles was less interested in thinkers who could open new directions in philosophy, than scholars who could help run his programme for the revival and consolidation of classical learning. A master of Latin literature and correct written Latin he was ideally qualified for a top position at the palace school, ‘which soon became known as ‘the School of Master Albinus’. Since Alcuin was also a noted authority on orthodox Roman theology and church liturgy he possessed key skills, given that Rome was keenly interested in Charles’s plans in education and church organization – a continuation of the work of Alcuin’s English predecessors.

Familiar with the conventions of courtly manners from childhood, Alcuin had quickly found himself at home in the palace school of the Frankish king. The king’s consort, together with their sons Charles, aged ten at Alcuin’s arrival, Pippin, five years old, and Louis, attended a class made up of sons of the nobility, sent by their fathers at the king’s request, and sometimes the fathers themselves. Charles himself never learnt to read or write but he did attend class when he could – we know that he heard the lessons (that is, lectiones or ‘readings’) given by the Italian grammarian Peter of Pisa.

The Frankish court at this time, disdained as a semi-barbarian encampment by the opulent sophisticates at imperial Constantinople, was a remarkable experiment in terms of European cultural history. Charles, whose domains embraced much of the former Roman Empire in Europe, recruited an array of scholars, poets and theologians of diverse ethnic origins to a grand cultural project for the revival of Latin and ancient learning: as well as Alcuin, there were Italians, including Paulinus of Aquileia, the Spanish-born Theodulph, an ethnic Visigoth and the noted Lombard grammarian Paul the Deacon.

Following his conquest of the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy in 774, Charles had been troubled by a short-lived rebellion, in which Paul and his brother, noblemen from Friuli and members of the court at Pavia had been leading spirits. Subject at first to an elegant form of house arrest at Charles’s court, Paul had eventually returned to Italy in the late 780s and settled into retirement at Monte Cassino where he devoted himself to his Historia Langobardorum (‘History of the Lombards’), working on it up to his death in 799. The idea for the work could have been sparked by a conversation or in correspondence with Alcuin, or by a reading of Bede’s History, which was widely diffused on the Continent. Certainly his book ‘accomplished for the Lombards what Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica had done for the English, by giving literary expression to a sense of national identity’.17

The Carolingian court was a world of nicknames, puckishly distributed by Alcuin to royals and former pupils, all friends. Some seem obvious enough, like Candidus (Latin, ‘white’) for his English pupil and helper Hwita, who first came to the Continent around 793, or Columba (Latin, ‘the dove’) for the king’s delightful young daughter Rotruda; others were not so immediately obvious, such as his own of ‘Albinus’ or ‘Lucia’ for Charles’s sister Princess Gisela, abbess of Chelles. One would like to have known Fredegisus, one of his pupils who later joined the teaching staff and kept the Alcuin tradition alive in France, and was surely an impulsive individual: Alcuin always called him ‘Nathaniel’, the name of the disciple of whom Jesus once said, ‘we have here a man without guile.’ Angilbert, the young Frankish nobleman who passed through the palace school on his way to a distinguished career in the royal administration, was honoured as ‘Homer’ for his epic poem on the historic meeting between Charles and Pope Leo III. Arno, archbishop of Salzburg and ‘my dearest and closest friend’, was playfully dubbed the ‘Overseer Eagle’, a typical Alcuin pun, in fact a double pun. Like the Latin sourced ‘super visor’, the Greek word ‘episkopos’ from which the Old English biscop or bishop ultimately derives, literally means ‘over seer’, in the sense of ‘superintendent’, while the archbishop’s name was too close to the Old English earn, ‘eagle’ (modern English, erne) for his old friend to resist the wordplay. The image of the great lord of the air, high above the Salzach river plain, eyes peeled ready to swoop on any wrongdoer or malingerer in the cathedral’s business, leaps off the page.

Playful and urbane, Alcuin’s joshing of his colleagues can mislead us – they were not schoolboys but men of parts and in some cases of importance in the cultural evolution of Europe. These nicknames, though, are frequently cited between the 790s and the 810s in the documentary sources of the Carolingian Renaissance. Asking why it should have been Alcuin in particular who distributed these names, Mary Garrison suggested that it was his ambivalent position at court, as one of authority though not of the establishment, that gave him a reserved status, rather as in certain tribal societies artists and shamans, although not elders, are accorded the respect associated with witchcraft.18 (It is surely intriguing in this context that in a 1990s French television dramatized series on the world of Charlemagne, Alcuin is featured in passing as a kind of Merlin figure encountered by Charlemagne in a woodland chapel.)

The ‘Circle of Alcuin’ radiated its influence through Europe to Fulda and, later, to the great Irish-born philosopher John Scotus Erigena at the court of Charles the Bald and to the school of Auxerre in the early 900s. An important text from the period dealing with philosophy and logic, and known to scholars as ‘the Munich passages’, was very probably the work of ‘Candidus’; if true, it has been claimed this would make him the outstanding philosopher of his generation.19

Everyone around the court knew that the king was nicknamed ‘David’, after the great king of Israel, warrior and poet, reputed author of the Psalms. Charles’s (dictated) letters reveal a sharp mind keen to debate serious issues and happy to correct textual faults in material sent to him. The year before Charles was to be crowned emperor by the pope, Alcuin wrote to ‘the most religious . . . King David’ and, among other things, thanks him ‘for having the book which I sent on your instructions read in your hearing and its errors noted and sent back for correction’. Another letter, from the king’s ‘old soldier’ – Alcuin was in his late sixties at the time – shows that the king’s thirst for learning could, at times, be rather trying. ‘A runner has just arrived with a sheet of questions urging this weak-witted old man to examine the heavens . . . to expound the erratic courses of the planets.’ Protesting that the movement of the planets through the zodiac is not really his subject, he at first suggests Charles refer to the writings of Bede, ‘the educator of our Land’, or Pliny the Younger, before relenting and agreeing that if he can be sent a copy of Pliny he’ll prepare some replies. We are left to guess as to what made the planetary movements of such pressing importance to Charles at this time, but it is entirely in keeping with what we know of that great man that he should send an express messenger to get the answer.

For more than twenty years York scholar and Frankish monarch were in regular contact, often by letter. More than 300 of Alcuin’s letters survive (more than for any other Englishman of the Middle Ages, even Boniface). Since Alcuin often travelled with the peripatetic court and even once followed the king on campaign, their relations were generally close and, for the times, informal. But on those rare occasions when Alcuin felt he must question royal policy, he was careful to use the greatest formalities of address: ‘To Charles, King of Germany, Gaul and Italy, the most excellent and devout lord’, runs the opening of a strong critique on the question of tithes. This ten per cent charge, levied on agricultural produce and income for the good of the church and clergy, was resented even in well-established Christian communities. When Charles imposed it on newly conquered territories and recent converts, Alcuin feared that resentment could threaten rebellion and apostasy. He urged the king to forego the levy: it was better to lose the tithe than endanger the Faith.

News of the sack of Lindisfarne in June 793 prompted a long letter from Alcuin to Æthelred of Northumbria. He bemoans the desecration of St Cuthbert’s church, the spattered blood of its priests and the plunder taken by the pagans. But he writes more in anger than in sorrow about what he calls the worst atrocity since the English arrived in Britain nearly three hundred and fifty years earlier (clearly he accepts Bede’s date for the adventus saxonum of AD 449). In a Jeremiad that warns of worse to come if ways are not mended, he inveighs against ‘fornication, adultery and incest . . . even among nuns’, against ‘greed, robbery and judicial violence’, against luxurious dress and against the fashion for pagan hair style and beard trims.

It appears that some clerics were so unprincipled as to hunt mammals with dogs! Soon after his elevation as archbishop of York, Eanbald, a pupil of Alcuin’s, received a letter of exhortation that would have earned the moral approval of today’s House of Commons. ‘Let not your companions’, he writes, ‘gallop hallooing across the fields after foxes’; while elsewhere he deplores the frivolous novices at Jarrow who, he hears, prefer to dig out foxes’ earths and go hare coursing rather than worship Christ.20 Alcuin, who like Boniface had heard reports of drunkenness among English monks, urges sobriety. Elsewhere a telling aside reveals that, while regulations as to the correct vestments for the religious offices might be disregarded, people scrupulously observed due order ‘of age and rank’ at the refectory dinner table. It is another reminder that the ranks of English monastic life were well staffed with members of the upper social classes.

As to the actual conduct of the service in the chapel, he has much to say on music. First and foremost it should be sung according to the Roman rite. He, like his English predecessors in Europe, insisted on it. After his death, a cleric at the church of Metz remembered how as a boy Alcuin, ‘the wisest teacher of our whole country’, had taught his class the Roman (presumably Gregorian) chant. The boys would also have been told to sing in a disciplined manner, neither florid nor overloud, since Alcuin, like many another churchman, reckoned singers were all too ready to show off.

Teacher and scholar

Alcuin was one of the regular intimates participating in word games and verse exchanges at court, drafting correspondence for the king-emperor and taking a leading part in a public theological debate before Charles with a team of Spanish bishops. At this time, too, work began on assembling definitive written texts of the courses he had been teaching at the palace school for years, and much else beside.

He wrote guides to orthography, grammar and rhetoric as well as aspects of astronomy, was passionate about punctuation and prolific in writing analyses of biblical texts. He set new standards for accuracy in the copying of texts in the scriptorium It has even been suggested that his meticulous rules for the pronunciation of Latin (in his Dialogus de Rhetorica) may have influenced the direction of the emerging French language.21 In the Romance-speaking areas of Europe, where Latin was evolving into the modern languages of French, Italian, Spanish and so forth, bad pronunciation, grammatical irregularities and slang idioms (‘vulgarisms’) were slipping into acceptability as ‘Latin’. Alcuin’s passion for rhetoric led him to one important and original development – the treatise addressed to the ruler linking rhetoric with the business of ruling. He was convinced that eloquence of speech was a tool by which the ruler could persuade men to do what was just and good. His treatise to Charles the Great on this theme was the first of many such works by scholars at courts of the Carolingian age.

Towards the end of his career Alcuin seems to have provoked jealousy among colleagues. In a letter to his community in York in 795 we find Alcuin protesting that he did not go to Francia ‘for love of gold’ but for the ‘strengthening of catholic doctrine’. He did pretty well nevertheless. The revenues of no fewer than three religious houses (Ferrières, Maastricht and Troyes) were awarded to him, while the appointment as abbot of the immensely rich monastery of St Martin’s at Tours meant a comfortable, if busy, life. In office there for just eight years and in the declining years of his life, he strengthened the place’s reputation as a seat of learning, stocking the library with copies of ‘rare learned books which I had in my own land’ (that is, Northumbria). He writes to the emperor that everything he needs can be supplied from York and asks Charles to pay the expense of sending students north to ‘bring back the flowers of Britannia to Gaul . . . so that the garden of York may supply off-shoots of paradise-bearing fruit’, intended for what Alcuin called elsewhere the smoky roofs of Tours.

During the seemingly placid career of a scholar, Alcuin had risen to a position of eminence in the business of state and influence over many of his fellow human beings: the head of religious houses, adviser to a king-emperor, and director of programmes and cultural institutions such as the schools of those houses. Writing in his The Carolingian Empire (Oxford, 1957), the German scholar H. Fichtenau commented that ‘Alcuin had crossed the English Channel with a single companion. In the end he was lord of many thousand human beings.’

In April 799 the new pope, Leo III, who had created Charles ‘Patrician of the Romans’, had been forced by opponents who accused him of misdemeanours to flee the Holy City and seek Charles’s protection. In November 799 a commission appointed by Charles restored the pope at Rome. In April 800 the king visited Alcuin at Tours. We do not know what they discussed. Then in the autumn he went to Rome in person to ‘restore the state of the church’. It seems that at this time Charles may have been planning to assume the title of ‘emperor’ in the sense of ‘a streamlined king who ruled over several nations’.22 On Christmas Day of that year, 800, however, at mass in St Peter’s, as he rose from his knees, it was to find Leo placing a crown upon his head and the crowd hailing him as ‘Emperor of the Romans’. One assumes that Alcuin, a good churchman, approved the honour done to King ‘David’; the recipient may have been less pleased.

Viking raids were to destroy much of the complex at Tours, including Alcuin’s tomb and epitaph, yet the cathedral school was one of Europe’s leading educational centres before the advent of universities in the twelfth century. As Louise Cochrane observed in her book Adelard of Bath: The First English Scientist, ‘The development of the cathedral schools in Europe, stem[med] from that founded for Charlemagne by Alcuin of York at Tours and a later one by Fulbert at Chartres.’23

As he got older, Alcuin was subject to recurrent fits of illness, malaria has been suggested, and he may also have been troubled by a cataract. But he kept hard at work. In 800 he writes that the king, soon to be emperor, has charged him with a revision of the Old and New Testaments – in other words he was working on the text of St Jerome’s Latin Bible known as the Vulgate, completed some 300 years earlier. Over the centuries the text had become corrupt thanks to copyists’ errors and confusion over other old Latin versions. A major casualty had been punctuation, ‘which greatly improves the style of a sentence’ and, in Alcuin’s opinion, was as much in need of restoration as was fine scholarship and fine learning.

The scriptorium at Tours was kept busy multiplying copies of the new Bible under Alcuin’s supervision (it seems to have reached England by the 820s). They surely followed the injunctions of the ‘General admonition’ (Admonitio generalis) issued by Charles in 789 for the better ordering of church and society within his dominions. The imprint of Alcuin’s concepts is to be found everywhere in the document, both in language and in content.24 Typical is the instruction that when a new Gospel or service book is to be copied, the work must be entrusted to a trained man not a boy. The copyists wrote in the elegant and highly legible ‘Carolingian miniscule’ lettering, which would provide the model for some of the finest early printing types centuries later. Alcuin was responsible for the beautiful book design and reader-friendly page layout and ensured the distribution of the copies to monasteries and cathedral churches throughout the Frankish empire.

Among Alcuin’s students were two young Germans, Einhard (770–840), the future biographer of Charles the Great, and Rabanus, a decade his junior. Aged nine, Einhard had entered the school at Fulda, founded by Boniface; in 791 he graduated, so to speak, to the palace school where Alcuin, its most prominent teacher, numbered the king and his family as well as young courtiers among his pupils. In later life Einhard recalled the great teacher as ‘a man most learned in every field’.25 Thus one of the most celebrated figures of the Carolingian Renaissance followed his entire educational career in establishments either inspired by the ideals of an English founder or conducted under the aegis of an English teacher. It is generally supposed that when the Welsh bishop Asser came to write his biography of King Alfred of Wessex he may have taken the idea for writing a biography of his royal master from Einhard’s book on Charles the Great. This would hardly be surprising, since both were in that wide circle of cultural exchange initiated by the English missions to the Continent.

Yet more important was Alcuin’s influence on Rabanus (also Hrabanus, c. 780–856), born at Mainz when Boniface’s English successor, Lull, was still bishop. Nicknamed ‘Maurus’ by Alcuin, after a disciple of St Benedict, he was trained at Fulda before being sent by the abbot to spend a year or two at Tours under Alcuin. He was then appointed director of the monastic school at Fulda. Under him ‘the Tours of the North’ became the leading centre of learning in the German world. The English tradition is apparent. Like Alcuin’s beloved York, Fulda’s library amassed a treasury of books. Like Alcuin, Rabanus was a prolific if unoriginal author and his book on grammar draws heavily on Priscian, Alcuin and Bede. In another important way, the cultivation of the vernacular, Rabanus, remembered as praeceptor Germaniae (‘Teacher of Germany’), may also have been inspired by English precepts. By a decree of 748 Boniface had insisted that priests should ‘require from persons presenting themselves for baptism an affirmation of Faith and Renunciation of the Devil in their mother-tongue’.26 With the endorsement of Charles the Great, the German church made use of the vernacular in parts of the church liturgy.

The time that Rabanus was at Fulda (803–40) saw the creation of the long religious epic Der Heliand (‘The Saviour’), written in Old Saxon by a poet possibly trained at Fulda. Since it is a retelling of the Gospel story, it is not a Germanic epic as such but it depicts the history of Jesus Christ in terms that would have been familiar to its target audience, the Old Saxons, and indeed to any Anglo-Saxon expatriates still to be found in the German religious world. This Jesus is a warrior king, a ring-giver (bôggeðo), and his disciples or ‘theganos’ owe him the full allegiance until death due to a lord: in short, a Jesus from the world of Beowulf.

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