Alcuin’s Educational Reform in 8th Century Europe

by Alexander Rumann

As a result of barbarian attacks on the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Europe was in chaos and confusion. This led to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, controlled by the Catholic Christian church. Education at this time was nearly nonexistent and was only in the scholastic form in monasteries with monks copying texts. Most of the learning toward the 8th century was focused on Biblical texts or written works of the members of the church that were related to the Bible. The monasteries copied texts from early Greek and Roman literature but only those which they found interesting and most important, so limited topics were kept. Education overall at this time was in a sorry state, as most did not obtain any at all and what they did receive was very constricted to focus on the Bible. Literature that had been easily accessible in the early Roman Empire had been isolated to libraries in cathedrals and monasteries. Due to the lack of access to literature and education most of Europe’s population was illiterate. The church at this time believed that most of the teachings on secular subjects were a sin against God and was therefore not taught. Those that received an education were those who were wealthy and being groomed for a career in the church. There were those that came along who wished to change education and made huge contributions not only to the church but to society as a whole, one of these people is Alcuin of York. Alcuin of York built the foundation of which the revival and reform of education in Europe was built upon in the centuries to come. This education reform was backed by Charlemagne who was successfully keeping the barbarians of Europe at bay in his military campaigns, which allowed Alcuin to carry out his efforts to change education of the known kingdom.

Education in the arts and philosophy were studied to help further understanding of the Bible but for only that purpose. Liberal arts that were studied for the sake of interest alone and apart from biblical understanding were considered heresy and people were put to the death or banished for such actions. The arts of Greek and earlier Roman culture were considered to be pagan learning and seen by the church as ineffectual and immoral. In the 5th Century liberal arts were viewed as suitable studies for Christians due to the necessity of understanding scriptures in a clearer way. Augustine considered the liberal arts to be grammar, music, dialectics, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, and philosophy (West, pg. 10, 12, 14, 15). The culture of this time revolves around God and learning about God in a scholastic setting. Learning was limited to only that which would further ones knowledge of biblical scriptures and understanding of those scriptures.

Alcuin was born sometime between the years of 730 and 740 CE in Northumbria, England which is close to York (Plater). He came from a modest family of nobility from York and went to the cathedral school there. While at school he was taught by Egbert who was a student of the Venerable Bede. He remained at the cathedral school in York where he became the master at the death of Egbert in 766. Alcuin became a deacon of the church and officially held the office of scholasticus teaching young boys to be leaders of the church. Through his works as an educator he became the most well known master in Britain (West 31, 34, and 38). Alcuin quickly became a reputable teacher of adolescents in Britain despite that in the late 760’s the area was violent and unstable due to the attacks of the barbarian tribes of the Anglo-Saxons (Bullough 137). In the year 780 Alcuin was given charge of the most famous cathedral library in Britain. Despite his duties he took many trips to Rome, either for personal reasons or he was sent there to retrieve documents from the Pope, where he met influential people such as Charles the Great in 781. He was called by Charles the Great to go to Frankland to head the teaching at the chapel in the palace (West 34). Aside from the vast amounts of educational reforms that Alcuin made he also made a very large contribution in literature. He wrote numerous letters back and forth to very well known people of the Empire such as the Pope and Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne and various priests and bishops throughout the kingdom. He also wrote many theological treatises and Biblical commentaries which were very common for scholars of that time. In addition he wrote books on dialectic and rhetoric works that he shared in his lessons with Charlemagne. He also produced textbooks that could be used by schools around Europe for their curriculum. Although it is less noted, and it was considered unimportant to any except traders who needed basic accounting skills, Alcuin also wrote a text book on arithmetic that was comprised of fifty three word problems (Sunshine). He left immense amounts of comprehensive works of books on liberal arts from the earlier Roman Empire that were mostly lost, dialectics, rhetoric and dialogues that he stored in the library at Saint Martin’s that were used for teaching in his school (Pedersen 75).

Around the year 782 Alcuin left England to start educating at the palace of Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, at Aachen (West 39). He was given charge of educating the administrators of the kingdom but he was most famous for teaching Charlemagne himself. He also taught Charlemagne’s children and the clergy of the chapel at the palace in France (Sunshine). Alcuin was given a difficult task of tutoring not only the young royalty in the palace but also the elders there as well. He had to find a way to interest a broad range of ages to keep order in his classes. He covered what was considered the liberal arts starting with the basics of grammar and moving to arithmetic and then dialectic and rhetoric. The palace soon became the only centre for higher studies in the kingdom (West 45). Alcuin became the trusted advisor to Charlemagne and together they would set up schools all around the Frank kingdom in the cathedrals and monasteries. The palace schools that Alcuin started would only last a few generations however the schools he set up in monasteries and cathedrals would later be the main front for educational revival in Europe. As Charlemagne’s advisor, Alcuin convinced Charlemagne to stop the forced baptism of the barbarians and made a convincing point to the king that Christianity can only be chosen not forced upon the people of his kingdom, faith is not something that can be coerced (Sunshine). Charles did not want to be the king of a barbarian and illiterate kingdom so he sought to educate his kingdom and install Christian ideals in his people with the help of Alcuin. Alcuin was an indispensible asset and advisor to the king during this time. Alcuin and Charlemagne together set up schools around the kingdom to advance the church. Schools were set in cathedrals, monastic settings and eventually in villages. The cathedral and monastic schools were to educate at an elementary level and in some case there was superior learning. In local villages education was at the elementary level and didn’t advance past that (West 48, 56). This was by far better than what education was in up to the early 9th century when there were a very few that were educated and even those that were educated were only educated enough so they could read and write adequately to copy old books or scrolls. Alcuin had taken the palace school and built it up into the finest institution in the kingdom which was the center for culture and an undeveloped academy. In the short amount of time that Alcuin spent at the palace school he made a huge impact on academics with the works that he did and the ideals that he instilled there. Alcuin strove to encourage learning to be more tolerant of the liberally scholastic tradition of earlier Rome and Greece (Pederen 75). Alcuin believed in a standardization of the curriculum used in schools and he strove to provide those standard versions by studying the available copies and he would select the best document or documents that he found for the master copy. Then all copies were made from the master copies of these texts he found and these became in a sense textbooks for use in schools. These textbooks that Alcuin had created were then in a standard version of the texts that were easily copied, before that was a lot of variation in copied texts but Alcuin eliminated a large portion of this error (Sunshine). Along with creating these textbooks Alcuin would go through the libraries and collect large amounts of books and other works of literature and he would collect excerpts from the texts that he would spend a great amount of time reading and sometimes complete works as well. These works that he found had been neglected for centuries would then become extremely useful as textbooks (Bullough 138). Among many other things Alcuin had a doctrine of separating liberal literature and Christian morals. He believed that learning should not be limited to the sole purpose of advancing ones knowledge of biblical text. Previously the church had frowned upon knowledge for the only purpose of educating one’s self and Alcuin strove to present this as an acceptable thing to do (Bolton 17). The idea that education and the church should be apart was an idea that he founded his teachings on and applied them wherever he went. In gaining knowledge through the process of education he found he saw that virtue, truth and learning had an independent value that the church and Christianity must come to respect if the kingdom was to survive (Pedersen 76). Alcuin and Charlemagne organized three levels of education in the empire: the “university” which was the palace school and stood at the top of the hierarchy of schools, secondary schools found in a select few monasteries and cathedral schools, and then the primary schools which were at every level at the cathedrals, monasteries and also the village schools throughout Europe. Primary education was the only material covered in the village schools (West 58). This hierarchy of schooling is the progression of education that is found in the modern era. Even though the teachings at different levels education varies, the progression through primary, secondary, then the university is still how things are today. This is the system that was set in place by Alcuin and his followers with the help of Charlemagne.

After eight arduous years at the palace Alcuin reluctantly took up the position in Tours, France as an abbot at the abbey of Saint Martin’s. Even though Alcuin was reluctant to take the post as abbot he did some of his greatest work at St. Martin’s. He set up a large library with the textbooks he had put together along with other literature from centuries before. Along with the library Alcuin set up a scriptorium where he trained scribes to accurately copy texts that were used in schools throughout the kingdom. Through these courses that Alcuin was setting up the monastery of St. Martins became tremendously prosperous and eventually turned into the most noteworthy centre of learning of the age (Pedersen 75). Alcuin had reached his 60th year of life in 792 and wished to retire to a quiet monastery in Fulda but Charles ignored his request and made him Abbot of the abbey, St. Martin in Tours. Alcuin wished to return to his home town of York but when he returned on a short vacation found it in a sad state and the ruler was very cruel and unjust. He returned to the palace for a short while where he came up with several treatises before becoming the abbot. Apart from the learning in Alcuin’s monastery, there was a monastic revival that had to take place because of the loose morals of the monks and the lack of discipline they showed to their vows. Alcuin brought in monks from other parts of the kingdom to help with this revival of Benedictine order. Alcuin saw that the educational system he set up in Northumbria was falling apart and that the system in Frankland would not always be protected by a powerful ruler like Charles and he feared that his teachings would disappear. He devoted the last years of his life in an effort to train his pupils to carry on his teachings and instill in them the dedication to learning and education that he himself had. Alcuin set up the same educational structure that he did at York and the palace. He teaches the younger boy’s grammar and the older students he teaches scriptures and ancient disciplines, liberal arts, and astronomy. He had now planted the same three schools at York, the palace and now Tours. Although Alcuin was continuing to educate at Tours he felt that he was inadequately supplied with books and sent a request to the king to have monks sent to York to retrieve his library. Alcuin writes “I, your servant, lack the rarer books of scholastic erudition which I had in my own country through the devoted industry of my master, Egbert, and by my own labors” (West 63-67).

The monastic schools alienated themselves from the cathedral schools, even with the bishops having jurisdiction over the monks. Along with the constant conflicts that were going on between the bishops and monks there was a split in the monastic schools. There were the interior schools and exterior schools. Interior schools focused on only training boys who were given to the monasteries for a life as a monk. The exterior schools were to train boys to become priests of the church and also for those who were intended for secular professions. Both of the interior and exterior schools gave a gratuitous instruction. The monastic schools were extremely strict and flourished more than the cathedral schools even though the education received was not that much different between cathedral and monastic schools. Whether in the monastic or cathedral schools education started with the basics of reading and writing which were the most essential and rudimentary skills. Students would then proceed to grammar, which was crucial in understanding the scriptures and therefore the most time was devoted to grammar. Along with grammar, reading and writing there was also sometimes dialectic and rhetoric, past this there was nothing further in education except in a few monasteries. In all the schools the study of the Holy Scriptures was of the upmost important and was studied in great detail at the cathedral and monastery schools and was only viewed at the most basic level in the village schools. In the village schools the only important aspects of the bible they were expected to learn was the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a few of the psalms (West 58).

While in Tours, Alcuin spent most of the last 8 years of his life corresponding with kings and leaders of the kingdom, over 300 letters about education. Alcuin’s main concern with not only educating the youth that were in attendance at his school at the time but also for future generations after he was gone. He strove to not only educate men that were to be priests and monks but also those that were to someday become teachers that would rise up and take his place one day. Alcuin found out in the year 796 that one of his former pupils had been elevated to archbishop of York. He rejoiced that he was privileged to have taught someone that has reached such a high honor. He then proceeded to help the archbishop by giving him advice on how to run the schools of York, telling him to separate students into classes of those who study books, those who practice music and those who transcribe. Alcuin also writes to his old pupil about assigning a master to each subject in order to keep the boys from getting unruly (West 76).

Alcuin’s life was spent making dramatic changes to academics. He dedicated his life to educating an illiterate country that desperately needed instruction. With the help of King Charles the Great they revolutionized education. Alcuin set up three institutions that all instilled the same ideals of education. The school in York is what put Alcuin on the map and got him recognized as an extraordinary teacher and sought after by Charles the Great. The two other institutions at the palace and later in Tours were just as great as the school in York and paved the way for education in the centuries to come in Europe. Alcuin’s school at the palace of Charles was considered a university at the time; although it is not what we would consider a university today. The revolution that Alcuin started with his educational reforms in the late 8th century would be a small stepping-stone to what would later become the first recognizable universities. The simple changes that Alcuin made and the fact that he reintroduced the liberal arts from the earlier Roman Empire caused a huge change in the literacy of Europe. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was in a state of barbarianism that was spiraling down. The leaders of the time were only focused on scholastic learning of biblical texts and only certain people were allowed to go through extensive learning. The empire hung by a thread and if not for the changes that Alcuin made and the works he contributed the empire might have fallen due to its illiteracy. Alcuin laid the foundation for what would later become the university through his works in education.



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Sunshine, Glenn. “Alcuin of York.” Christians Who Changed Their World. (2011): n. page. Web. 21 Jan. 2012.