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.



Bolton, W. F. Alcuin and Beowulf. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1978. Print.

Bullough, Donald. Charlemagne: Empire and Society. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005. 137-138. Print.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Plater, Ormonde. “Alcuin of York.” Through the Dust. N.p., 19 May 2008. Web. 22 Jan 2012..

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

The Relationship of Christianity and Scholasticism During The Middle Ages

by Elizabeth Anne Rathburn

The era of Scholasticism was not merely the narrow-minded and constricting form of education many modern scholars had deemed rank with intellectual stagnation. The overall concept of Scholasticism cannot be understood outside of its historical context. The Scholastic movement began as a response to the bitter turmoil of the Dark Ages, and at its peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries culminated into a well-refined method of critical thought. Scholasticism can be thought of as the intellectual refinement of the knowledge available to scholars of the Middle Ages. While the Middle Ages were not a time of great intellectual growth, it ensured that Europe would never again see a time of complete intellectual stand still. In relation to scholasticism’s historical context, the Middle Ages cannot be understood without the recognition of the dominating force of Christianity through out all of European society. The scholastic movement was seeded within, and grew with the progression of the Roman Catholic Church: its primary cultivators. The Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church became the initial authors of scholastic thought by creating harmony between the contrasting viewpoints of philosophy and theology. The works of saints became the texts, which the schoolmen of the monastic and cathedral schools committed to memory. As a result, the growth of Christianity and Education coincided with one another through out the span of Medieval Europe. The intellectual thought of the Middle Ages was highlighted by the symbiotic relationship formed between Scholasticism and Christianity, resulting in a fixed and formal system of education, and the preservation of religious, classical and antiquity works, which together, carved the intellectual path into the European Renaissance.

While the scholastic movement did not consist of new intellectual developments, it did serve the purpose of an intellectual awakening. This period of education and intellectual thought would serve as the foreground for the development of higher education. Scholasticism began in the Christian monasteries with the accumulation of knowledge, these monasteries would later transform into universities. The rise of universities however, began towards the end of scholasticism’s reign; as so, this discussion will stay within the confines of the development of the monastic and cathedral schools. In its broadest framework, scholasticism developed within the Church. Due to the meager intellectual material available, “the limited learning of the times arranged into a systemized form largely on the deductive basis of the Aristotelian logic” (Graves 51). Because of the power wielded by the Church, all subject matter, whether religious or secular, was approached through a highly theological perspective. Medieval thought from the ninth to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was dominated by this ideal, and thus was taught within the schools of the Church, thereby solidifying the methods of scholasticism. Scholasticism was indeed, “the peculiar methods and tendencies of philosophic speculation that arose within the Church”. The term scholasticism was derived from ‘doctor scholasticus’, the term used for the authorized teachers in the monastic schools (Graves 50). From the very beginning of monastic education in the Middle Ages, scholasticism and Christianity were intertwined, influencing those who sought higher intellect within its schools. Both the Christian religion and scholastic method were the basis of a schoolman’s learning. It became a young scholar’s goal through scholastic deduction and argumentation, to show how doctrines, “were consistent with each other and in accordance with reason” (Graves 51). Even with its apparent flaws, such as its characteristic narrowed scope, the greatest aim of scholasticism was to equip a student with the dialectic and intellectual discipline that enabled an individual to be keen and well versed in knowledge of the time.

Medieval education in Europe began with the development of the monastic and episcopal schools, and thus is where the origin of scholasticism is found. The establishment of monasteries, “rose from a protest against vice and corruption, and pointed the way to a deeper religion and nobler life” (Graves 21). Based upon the Benedictine code, the primary purpose of monastic education was the discipline and repression of the body, and gave great prominence to doctrines of labor and systematic reading. It was through the daily devotion of reading that literacy began its revival in Europe (Graves 10). Small isolated communities formed around monasteries, creating a reserved educated culture, whose knowledge would soon spread with the growing influence and strength of the Church. Monks within these communities created the demand for manuscripts and the reproductions of the text. As a result monasteries became precious depositories, providing the preservation of ancient literature and learning. As monastic life grew, so did the interest and care of ancient manuscripts increase, and the demand for duplicates of the sacred writings resulted in the addition of the scriptorium, a room reserved for the copying of texts. Thus the preservation of texts became the primary source of labor in monastic life.

While the copying of sacred texts were in primary regard to the neatness of lines and careful ornamentation, monks gained both intellectual and moral influences from the content of their work. Not only did the text strengthen an understanding of language, reading, and writing, but also monks began to make their own personal connections to the religious topics. As a result monks became authors concerning mainly religious topics such as, “commentaries upon the Scriptures or the Christian Fathers, The Lives of Saints, and the sermons or moral tales” (Graves 12). These writings indicated the first instances of the rudimentary characteristics of scholastic thought/education. The monks and schoolmen of the monasteries began what would be a strong emphasis on the extension of knowledge through dialectical reasoning. What began in the writings of monks was the method of critical thought that would dominate the teachings of Medieval Europe.

A greater understanding of the relations between the Christian faith and the scholastic method can be seen within the influential writings of medieval monks. Their works solidified both the understanding of the doctrines of Christianity and the growth of the critical intellectual thinking characteristic of scholasticism. One such Benedictine monk was St. Anselm of Bec (1033-1109), whose writings, consistent with the methods of scholasticism, contributed greatly to the understanding of the intricacies of the Christian faith. Remember that scholasticism combined, “philosophy, seen as the autonomous operation of reason, and theology, where certitude of the conclusions is based on the principles of faith” (Vignaux 35). This concept was considered an idea under the generalized term of philosophical theology. With the growing influence of secular works through out the middle ages, monks such as Anselm supported the Christian dogma through the elimination of contradictions by intense dialectical analysis. Anselm believed in the accord of reason with dogma, but held that faith must precede knowledge as he once said, “The Christian ought to advance to knowledge through faith, not come to faith through knowledge” (Graves 51). Anselm spent much time in making clear various Christian dogmas such as the Trinity, becoming the most influential/famous to future scholars in his ‘ontological’ argument for the existence of God (Graves 51-52). Adhering to scholasticism, Anselm didn’t seek to discover new truth, but sought to define a clearer concept of his existing beliefs through reason. Reason came through the comparison of works such as his De veritate, what would be considered philosophical, to the Holy Scripture (Vignaux 35). Luscombe supports this idea, for in his perspective Anselm, “sought to explore his existing beliefs with the instrument of reason – and not with this alone for prayer was used as well – and with the aim of bringing out and elucidating the meaning, the implications, and also the truth and the plausibility of Scripture and of revealed truth” (44). Anselm’s work, like many other scholastics, furthered the complex understanding of traditional doctrines. The most significant characteristics of Anselm’s arguments were that while they were purely arguments of Christian faith, they also proceeded as arguments of logic and reason.

While the monastic schools established small communities of education, it was not until the establishment of Abbey and Cathedral schools that learning became widespread. It was through the relationship between education and the Roman Catholic Church that scholasticism became well established during the Middle Ages. This progression took form during a short period within the Middle Ages called the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian dynasty arose out of a period of time reflecting political disintegration. One of the more prominent figures of this era known as Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (742-814), who utilized his power given to him by the Pope over the united Frankish state to ensure a genuine unity of his people (Pedersen 72). Charlemagne, having been taught by monks and thus receiving some formal education recognized that the unity of his people, “could be brought about only through the inner life by means of a common language, culture, and ideas”, and so a revival of learning was deemed necessary (Graves 27). Historically during the end of the eighth century, there existed a lack in education found within not only the officials of the Church, but also the ‘secular’ clergy and nobility. The monastic and cathedral schools had become sadly stagnant in manuscript and intellect production. This case was proven through Charlemagne’s letter to the Abbot of Fulda, in which he states,

We have frequently received letters from monks and in them have recognized correct sentiments, but an uncouth style and language. The sentiments inspired in them by their devotion to us they could not express correctly, because they had neglected the study of language. Therefore, we have begun to fear lest, just as the monks appear to have lost the art of writing, so also they may have lost the ability to understand the Holy Scriptures; and we all know that, though mistakes in words are dangerous, mistakes in understanding are still more so (Graves 27).

Because of this lack of sustained knowledge, Charlemagne utilized his power over the monasteries and bishoprics as the foundation of a revised organized system of education. It was Charlemagne who wished to therefore link public education with the already established education of monks (Pedersen 74, 78). In 787 an educational capitulary was issued to the abbots of all the monasteries, to reprove the clerics of their literacy, and for the schools to offer at least a complete elementary course of education. By using the Church as a vessel of learning, the floodgates of knowledge began to open enabling the scholastic movement to reach a wider pool of intellects. Teachings that were once reserved for the ‘regular’ clergy of the monastic community were brought forth to the general European society.

The schools established within the churches served significant roles to the growth of intellectual awakening during the Middle Ages. Granted, these schools began as institutions of fundamental knowledge in which, “the word school almost invariably mean a grammar school: its chief function was to supply the Church with clergy” (Lawson 8). The schools initially began teaching reading, writing, computation, singing, and Scriptures, which would later lead to the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) (Graves 34). Eventually, through the work of Alciun of York, the educational advisor of Charlemagne, was encouraged the adoption by the Carolingian Franks a program of education in the liberal arts (Luscombe 29), a conjunction of both the trivium and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). As the Middle Ages progressed, scholasticism began to involve more areas of study as opposed purely to the realm of theology. However, throughout all education, the Church held great influence and control over knowledge, and schoolmen were affected through the direct association with their teachers. The Fathers were the first interpreters of the sacred texts; “it was they who gave inspiration and direction to the achievements of the Schoolmen with the importance of philosophy and theology so that the science of God became the monument of medieval learning” (Cassidy iii). It was not until the decline of scholasticism that the Church began to lose power over the intellectual knowledge of European schools, thus proving the close relationship between scholasticism and Christianity.

In regards to the scholastic movement, it cannot be judged fairly apart from the historical context in which it took place. Scholasticism developed within confines of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus like all aspects of European society of the time, submitted to its power of Divine revelation. The range of knowledge the scholastics of the time were able to investigate, served as both an advantage and disadvantage. Unfortunately, only the subjects deemed orthodox by the Church could be defended, lest the men wished to endure persecution. The Middle Ages presented the great thinkers with a fine line between secular knowledge deemed useful and acceptable, and that which threatened the foundation and power of the Church. Counter to this regard, the limited knowledge forced the schoolmen to reduced knowledge into an extreme and logical system, and therefore, “obliged to exercise their keen analytic minds most intensively, and so divided, subdivided, and systemized their material beyond all measure” (Graves 59). Scholasticism allowed these schoolmen to sift through centuries of traditional and rather irrational doctrines, and culminate their findings into a rational system of intellect. Not only did scholasticism equip its subjects with the skills necessary to be keen in what was considered ‘modern’ knowledge, but also it forced the highest accuracy in thinking, refined by careful analytical argumentation. Scholasticism therefore fostered the intellectual development necessary for the beginning of the Renaissance. As Cassidy stated, “whatever is learned that is new must be learned in terms of what is already known (27). Scholasticism, through the preservation of knowledge, as well as the refinement of intellectual thought, became the foundation for new thought to occur.



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