Alcuin: Saxon Scholar of the First Order


Many historians breathlessly proclaim the Venerable Bede as the greatest mind of his generation. This may very well have been true. However, Alcuin (just Alcuin) did for learning and theology in York what Bede did for history and theology in Jarrow: increase both mightily and leave a legacy for others to follow.

Alcuin was from his early days a curious and pious fellow. He was born somewhere near York in 735. (His birthplace is still debated.) He showed an exceeding interest and ability with books, and the forming of libraries that came naturally to him kept him busy all his life.

Indeed, it could be argued that his love of libraries fostered in him a desire to share his knowledge with others, just as the books he so enjoyed fostered a similar desire in himself. It is certainly the case that those who wrote of him or wrote of people who knew him said that his passion for learning and the sharing of knowledge were fires that burned deep within him.

Alcuin: Saxon Scholar of the First Order Together with Archbishop Aelbert of York, Alcuin traveled extensively in Europe, even meeting Charlemagne in March 781. France’s Charles the Great so impressed Alcuin that the latter moved to France to become “Master of the Palace School.” In France, as in England, Alcuin strove to make his school a wide-reaching center of learning. He cultivated learning and sources of learning, building great libraries and teaching a love of scholarship. He wrote tirelessly, on subjects as diverse as grammar and astronomy.

As a religious scholar he was first-rate as well. One of his major works was a revision of the current Bible, making it more consistent with earlier writings. He also wrote biographies of important religious people. Lastly, he wrote liturgies, masses, and epistles, many of which became quite popular within the religious community.

He might not be as popular or as beloved as Bede, but Alcuin had (it could be argued) more of an effect on education and scholars in England and Europe. Certainly they should be mentioned in the same breath when one speaks about the furthering of learning in Anglo-Saxon England.

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