The fifth letter in Chase’s collection really does not look like a model letter. It deals with a particular set of circumstances: Alcuin is writing to his pupil Joseph, who has remained in Aachen at the court school while Alcuin visits Britain, in, according to Allott, 790. The year is significant because Alcuin was unexpectedly detained in Britain when Ethelred was freed from prison and was about to embark on his second reign. Allott juxtaposes this letter with one to Adalhard, which refers to the same situation but goes into more detail as to Alcuin’s political objectives in staying put and one to Ethelred himself, outlining the behaviour expected of him. The letter to Joseph is the most practical of the three: Joseph has errands to run.
Firstly, Alcuin wants to know the king’s movements, essential for a courtier in the days when the court was itinerant. He wants to be kept up to date, and, probably, wants others to remember him while he is away.
Secondly, Alcuin has business which must be delegated to Joseph, apparently another function for former students. Alcuin has sent money for clothing for the boys, clerical and lay, and for himself, as well as paint. He is precise about colour, style and fabric for the clothing and chemical composition for the paint, which Allott thinks may be required for illustrating manuscripts.
Thirdly, there is a truly terrible shortage of wine, which can be resolved by Joseph checking and sending on one of the two cartloads of wine which Alcuin has been promised by a third party.
And finally, Alcuin gives instructions for collecting monies due, equipping a mission to Rome and giving alms to widows.
Alcuin obviously cannot get the goods he is used to in Northumbria but equally obviously there is plenty of money available to him. This letter therefore gives us a useful insight not only into monastic networks, but also trade. It seems likely that a land at peace, such as Francia, was able to ‘export’ to countries such as Northumbria, where the complex politics of the time have led to shortages: surely Alcuin would not have gone to all these lengths if clothing could be bought there? And it seems that the monasteries had good control over trading routes and enough security to transport cash. Or, of course, it may be that such transport was made safe for Charlemagne’s courtiers. Even so, the intermediaries are definitely monastic rather than courtly.
Worldly matters are more important here than they appear in other letters in Chase’s collection. Alcuin is not asking for something to drink – beer is readily available but he doesn’t like it. And the fact that Joseph has to actually check the wine for quality means that it is not just wine they lack, but good wine. Nor does the text suggest that the clothing is wearing out: he is sending to Aachen because he has precise needs. Even the advice about generosity to delegates or visitors creates a picture of a society of monks which has to present a certain status to the world.
A very worldly portrayal of Alcuin.