Tag Archives: Alcuin

Something completely different?

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.

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Clonmacnoise joins the EU in 790


Alcuin to Colcu   (Chase 4/ Allott* 31)

Alcuin is writing to one of his old teachers. The tone and content of the letter is dramatically different from his letters to students – this one is very practical, in that Alcuin is reporting on events and specifying the content of gifts which were apparently sent with the letter.

Allott and Chase differ in their confidence as to the date of the letter and as to Colcu’s location. Allott dates it to 790 and includes it in letters to Ireland, musing in a footnote to the next letter in the series that Colcu, traditionally a sage of Clonmacnoise, may have been abbot at Inishboffin. Chase is more cautious, but dates the reported defeat and conversion of the Saxons to 785, which suggests a similar date. There is an internal reference in the letter which at least puts Colcu in Britain but Chase nevertheless hesitates to specify Ireland.

The letter gives us more information about the teacher pupil relationship. Alcuin is Colcu’s ‘son’, whereas his friend Joseph is a ‘servant’. It could well be described as a networking letter. Alcuin reports on the progress of the mission in Europe and sends gifts which he knows will be appreciated. In return he asks for prayers for his and Charlemagne’s wellbeing and success. This is reminiscent of the monastic prayer confraternities among the Carolingians a century later. It also draws an abbot many miles from Aachen into the heart of the affairs of the Carolingians.

It also takes us straight into the turbulent world which Alcuin and Charlemagne were establishing the Carolingian Renaissance. Chase points out that the defeat of the Saxons referred to is far from being the final defeat, which undermines somewhat Alcuin’s confident assertion as to the continuing growth of the church. Alcuin himself, after reporting on the many successes, says somewhat plaintively: ‘Sed nescio quid de nobis venturum fiet’. Chase gives background information to the dispute with Offa which lies behind the uncertainty of the time of writing, from the perspective of one who knows that it was all sorted out eventually. Alcuin, however, does not know this, which gives an entirely different perspective.

The gifts being sent are not insignificant. We learn that oil is scarce in Britain, such that Alcuin sends oil in large enough quantity for Colcu to share it out with the bishops. He also sends alms in silver coin, a total of 203 shekels, coming roughly half from Charlemagne and half from Alcuin. This sounds like a large sum but what is really interesting is that Alcuin has the funds to match Charlemagne’s donation coin for coin. Where did the money come from? And what was it for? The obvious answer is that it bought prayer for Alcuin and his master at a time of uncertainty. We might also think that Alcuin has a responsibility towards his old teacher and since he is now in a position to support the Irish monasteries financially, he does so. But I think the real reason is that a tiny monastery, possibly on the West coast of Ireland was seen as just as much a part of a proto-European movement as Fulda and Auxerre. Perhaps this was indeed the first European Union.

*No, I have not given in on the Latin, but once you’ve worked out how to pair the letters it is a comfort to compare my own version of the Latin with Allott’s much more scholarly version.  Mostly I’m right.


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What’s the Latin for Thrush?

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Untimely ripped from Alcuin’s breasts.

Just finished deciphering Alcuin’s letter to Dodo, in Colin Chase’s edition.

I was struck by the vividness of the rhetoric, which led me to agree with Chase as to the ‘permanent and didactic purpose’ of the letters. Perhaps there was a real Dodo, who knows, but Alcuin certainly went to a lot of trouble to bring home to him the dangers of the path he was taking, which does support the idea that it was more than a one off letter to save a former student.

Not only is the letter ‘topped and tailed’ with clever set pieces – a pun on Dodo’s name and a poetic depiction of the joys awaiting the sinner who repents – but the letter is full of well developed imagery and rhetorical devices.

Always assuming I’ve got it right, the opening is quite startling.  It is very visual, very physical and, to our eyes, most inappropriate for a teacher pupil relationship.  The image is that of Alcuin not as a teacher, not as a father, but as a mother.  ‘Nec bene lactatus raptus est ab uberibus meis’ makes the allegorical relationship very clear.  It requires of us a real effort to appreciate the relevance of this image for the relationship as Alcuin saw it.  The teacher feeds the pupil, but not just with ordinary food, but with milk from his breasts, recalling perhaps the Pelican feeding its young with blood from its breast. The ideal seems to be that this continues until the pupil is able to take solid food, until such time as he is weaned and thus able to obtain his own spiritual sustenance.  Things have gone wrong because Dido has been parted from his teacher before being this process was completed and is thus not fully protected against the temptations of the world. Dido is therefore not blamed – a very modern response – which opens the way for Alcuin to advise and Dodo to accept this advice.  A rhetorical device, certainly, but an interesting insight into what medieval education was about.  We are not talking here about knowledge of sacred texts but about being imprinted with the manner of being a monk as part of a loving relationship with a parental figure.  That this intuitive process is expressed in elaborate rhetorical language has a certain irony, as does the fact that the language used illustrates very clearly the difference between ‘grammatica’ and ‘rhetorica’.  This is not neutral  language.

Alcuin moves on to more very visual images, devices and biblical references to now as illustration of the risks Dido is running by his behaviour.  He builds up from reference to pains that Dodo should be bale to identify with to ‘totum corpus aeterno crucietur incendio’, from today’s delights of the flesh in terms of food and drink to the image of food rotting and stinking: ‘stercus’. The series of rhetorical questions in lines 55-60 demand to be spoken aloud, as do the repeated pairs beginning ‘in pietate et penitentia’ in lines 47ff.

Permanent, certainly and for us too, didactic.  On to the next letter!

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