Tag Archives: teachers and pupils

The tale of the frustrated librarian



I think I have always had a thing about library catalogues. It is true that library catalogues are not what they were. The electronic ones of today are much more efficient than the card indexes in the Bradford City Library in Darley Street were, but they do lack a certain serendipity. Time was when one might search for something on Russia and get easily distracted on to Bertrand Russell, but that as they say is another story. But suddenly, serendipity is back and it’s a lot of fun.

I have been spending a lot of time in the company of half a dozen library catalogues dating from the ninth century. The monastery of St Gall in Switzerland is world renowned for having had the good fortune to retain a large proportion of its medieval stock amongst these manuscripts can be found some of the earliest library catalogues in Europe. And they make you think.

At this stage, they are making me think about librarians. The oldest and most comprehensive list has been heavily annotated. In some cases, this just means that space was left for additions to be made in the appropriate category, which was usually, but not always, defined by author. But mostly the annotations are the laconic remarks of a long suffering librarian who, like long suffering librarians all over the world, was either trying to keep track of his books despite the attempts of library users to secrete them away or simply needed to disassociate himself from the purchasing decisions of his predecessor. The set of comments gives a very modern impression of a bloke trying desperately to bring order to something that has been allowed to get away and do its own thing.

Thus we find that several books were dismissed as ‘inutile’ – (useless), ‘pusillum’ (very little or paltry) or ‘antiquissimo’ (very ancient) and in one case, Isidore’s book on differences, that the volume in question was ‘totum mendacium et inutile’ (a complete lie and useless). Sometimes the previous librarian had not catalogued the book in question by the standards expected by the annotator.   A book catalogued under Pope Gregory is annotated: ‘et in uno ex eis vita pauli et antonii’ (and in one of them there is a life of Paul and Anthony) and another is found to be concealing some of Jerome’s letters. In other cases, books had outlived their usefulness. Isidore’s synonyms are annotated ‘hoc legi non potest’ (this cannot be read) – clearly a plea for more funding. Some books were clearly simply not present at the time the catalogue was updated. A volume on the books of Tobias, Judith and Esther had been sent to the school, as had a volume of letters from the popes of Rome. One on Ezekiel was lent to the lady Rickart : ‘habet domna rickart’. Of two volumes of the lives of the Holy Fathers, ‘unum habet liutart’ (Luitart has one of them).  One of my favourites is ‘hoc auditum est non visum’ (this is heard but not seen). It was clearly important that the writer had sight of the book, or at least of the chap who had it: ‘Ruodinum vidi habere qui dixit suum esse hoc non vidi’ (I saw Ruodinus who said it was his. I have not seen it) And it was important to count. Of four volumes of the gospels listed ‘ex his duo non inveni’ (of these I cannot find two).

This opens up a whole world. Can we track down these individuals? Was St Gallen running a kind of lending library? How did the books marked ‘ad scolam’ fit into the educational programme? Several scholars have tried to cross reference these catalogues with the extant collection but it is extremely precarious research. For me, there are two important things to establish. What did scholars of St Gall had access to at home when they compiled their multi text manuscripts and what must have been borrowed? And did any of the multi text manuscripts in these catalogues act as a model for the ones I am working on?


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Filed under Learning Matters in the Medieval World, PhD thoughts

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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Filed under Learning Latin Late

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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Filed under Learning Matters in the Medieval World