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English scholar who advised Europe

08 November 2013

G. R. Evans welcomes a book that fills a gap

Alcuin: Theology and thought
Douglas Dales
James Clarke & Co. £25

BARBARIAN invaders destroyed classical civilisation. In the eighth century, the ecclesiastical, monastic, and secular leaders of the Carolingian world were trying to re-establish norms of good civil order and patterns of intellectual life which had been disrupted.

This book throws Alcuin into relief as a figure close to the centre of several important changes that were to shape the Latin West for centuries. It is offered as a contribution to better modern understanding of these foundation years, in "a time of considerable confusion in the Anglican Communion".

Alcuin (c.735-804) was English by birth. He studied in the cathedral school at York, under Egbert, who had been a pupil of the Venerable Bede. Alcuin stayed for a time with the monks at Bede's monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow and corresponded with the monks afterwards. At York, he evidently made a reputation for himself which reached the ears of influential people in Europe.

In 782, he became one of a group of leading intellectuals gathered together by Charlemagne to advise him at his court at Aachen. He was entrusted with the education of Charlemagne's sons, and helped advise the Emperor himself on improving "learning opportunities" in the Empire. Charlemagne decreed that all cathedrals should run schools, in order to ensure that the cathedral clergy had something approaching a "higher education" in literature and theology.

This was a period of Europe-wide controversy, as well as European warfare. There was a faith to be defended as well as an Empire. The iconoclastic controversy over veneration of images, which divided the Eastern Christian community, had its impact in the West, too. There was Alcuin, advising.

In Spain, there appeared Adoptionists, who said that Jesus was simply the "adopted" Son of God. Again, Alcuin proferred a series of carefully researched theological rebuttals. He wrote prolifically and systematically to put theological controversies in context. We also meet Alcuin the biblical scholar, among the manuscripts of the scriptorium at Tours.

In 796, Charlemagne rewarded Alcuin with the abbacy of Tours, and we watch him exploring prayer and spirituality, and a theology of monastic friendship.

The book moves a little uneasily in places between scholarly detail and writing for the general reader, but that seems unavoidable where there is so much recent work to be incorporated in filling a gap as admirably this book does. It offers an enjoyable introduction to an important period in the history of the Church in Western Europe.

Dr G. R. Evans is Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

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