Alcuin: Theology and thought
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
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