Alcuin Becomes Adviser to Charlemagne Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

When the abbot Alcuin became an adviser to Charlemagne, he initiated a flowering of intellectual and cultural achievement that is known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

Summary of Event

Alcuin was a scholar and teacher. He was educated at the cathedral school at York, where he remained first as a scholar in residence and later as head of the school and its library. [kw]Alcuin Becomes Adviser to Charlemagne (781) [kw]Charlemagne, Alcuin Becomes Adviser to (781) Alcuin Carolingian Renaissance Italy;781: Alcuin Becomes Adviser to Charlemagne[0740] Cultural and intellectual history;781: Alcuin Becomes Adviser to Charlemagne[0740] Education;781: Alcuin Becomes Adviser to Charlemagne[0740] Government and politics;781: Alcuin Becomes Adviser to Charlemagne[0740] Alcuin Charlemagne Peter of Pisa Paul the Deacon Paulinus Theodulf Einhard

In 780-781, the Northumbrian king Elfwald sent Alcuin on a mission to Rome to ask for papal confirmation of Eanbald as the new archbishop of York. Around Easter, 781, as Alcuin was returning from Rome to York, he met Charlemagne Charlemagne in northern Italy at Parma. Because Charlemagne was eager to foster a program of education for clergy and laypersons throughout his kingdom, he urged Alcuin, who was famous for his educational endeavors at York, to join his court. Although Alcuin hated to leave his native York, Charlemagne persuaded him. Alcuin arrived at the Frankish court of Charlemagne in 782. With the exception of several visits to England, Alcuin remained in the Frankish kingdom, first connected with the court and later, from 796 until his death in 804, as abbot of the great Carolingian monastery of Saint-Martin at Tours.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 c.e., classical culture, including Latin literature, education, literacy, and the arts, declined. In the various Germanic kingdoms that succeeded the Roman Empire in Europe, monasteries became the primary centers of literate culture. In some areas, such as Northumbria in England, monks and scholars such as Saint Bede the Venerable Bede the Venerable, Saint (672/673-735) continued to study classical literature and write works of theology and history. Alcuin was trained in this tradition.


(Library of Congress)

When Charlemagne became king of the Franks in 768, the levels of education Education;Franks Franks;education and literacy were low. During the first decade of his reign, Charlemagne was primarily occupied with securing his rule through military conquest, which eventually made him ruler of most of Europe, including lands in France, Germany, and Italy. Around 780, his concerns turned toward governing his extensive territories. As a Christian ruler, he assumed responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the Church and the people throughout his empire, a concept that drew on the imperial heritage of the later Roman emperors. Charlemagne’s encouragement of a widespread program of education and cultural development in literature and the arts had both practical and idealistic components. Because it looked to classical Greco-Roman culture for many of its models, modern historians have called this movement the Carolingian Renaissance.

When Charlemagne recruited Alcuin to join his court in 781, he had already embarked on various initiatives to improve education and to promote cultural literacy. Several scholars and intellectuals were in residence at Charlemagne’s court. Peter of Pisa Peter of Pisa focused particularly on grammar. Paul the Deacon Paul the Deacon was a Lombard who spent four years at the court. He wrote on grammar, but his interests also included history, poetry, and mathematics. Another Italian, Paulinus Paulinus (Italian grammarian) , also taught grammar at the court for a time until he became patriarch (bishop) of Aquileia in 787. Theodulf Theodulf , a Visigoth from Spain, joined the court in the late eighth century. He became involved with several theological debates, particularly concerning the Iconoclastic Controversy Iconoclastic Controversy . These scholars formed a core of the various intellectuals and students who maintained an ongoing and changing group of literati who enlivened and edified the court and spread the educational program and cultural ideals of the Carolingian Renaissance to many parts of Charlemagne’s empire.

Charlemagne was crowned emperor at Rome in the year 800, establishing the Frankish dominance in Europe and setting the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Although Alcuin was only one among many intellectuals who constituted a “palace school,” he became Charlemagne’s chief adviser on matters relating to education and culture. Alcuin’s career during his years in the Frankish kingdom exemplifies many of the key facets of the Carolingian Renaissance under Charlemagne’s leadership.

Above all, Alcuin was a teacher. He instructed members of Charlemagne’s family, especially his children. Other young people, usually from noble families, also received an education at the court of Charlemagne. Einhard Einhard presents an example of someone who benefited from this educational opportunity. After Charlemagne’s death, Einhard wrote a life of Charlemagne modeled on the biographical writing of the Roman historian Suetonius, which became one of the best-known literary works of the Carolingian Renaissance.

Alcuin’s influence on education was not confined to his personal instruction at the palace school. He also wrote a number of pedagogical treatises that became popular books of instruction for schools in the Carolingian period. Alcuin was also responsible for organizing the educational curriculum of the seven liberal arts into three basic disciplines, the trivium, consisting of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric, and four advanced subjects, the quadrivium, composed of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

Although educational training utilized classical foundations of the seven liberal arts, the ultimate goal of learning and literacy was in the service of the Christian religion. Through several treatises and many letters, Alcuin articulated the emperor’s position on several important theological debates. Theology;Franks Franks;theology He argued against adoptionism (the belief that Jesus was God’s adopted son) and iconoclasm (the prohibition against images). His theological position on the Trinity in the filioque Filioque doctrine controversy supported the view that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both God the Father and Christ the Son. Alcuin’s most important and long-ranging contribution to religious practice in the Carolingian empire was his revision and standardization of liturgy in developing the lectionary of biblical readings for church services and bringing the sacramentary used by the priest in performing the sacrament of the Mass in accord with usage of the Church in Rome.

In 796, Alcuin became abbot of the monastery of Saint-Martin at Tours. Although he remained in close contact with Charlemagne’s court, he directed his primary attention toward the text of the Bible, chiefly clarifying passages that had become corrupted through scribal transmission of the text. The monastery at Tours became a center for copying manuscripts of the Bible with a corrected text that were disseminated throughout the Carolingian empire. These manuscripts were written in a script known as Caroline minuscule. Although Alcuin did not personally develop the script, the clarity of the letters and the spacing between words and lines was a visual embodiment of the goals of the Carolingian Renaissance in the improvement of literacy.

Alcuin and the circle of court scholars were primarily concerned with literature and education, but the Carolingian Renaissance also encompassed the visual arts and music. Architecture Architecture;Franks Franks;architecture , especially of churches and monasteries, revived Roman plans of basilicas and baptisteries, as well as the structure and aesthetics of arches and columns. Wall paintings and mosaics decorated these buildings. Although few of these edifices have survived, one example is the small church with apse mosaic at Germigny-des-Prés, whose construction and iconographical program probably were guided by Alcuin’s colleague, Theodulf of Orléans. Manuscripts of Bibles, liturgical texts, and secular books preserve miniatures whose figure style and decorative patterns recall Roman paintings. Sumptuous ivory and jeweled bindings on many of these books also revive the style and magnificence of late antique ivory carving and metalwork. Music supported the liturgy with the Roman practice of Gregorian chant.


In political terms, Charlemagne’s empire did not survive the division among his heirs, but the Carolingian Renaissance that Alcuin and his contemporaries promoted was passed down through several generations of scholars who continued these literary traditions even while the political fabric of the Carolingian empire disintegrated. Indeed, the Carolingian Renaissance has had a long-lasting influence. It preserved and transmitted much of the classical Roman literature that has survived. It established standards for an education in the liberal arts. Its texts were copied in a clear, legible script that remains the foundation of typographical letters to the present. The text of the Bible owes much to the work of Alcuin and the Carolingian dissemination of biblical manuscripts. The collaboration of Alcuin and Charlemagne, along with other intellectuals and artists, thus had a major impact on the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Becher, Matthias. Charlemagne. Translated by David S. Bachrach. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A biography of Charlemagne, the emperor whom Alcuin advised. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. Alcuin, Friend of Charlemagne. 1951. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1965. Written by an important medieval historian, this study remains the only complete biography of Alcuin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Einhard. Charlemagne’s Courtier: The Complete Einhard. Edited and translated by Paul Edward Dutton. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1998. A translation of Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne. Shows the influence of Alcuin’s teachings. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Houwen, L. A. J. R., and A. A. Macdonald, eds. Alcuin of York: Scholar at the Carolingian Court. Groningen, the Netherlands: E. Forsten, 1998. A collection of papers presented at the Third Germania Latina Conference at the University of Groningen in 1995. Examines his role as a scholar and his influence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKitterick, Rosamond, ed. Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Contains eleven essays by leading scholars that discuss the literary and artistic contributions of the Carolingian Renaissance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKitterick, Rosamond. The Carolingians and the Written Word. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Examines the extent and uses of literacy and education in the Carolingian period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrissey, Robert John. Charlemagne and France: A Thousand Years of Mythology. Translated by Catherine Tihanyi. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. A study of Charlemagne and the stories about him that attempts to separate fiction from fact. Bibliography and index.

Categories: History