Viking Conquest: Alcuin of York and the Viking Onslaught

Alcuin of York spent much of his life in continental Europe, as an adviser to Charlemagne the Great, and was in close touch with the intellectual élite of his time. His letters and other writings offer a vivid insight into the realities of life during Britain's Dark Ages.
Alcuin of York 

Alcuin of York (c.735-804)

The famous scholar Alcuin of York is one of our best sources of information for the later eighth century. He was educated in the cathedral school at York and became a monk and teacher there.

He was a deacon of York when in 781 he was returning from a visit to Rome, and arrived in Parma. Here he met the king of the Franks - King Charles the Great, known as Charlemagne (768-814) - who recognised in Alcuin a scholar who could help him to achieve a renaissance of learning and reform of the Church. At the king's invitation, Alcuin joined the royal court, and became one of Charlemagne's chief advisers on religious and educational matters.

'This led to ... Latin being restored to its previous position as a literary language.'

Alcuin was made head of the palace school at Aachen, which was attended by members of the royal court and the sons of noble families, and he established a great library there. He revised the church liturgy and the Bible and, along with another great scholar, Theodulf of Orleans, he was responsible for a revival of intellectualism within the Carolingian empire.

This led to many schools of learning being attached to monasteries and cathedrals, and Latin being restored to its previous position as a literary language. In 796, Alcuin became abbot of St Martin's monastery at Tours, where he established a school and library.

An ambassador and scholar

Image of Anglo-Saxon cross
Anglo-Saxon cross
Alcuin was not himself a great or innovative thinker, but he was a superb teacher and scholar. He had the ability to guide others through what he saw as 'golden whirlpools of spiritual meaning', and to inspire them to rise to even greater intellectual heights. He wrote educational manuals, poetry and copied classical texts, and above all he was a copious writer of letters.

At Charlemagne's court he acted almost as an English ambassador. He provided a link with the English royal court and exchanged information and ideas on a regular basis, not just with secular and ecclesiastical leaders but with personal friends. He must have had a special gift for making and keeping friends and he wrote to them at length.

'... a preacher of piety, not an exactor of tithes ... '

His correspondence was clearly appreciated, for it was collected and copied for distribution to centres of learning, such as Salzburg, as early as 798. Many of his letters read like exhortations, for he was concerned over social and educational issues as well as Church reform. A missionary friend was recommended to be 'a preacher of piety, not an exactor of tithes', to guide people into good living rather than taking taxes for the benefit of the Church. In a letter to the monks of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth in Northumbria, he encouraged them to ...

'... consider the splendour of your churches, the beauty of your buildings, your way of life according to the Rule ... Let the boys be present with praises of the heavenly king, and not be digging foxes out of holes or following the fleeting courses of hares ... he who does not learn when he is young, does not teach when he is old.'

Divine retribution

Medieval image depicting the death of St Cuthbert - his body was buried at Lindisfarne
Medieval image depicting the death of St Cuthbert - his body was buried at Lindisfarne
Alcuin was also a practical man. He knew that the oil needed for church services was scarce in Britain and he sent olive oil to be distributed amongst the Northumbrian bishops. His distress and horror at the fate of Lindisfarne in 793 comes over very strongly in his letters both to the Bishop of Lindisfarne and the Northumbrian king.

'When I was with you, the closeness of your love would give me great joy. In contrast, now that I am away from you, the distress of your suffering fills me daily with deep grief, when heathens desecrated God's sanctuaries, and poured the blood of saints within the compass of the altar, destroyed the house of our hope, trampled the bodies of saints in God's temple like animal dung in the street…'. Letter from Alcuin to Higbald, Bishop of Lindisfarne

Alcuin saw the Viking onslaught as divine retribution for the slack standards of the Northumbrian people, much as he might have interpreted an epidemic of disease as punishment for human sin. Worse was to come for his homeland, however, and Alcuin might have had difficulty in explaining the Viking activities of the ninth and tenth centuries in terms of God's punishment for bad behaviour.

'What security is there for the churches of Britain if St Cuthbert with so great a throng of saints will not defend his own? Either this is the beginning of greater grief or the sins of those who live there have brought it upon themselves.' Letter from Alcuin to Higbald, Bishop of Lindisfarne

One of Alcuin's poems celebrates York and its library, where he spent so many happy years as a young man, and he lists many of the authors whose works were on its shelves. These included classical Latin writers such as Virgil, Cicero and Lucan.

The cathedral library at York became even more famous throughout Europe after Alcuin's time - only to be destroyed utterly by Danish Vikings in an attack in 866. Fortunately Alcuin's writings have not been lost to us and they remain a key source - giving historians a unique insight into one of the most traumatic periods of English history.

Published on BBC History: 2004-11-08
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