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Alcuin and Spirituality in the Middle Ages

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Alcuin and

Spirituality in the Middle Ages

In the early part of the eighth century Christian spirituality was in serious decline on the European continent and the light of learning in general was nearly extinguished. This spiritual and intellectual darkness was steadily reversed during the reign of the commanding figure of Charles the Great. Charles ruled Frankland from 768 until the year 800 and subsequently served as Roman Emperor until his death in the year 814. Charles was largely responsible for the Carolingian Renaissance - a renewal of art, religion, education and culture brought about largely through the medium of the Catholic Church. Alcuin of York was the man Charles entrusted to lead much of the educational and spiritual revival. This essay will examine the life and influence of Alcuin in bringing about a spiritual renewal during the Middle Ages.

The date and place of Alcuin's birth are not definitely known, yet he was likely born in York, England around the year 735. Alcuin received his formal training at the cathedral school in York under the guidance of Aelbert, the scholasticus or master of the school. The intellectual void present on the European continent contrasted with the eminence of the Anglo-Saxon church-schools. The cathedral schools in England were among the best in the world. Aelbert instructed Alcuin in "the doctrine and history of the Church, in the writings of Apostles and Fathers, in interpretation, moral, theological, symbolic and allegorical." Alcuin also received extensive formal training in the field of apologetics and was well-versed in Holy Scripture. His secular studies included grammar, mathematics, the natural sciences and Latin.

In the year 767 Aelbert became the Archbishop of York. Alcuin succeeded his mentor and served as scholasticus at the cathedral school of York for the next 15 years. It was during this time period that Alcuin was ordained a deacon. Notable is the fact that Alcuin never received the priesthood and never became a professed monk. During his time as scholasticus his personal fame heightened and the York school was greatly admired both on the isle and on the continent. Students from throughout England flocked to study under him and he gained the reputation as the best known master in Britain.

In 781while returning to England following a trip to Rome, Alcuin fell in with Charles, King of the Franks in a chance meeting in Parma. The two had met years before and Charles wished to enlist Alcuin to lead his palace school at Aachen. Charles' intent "was the conversion of the barbarians and heathen under his dominion to the Catholic Faith, and the use of secular knowledge for this end." Charles needed a master to educate, organize and train missionaries and scholars who would act in the name of the Church. Alcuin accepted Charles' offer and moved to Aachen in the year 782 to begin his new life as master of the palace school. Alcuin acted as master of the palace school for 14 years, during which time he also served as Charles' personal tutor and adviser.

One of the areas in which Alcuin influenced Catholic thought and spirituality was in liturgical reform. Charles was the driving force leading the liturgical reforms; Alcuin was the source of many of the ideas. Charles was determined to renew the Church. He had "the deepest conviction that he would one day be called to account before the judgment seat of God for the governance of the kingdom." Like his father and grandfather Charles the Great believed that he received his authority from God. As such, Charles and Alcuin considered liturgical structure and the guidance of Christian people to be of primary importance. Scholars under the direction of Alcuin produced several authoritative liturgical books.

Under the influence of Alcuin, Charles sought to strictly regulate Sunday as a day of rest from work or unnecessary labor. The lay faithful were encouraged to diligently pray the Divine Office and remain faithful in their prayer life. Charles attempted to replace the Gallican liturgy with Roman liturgy, as it was his desire to unify his expanding empire with a single rite. This change did not take place without considerable resistance throughout the Frankish empire. Perhaps Alcuin's greatest contribution to liturgical reform was his edition of a lectionary and his revised Gregorian Sacramentary. Despite controversy surrounding the specific origins of the Gregorian chant, it is without dispute that the chant was first written down and used in association with the Roman Rite during the reign of Charles. Alcuin also introduced the custom of chanting the Creed at Mass and the celebration of the Feast of All Saints.

Early in his tenure as Charles' adviser Alcuin was greatly concerned about the poor standards of education that clergy received. Proper and thorough training of clergy became one of Alcuin's primary goals. At the recommendation of Alcuin, Charles issued an edict on March 23, 789 calling for several specific reforms in how clergy were trained. Following are some examples of the reforms cited in the edict: No. 70. "That bishops diligently examine their priests throughout their dioceses, to the end that they hold the right Faith." No. 78. "Let no false writings and doubtful narratives . . . be believed or read, but destroyed by fire. Only the canonical books and Catholic treatises and the sayings of sacred writers are to be read and delivered." No. 82. "You are likewise to take care that the priests whom you send throughout your dioceses to rule and to preach do so rightly and honourably; that you do not permit them to invent and teach to their people things new, of their own imagining."

Alcuin also endeavored to renew Christian spirituality and formation within monasteries. In 796 Charles appointed Alcuin to be the Abbot of the monastery of St. Martin at Tours. On arriving at Tours he noted that the monks were much less strict in their communal life than their vows required. He immediately took care to subject them to the rigorous rule of the Benedictine order. In a letter written to Charles that same year Alcuin stated that each monk "must learn that which he desires to carry out, and the soul will more fully understand its duty when the tongue declares the praises of Almighty God without offence of falsities."

Alcuin also knew that the proper formation of monks must include the study of rhetoric, grammar and must be centered on Christ and Holy Scripture. At Tours Alcuin felt obligated to "raise up by his own personal teaching, in the few years that remained to him, a

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