Charlemagne, Alcuin and the Love of Learning

The Love of Learning

A number of factors came together to make possible the cultural rebirth in the reign of Charlemagne, but there is general agreement among scholars that the primary force propelling this process was the personal initiative of the king [1].  Charlemagne must have hade some innate curiosity, and he clearly had some sense of mission, which was cultivated by the Pope. The annexation of the Lombard court may have stirred Charlemagne’s cultural interests, since the Lombards had maintained a palace complex of relative splendor at Pavia, compared to the standards of the warrior Franks. The first cultural step that Charlemagne took was to lure scholars to his court. Peter of Pisa, Paul the Deacon, and Paulinus of Aquileia came from Italy, Agobard and Theodulf from Spain, and Alcuin from York. Alcuin reflects on this in a letter to Charlemagne:

Happy is the people ruled by a good and wise prince, as we read in Plato’s dictum that kingdoms are happy if philosophers, that is lovers of wisdom, are their kings or if kings devote themselves to philosophy.  For nothing in the world can be compared to wisdom... I know it was your chief concern, my Lord David, to love and preach it.  You were eager to encourage all to learn and stimulated them by rewards and honors, and you invited lovers of wisdom from different parts of the world to help in your plans.  Amongst them you brought me, the least of the servants of wisdom, from the remotest part of Britain [2].

Alcuin was born of a noble Northumbrian family about 732. He received his education at York. On the death of his teacher Aelbert, he was given charge of the cathedral library at York, then one of the best libraries in the West. In 781, Aelbert sent Alcuin on a mission to Rome.In Parma, he met Charlemagne, who urged him to come to his court, and he accepted, with the permission of his king and his bishop.   Alcuin directed a “palace school” from 782 to 796 in the court of Charlemagne, with the interruption of a return to York from 790 to 792 [3]. Alcuin passed on to his pupils the love of learning that he had received from his teachers. His own love of learning was fully integrated with his religious vocation: “How pleasant life was when we sat among the writings of the wise, surrounded by a wealth of books and the worthy thoughts of the fathers, lacking nothing we needed for the religious life and the pursuit of knowledge! [4]"

The Preservation of Knowledge

In 796 Alcuin was seeking to return to monastic life, and Charlemagne obliged by appointed him as Abbot of Saint Martin at Tours, and from there he continued his partnership with the king in the cultural enrichment of the kingdom:

I, your Flaccus [Alcuins’s nickname, from the Roman poet Horatius Flaccus], am busy carrying out your wishes and instructions at St. Martin’s, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning, beginning to feed others on the fruits of grammar, while to some I propose to reveal the order of the stars, like the painted roof of a great man’s house.  I become many things to many men, in order to train many for the advance of the holy church of God and the honor of your imperial kingdom, that the grace of Almighty God may not be idle in me nor your generosity unavailing [5].

At Tours, Alcuin began the process of developing the art of copying manuscripts into a science.  A more practical writing style was perfected, materials were carefully selected, and binding techniques were improved. The results were astonishing. For the first 800 years of the Christian era, there are 1800 preserved manuscripts, and  there are 7000 from the ninth century alone. Alcuin maintained personal poverty in spite of the king's generosity, preferring to use the resources available to him for furthering learning with the purchase of books and the support of monastic students. He did not seek ecclesiastic power, remaining a deacon until the end of his life. He died simply on the feast of Pentecost in 804 [6].


The Carolingian “palace school” included some formal training for the king’s family and young aristocrats, but it mostly consisted of the gathering of the intellectuals that had come to the court, where a wide range of topics were discussed and debated for the benefit of the king and his entourage and also for the mutual benefit of these scholars.  Many of these scholars went on to hold important Church and government offices. Charlemagne published a capitulary, or legislative letter, entitled De Litteris Colendis in 787, which has been called “the foundation charter of the Carolingian renaissance.” This letter, which was to be circulated to all bishops and abbots, states:                 

Be it known, therefore, to your devotion pleasing to God, that we, together with our faithful, have considered it to be useful that the bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favor of Christ to our control, in addition to the order of monastic life and the intercourse of holy religion, in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observance of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly [7].

An order to establish schools was more specifically stated in another letter in 789. These prescriptions had tangible results.  At least fifty monastic and cathedral centers in the Carolingian empire have left some record of their educational contributions [8]. Most scholars see the formulation of this policy and its successful implementation as the result of the partnership that had emerged between Charlemagne and Alcuin.

Strict humanists may argue that the Carolingian progress in education was not based on a true interest in human values, but that it was motivated by Charlemagne’s political needs, but the records that we have of the palace debates, and the exchange of letters between Charlemagne and Alcuin, show genuine intellectual curiosity. And regardless of their motivation, their actions firmly planted the seeds of culture in the West, which in spite of periods of stagnation, have endured to our time:

Charles was the first monarch in the history of Europe, if not of the world, to attempt an establishment of universal gratuitous primary education as well as of higher schools. Moreover, as a result of Alcuin's organizational sagacity, a body of men devoted to teaching as well as learning was created, giving some degree of continuity to education down to the founding of the universities and so sheltering studies in various monasteries and cathedrals that some of the greater schools thus kept alive, or offshoots from them, afterwards became natural receptacles for the new university life of the next age [9].                  

[1] Pierre Riche, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West (Colunbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 4.

[2] Alcuin of York, Alcuin of York- His Life and Letters, ed. Stephen Allott  (York, England: William Sessions Limited, 1974), 83-84.

[3] Andrew Fleming West, Alcuin and the Rise of the Christian Schools (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909),  34-39, 58-60.

[4] Alcuin of York, Life and Letters, 131.

[5] Ibid, 12.

[6] West, Alcuin,  87.

[7] Laws of Charles the Great, ed. Dana C. Munro (Philadelphia: Department of History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1900),  12-15.

[8] John J. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance” in Warren Treadgold, ed., The Renaissances before the Reniassance (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1984), 72.

[9] West, Alcuin, 3-4

Note: For a more detailed version of this material see: Alfredo Romagosa, “The Carolingian Renaissance and Christian Humanism,Logos, Fall 2003, pp. 136-149.