ALCUIN OF YORK – Know yourself first if you want to know others

– Aurelio Porfiri

In recent decades, one of the dominant questions is that of Christian identity. Sometimes it seems to us that this identity is experienced as a burden, as something to be freed from to open up to the world. In short, if we are less strong in our identity, then the world will embrace us promptly; but it is not, nor can it ever be. We can meet others only from the starting point of what we are. And this is why the Church cannot lose herself with the intention of meeting others. Think about it: if you meet others without being yourself, what’s the use?

The Church-world relationship has always offered themes of important reflection for evangelization, not only in recent decades, but throughout the history of the Church. Let us think, for example, of that period of history known as the Carolingian rebirth, a period of extraordinary intellectual and cultural fervor which coincides with the reign of Charles the Great (742-814), which will also have enormous importance for the development of the Church’s liturgical Roman chant, which we call Gregorian chant. This period of great production of Christian culture was also favored by the work of great minds, including Blessed Alcuin of York, which the Church celebrates on May 20th.

Alcuin was born in 735 in York, to a noble family. He studied in the York school, of which he later became director. In 786 he was called by Charlemagne to direct the Schola Palatina and so moved to France, with the task of reorganizing education. In 796 he became abbot of the Monastery of Saint Martin of Tours. He will end his days in York in 804.

Alcuin tried to instill knowledge also through mathematical games. Here is what Raffaella Franci says in the introduction to the book Giochi matematici alla corte di Carlo Magno (“Mathematical games at the court of Charlemagne”): “In the first half of the nineties, Alcuin returned for a time to York, where he would have liked to have stayed to end his days quietly. He, in fact, was tired of the commitments related to the life of the court, but the succession of the attacks of the Vikings to the northern English regions induced him to return on the continent. Charlemagne, however, to meet his desire for a more tranquil and contemplative life, in 796 appointed him abbot of the Monastery of Saint Martin in Tours, where he remained until the day of his death, on May 19, 804. During his stay in Tours, Alcuin assiduously worked on the reorganization of the monastery scriptorium bringing it to levels of excellence. We recall that here, under his direction, they perfected, among other things, that new and important style of writing which today is called minuscule Carolingian. It can be considered the ancestor of the current print characters. However, Alcuin’s attention was not only focused on the formal aspects: he also took great care to re-establish a correct reading of the texts. The manuscripts of the era were indeed full of errors in spelling, grammar and syntax, and were also peppered with abbreviations and shorthand signs that made it very difficult to read. During his stay in the continent, Alcuin wrote numerous treatises including some clearly didactic in nature such as: De rethorica, De orthografia, De dialectica, Grammatica, Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes. All these works have a very simple structure, some have the form of dialogue between two or more interlocutors, and the only one to have a mathematical content is the last of the list. Among the currently known manuscripts attributable to Alcuin there are no others of mathematics, however an eleventh-century catalog of the Puy cathedral library lists a book by Alcuin: De dialectica, rethorica, musica, arithmetica, geometria, astronomia. The text, which has not reached us, seems to constitute a manual of the seven liberal arts. It is very likely that Alcuin wrote such a treatise because he, as we have already mentioned, based his teaching precisely on these disciplines.”

Alcuin’s activity will be marked by a great love for classical Greek and Roman culture. For the sake of this culture he also chose to call himself Flaccus Albinus. In the history of medieval philosophy handbook made available in the website of the University of Siena, his work is described as follows: “The figure of Alcuin is placed in the context of the so-called Carolingian revival: he was in fact the great executor of the political project developed by Charlemagne and the prototype of a new imperial management class. His activity took place mainly in the pedagogical sphere: in fact he introduced a system of studies ordered according to the seven disciplines (trivium and quadrivium), which represented the seven columns of the palace of wisdom. He also wrote teaching manuals, which must be considered true compendiums of classical knowledge handed down in the works of Priscian, Donatus, Isidore and Bede (for grammar), Cicero (for rhetoric), Augustine (for dialectics). He promoted the renewal of teaching, and favored a return to the use of correct Latin, argued (especially in the Dialogus de rethorica et virtutibus, in which the interlocutor is Charlemagne) against the sophisticated use of dialectics, considered on the other hand an important instrument for civil and political life. For the first time in many centuries, in fact, a circle of intellectuals, gathered around the court of Charlemagne, set itself an objective that was not the mere consolidation of the knowledge already acquired, debating important philosophical and theological problems.”

We have often heard how certain narratives would like the Catholic Church to pass as a champion of obscurantism, closed in on herself. In reality, one of the most important forces of cultural synthesis was the Catholic Church and this Alcuin understood it well. If one is sure of one’s identity then it is possible, indeed desirable, to integrate that which is good in other cultures. Of course this process is not possible when one begins from a condition of weakness. In the manual of the medieval philosophy handbook mentioned above it is also said: “The dialogic method was also used by Alcuin in the attempt to rational clarification of theological truth: both in matters concerning the Trinitarian dogma and the existence of God, and in the field of the fight against the arguments put forward by the adopters. In De fide sanctae trinitatis – for example – through a syllogistic demonstration process, we arrive at a partial rational clarification of dogma, according to the Augustinian model and through the use of the Aristotelian distinction between substance-accident and category-based analysis. The mediation between pagan culture and the new demand, dictated by the policy of Charlemagne, to reconcile Christian and imperial ideology, was the great result of Alcuin’s work, which was also able to propose an alternative to the Benedictine monastic strategy (which considered isolation from the world as a primary condition) founding and guaranteeing dignity to an ascetic model founded on school and the importance of culture and regaining historical space, often neglected in favor of the ascetic and meta historic ones.” Here it is, this work by Alcuin was important to get what is useful for evangelization in other cultures.

It seems to be the question raised a few centuries before by Augustine of Canterbury, bishop of that British island from which Alcuin came. There is a famous letter addressed to Gregory the Great, which contains this passage: “Augustine’s third question: Since there is but one faith, why are the uses of Churches so different, one use of Mass being observed in the Roman church, and another in the churches of Gaul? Answer of the blessed pope Gregory: Your Fraternity knows the use of the Roman Church, in which you have been nurtured. But I approve of your selecting carefully anything you have found that may be more pleasing to Almighty God, whether in the Roman Church or that of Gaul, or in any Church whatever, and introducing in the Church of the Angli, which is as yet new in the faith, by a special institution, what you have been able to collect from many Churches. For we ought not to love things for places, but places for things. Wherefore choose from each several Church such things as are pious, religious, and right, and, collecting them as it were into a bundle, plant them in the minds of the Angli for their use.” And this would be the obscurantism of the Catholic Church? Certainly it should be read well in the sense that Gregory the Great intended. Read the letter well. Gregory the Great said that he could certainly take “pious, religious and right” things (not everything!) precisely because Augustine knew before “the use of the Roman Church,” in which he had been educated. First you need to know yourself to know others. And this Alcuin, as certainly Gregory the Great, had understood well.

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