In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alcuin of York

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Alcuin’s Circle and Legacy
  • Alcuin’s Writing Style and Interests
  • Instruction in Alcuin’s Texts
  • Works on Grammar
  • Works on Mathematics
  • Works on Christian Reform
  • Letters
  • Anti-Adoptionist Texts
  • Poetry
  • Moralizing Texts
  • Hagiography
  • Exegetical Works
  • Philosophical Works

Medieval Studies Alcuin of York
Valerie L. Garver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0221


Alcuin of York (b. c. 735/740–d. 804) ranks among the most influential scholars of the early Middle Ages. His works ranged a relatively wide gamut from theology to political thought, philosophy to mathematics, pastoral to devotional works. Alcuin was born in Northumbria in England sometime in the 730s. Educated at the cathedral school of York, he had access to a rich library and to the influence of teachers, especially the Archbishop Ecgbert and Ælberht, head of the York library and cathedral school and later bishop. Ælberht’s successor, Eanbald of York, sent Alcuin to Rome in order to fetch the archbishop’s pallium for him, and on his way home in 781, Alcuin met Charlemagne in Parma. Charlemagne invited Alcuin to his court, where he arrived in 782 or 786, leaving England for good (except for one or two trips there in 786 and from 790–or 793, depending on the date one accepts for his arrival at court). (On the two possible dates see Bullough 2004, cited under General Overviews). From the 780s, he was active at the court of Charlemagne and was arguably this famous Frankish ruler’s most trusted and important advisor for a while. His ideas and texts concerning education were perhaps his greatest contributions to the Carolingian Renaissance, a creative movement of renewal and learning meant to bring reform and uniformity in religious and intellectual thought and actions to Carolingian lands. Although his works were once thought to be merely derivative of earlier sources and therefore uninteresting, studies from at least the last forty years have accorded Alcuin more creativity and intelligence. Much of the scholarship listed here notes the stands he took and the particular points-of-view he conveyed, even when the works in question drew nearly entirely from the writings of earlier authorities. Specialists, for example, now widely recognize how well-read and erudite he must have been in order to make his decisions in compiling and juxtaposing quotations so as to advance his own ideas and goals. In 796, he became Abbot of St. Martin’s in Tours, where he remained until his death in 804. His influence spread through his students, who included Hrabanus Maurus, abbot of Fulda; Sigebert, abbot of Ferrières; and Hildebald, archbishop of Cologne, and through the recopying of his works in hundreds of medieval manuscripts. As a result of his lasting influence and the high regard in which modern scholars have generally held Alcuin, the bibliography on him is vast.

General Overviews

Not long after Alcuin’s death a monk wrote an anonymous biography, The Life of Alcuin, which is more helpful for appreciating Alcuin’s influence and legacy than for providing a full account of his life. As for recent scholarship, the most important overview is Bullough 2004, yet it is neither an accessible nor a complete biography. Bullough was unable to finish the book before his death, and it often requires specialized knowledge to understand fully, particularly some of the portions on manuscripts. For a highly readable account of Alcuin’s life, Dales 2012 offers a relatively comprehensive picture whereas Alberi 1989 offers a brief, straightforward overview of Alcuin’s intellectual contributions. Dales 2013 purports to offer a reader-friendly overview of Alcuin’s works, yet it packs a great deal of information into a short space without providing the sort of critical analysis that experts will desire. As products of their era, Wallach 1959 and Duckett 1965 remain useful from a historiographical standpoint and can help readers understand changing views of Alcuin over time. Each also provides a fuller view of Alcuin’s writings and life than many other recent works aside from Dales 2012. Yet many scholars would now be uncomfortable with how Wallach and Duckett’s monographs can seem to exaggerate Alcuin’s accomplishments and level of influence over Charlemagne and the Carolingian court. Chélini 1961 provides one of the few studies of Alcuin’s tenure as abbot of St. Martin’s in Tours near the end of his life.

  • Alberi, Mary. “Alcuin and the ‘New Athens.’” History Today 39.9 (1989): 35–41.

    This summary of Alcuin’s activities at Charlemagne’s court is well suited to undergraduates. With appealing photos and apt references to primary texts, the piece provides an accessible explanation of Alcuin’s educational and intellectual goals and accomplishments, particularly underlining his contributions to the Carolingian Renaissance.

  • Bullough, Donald. Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation: Being Part of the Ford Lectures Delivered in Oxford in the Hilary Term 1980. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004.

    Published posthumously, this magisterial book is a treasure trove of references. Although indispensable to specialists, it is difficult and not suitable for general readers, and it provides little information past 796 when Alcuin became abbot of Tours. The book’s greatest strength is its discussion of manuscripts. It is notable for redating a few key events in Alcuin’s life and its discussion of Alcuin’s sexuality.

  • Chélini, Jean. “Alcuin, Charlemagne et Saint Martin de Tours.” Revue d’histoire de l’église de France 47 (1961): 19–50.

    DOI: 10.3406/rhef.1961.3265

    This article is a useful overview of Alcuin’s time as abbot of St. Martin’s in Tours from 796 to 804, covering his activities as well as the texts he wrote there.

  • Dales, Douglas. Alcuin: His Life and Legacy. Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 2012.

    This readable introductory biography provides a synthesis of scholarship that will be useful for undergraduates and general readers. Dales principally uses Alcuin’s letters to reconstruct his life.

  • Dales, Douglas. Alcuin: Theology and Thought. Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 2013.

    Although intended for general readers, this book is inevitably dense and at times difficult because of the complexity of Alcuin’s thought. It surveys Alcuin’s intellectual contributions, especially to theology. Graduate students and scholars will probably wish for more in-depth analysis of Dales’s sources than offered here, but the text can serve as an introduction to Alcuin’s writings.

  • Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. Alcuin, Friend of Charlemagne, His World and His Work. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1965.

    Now dated, Duckett’s highly accessible work provides a useful snapshot of the ways scholars once understood Alcuin. Historiographically relevant to graduate students and scholars, the bibliography and notes provide useful references, especially to early works on Alcuin.

  • “The Life of Alcuin. Vita Alcuini.” In Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptores. Vol. 15.1. Edited by Wilhelm Arndt, 182–197. Hanover, Germany: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1887.

    This anonymous life was probably written at the monastery of Ferrières between 823 and 829, around twenty years after Alcuin’s death. This text provides some evidence of Alcuin’s life corroborated in other texts, but Alcuin’s own letters and poems provide more reliable information concerning his life than this text (Alcuin 1982, cited under Poetry).

  • Wallach, Luitpold. Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Literature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959.

    This fundamental work on Alcuin is now dated but remains essential reading for graduate students and scholars. Wallach argues for Alcuin’s brilliance in addition to outlining the political importance of his relationship with Charlemagne. He demonstrates that Alcuin was central to Charlemagne’s vision and reforms.

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