LIFE OF ALCUIN

SECTION IV.

 

ALCUIN AS ABBOT OF TOURS, UNTIL HIS DEATH,

A.D. 796-804.

 

ALCUIN’S determination to renounce his native country now cost him a less painful struggle, as in consequence of the change which had been effected by his co-operation, he found himself placed in entirely different circumstances from those which attended him on his first arrival in France, when he came for the purpose of striving, in conjunction with a few others, against the ignorance and barbarism of the French clergy. He could at present obtain in France, his adopted country, a double measure of that which had rendered a residence in England agreeable to him; quiet, to pursue his literary occupations, and a circle of learned and intelligent men, who either reckoned themselves among his friends or his numerous pupils. His correspondence shows him to have maintained a friendly intercourse with nearly all the eminent men inhabiting the extensive territories of the French kingdom. As the greater part of them were indebted to him for the first impulse given to their intellectual powers, and as he exercised considerable influence over the minds of the others, a brief account of them and their labors may here find an appropriate place, and the rather, as the biography of Alcuin is merely a frame in which to exhibit the picture of the literary efforts of that period. We have already sufficiently adverted to the encouragement which they received from Charlemagne; not only did his commands operate upon the ecclesiastical order, but his example affected no less powerfully the laity who surrounded him. In addition to his favorite science, Astronomy, he pursued, from motives of piety, the study of Theology, which, even in the latter years of his life, occupied so much of his attention that he undertook to correct the Latin Gospels, by comparing them with the Greek original and a Syriac translation. He was both a competent judge of the literary qualifications of the clergy, and capable of superintending the means employed to produce a reformation in that body.

 

I.—Reformation of the Ecclesiastical Order.

 

On Charles’ accession to the throne, he found barbarians, hunters, soldiers, and drunkards, placed at the head of the church—he bequeathed to his successor an intelligent and influential clergy. This vast change was the effect of the persevering efforts which he made from the first year of his reign to wrest temporal weapons from the hands of the ministers of the church, to induce them to quit the camp and the chase for their own peculiar province, and to confine them to a sphere of action in which they might render themselves of more importance than if they stood exactly on a level with the feudal nobility. The military service imposed by Charles Martel on the clergy, had been followed by the debasement of the morals and destruction of discipline of the ecclesiastical body. The first step, therefore, taken by Charlemagne, was to issue a proclamation prohibiting the ministers of the church from bearing arms, or appearing in the camp, with the exception of a few who were required to perform divine service and carry the relics of saints. But though the warlike bishops might grant that it was unlawful to shed Christian blood, they held it quite consistent with their vocation and dignity to draw the sword against heathens. Charles, however, forbad their taking any part in the war against the Pagan Saxons and Sclavonians, requiring of them no other assistance but their prayers for the success of his arms. To this prohibition was annexed another, forbidding the clergy to hunt or to range the forests with dogs and hawks. That this edict was ineffectual, appears from its republication the following year, 789, in a more severe form. Hunting was a national amusement, of which a free man would not easily suffer himself to be deprived, and therefore, to save appearances at least, Charles was obliged to connect the permission to hunt, expressly granted to some monasteries, with objects which might be regarded as consistent with the clerical profession. The clergy were permitted to kill the hart and the roe, but only so many of them as were necessary to procure leather for the binding of books. This was also an indirect method of promoting the increase and circulation of books, as the love of sport among the clergy might be gratified in proportion to the extent of their library.

The love of spectacles, and the pleasure which the ecclesiastics derived from the jests of buffoons, and dramatic representations was, to Alcuin especially, as repulsive as their passion for the chase. We are ignorant, indeed, of the nature of the theatrical and mimic performances which were then practiced; but they must have been, on the one hand, sufficiently interesting to captivate and rivet the attention of men of letters; and, on the other, must have contained something which induced Alcuin to believe that an indulgence in them was perilous to the soul; although it is very possible that he went too far, and, like many sanctimonious persons of our own day, condemned, with unreasonable and ridiculous zeal, the theatre, a thing in itself innocent. His friend and pupil Angilbert, who appears, in the publications of those times, under the name of Homerus, a man whom Charles honored with his confidence, and frequently employed in important embassies, drew upon himself the censure of Alcuin on account of his love of shows. A letter addressed to another of his pupils, Adelhard, who lived with Angilbert, proves to us his anxiety for the salvation of the soul of his friend, his efforts to wean him from that which he regarded as injurious, and his joy at having succeeded. “That which you have written to me”, he says, in the letter to Adelhard, “concerning the amendment of my Homerus, is a delight to my eyes. Although he has ever pursued an upright course, still there is no one in this world who ought not to forget the things which are behind, and press forward until he has obtained the crown of perfection. The only thing in him which grieved me, was his passion for theatrical representations, which vain shows placed his soul in no small jeopardy. I have therefore written to him on the subject, to prove to him that my affection is always on the watch. Indeed, it appears to me inexplicable, that a man so wise in other respects, should not perceive that he is acting in a manner unworthy his dignity, and in no way commendable”. It is probable, that it was at the instigation of Alcuin, that the king, in the decree against hunting, published in the year 789, also interdicted theatrical amusements to the clergy under pain of deprivation. But mere edicts and prohibitions would have failed to eradicate a deeply rooted custom founded upon prejudice and habit, if the king had not, in the manner already described, provided for the education of competent men, and conferred appointments upon them, and, by the respect with which he treated, and the influence which he allowed them, given others an example to stimulate their imitation, and spur their ambition. He frequently required the bishops, and superior clergy throughout his realm, to preach upon a subject selected by himself, which sermons were reported to him by his emissaries. He also, by the advice of Alcuin, who maintained, not without reason, that much instruction was to be gained by philosophical queries, often proposed various questions to the clergy, to which they were obliged to give a written reply. The queries proposed, had generally a reference to literature, or afforded an opportunity of embarrassing by irony, those who were acting in a manner unbecoming their profession, and of forcing from them the confession, that their actual condition was irreconcilable with their true calling. For instance, we meet with the following passage. “We wish that they would tell us truly what they understand by the declaration that they have renounced the world, and how those who have renounced it are to be distinguished from those who still cleave to it? Does the distinction merely consist in being unarmed and unmarried?”. In this way, a spirit of inquiry was constantly kept alive among the clergy; and no man ventured to aspire to any ecclesiastical office, who was conscious of not possessing the requisite qualifications. We may, therefore, conclude that by the year 796, when Alcuin resolved to settle in France, the reformation of the ecclesiastical order was completely effected, and that only here and there a priest was to be found who belonged to the old system. Charles was now enabled practically to evince the respect which he entertained for the clergy, and to yield to them that influence which was due to their profession and external power, and which they merited by their intelligence and talents. They held henceforth the rank assigned to them by the Carolingian constitution—the first in the state. The Carolingian dynasty established their throne on Christian principles, or at least on those borrowed from the sacred writings of Christianity, and transformed the French into a Christian government.

CAROLINGIAN DYNASTY.

It is true, that the Merovingians had embraced the Christian religion, and caused themselves and their court to be baptized; but they changed nothing beyond the outward form, and that with the same indifference, as, under other circumstances, they would have adopted a new uniform. The Merovingian king retained the same relation to the French as he had previously held; the Carolingians, on the contrary, presented to the Germans an entirely different aspect of regal power. From the Bible, they became acquainted with kings, who, elected by the nation and consecrated and crowned by the Almighty, derived their authority from God. Consecration by the priest placed the Carolingian kings in this position. They subscribed themselves “by the grace of God”, and were accustomed to regard their authority as derived immediately from God, and to consider every other power in the state as proceeding from, and subordinate to them. Whilst, therefore, the Merovingian sovereign was satisfied at his inauguration to be borne aloft on a shield, before the eyes of the people, amidst the acclamations of the by-standers, the Carolingian system rendered consecration by a priest an essential and important ceremony. The Christian doctrine of the sacredness of the marriage contract formed also one of the fundamental laws regarding the succession. Under the Merovingian dynasty, the son of a concubine was as eligible to succeed to the throne, as the son of a lawful wife; and it would even appear that some of that house practiced polygamy. Under the Carolingian race, all illegitimate descendants were excluded from the succession; and examples of a departure from this rule occur only in times of confusion and distress, and were the consequence of revolutionary and illegal commotions. The same principle from which this and similar proceedings arose, induced the Carolingians to exterminate every vestige of paganism from among the Germans; and to enact strict laws for the solemn observance of Sunday, and fasts; as may be found among the ordinances concerning the discipline of the church. A reformation of the clergy was, therefore, necessary in a political point of view. They were the principal support of the throne, and therefore held the second rank in the state, but it never entered into the contemplation of Charlemagne, to regard the ecclesiastical power in any other light, than as subordinate to the regal authority. The king preferred employing the bishops and abbots in political transactions, because he expected more from their superior intelligence, than from men engaged in military pursuits, and was the more willing to entrust them with an extensive jurisdiction, as he felt convinced that a faithful minister of religion would be the most impartial administrator of law and justice. Charles had adopted measures for the administration and superintendence of his extensive dominions, as wise as the limited means he then possessed would admit of; but if the most perfect constitution still leaves scope to wicked men to commit injustice; this must doubly be expected from a kingdom such as France was at that time, notwithstanding the most upright intentions and utmost precautions of the sovereign. “I have no doubt of the good intentions of our lord the king”, writes Alcuin to his intimate friend, Arno, “and am convinced that he desires to order all things by the measure of justice; but amongst his ministers there are fewer who uphold than subvert justice, fewer who promote than impede it, because there are more persons who seek their own advantage than the glory of God”. Arno proposed to Alcuin that he should advise the king to empower deputies to administer justice in the provinces, and to appoint such only as were above the suspicion of accepting a bribe. These commissioners could be selected only from among the clergy, or the highest ranks of the laity; and we find, that, influenced by Alcuin’s counsel, the king nominated certain deputies in the year 801, selecting especially such men as were possessed of sufficient wealth to despise the despicable gains obtained by bribery and corruption, and who were not deficient in acuteness and information to investigate the most complicated affairs. It might naturally be inferred, even if it were not expressly mentioned, that they consisted chiefly of archbishops, bishops, and abbots. Possessing now an influence so great, it was easy for the clergy to resign the honor of military service; and they therefore, in conjunction with the whole nation, presented a petition in the year 803 to Charlemagne at the diet at Worms, begging him to release them from the duty of feudal service. In the contract which secured to the bishops immunity for their church lands, it is expressly enacted, that for the future, only so many ecclesiastics should accompany the army as were requisite for the performance of divine service, the administration of the sacraments and preaching. At the same time, the assurance was added, that their honor was in no wise injured by this arrangement; but rather would be augmented in proportion as they fulfilled their duty towards God and the holy church. Though much may be said against the position which was assigned to the clergy by Charlemagne, and though it cannot be denied that they were thereby placed in circumstances inconsistent with their peculiar vocation, still the exertions of the king to elevate the church which had been suffered to fall into contempt, to encircle so venerable and important an institution with external splendor, and to encourage a spirit of holiness within it, entitle him to the applause which subsequent times have bestowed upon him. Frederick the Great, the admirer and imitator of Charlemagne, caused him to be canonized; and surely his genuine piety, his endeavors to promote discipline in the church, to maintain the true faith, and to reform the ecclesiastical order, render him more worthy of a place in the calendar of saints, than many others who owed this distinction to superstition and party spirit.

 

2.—Concerning Charles’ Endeavors to improve the National Language, and the Academy he is said to have founded.