LIFE OF ALCUIN
DR. FREDERICK LORENZ
TRANSLATED FROM THE GERMAN
JANE MARY SLEE.
The totally different aspect presented by the West of Europe, after the destruction of the Western Roman Empire, combined with the degenerated state of Roman civilization, necessarily required a new development of the minds of those whose energy and valor had subdued the degraded descendants of cultivated antiquity. Great as were the powers of mind possessed by these hardy conquerors, the rude and warlike habits acquired in their native forests were too firmly interwoven with their very nature, to be immediately exchanged for the refinement of the country they had vanquished. The effeminate Romans accommodated themselves more readily to the manners and customs of the invaders; and hence, in a short space of time, the remembrance, and a few fragments, of former civilization alone remained—the frail memorials of departed grandeur. It was, therefore, unaided by external influence, that the faculties of the northern warriors item developed. The process was indeed, slow; so slow, that the lapse of a thousand years was requisite to enable them to profit by the arts and sciences, which, on their first approach, had been overwhelmed by the tide of barbarism. This insensibility to external influence tended essentially to the preservation of their independence. Fortunately, most fortunately, the heartless, prejudiced, enervated character of the then modern Roman, who possessed not faculties even to comprehend, far less to imitate, the glory of his ancestors, remained totally alien to the new possessors of the soil, who imbibed only the vivifying element of Christianity. The Christian religion was the main spring of all intellectual efforts, during the whole of the interval that elapsed between the loss and the recovery of ancient civilization; and literature was altogether under the conduct and control of her ministers. Few were the intellectual luminaries that shone forth in those days of darkness, very few were so brilliant as to exercise any direct influence on the present age. The venerated names, the hallowed writings of that period, ceased to retain the importance with which opinion had invested them, so soon as the progress of intellect enabled mankind to appreciate and to study those models which a gracious Providence had rescued from destruction and oblivion. Their labors, however, have not been in vain, their utility has surpassed their fame. To extend the knowledge of the merits of a celebrated man of this period, and to render a tribute to his memory, by redeeming a portion of that debt which mankind should gratefully acknowledge to one who labored so zealously and so actively for their benefit, is the object of this work.
We may venture to assert that the time of Charlemagne is more celebrated than known, and that the founder of the new Roman German empire has found more panegyrists than historians. A character like that of Charles is too dazzling to admit of our beholding, at the first glance, the surrounding objects so as to distinguish them clearly. But after accustoming ourselves to gaze longer upon it, the inquiring eye will discover other forms beaming, not undeservedly, with a ray of glory reflected from the principal figure. The more accurately we can judge of men by those who surround them, the more necessary and instructive becomes the contemplation of their characters. A prince who is a mere warrior delights only in those hardy pursuits inseparable from a soldier’s life, and seeks his friends and confidants in the army. A ruler who is a mere politician prefers the statesman to the soldier. When, however, a prince like Charlemagne, and others who have shared, or at least deserved to share, the same epithet, combines the ardor for conquest with the love of literature, the sword and the pen will be held in equal estimation; he will attach himself most intimately to those who have won his confidence by a similar direction of mind, and have manifested the desire and the ability to promote the welfare of his subjects. One single man, even on a throne, can accomplish but little without the cooperation of kindred spirits. When, therefore, a sovereign possesses an intellect sufficiently capacious to embrace noble designs, and an eye to discern, amid the multitude, those whose energy and talents best fit them for the execution of his plans, he is justly celebrated; his memory is held in grateful honor, and his example commended to posterity. To him belongs the rare talent of availing himself of the various powers of others, and of uniting them for the attainment of one object. Not equity alone, therefore, requires, but it is indispensable to the right understanding of facts, that justice should be rendered to the individual who labored successfully for this object. The man whose life forms the subject of this work, devoted his energies to the execution of Charles’ noble project of advancing his subjects towards that civilization, the light of which still lingered on the ruins of antiquity. This man was Alcuin; and who can be a more proper representative of this honorable and distinguishing characteristic of Charles’ reign, than he to whom the king was indebted for the chief of his learning, his children for the whole of their mental attainments, and such of the young Franks as evinced either inclination or ability for study, for all their knowledge? He formed, to a certain extent, the center of the awakened energies of this period; not because he was the only man remarkable for literary acquirements, but because he had pursued all the paths of knowledge which at that time lay open to the human mind. Neither splendid actions nor marvelous adventures, nor any of those striking incidents that are calculated to arouse and gratify curiosity, distinguish the life of Alcuin from that of ordinary men; for his combats with the devil, and his miracles, belong to legends rather than to history. But the successful labors of the confidant and instructor of Charlemagne will prove, to the reflecting lover of history, a more effectual recommendation than the most dazzling achievements of others more renowned. If the investigation of the development of the human mind under its different manifestations, be the most important subject of history, our attention must be chiefly directed to those individuals who have prosecuted, with the greatest ardor and success, some one of the pursuits of their day. Their influence upon their own times increases in proportion as they are animated by the universal spirit of the community, comprehend and unite in themselves the various attainments of individuals, and advance them to a perfection sufficient to constitute a new era in the progress of the human mind. In times so remote, so destitute of various and complicated interests, and so deficient in contemporary records as those of Charlemagne, we must be contented to produce the king as the representative of the political and military state, and one other personage to represent the literary and religious character of the times. With this view, we have examined and exhibited the life and works of Alcuin. We shall first describe the state of Anglo-Saxon civilization at that period, in order to show more clearly Alcuin’s literary attainments. We shall afterwards accompany him to a more extensive and interesting sphere of action, where, without the adventitious aid of external dignity, which his modesty always declined, he for years effected more than was accomplished by prelates adorned with the most splendid titles.