The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

V. Latin Writings in England to the Time of Alfred

§ 8. Alcuin

It cannot be maintained that the influence of Alcuin’s writings upon the literature of his country was very important. As a product of the great school of York, he does, indeed, bear witness to the admirable training which that school could furnish. The debt which the schools of Charles the Great owed, through Alcuin, to England must never be forgotten. This is the central fact, so far as England is concerned, in Alcuin’s career. His written works, mostly produced on the continent, were not of a kind to affect very markedly the development of literature; and the condition of England during the period of Alcuin’s residence abroad was such that English scholars could make no use of what he was able to impart. The fact is that, very shortly before Alcuin left England for ever, the Scandinavians had begun that desolating series of raids upon this country which ended by exterminating the learning and literature of Northumbria and paralysed intellectual effort all over the land.

In an often quoted poem on the saints of York, Alcuin enumerates the principal authors whose works were to be found in the library collected there by Egbert and Albert. Within a generation after the poem was written, that library had ceased to exist; and so had that earlier treasury of books at Wearmouth which Benedict Biscop commended in the last years of his life to the special care of his monks. The end of the eighth century and the course of the ninth saw learning gradually obliterated in England, until the efforts of Alfred revived an interest in the things of the mind among his countrymen.

Had it not been for this catastrophe we might have found English scholars taking part with Alcuin in the adoptionist controversy, or contributing to the revision of the Vulgate which is associated with his name. As it is, the ninth century, to the historian of our Latin literature, is almost a blank.

Alcuin, to resume, was not a great writer. The clearest indications of his general culture and his manifold activities may, perhaps, be gathered from his numerous poems and his letters. These latter, with some of his grammatical works, were the only part of his writings which attained popularity in England. His controversial books are of less enduring interest: it is given to few to follow with intelligent appreciation the dispute which he waged with Felix of Urgel and Elipandus of Toledo upon the question whether Christ, in His human nature, was or was not to be called the “adoptive” Son of God. The liturgical works, again—the homiliary, lectionary and sacramentary—which made so deep a mark upon the church-life of the continent, are works of compilation. As to the revision of the text of the Latin Bible, clear evidence that it was the work of Alcuin is not yet producible; but the probability is very strong that he was at least prominent, if not supreme, in the undertaking.

But, though the tale of Alcuin’s labours is an imposing one, it is the intellectual stimulus which he imparted, and the long line of scholars which owed to him its existence, that forms his true monument. He ranks with Bede as an inspirer of men; but the vehicle by which his inspiration was conveyed was rather the voice of the teacher than the written words.