What to do with your one wild and precious life: Alcuin’s Answer

Posted by on May 29, 2022 in Blog | 2 comments

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life?” asks Mary Oliver in her poem The Summer Day. It’s a haunting question. Psalm 90:10 tells us that “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty if our strength endures.” In the end it is not the number that counts, but what makes up our “wild and precious life”. Recently I have been thinking about Alcuin of York (735-804) and how, in his own way, he provides an answer to Oliver’s question.

Born in a period misleadingly called the “Dark Ages” (it is caricatured as a time of economic, intellectual and cultural decline after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire), Alcuin is a refreshing challenge to the assumptions made about this era. A scholar monk, whose name is often overlooked, his contribution to human flourishing remains to this day.

Some quick questions? Have you heard of Alcuin? If so, what do you know about him?

If your answer to the first question is no, let me ask you if you “prefertoreadthefollowingsevenwords” like this or if you “prefer to read the following seven words” like this?

Thank Alcuin for the second option as he was a key player in the development and adoption of Carolingian minuscule script which amongst other things introduced spaces between words in sentences. It also introduced lower case letters and the use of an upper case letter for the start of a sentence. And what have I left out? The previously unknown question mark, which originally functioned to alert that there was some doubt as to the translation of a word – a lovely little reminder by the Carolingians of the limits of human knowledge, and that when in doubt, we should let people know.

This revolution in the “dark ages” was a huge leap forward for education and literacy. Punctuation is a great friend, and without it, reading is akin to deciphering morse code.

Alcuin’s contribution here would be enough for one lifetime, but there is more…

He was not only a scholar monk, he was a friend and confidant to the king – and that king was none other than Charlemagne the Great (747?-814). Much can be said about this friendship but for me there is one incident that trumps all others. Alcuin challenged Charlemagne to stop the practice of forcing pagans to be baptised or killed. As he argued: “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe.” His argument prevailed and in 797 Charlemagne abolished the death penalty for paganism. It was a step forward that was not upheld during the Crusades several centuries later, but as an early advocate for religious freedom, Alcuin stands tall. Indeed, the Baptist in me wants to say Alcuin was almost a Baptist. Actually he is a reminder that while Baptists are often seen as the pioneers of religious freedom, there were others advocating for the same principle a long time before.

And there is more. Alcuin was a poet, a theologian, a mathematician (ever worked on the “how many times must you cross the river in a boat that can take two and you can’t trust some of the passengers to be left alone with the others” puzzle – thank you Alcuin) and an exceptional educator at the cathedral school of York. He used puns, puzzles and riddles to intrigue his students. He was a deacon in the church but was never ordained a priest. It is not certain if he ever took the vows of a monk, but he lived as though he had. Most often he led from the second chair, guiding others who had great power but not sitting in the first seat himself.

Though never proclaimed a saint, he had a reputation for great personal holiness. He stopped the royal sword from slaughtering tens of thousands of people unwilling to be converted, helped literacy become more realistically attainable, and educated creatively. Many of his students went on to become the intellectuals of their day, and while most of his students were men, he also taught Charlemagne’s daughters. He had a wide circle of friends and in a day before anyone talked of emotional intelligence, he personified it. According to Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne he was “the most learned man anywhere to be found” – and it showed in the breadth of the subjects he taught: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

Oh, and if you have ever prayed “the collect for purity”, it is thought that Alcuin is partly responsible for it’s present form (having possibly worked with a yet earlier version of it):

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

What will you do with your one wild and precious life? Alcuin suggests it is possible to fit rather a lot in.

As always, nice chatting…

You can reproduce this post with acknowledgment. Please forward to any who might find it helpful.

2 Comments

  1. Great to hear of a lesser known name and be reminded of his contribution. Each life is indeed significant, a challenge to be our best selves. Thanks.

    • Thanks Lynn. When I stumbled upon him in some reading I was doing I thought it rather a pity that so little is said about him.

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