May 20: Alcuin, Deacon, and Abbot of Tours, 804

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Alcuin was born about 730 near York into a noble family related to Willibrord, the first missionary to the Netherlands. He was educated at the cathedral school in York under Archbishop Egbert, a pupil of Bede. He thus inherited the best traditions of learning and zeal of the early English Church. After ordination as a deacon in 770, he became head of the York school. Following a meeting in 781 with the Emperor Charlemagne in Pavia (Italy), he was persuaded to become the Emperor’s “prime minister,” with special responsibility for the revival of education and learning in the Frankish dominions.

Alcuin was named Abbot of Tours in 796, where he died on May 19, 804, and was buried in the church of St. Martin.

Alcuin was a man of vast learning, personal charm, and integrity of character. In his direction of Charlemagne’s Palace School at Aachen, he was chiefly responsible for the preservation of the classical heritage of western civilization. Schools were revived in cathedrals and monasteries, and manuscripts of both pagan and Christian writings of antiquity were collated and copied.

Under the authority of Charlemagne, the liturgy was reformed, and service books gathered from Rome were edited and adapted. To this work we owe the preservation of many of the Collects that have come down to us, including the Collect for Purity at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist.


I.  Almighty God, who in a rude and barbarous age didst raise up thy deacon Alcuin to rekindle the light of learning: Illumine our minds, we pray thee, that amid the uncertainties and confusions of our own time we may show forth thine eternal truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II.  Almighty God, in a rude and barbarous age you raised up your deacon Alcuin to rekindle the light of learning: Illumine our minds, we pray, that amid the uncertainties and confusions of our own time we may show forth your eternal truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Psalm 37:3–6,32–33

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 39:1–9

Titus 2:1–3

Matthew 13:10–16

Preface of a Saint (1)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

To post a comment, your first and last name and email address are required. Your name will be published; your email address will not. The first time you post, a moderator will need to approve your submission; after that, your comments will appear instantly.

13 thoughts on “May 20: Alcuin, Deacon, and Abbot of Tours, 804

  1. “in a rude and barbarous age” LOVE IT! Definitely the best collect we’ve seen in quite some time.

    Is the bio out of order? It seems odd to have the “he died” bit 1/3 of the way in.

    Regarding Charlemagne’s program of liturgical standardization: it may be perhaps more informative to note that Charlemagne intended to standardize liturgical worship through his whole empire based, primarily but not exclusively, on Roman sources. We do have many beautiful Latin texts that survive from the earlier Gallican materials (a rough rule of thumb is that they are usually longer and more florid than the sparse Latinity of the papal court) I don’t have the Latin sources in front of me so I don’t want to guess the source of the CfP right now.

    I always like Ecclesiasticus. (Apocrypha doesn’t get nearly enough play — and it has all these wonderful rhetorical bits that make great saint’s readings.)

    The Titus seems short: maybe extend it a little further? (It’s a little odd to have 1/3 of the lesson be about teaching old women not to get drunk)

    I think the Matthew reading makes sense — in an opposite-y sort of way.

  2. This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The New Testament reading and Gospel reading/are new.

  3. New New Testament reading: This reading has to be replaced.
    Titus 2:3 says: ‘Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good.’ And, Deo Gratias, we don’t have Titus 2:4 & 5 ‘… so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.’

    What on earth this reading has to do with Alcuin totally escapes me.

  4. Oh, my, yes! The Titus reading is new, and it’s dreadful! Titus 2:1 makes sense, and is appropriate, but I suggest going then straight to 2:11-13, or perhaps 2:11-15.

    I suppose the Matthew (13:10-16) reading is okay, but I think the previous reading (Matt. 13:47-52) is better.

  5. The collect reads nicely, but it reflects a very outdated understanding of the world of Late Antiquity. An age that has produced Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Harold Camping, and Fred Phelps has little right to dismiss one that produced Bede, Alcuin, Rhabanus Maurus, and John Scotus Eriugena as not only “rude and barbarous” but also (by implication, at least) “dark.”
    The biographical write-up must have been written by a liturgist, for it seriously understates Alcuin’s impact on the world beyond the rood screen.
    The write-up can easily be mis-read as saying Alcuin’s schools were meant to produce monks and priests for the Church. They were actually “public” schools for such as had the leisure and motivation to attend. Alcuin made the seven liberal arts the core of the curriculum, creating a legacy that lasted into the 20th century. He insisted that everyone should know enough Latin to read the Scriptures and became indignant when someone suggested that only the clergy needed to read the Gospel.
    His question-and-answer books for the children of his schools make him perhaps the first and certainly one of the earliest people to write books specifically intended for that audience. He’s thus one of the founders of a tradition that includes A. A. Milne, Theodor Seuss Geisel, and J. K. Rowling.
    Once retired from court to Tours, Alcuin and his monks developed the writing style known as Carolingian Minuscule. Based on the style of ancient Roman inscriptions, Carolingian Minusule was the ancestor of today’s “roman” typefaces (including your word processor’s Times New Roman). It was the first western script to use capital letters to begin sentences, periods to end them, and indentation to mark paragraphs. This script made writing easier and more efficient, improved reading comprehension, and paved the way for the spread of silent reading in the next century.
    The Titus reading is just bizarre, unless someone was thinking of Charlemagne’s wives, concubines, and daughters. But they weren’t all that old back then . . .

  6. Thanks, Steve, for the very relevant and important information. James Kiefer has another detail: “(Alcuin) and his fellow theologians at Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen (or Aix-le-Chappelle) were important advocates of the doctrine that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son jointly. Unfortunately, the East, which regarded the Emperor at Byzantium as the sole Emperor, resented Charlemagne’s assumption of the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and this hardened their opposition to the aforesaid doctrine, thus contributing to the rift between East and West.” –And there’s the modern-day Alcuin Club, which was helpful when I wrote them asking where I could find “Dixit Cranmer,” a 1946 paper written in response to Dom Gregory Dix’s _Shape of the Liturgy_.

  7. Thwe bio ,collect, and readings seem okay. The gospel is not as relevent as the first two reasings.
    It would be hard to overwestimate the contribution of Alcuin to the medieval church.

  8. The subtitle needs replacement: Alcuin is not honored because he was a Deacon, nor because he became an Abbot. I suggest ” Educator and Liturgical Reformer”.

    Line 8, first paragraph: in the absence of a formal title for Alcuin’s position, I suggest substituting “chief adviser” for ‘”prime minister”‘.

  9. Reading this again after a good night’s sleep (instead of in the early hours of the morning), I have to curb my initial response:

    Like others have said, Alcuin was much more interesting than just those things listed above. The typeface and children’s books material mentioned above by Mr. Lusk is particularly interesting. I still think it also seems remarkably out-of-order for a biography.

    Titus 2:1 makes sense for Alcuin. The rest of the letter seems pretty off, but I agree that 2:11-15 could make sense. A little later on, 3:3-8 also makes sense in a monastic context.

    Mr. Lusk is right about the collect: I love the vivid language, but it carries a pretty negative asessment of “ye olden dayes.” If anything, our own age is the “rude and barborous” one… I love the balance of the prayer however so instead of toning down the beginning, it might work better to ramp up the middle (our own age).

    Almighty God, who in a rude and barbarous age didst raise up thy deacon Alcuin to rekindle the light of learning: Illumine our minds, we pray thee, that amidst the darkness and turmoil of our own time we may show forth thine eternal truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

    (Also, change “amid” to “amidst” in the Rite I collect — the hard “d” brings the collect to a stop which is awkward so soon after a comma.)

    I like the darkness / show forth juxtaposition, but it’s just a first guess at a new pair of words. Reactions from others? It still calls Alcuin’s time “rude and barbarous” but it has equally harsh words about our own day, so I don’t it comes off as quite as judgmental.

  10. GENERAL: The narrative contains interesting material and I have appreciated it over the years, but two things are worth noting. The order of presentation feels uncertain or disjointed. Michael W mentioned the oddness of his date of death coming in the second paragraph (a single sentence). You historians are all on a first name basis with Willibrord (probably “Willy”) but to me he appears here gratuitously and unexpectedly, and nothing here clarifies why mentioning the first missionary to the Netherlands is important in our opening sentence.
    Secondly, passive verbs obscure, rather than enlighten, by hiding WHO does WHAT:
    + “he was persuaded to become the Emperor’s prime minister” – (persuaded by Charlemagne?)
    (Also, it sounds more like a “Secretary of Education” than a “Prime Minister” job.)
    + “…was chiefly responsible for the preservation of the classical heritage…” (I take it he, more than
    anyone, contributed to this outcome, not that it was explicitly his job?)
    + “Schools were revived in cathedrals and monasteries” – he did this, or they just “were revived”?
    + “manuscripts … were collated and copied” – the passives don’t say he DID anything, as if
    perhaps these things may have just occurred fortuitously. (I know they didn’t, but it doesn’t
    SAY they didn’t – nor how he was instrumental to their happening.)
    + “Under …Charlemagne, liturgy was reformed, service books were edited and adapted…” – that
    was nice of Charlemagne, but the passive verbs obscure Alcuin’s role.
    A final point, the closing reference (“…including the Collect for Purity at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist”) seems problematic. What is “the beginning of the Holy Eucharist”? WE (prayerbookies) know it refers to a rite in the BCP, but it doesn’t quite explain that fact to others. “The beginning of the Holy Eucharist” could be taken as referring to the historical or ontological “beginning” of the sacrament. Those who know don’t need to be told, and those who don’t know may not understand the reference. I’d suggest we either clarify or simplify.
    COLLECT: “Almighty” – the commemoration is all about knowledge, so we opt for a power-focused invocation? I don’t understand. (Nor am I almighty.)
    I’d omit “in a rude and barbarous age,” and instead THANK God for raising up “your deacon Alcuin.” (We’re here evidently trying to make our own era sound less rude and barbarous than his, which in the light of violence, hate, genocide, terrorism and assorted run of the mill everyday atrocities, is open for debate.)
    The petition asks for mental illumination that will show forth eternal truth. I may be too analytical in this, but that sounds like a category mistake. If our minds are “illumined” then we’ll KNOW something. If we want to SHOW FORTH a truth, we have to DO or BE in some way. I won’t suggest how to adjust this, but if you agree it’s more than inconsequential semantics, by all means, be illumined.
    I’m gratified the collect does have a “[so] that” clause: “that we may show forth your eternal truth.” Others are possible, but there is nothing wrong with that one. I like it. Thank you. Alquin should be pleased with the collect!
    READINGS: The lesson from the apocrypha is absolutely and totally well chosen – excellent! The psalm’s emphasis, on the other hand, is really on righteousness and obedience to the law, not primarily learning, truth or wisdom) with a conventional expectation of good luck given its customary “wisdom” spin as divine providence. It’s the kind of “wisdom” Job’s friends would approve – a Lucky Charms approach to religious imperviousness to human vulnerabilities so popular among televangelists. I think we could do better — even within the wisdom passages of the Psalms — perhaps with Psalms 19 or 119, or better yet, 78:1-8, but I’m sure my voice is a minority on this, and I don’t expect this one to change. At least nobody will feel unlucky as a result.
    The gospel is well chosen – a good selection for the commemoration and an important reading in its own right. The Titus passage has been sized up well in other comments, and needs to be changed (unless you want to limit it to verse 1 alone).
    I doubt we can go wrong with any of the proper prefaces – this one works well with Al Quinn.

    • Mr Lavoe, I normally agree with you on collect structure, but here I think LFF/HWHM has it right with the illumine->show forth bits. It nicely expresses the James idea of the necessary connection between pistis (=orthodoxy) and erga (=orthopraxis). A little more poetically (though I’m no poet): a rightly ordered heart rightly orders the world.

      I do agree that “almighty” isn’t perfectly in line with the rest of the collect, but it’s pithy and orthodox (which is better than some of the more “creative” invocations of the HWHM collects) and doesn’t cause any problems.

      Rereading this collect, I once again have to express my admiration for the use of light imagery in this collect. It reminds me of I-III John — it really is that good. “Light of learning…illumine…show forth” — a perfect literary balance and a wonderful paradigm of the process and goals of Christian education. This just might be my favorite HWHM collect.

    • I second John’s points about omitting ‘rude and barbarous’ (didn’t C S Lewis call this ‘chronological snobbery’?), and about the language in the collect. All semantics is (are?) consequential, or at least revealing: the idea that what we know we must be ‘showing forth’ without effort is a hindrance to any serious sharing of the gospel.

      And given the number of times the word ‘forth’ already occurs in Episcopal services, I’d avoid adding more unless there were no alternative.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s