- Alcuin: His Life and Legacy by Douglas Dales
Douglas Dales has provided a useful introductory biography of Alcuin, a scholar trained in York who left England for the Continent toward the end of the eighth century. The book is divided into two parts: the first focuses on the time before Alcuin went to Charlemagne’s court and his dealings with major figures in England; the second (titled “Charlemagne”) describes Alcuin’s life after his departure from England and the major events in the political and religious history of Charlemagne’s time. [End Page 115]
Alcuin’s letters provide the majority of the surviving information for the people and events explored in the book, and they are described in considerable detail throughout the book, often providing the framework for the narrative. Thus the first part includes chapters on “Letters to England” (chapter 3), focusing on those to Lindisfarne, Wearmouth-Jarrow, and York; and Alcuin’s relationship with Offa (chapter 4), most clearly visible in the surviving records of correspondence. The second part includes chapters on “Alcuin and Charlemagne” (chapter 6), Alcuin’s role as a statesman (chapter 7), the events surrounding the accusations of perjury and adultery made against Pope Leo III and the coronation of Charlemagne (chapter 9), and Alcuin’s abbacy of Tours (chapter 10). Chapter 5 (on Charlemagne) provides a mini-biography and some useful background for understanding the context in which Alcuin was operating. Dales also considers Alcuin’s role as an emissary and his involvement in the legatine synod of 786 (chapter 2), his attitudes to monasticism (chapter 11), and his perceptions of York (chapter 1) and Rome (chapter 8)—chapters that utilize Alcuin’s poetry more than some of the others. The final chapter (12, “Letters, Friends and Manuscripts”) discusses the manuscript collections of Alcuin’s letters and the contexts in which these were put together. This chapter is useful in considering how the surviving evidence can be contextualized, and it is therefore surprising that this material is really only covered in the final chapter, rather than offered nearer to the beginning of the book. It is also rather surprising that so little mention is made of Alcuin’s role as a teacher and of the major contributions that Alcuin made to Charlemagne’s programs of educational, religious, and liturgical reform.
There is much in this book to be commended: it is a good synthesis of many of Alcuin’s works (especially his letters and some of his theological works) and of some recent scholarship. General readers and undergraduate students will find this an accessible (and very readable) introduction to Alcuin’s life and times, and the presentation of Alcuin’s own words is particularly helpful here. In places, however, it would have been useful to see more criticism of the surviving sources and the accuracy (or otherwise) of the picture they present, as well as more direct engagement with the evidence beyond description of its contents. Dales also has a peculiar tendency to insert quotations from other scholars as whole sentences (or even whole paragraphs), which disrupts his narrative somewhat, making it in places rather like a patchwork of other scholars’ opinions. There are occasional typographical errors and some oversimplifications (as, for example, the statement on page 27, which rests on no cited evidence, that the Old English poem Beowulf is probably contemporary with Alcuin; or the comments on page 134 about ancient Greek and earlymedieval thought on the immortality of the soul and the corporeality of the body). In summary, this book provides a good basic introduction to the life and times of Alcuin and Charlemagne, but for a more in-depth understanding readers would need to turn directly to Alcuin’s own letters and other works, and to the scholarly works on which this book rests. [End Page 116]