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14.05.03, Dales, Alcuin: Theology and Thought

14.05.03, Dales, Alcuin: Theology and Thought

In 781, Charlemagne invited an Anglo-Saxon schoolmaster named Alcuin of York to join his palace school. Alcuin eventually arrived and passed some seasons at court, before accepting an abbacy at St. Martin's at Tours. There, he spent eight years writing volumes 100 and 101 of Migne's Patrologia. He died in 804, a teacher to many and a friend to most. If the bare facts of Alcuin's career do not align fully with his place in myth and legend, at least they leave room for imagination. Alcuin as the evangelist of Anglo-Saxon intellectual achievement--the savior of the insular legacy, without whom Bede's learning could have found no outlet to the wider world-- has become a time-honored tradition of Anglophone medievalist scholarship, and Alcuin boosterism will be familiar to most readers of TMR.

Alcuin: Theology and Thought is the most recent effort on Alcuin's behalf, and the latest from Douglas Dales, an Anglican priest and a prolific author with many and varied interests. His book purports to be "a thorough and wide-ranging consideration of Alcuin's spiritual and intellectual life as a teacher" (from the back cover). As such, it complements Dales's earlier, more strictly biographical approach in Alcuin: His Life and Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 2012), by focusing more intently upon Alcuin's intellectual and theological leavings.

Dales tackles his subject in twenty-five short chapters, distributed across seven parts. Successively, these address "Alcuin's Formation and Reputation" (Chapters 1-4), "The Adoptionist Crisis" (5-9), "Mission, Episcopacy and Monarchy" (Chapters 10-13), "The Bible" (Chapters 14-16), "Prayer" (Chapters 17-19), "Education" (Chapters 20- 22) and "Poetry" (Chapters 23-25). Dales's project, then, is even more ambitious than advertised, embracing nothing less than Alcuin's entire oeuvre, together with the broader circumstances of Charlemagne's cultural and religious programs. Behind a bland forward by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury ("Alcuin deserves to be a key figure in the evolution of the mediaeval mind..." [10]), Dales also expresses his prefatory "hope that this study...will demonstrate Alcuin's seminal importance for early medieval theology, and that in due time he will be formally recognized as a Doctor of the Church..." (11).

The present reviewer does not share Dales's optimistic view of Alcuin's theological legacy, and believes that modern scholarship is still striving to arrive at a balanced assessment of the Alcuinian corpus. Nevertheless, he suspects that even sympathetic readers will find Dales's work challenging. The author marshals an impressive body of material, including many extracts from Alcuin's letters and a broad array of citations to secondary scholarship. Yet all the information is underdigested, and at times the reading experience feels akin to trudging through a massive card file of sundry notes, loosely arranged under appropriate headings. Amid and among all of these factoids are ever renewed pleas for Alcuin's influence and importance, never clearly supported by the analysis that surrounds them. The whole cannot succeed in being more than a sum of its parts, and amid thousands of trees we miss all sense of the forest.

A deeper yet selective approach will permit a closer exploration of Dales's work, and reveal a series of more local defects. Parts 2 and 7, on Adoptionism and Alcuin's poetry, are representative.

An important component of Part 2 is Chapter 6, which surveys the "Frankish Reaction" to Adoptionism. The Adoptionists were a small group of Spanish theologians whose views on the person of Christ, as in some sense the adoptive Son of God, offended Alcuin and his Frankish colleagues. On page 68, Dales has just finished discussing the 799 council at Aachen, where Alcuin secured the final condemnation of Felix of Urgel, the foremost proponent of Adoptionism, for heresy. One of Dales's overarching goals is to subordinate Carolingian-era interest in the filioque (a preferred Frankish supplement to the creed, by way of declaring that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son) to the anti-Adoptionist polemic:

The condemnation of Adoptionism at the synod of Aachen brought peace of a kind on one front; but at that moment trouble erupted in Rome and Pope Leo III fled for his life to Charlemagne at Paderborn, returning under his protection to his see, his authority much reduced at a critical moment for the western Church. The year 800 saw the traditional standing of the pope and the Byzantine emperor hamstrung, laying upon Charlemagne and his advisers the heavy responsibility, as they saw and felt it, of maintaining and strengthening orthodox Catholic Christianity. This was by no means secure by 804, the year in which both Alcuin and Elipandus of Toledo died. The tenacity with which the Carolingians continued to press the dogmatic significance of the Filioque has to be seen therefore against this background (68).

At root, Dales's argument is not complex: In 800, Charlemagne became emperor, and this sharpened the sense of responsibility that he and his court theologians felt for proclaiming Christian orthodoxy. Yet beyond this basic point, these lines brim with opaque and problematic ideas, and raise many questions in this reviewer's mind. Were Charlemagne and his advisers at all happy to farm out decisions about Christian orthodoxy to the pope and the Byzantines before 800? And how can we know what these men actually "saw and felt"? Did Spanish Adoptionism, a learned controversy among a confined group of Frankish and Spanish theologians, really pose a serious threat to "orthodox Catholic Christianity," such that it "was by no means secure by 804"?

The answers to these questions do not fall in Dales's favor. It is widely known that the Franks did not need an insecure pope or an imperial title to appropriate "heavy responsibility" for "orthodox...Christianity." Interest in ecclesiastical matters, whether liturgical or doctrinal, had defined Carolingian politics since the reign of Pippin III, and the iconoclastic controversy proves that Frankish theologians felt capable of acting unilaterally in theological disputes as early as 790. And though Dales strives mightily--both in this paragraph and throughout his book--to fold the filioque into the anti-Adoptionist campaign, even he must admit that this creedal innovation predates Adoptionism by many centuries, and sparked controversy only in the context of differing Byzantine opinion, first in 792 in the course of work on the Libri Carolini, and later in 808/9, when Greek monks in Jerusalem complained about the variant practices of their Frankish neighbors. Ninth-century theologians did not insist on the dual procession to refute Spanish Adoptionists; rather, both controversies reflected deeper concerns at the Frankish court about the person of Christ and assorted implications for Trinitarian relations.

These errors matter, for they stem from Dales's heedless promotion of Alcuin's intellectual and theological legacy. The consequences, major and minor, are evident on nearly every page. For example: Annalistic sources inform us that Alcuin wrote a response to the acts of the Second Council of Nicea; though the text has been lost, Dales can call it "carefully composed" (49). Since the work of Ann Freeman, we have known that Theodulf of Orléans wrote the Libri Carolini. Dales is not equipped to challenge this view, but he is not above mining the (broadly discredited) work of Leopold Wallach for evidence of Alcuin's involvement in the composition of select passages. This leaves little room for Freeman's "caveats," for only by believing in "the essentially collaborative nature" of the Libri Carolini can Dales find room for his hero in this venture (254-255). Similarly, Dales exposes his readers to Ganshof's old thesis, which "alleged that Alcuin was instrumental in fomenting the idea of a "Christian empire" and steering Charlemagne into the role of 'emperor' in the years immediately leading up to his coronation" (145-146), while confining a brief reference to Donald Bullough's sensible "reservations" to an endnote (274). Dales's efforts to bind the filioque to Spanish Adoptionism are merely another move in this game: While Alcuin took the lead against the Adoptionists, the most active eighth-century proponent of the filioque was Theodulf. By subordinating the latter initiative to the former, Dales hopes to keep Alcuin ever at center-stage.

This hagiographical project leaves Dales ill-equipped to handle the less flattering aspects of Alcuin's legacy. Confronted with the awkward fact that Alcuin persistently and erroneously equated the Adoptionists with Nestorians, Dales seems flummoxed. In moments of lucidity, he can bring himself to admit that Alcuin's argument "did not always do the subtleties and traditions within which the Spanish bishops were debating" (61). Elsewhere, Dales finds it helpful to note that Alcuin was merely following the lead of Pope Hadrian I in equating the heresies, but that too seems to strike him as unsatisfying. There is nothing left but to shrug off these distinctions as mere technicalities. The main thing, he writes, is that the "implications" of Spanish Adoptionism "as a mode of Christology had similar consequences and dangers, as Alcuin and others certainly perceived them" (60). Or, without the grammatically dubious hedging:

While it may have been technically an error to see Spanish Adoptionism as Nestorianism in Latin dress, the impact and implications were the same as the earlier heresy; and it was that which concerned Hadrian, as it also concerned Alcuin and Paulinus of Aquilea (66).

Of course neither the "impact and implications" of Nestorianism nor the "impact and implications" of Adoptionism are ever explored, let alone compared or assessed. Dales is not writing that kind of book. He is, instead, writing the kind of book in which Felix "was incorrigible," and in which Adoptionism "had baneful consequences in the hands of less informed theologians" (65). Dales is also writing the kind of book in which John Cavadini's analysis of the content of Adoptionist theology is acknowledged only to be swept aside, because, under Felix, "Customary expressions of belief of considerable antiquity were being metamorphosed into a definite heretical movement" (65). [1] Needless to say, Dales is quick to admire Alcuin's bearing in the face of such relentless provocation. Thus we must read of his "irenic" manners, his "strong pastoral concern," and his choice to "[avoid] the tone of episcopal condemnation evident in the writing of Paulinus of Aquilea" (75).

At least with Alcuin as poet, in Part 7, the argument strays to the nebulous realm of literary achievement, and the stakes are lower. Dales introduces us to Theodulf, intensively discussed throughout previous chapters, as if we had never encountered him before ("Another poet who followed Alcuin's lead...was Theodulf, a Visigoth who became bishop of Orleans..." [221]), and then proceeds to imagine Alcuin and his fellow courtiers as "a circle of literati conversing against the backdrop of a richly acquired but ancient cultural inheritance, newly appropriated and celebrated both visually and verbally in a self-conscious and sophisticated manner" (222). We have to be assured again and again that Alcuin was a good poet; various poems are "distinctive," or draw on a "rich range of Latin," are "of great beauty" (223); select examples contain "wit and tenderness as well as stern rebuke" because Alcuin, when writing with his students in mind, "did not mince his words" (226). Though "Alcuin's Latin poetry embodies a confluence of influences, both Latin and Anglo-Saxon" (228), Dales must ultimately report that most of Alcuin's production was written not in England but on the continent, and that no Anglo-Saxon poems in Alcuin's name survive. No matter: "There is no reason to suppose that, like Bede before him, Alcuin was not a bi-lingual poet" (235). Here Dales finds help from an eccentric monograph by W.F. Bolton, on Alcuin and Beowulf, an Eighth-Century View (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1978). [2] "In a magisterial study, which is the finest examination of Alcuin as a writer, Bolton has shown how Alcuin illuminates many details and themes in Beowulf, and vice versa" (236). If Beowulf cannot stand in for Alcuin's lost Anglo-Saxon poems, at least "Bolton's conclusion about the purpose of the literary devices in Beowulf would also be true about Alcuin's poetry" (236).

Sometimes fantasy gets the better of Dales, especially when he writes about the otherwise inaccessible attitudes and impressions of Alcuin's contemporaries. Thus we read that "Alcuin truly was...a pastor pastorum" (225) to his episcopal acquaintances, presumably to no one more than Arn of Salzburg, who "...preserved Alcuin's letters so carefully, not just for personal reasons, but because he recognized their exemplary quality of auctoritas, their fidelity to patristic teaching. For him as for many of Alcuin's other disciples he was a true and eloquent Father of the Church himself as their teacher and spiritual mentor" (240). As always, no analysis or citations are necessary to establish these points.

The bibliography, which Archbishop Williams finds to be "most impressive and helpful" (9), carries some strange errors, frequently in the spelling of Italian and (more often) German titles (French and English get more consistently correct treatment). This reviewer is not above searching bibliographies for references to his own work; upon doing so, he found that the title of his edition of Alcuin's De fide (with E. Ann Matter) was rendered, not once but twice, as De fide Sanctae Trinitate et de Incarnatio Christi. Quaestiones de Sanctae Trinitatis (323 and 338). [3] Dales cites Alcuin's work by referencing the bibliographical numbers assigned by Jullien and Perelman in their Clavis, but never points to the precise page numbers or even, for the most part, to the edition or translation used. [4] Relatedly, he provides copious citations to entire monographs or whole articles, but only occasionally indicates which precise pages are at issue.

Alcuin and the Carolingian Renaissance have enjoyed their share of sympathy from modern scholars. Now they need honest assessment. Alcuin's continental career did indeed coincide with renewed Frankish interest in intellectual and theological matters, a resurgence in literary culture, and an exponential increase in manuscript production. But if we want to understand this moment in European history, we must also face its less glorious aspects. Carolingian-era scholars like Alcuin were deeply concerned with orthodoxy and authority, and this sometimes limited their capacity for independent thought. They were reluctant to compose Latin that wandered too far from patristic formulations, and they were quick to raise the charge of heresy against original thinkers and outsiders. Alcuin's legacy is not one of unvarnished achievement, and we should not expect it to be. At least our Anglo-Saxon schoolteacher is interesting. That is more than can be said for many a plaster saint.



1. John C. Cavadini, The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785-820 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993).

2. For some perspective, see Patrick Wormald's review in Speculum 55 (1980): 770-773.

3. Alcuini Eboracensis: De fide sanctae Trinitatis et de incarnatione Christi; Quaestiones de sancta Trinitate (Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaevalis 249; Turnhout: Brepols, 2012).

4. M.-H. Jullien and F. Perelman (eds.), Clavis Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Aevi. Auctores Galliae, 735-987, II: Alcuinus (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999).