An aspect of Alcuin: ‘Tuus Albinus’ – peevish egotist? or parrhesiast?

An aspect of Alcuin: ‘Tuus Albinus’ – peevish egotist? or parrhesiast?

An aspect of Alcuin: ‘Tuus Albinus’ – peevish egotist? or parrhesiast?

Mary Garrison

Early Middle Ages: (Vienna, 2010), pp. 137-151.


No student of alcuin’s extensive letters can avoid engaging with the question of what we might call Alcuin’s ‘knowability’ as an individual. In over 270 letters from about a decade and a half, alcuin of york (†804) informed, advised, consoled and admonished contemporaries, reacted to current events, and maintained a circle of friends and partners in reciprocal prayer that extended from Jerusalem to Ireland and from rome to salzburg. Alcuin left york in the 780s to become a friend and chief advisor to Charlemagne. He lived through a world of headlong change: civil order and political stability crumbled in anglo-saxon England while on the continent, charlemagne went from strength to strength. Alcuin both changed his world and changed his views in response to the events he witnessed.

My own longstanding interest in Alcuin and in the letters of other early medieval people leads in two contrasting directions. on the one hand, there are the general methodological issues raised when one wishes to use the extant evidence to explore the inner worlds of medieval people – whether that evidence is scant, abundant, enigmatic, or apparently transparent. on the other, there is a whole set of very particular biographical and psychological questions about Alcuin himself. the ways that I – or indeed any scholar – will approach the two challenges, general and particular, are always interrelated. so answers to the particular questions about any historical person will always imply a set of methods, assumptions and values even when these are not made explicit. Here, accordingly, I shall begin with some very general relections on the topic of this volume before looking at a single aspect of alcuin, one which might easily appear to be an indication of ‘ego trouble’, namely, Alcuin’s predilection for offering unsolicited advice and admonition to all and sundry, but especially to those of higher status. in his own words to charlemagne: “Perhaps someone may say: ‘Why is that man occupying himself with affairs not his own. He does not realize that nothing concerning your well-being ought to be for- eign to me.’” Forte quislibet dicit: “Quid ille homo alienis se ingerit rebus?” Non agnoscit nihil mihi alienum vestrae prosperitatis esse debere. or in ‘ego-trouble’ terms: who on earth did Alcuin think he was?

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