Clues to Alcuin's lost library
Eighth-century York owed its reputation as one of the most intellectually influential cities in Europe to the library and school headed by the scholar Alcuin. But while rich and vivid evidence exists about the school, all traces of the library have disappeared.
Who was Alcuin?
Alcuin was born around 735 and educated at the cathedral school in York. He became a teacher then a deacon here before joining the court of Charlemagne in the 780s where he served as one of Charlemagne’s chief advisers on religious and educational matters and taught; on the continent he also wrote prolifically in all fields. He was remembered as ‘the most learned man anywhere to be found’. Most of the details about Alcuin’s life come from his letters and poems. He wrote one poem about York which provides valuable details about the school and library. In it Alcuin lists many of the authors whose writings had been collected for the library. Alcuin finished his life as Abbot of Tours; there, he continued to teach and write, and also inaugurated the production of the one-volume Tours Bibles in Caroline minuscule. This was the new, clear script that he and Charlemagne, and others, encouraged scribes to adopt.
A new exhibition at the Old Palace, which houses the present-day York
Minster Library, organised by Dr Mary Garrison, of the University’s
Department of History, assembles clues to solve the mystery of Alcuin’s
library. The Great Lost Library of Alcuin’s York features eye-catching
new designs by Yorkshire calligraphers Dorothy Wilkinson, Sue Sparrow
and Angela Dalleywater, based on the distinctive eighth-century Caroline
minuscule script that Alcuin encouraged his scribes to use.
As well as the calligraphy, the display includes high quality photographs of manuscripts, which are now preserved in various locations across Europe and North America.
“The library has vanished. No books now existing can be proven to have come from it,” says Dr Garrison. “But it was extraordinary. Students came from afar to study with Alcuin. The library was dispersed or destroyed, but the surviving information about its growth, use and disappearance make a fascinating and inspiring story.”
She suggests that the library was either exported to mainland Europe or destroyed in the devastating Viking attacks on York and Northumbria in 866 and 867.
“The school and library of York were the finest in eighth-century Europe. Alcuin and his teacher before him taught a range of subjects wider than any other scholars of their time. I hope that this exhibition will allow York residents and visitors to learn about and value this remarkable era in the city’s past, and to appreciate the extraordinary origins of the Minster Library.”
The exhibition represents an exciting collaboration between the Old Palace (York Minster’s centre for historic collections), the University, local calligraphers, the Yorkshire Museum, and the Danelaw Living History Centre at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming.
“Scholarship and letters have been studied at York since the eighth century and these beautiful traces of Alcuin’s library are a very moving record of that long history still alive today,” said The Very Reverend Keith Jones, Dean of York.
Peter Young, Archivist and curator of the Minster’s manuscript collections at the Old Palace, said, “This exhibition… only looks back on the history of education and learning at our cathedral, but, in doing so, also draws attention to the importance of the role that the Minster plays today in preserving our Christian heritage.”
- Alcuin’s Library: The Great Lost Library of Eighth-century York runs until 15 April 2011.
- This story features in the March/April issue of the University of York Magazine.