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May 19 Alcuin of York, innovator of the Capital Letter

Alcuin was one of the greatest minds of the Eight Century. Spearheading the educational reform of the Court of Charlemagne, he advanced learning across Europe. He is credited with developing the font Carolingian minuscule, a clear script which has become the basis of the way the letters of the present Roman alphabet are written, with its innovative use of Capital letters and smaller letters.


It was part of wider reform of learning in the court of Charlemagne, and standardising the scripts that were written in monasteries, made them much more readable than the old unspaced capital script. As a consequence, most mathematical works were freshly copied into this new script and it is now thought that many of the works of ancient Greek mathematicians have survived because of this copying process.

York had become an internationally important centre of learning with one of the greatest libraries in Western Christendom in the 8th Century thanks to Aelbert or (Ecgberht) who had been a disciple of the Venerable Bede, who urged him to raise York to an archbishopric. And with his brother using his authority he oversaw the re-energising and reorganisation of the English church, with an emphasis on reforming the clergy and on the tradition of learning that Bede had begun. Unlike Bede whose centre of learning had been a monastery in York it was the Cathedral, which meant it was a bit more open and the young Alcuin arrived as a pupil at York cathedral school, School. Ecgbert was devoted to Alcuin, who thrived under his tutelage and he himself would become a teacher and eventually the headmaster and was ordained a deacon, but not the priesthood, nor did he take monastic vows. Alcuin continued building up a fine library, one of the best in Europe, and made the school one of the most important centres of learning in the West.

In 781, King Elfwald sent Alcuin to Rome to petition the pope for official confirmation of York's status as an archbishopric and to confirm the election of the new archbishop, which would be signified by the Pope awarding him the Pallium. On his way home, he met King Charles (who would become Charlemagne) in the Italian city of Parma. Although this was the second time, he met him, he made a big impression. He returned to York to deliver the Pallium which in its current form is a long and narrow-white band which is woven from the wool of lambs raised by Trappist monks. It is worn by looping its middle around one's neck, and was originally peculiar to the pope, but for many centuries has been bestowed by the Holy See upon metropolitans and primates as a symbol of their conferred jurisdictional authorities. Its symbolic value relates to the Good Shepherd. The lambs whose fleeces are destined for pallia are solemnly presented at altar by the nuns of the convent of Saint Agnes outside the walls and ultimately the Benedictine nuns of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere weave their wool into pallia.

Alcuin accepted an invitation from Charlemagne to go to Aachen to a meeting of the leading scholars of the time. Following this meeting, he was appointed head of Charlemagne's School and there he developed the Carolingian minuscule, a clear script which has become the basis of the way the letters of the present Roman alphabet are written. Whilst he was in Aachen he was able to bring across some of the manuscripts from York and thus saved them from the Viking devastation that most of the northern part of the British Isles was undergoing at the time. Viking raiders where more interested in the jewelled casings of books and manuscripts and less about the knowledge that was contained within them. Alcuin was responsible for what is know now as the Carolingian renaissance and many of his students went on to transform Europe. He was charismatic and connected, a great networker and would keep in touch with his network by sending them poems, riddles and letters. He was very close to a lot of women especially at court, who didn’t feel threatened by him, which may give us an insight into his sexuality. Alcuin has been described as a ‘Sun Shining across Europe and when he retired from Charlemagne's School he became abbot of the Abbey of St Martin at Tours, where he had his monks continue to work with the Carolingian minuscule script. While in Tours, Alcuin arranged for some of his pupils to go to York to bring some of the rarer works that he had collected there back to Tours. I say this that you may agree to send some of our boys to get everything we need from there and bring the flowers of Britain back to France that as well as the walled garden in York there may be off-shoots of paradise bearing fruit in Tours.


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