Today, a king and a scholar invent education. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When he was 39, Charlemagne
did an odd thing. He invited an English scholar,
Alcuin, to his court. Alcuin had been in Europe the
year before, and Charlemagne saw that he was very
bright. He asked Alcuin to bring learning to the
kingdom of the Franks.
Alcuin was 46. That was old in those days. He was a
gentle cleric with the best mind around.
Charlemagne was worldly and boisterous. But he knew
he'd need education to build civilization in the
European wilderness. They made quite a pair.
Charlemagne would rise at dawn for his instruction.
He went at book-learning like a kid with a new toy.
When he'd mastered the great works of St. Augustine
and St. Jerome, he asked Alcuin why he couldn't
have a dozen or so scholars like that in his own
court. "What!" cried Alcuin. "God himself had only
those two and you want twelve!"
A fine spirit of play marked their unbalanced roles
of student and master, king and servant. Alcuin
told Charlemagne to watch his language -- to behave
himself. Once he wrote about Charlemagne,
Behold our Solomon, resplendent with the diadem
of wisdom ... Cherish his virtues, but avoid his
Charlemagne took it in good grace. Then, after five
years of education, he issued the first of three
proclamations to all clergy. They too were to take
up letters and learning.
The clergy were an uneducated lot. But Charlemagne
kept the heat on them. The proclamations were a
peculiar fusion of Charlemagne's authority and
Alcuin's fine classic prose. They reflected the
alchemy of two personalities who shared one vision.
Alcuin retired after 14 years. And when Charlemagne
died in AD 814, the empire he'd built died with
him. But the bond between Alcuin and Charlemagne
had spawned another empire that did not die. For
that enforced schooling took root in the
Alcuin's ideas about curriculum eventually carried
through into the first universities. Your college
was the final inheritor of that joyful flight into
learning. And we read the third of Charlemagne's
proclamations. It's a surprise.
Charlemagne had decreed that all male children
should be schooled. Of course that was only a hope,
1200 years ago. For most who were touched by it, it
could mean little more than learning to read parts
of the catechism.
Still, a wise overgrown schoolboy and a quiet man
of books had put their very different heads
together. They'd set into motion the most important
thing that came out of what we call the Dark Ages.
And that was no less than modern education.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
West, A.F., Alcuin and the Rise of the
Christian Schools. New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1892, 1909.
Howell, W.S., The Rhetoric of Alcuin and
Charlemagne. New York: Russell &
Russell, Inc., 1965.
See also many available biographies, historical and
literary discussions, and encyclopedia articles on
Alcuin. I am grateful to Professor Sally Vaughn, UH
History Department, for her critical help with this
O quam dulcis vita fuit Oh how sweet life became
dum sedebamus in quieti When we sat together in quiet
inter liborum copias. Midst all these books.
From the 1897 Encyclopaedia
Example of the distinctive "Carolingian" script
developed in Charlemagne's court -- a side-effect
of Alcuin's influence. This script was the forebear
our modern lower case letters
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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