By Kim Rendfeld
A poem within a poem. And the author’s only tools are stylus and wax tablet, pen and parchment.
Early medieval intellect is overshadowed by the period’s war, poverty, disease, superstition, and brutal justice. But it did exist even in an era commonly called the Dark Ages. And one wonderful example is Alcuin of York’s acrostic poem, “De Sancta Cruce” (“The Holy Cross”).
|An 1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz|
showing Charlemagne and Alcuin
Writers who marvel at this sophistication might wonder: How long had Alcuin worked on this poem? Did he start out writing it in this style, placing the words in a certain way, or did the structure emerge in the creative process? Did he go through several drafts on wax tablets before putting quill to expensive parchment?
Those questions remain unanswered. We do know Alcuin was educated. Born about 735 to a noble Northumbrian family, he entered the cathedral school at York as a child and was a bright pupil. Later, he directed the school for 15 years. While returning from Rome in 781, he met Charlemagne and became part of the Frankish monarch’s court.
In addition to being a great military leader, Charles was interested in Church reform, liked to surround himself with scholars, and had both his sons and daughters educated. The King could speak his native Frankish and Latin, understand Greek, and read, but he could not write despite an attempt to learn later in life.
Charles, his family, Alcuin, and others were among an elite few who could read. Even fewer early medieval people could write. The main reason, I suspect, is that books were expensive. They were so precious that owners invoked dire consequences if they were damaged. One scribe wrote: “The book was given to God and His Mother by Dido [of Laon]. Anyone who harms it will incur God’s wrath and offend His Mother.”
|From the ninth century |
So an early medieval person’s ability to read lay in their social class rather than their intelligence.
Had books been more affordable and literacy more widespread, what other poems and writing could be with us today? What talent was never realized?
Images are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, edited by Peter Godman
“Alcuin” by James Burns, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907). Retrieved from New Advent
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche
Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne by John Butt
Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel
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