« PreviousContinue »
ALCUIN'S SCIENTIFIC SYSTEM.
The spirit of his teaching may be gathered from his division of the sciences, which is fuller and more systematic than those of Aldhelm and Bede. The science of sciences, in which all, as it were, are summed up, is philosophy. All things, human and divine, are the subject-matter of philosophy; and according as it is certain or speculative, it is science or opinion. It is divided into three minor branches—physics, ethics, and logic. Under physics, are contained arithmetic, astronomy, astrology, geometry, mechanics, medicine, and music: the value assigned to music is no doubt of Greek origin ; the others were the best known of the positive sciences. Under ethics, come the four cardinal virtues, apparently for the sake of symmetry. Logic is made up of dialectic and rhetoric. That astrology should be accounted a science was natural; the conception that the stars were mere satellites to the world, was bound up with the idea that they influenced it; and two treatises ascribed to Bede, discuss the meaning of thunder on particular days, and under what aspects of the moon it is right to bleed; more doubtful, but also more important, were the astral influences on birth and fortune. The omission of grammar is difficult to explain. Theology is seemingly not included, but the practice of a religious life is put under ethics ; and the super-sensual intuition of God, of which Alcuin speaks elsewhere, was after all only another aspect of philosophy. Out of this vast unity of science, which Alcuin no doubt expounded in all its parts, there remain only a few treatises which can certainly be called his. These are mostly in the form of catechisms, and explain grammar, orthography, rhetoric, dialectics, and the lunar year. Priscian and
Priscian and Donatus, Isidore and Porphyry, are the sources of Alcuin's learning, but he has not borrowed servilely ; he corrects, abridges, or dilates, as occasion prompts, and intersperses characteristic anecdotes and reflections. He himself, no doubt, would have rested his fame on his controversial theology, on his poems, and on his biographies of saints.
Iste philosophus non fuit Evangelicus ? Alcuinus : Non sed rhetoricus. Carolus : Cur credimus ei. Alcuinus : Ille secutus (est) suam artem.
Alcuin, De Dialecticâ, pp. 335, 352; De Rhetoricâ, p. 331.
EARLY FORGERIES OF TREATISES.
The interest to us of his scientific teaching, is, not that it is original, but that it marks the limits within which thought was moving; narrow boundaries indeed for reason, but complete and symmetrical in themselves.
The reputation of a great teacher, in times when literature was a monarchy rather than a republic, was at once propagated and impaired by the issuing of forged works, which were recommended with his name. We know the titles of no less than twenty-nine scientific treatises which were thus attributed to Bede; and proverbs, poems, and fables were fathered upon the great Alfred. Sometimes, perhaps, there was no intention to deceive ; it was only that a particular subject-matter was classed with the works of its most eminent authority; anachronisms of time and place are inserted freely, as if there were no plan to mislead, and no fear of criticism. Alcuin has suffered like others in this respect, and the spurious works fathered on him in science are as numerous as his undoubted productions. Among those which may unhesitatingly be condemned is one which never even bore his name till it was first printed in the seventeenth century, but which has unfortunately been used by so candid and learned a scholar as M. Guizot to convey an impression of Alcuin's capacity as a thinker. It consists of a number of verbal quibbles in question and answer. “ What are letters ?—The gaoler of history. What is speech ?-A traitor to the thought. Who is the father of speech ?—The tongue. What is the tongue ?—The scourge of the air. What is the air ?—The guardian of life.” Now, that Alcuin's ability was far above the level of this wordcatching, his scheme of science alone is sufficient to show. But in fact conversations of the kind quoted abound in early and mediæval literature; they were the amusement of idle hours, just as Englishmen in the nineteenth century sometimes play at proverbs and definitions. In one very popular English
" It is called Pippini regalis et no simi juvenis disputatio cum Albino Scholastico.-Alcuin, pp. 352-354; Guizot's Discours sur l'Histoire de France, tom. 2.
DECAY OF ANGLO-SAXON LEARNING.
form they appear as dialogues between Salomon and Saturn, the wisest of all kings, and the typical god of wisdom. In another more modern version, Salomon is a Christian emperor, who converses with Marcolf, a Teutonic Sancho Panza. Sometimes it is a bishop, who detects a priest in uncanonical practices, and threatens to punish him if he cannot answer a string of difficult questions. The questions themselves differ with the framework of the story, and are dialectical in those which were meant for the schools, like that ascribed to Alcuin, while they sparkle with coarse and palpable humour in the versions which the people learned. But they are only as straws tossed about in the eddies of wind, which cannot be trusted to show its real direction.
With Alcuin's departure from England, learning seemed to leave the island. Northumbria was distracted by civil wars, and the Saxon parts of the island produced no single man distinguished for literary eminence. Alfred was constrained to import foreigners, and the Welshman Asser, the Irishmen Dicuin and Scotus, and the Germans Grimbold and John the Saxon, only serve to make the darkness of the ninth and tenth centuries more visible by their nominal connection with the island. The tradition of classical learning almost died out of the land : and the beginnings of a national literature in the Saxon chronicles and songs, and in translations of Danish sagas, like that of Beowulf, are too meagre and wanting in original power to be regarded as illustrations of a movement in thought. In fact, the people, divided between war and devotion, at one time distracted by the Danes, at another occupied by the practical reforms of Dunstan, had no leisure for abstract speculation, or works of art. The general ignorance of the clergy was one of the reproaches by which the Normans excused their usurpation; and the instant revival of letters after the conquest can hardly have been accidental. Mechanics and music seem to have engrossed the secular energies of
1 Mr. Kemble has apparently exhausted this subject in his Dialogues of Salomon and Saturn.
KNOWLEDGE OF BOOKS.
Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Wulstan. Yet there was one Saxon in the tenth century (960-1006 A. D.), who, though chiefly remembered as a divine, yet showed a certain esteem for profane learning. Archbishop Ælfric was the author of a grammar translated from Priscian and Donatus, of a glossary of Latin colloquial terms, of a hand-book of Latin conversation, and perhaps of a manual of astronomy. Society does not rise beyond the elements of learning, and the primate, under Ethelred, descends lower in the reconstruction of knowledge than even Alfred needed to stoop.
The appliances of learning differed widely in extent at different epochs, but were always insufficient. Still the library at York, which Alcuin has described, would have been thought good many centuries later. It contained the principal Fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Chrysostom ; among poets, Virgil, Statius, and Lucan; and of other writers, Aristotle, Cicero, Pliny, and Boetius. It was strong in grammarians; but the list of historians is scanty, Orosius, Trogus Pompeius, and Bede being the best known.” The frequent quotations in Bede, Aldhelm, and Alcuin, prove that other standard authors, Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, and Lucan, were widely read ; Bede, at least, possessed a knowledge of Greek literary history;* and Greek words are quoted to illustrate rules of grammar, or interspersed in treatises and charters with a frequency that shows how long a smattering of the language must have been retained. During the eighth century, England was even able to export books. After the Danish invasion, things changed, and instances of private libraries, such as that of one Athelstan, under Egbert, who possessed ten volumes of his own, are not to be looked for under Alfred. Yet, in the early part of the eleventh cen
* Æthelwold made bells and wrote on the quadrature of the circle. Wulstan wrote on the harmony of tones.—Biog. Ang. Sax., pp. 435, 439, 471. 2 Biog. Ang. Sax., pp. 485, 486.
s Alcuin, p. 257. • De Arte Metricâ, cap. 3, where he says that Homer scarcely ever lengthens a short syllable by emphasizing it. Cf. cap. 25, where he quotes and explains the Greek names for different kinds of poetry.
LIBRARIES AND LETTERS.
tury, Bishop Leofric gave sixty volumes to the church of Exeter. One of these, the “Codex Exoniensis," is the chief source of our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The other volumes are mostly theological, but comprise Persius and Statius, with Porphyry, Isidore, Orosius, and Boetius. While a single individual was able to accumulate such extensive stores of learning, the wealthy abbey of Croyland possessed, in 1091 A.D., three hundred large, and four hundred small volumes, which it assuredly did not owe to the Norman invaders.? It is probable that the monastic revival had already borne fruit in promoting the transcription of manuscripts; the monks were at once more learned and had more leisure for such occupations than the secular clergy. Yet these facts taken alone would give too favourable an idea of the state of learning. A single active abbot might create a library. The highest laymen were ignorant of writing, and often, probably, of reading, down to the latest times of the Saxon monarchy; they sign charters with a cross. Even the knowledge of those who served as notaries to the witan and other gemots must commonly have been mechanical and unintelligent. Above all, such knowledge as there was, was rapidly petrifying; opinions were received and taught with Chinese docility; the country needed to be roused from its insular apathy by the shock of invasion; to bring up questions of law and right, by a larger acquaintance with the continent, with philosophy, and with the Pandects.
· Biog. Ang. Sax., pp. 37, 38.
2 Ingulfus, Gale, vol. i., p. 98. 3 “When we consider how improbable it is that any of the witnesses either did or could write his own name," &c.—Kemble's Saxons in England; Cod. Dip., vol. i., p. xcviii.