Wednesday 20 October 2021

Alcuin, Charlemagne, Constellations and York


One of the greatest Saxon scholars, Alcuin (735-804) was born in Northumbria possibly in York itself in 735 , he would go on to become one of the best sources of information during the latter part of the eighth century. The young Alcuin went to the cathedral church school of York during the golden age of Archbishop Ecgbert who had been a disciple of the Venerable Bede. Here Alcuin became a monk and teacher. Within the monastic world he was able to gain access to magnificent libraries, he wrote educational manuals and copied classical texts including those of the great scientists of Greece, it was here that Alcuin became aware of was astronomy.

Don’t forget monasteries were the centre of learning at this time.

In 781 when he was returning from a visit to Rome he met with the King of the Franks, better known as Charlemagne who would unite most of Western Europe the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, and apart from building a massive empire Charlemagne was also very interested in astronomy.

At the Charlemagne’s invitation, Alcuin joined the royal court in 781, and became one of the king’s chief advisers on religious and educational matters. Alcuin was made head of the palace school at Aachen, which was attended by members of the royal court and the sons of noble families, and he established a great library there.

Charlemagne was fascinated by the movements of the stars and studied them carefully with the help of Alcuin and it was probably this work that produced some wonderful images of the constellations the Leiden Aratea this were copies of images of the constellations that had been produced by the Greek poet Aratus 310 BCE- 240 BCE whose work described the constellations and other celestial phenomena. The images are based on 38 drawings.


Alcuin would have been aware of this work and possible encouraged Charlemagne to get them re produced, but he did not live to see the work completed dying on 19th May 804 CE. The constellations themselves were produced probably near Aachen around 816 CE and even Charlemagne never saw this work being completed as he died in 814 CE.

If it had not been for Alcuin setting up the great library at Aachen the wonderful Leiden Aratea constellations images would probably never have been reproduced and could possibly have been lost for ever.

One of the colleges at the University of York is named Alcuin College.

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