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Show me a man who knew everything...and I'll show you Alcuin of York
My Medieval Europe class discussed Alcuin of York today. Alcuin was head librarian in the monastery at York circa 800. He was hired by Charlemagne (ruled 768-814) to create a standard of education for all monks in the Frankish empire. He promoted literacy among the clergy across western Europe, and created Carolingian Miniscule, a standard of handwriting that forms the base of our alphabet letters today.

Not too interesting, I know, but among what remains of Alcuins writings there is a dialogue between Alcuin and Pepin, Charlemagnes son. Alcuin used word-sparring like this to teach the prince logic and rhetoric. I think this is the origin of Show meand Ill show you Their definitions about the world are fascinating, proof that good things did come out of the Dark Ages. Here are some excerpts from the dialogue for your enjoyment.

Pepin: What is a letter?
Alcuin: The guardian of history.
Pepin: What is a word?
Alcuin: The betrayer of the mind
Pepin: What is life?
Alcuin: The joy of the blessed, the sorrow of the wretched, the expectation of death
Pepin: What is freedom for a man?
Alcuin: Innocence
Pepin: What is the belly?
Alcuin: The guardian of the weak
Pepin: What is the sea?
Alcuin: The way of the bold
Pepin: What is snow?
Alcuin: Dry water
Pepin: Master, I fear to go higher.
Alcuin: What led you this high?
Pepin: Curiosity

Pepin: What is it that makes bitter things taste better?
Alcuin: Hunger.
Pepin: What is it that people never grow tired of?
Alcuin: Money.
Pepin: What is sleep for those who are wide awake?
Alcuin: A hope.
Pepin: What is hope?
Alcuin: A cooling off after work, uncertain success.
Pepin: What is friendship?
Alcuin: A similarity of minds.
Pepin: What is faith?
Alcuin: Certainty in what is unknown and wonderful.
Pepin: What is a wonder?
Alcuin: I recently saw a person standing, working, and walking, who never was.
Pepin: How can it be? Explain.
Alcuin: A reflection on the water

Alcuin: What is that which is and is not?
Pepin: Nothing.
Alcuin: How can it both be and not be?
Pepin: It exists in name, but not in fact.
Alcuin: What is a quiet messenger?
Pepin: The one I hold in my hand.
Alcuin: What do you hold in your hand?
Pepin: Your letter, master.
Alcuin: Read it with profit, my boy.

Copied in Carolingian Civilization: A Reader. Ed. Paul Edward Dutton. 1996. Letters of Alcuin, pg. 123-128.

Originally published at Phronemophobia.


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