Alcuin had a long career as a teacher and scholar first at the school at York and finally as Charlemagne's leading advisor on ecclesiastical and educational affairs. From 796 until his death he was abbot of the great monastery of St. Martin of Tours.
From 782 to 790 Alcuin had as pupils the king of the Franks, the members of his family, the young men sent for their education to the court, and the young clerics attached to the palace chapel; he was the life and soul of the Academy of the palace, and we have still, in the Dialogue of Pepin (son of Charlemagne) and Alcuin, a sample of the intellectual exercises in which they indulged. One surviving tool of the drive to reform education is Charlemagne's circular letter De Litteris Colendis, "On the Study of Letters", which Alcuin wrote.
In 790 Alcuin returned to his own country, to which he had always been greatly attached, and stayed there some time; but Charlemagne invited him back to help in the fight against the Adoptionist heresy, which was at that time making great progress in the northern Spain. At the council of Frankfurt in 794 Alcuin upheld the orthodox doctrine, and obtained the condemnation of the heresiarch Felix of Urgel. After this victory he again returned to his own land, but on account of the disturbances which broke out there, and which led to the death of King AEthelred (796), he bade farewell to it for ever. Charlemagne had just given him the great abbey of St Martin at Tours, and there he passed his last years.
He was educated at the cathedral school of York, under the celebrated master AElbert, with whom he also went to Rome in search of manuscripts. When AElbert was appointed archbishop of York in 766, Alcuin succeeded him in the headship of the episcopal school. He again went to Rome in 780, to fetch the pallium for Archbishop Eanbald, and at Parma met Charlemagne, who persuaded him to come to his court, and gave him the possession of the great abbeys of Ferrieres and of Saint-Loup at Troyes.
He made the abbey school into a model of excellence, and many students flocked to it; he had numerous manuscripts copied, the calligraphy of which is of extraordinary beauty. He wrote numerous letters to his friends in England, to Arno, bishop of Salzburg, and above all to Charlemagne. These letters, of which 311 are extant, are filled chiefly with pious meditations, but they further form a mine of information as to the literary and social conditions of the time, and are the most reliable authority for the history of humanism in the Carolingian age. He also trained the numerous monks of the abbey in piety, and it was in the midst of these pursuits that he was struck down by death on the 19th of May 804.
Alcuin is the most prominent figure of the Carolingian Renaissance, in which have been distinguished three main periods: in the first of these, up to the arrival of Alcuin at the court, the Italians occupy the chief place; in the second, Alcuin and the Anglo-Saxons are dominant; in the third, which begins in 804, the influence of the Visigoth Theodulf is preponderant.
Alcuin transmitted to the Franks the knowledge of Latin culture which had existed in England. We still have a number of his works. His letters have already been mentioned; his poetry is equally interesting. Besides some graceful epistles in the style of Fortunatus, he wrote some long poems, and notably a whole history in verse of the church at York: Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae.
We owe to him, too, some manuals used in his educational work; a grammar and works on rhetoric and dialectics. They are written in the form of dialogues, and in the two last the interlocutors are Charlemagne and Alcuin. He wrote, finally, several theological treatises: a treatise de Fide Trinitatis, commentaries on the Bible, etc.