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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”).

Starting with Crux decus es mundi, Iessu de sanguine sancta (“Cross, you are the world’s delight, sanctified in Jesus’s blood”), it reads line by line like a devotional piece about redemption through Christ’s sacrifice, but when read as a cross within a diamond within a square, each line has a message of salvation. The structure of the acrostic lines is symbolic. The diamond represents the world redeemed by Christ’s death and the symbol of His faith. See Futility Closet for an image of the poem and a translation.

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.

Charlemagne's Court

Charlemagne receives manuscripts from Alcuin (1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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 himself could speak Latin and 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.”

Parchment came from sheepskin, and a large book required a lot of sheep. So to have the raw materials for a book, someone needed enough land to devote to feeding sheep instead of raising crops. On top of that was the cost of labor. A normal size manuscript took a team of scribes two to three months to copy by hand, and then it was edited by the head of the shop. That doesn’t include the artist to decorate letters and paint leaves kept in reserve or the assembly and binding.

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?

Sources

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

Originally published April 8, 2015, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

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