Tag Archives: history

The Style Book of Alcuin

Alcuin’s style book is probably waiting to be discovered in a church basement somewhere

Something that’s intrigued me for many years: besides standardizing written Latin, did Alcuin standardize its pronunciation, too? I’ve been told that Alcuin instituted a policy of one consonant = one sound only, or one vowel = one sound only. I don’t know if a style guide by Alcuin exists. It’s hard to believe he didn’t write one. It would be such an Alcuin thing to do.

I suspect we have ecclesiastical (church) Latin because that’s the pronunciation Alcuin made official. Ecclesiastical Latin is why around Christmastime we sing “in eks SEL sees Dayo” and not “in eks KEL sees Dayo.” We use a soft palatal s or ch sound instead of the hard gutteral k sound the old Romans would have used. My own personal theory is that Alcuin was English, that’s the way they pronounced Latin in England, so that’s the pronunciation that got his stamp of approval. Who knows?

Angels We Have Heard on High:

From a few years back. I idiotically informed everyone that Alcuin was Irish: https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/western-civ/

This guy gets into the weeds a bit but he’s well worth the listen:

Embrace your inner Latin nerd! This is what the internet was built for. When I was a kid you’d have to go to college to hear a great lecture like this:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-classical-journal/article/abs/english-pronunciation-of-latin-its-rise-and-fall/A0860C6625BE5A0E45FD58A18797E6FB
https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/roman-catholic-and-orthodox-churches-general-biographies/alcuin
https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/13984/how-old-is-ecclesiastical-latin-pronunciation
https://www.fisheaters.com/latin.html

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Lettering as sweet as the dew on the vine, so it is

You can still find the uncial style of writing every March on Saint Patrick’s Day cards and furniture-sale advertisements. Uncial style looks Irish. It was popular with the Irish monks.

Uncials

The old-style square-cap Latin was written in all capital letters, as if the ‘caps lock’ button were on the whole time. It reads like you’re being yelled at (maybe that was the idea).

In Alcuin’s day, monks wrote on parchment. Parchment isn’t cheap and all-caps takes up a lot of space. The monks learned to conserve space by making the first letter of a sentence a big capital letter and writing the rest of the sentence in small letters. The small letters were only an inch high—an ‘uncia’ in Latin—so this style of writing is called ‘uncial’ (OON se al).*

Uncials. Look how round they are compared to the Latin square-caps.

The small letters are called miniscules. The monks formed them with pens, so they became more round in contrast to the chiseled-in-stone letters of the old days. The miniscules grew tails, like ‘d’ or ‘p’ which extended up or down. They look different from capital letters.

The big capital letters are called maguscules MAH-juss-kyoolz). In time the maguscules became large versions of the miniscules.

This is the style Alcuin updated to Carolingian and promoted across the Holy Roman Empire. Latin translations of Arabic texts would be written in the Carolingian style. Alcuin dreamed up an additional feature: punctuation. Thanks to Alcuin you can tell when sentences end and new ones begin because they’re marked with a period. You can tell if the writer is asking a question, because there’s a question mark at the end. I’m personally grateful for the M-dash—which I probably overuse.

*…or maybe the monks shouldn’t be taken too literally. ‘Uncial’ may have been their jokey way of saying the letters are small.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/uncial
https://www.britannica.com/topic/uncial
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Uncials.html
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Carolingian.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/majuscule
I wanted to get a take on uncials from a calligrapher. Here’s that wonderful lady who makes her own ink. She says it’s St Jerome’s fault they’re called uncials. She shows you how to write them:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU-dHTEkAx0&t=335s
You weirdos who’ve been loyally following this blog will no doubt remember this post:
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/measuring-distance-in-rome/

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We’re going to need more books

Charlemagne wanted to promote a culture of learning throughout France and then the Holy Roman Empire. He didn’t have tv or the internet to spread this learning around, so Charlemagne would need to use books. Many of those old books from classical times (during the Greek & Roman Empires) were hard or impossible to find.

° Bad news: Charlemagne was made aware that many original manuscripts of ancient writers and philosophers had been lost or destroyed—like when the library at Alexandria got torched. Probably Alcuin and the other teachers told him.
° Good news: Charlemagne was made aware that copies of these ancient manuscripts existed in the Near- and MidEast, translated into Arabic. Probably Alcuin again.
° Plan of action: Charlemagne and Alcuin began an empire-wide program of finding the Arabic copies and translating them into Latin.

As I mentioned a few posts back, written Latin had taken on a different character in every different kingdom—it didn’t look like the square-cap Latin chiselled into a column that Julius Caesar would have recognized. Copying and translating these Arabic manuscripts would be a golden opportunity to standardize writing—get everybody in the empire writing the same way. Here’s the thing: instead of making all the monks go back to square-cap Latin, Alcuin had a different idea. He noticed that a lot of those regional writing quirks made Latin easier to read.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25669.How_the_Irish_Saved_Civilization
https://omniglot.com/writing/latin2.htm
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/charlemagnes-reforms/

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The mighty Alcuin

Alcuin with his students

Charlemagne was king of France at 20-something years old. He was remarkable simply for being able to make big, important decisions—a good general and executive. Charlemagne was also eager to learn new things.

Charlemagne’s dad and grand-dad had set up a school at the royal palace. It was meant to teach young princelings how to behave at court, how eventually to become a king. Charlemagne wanted to learn more than that. He wanted to know literature, art, math, science, music and to understand Christianity more deeply…so he gathered up scholars to teach him and his sons.

One scholar was Alcuin of York, in Northumbria, in the British Isles. The school at York was doing booming business—its students learned the liberal arts as well as Christian Ed, which was the new kind of curriculum Charlemagne was after. Alcuin had been an honor roll student and was encouraged by his mentor, the Venerable Bede, to stick around the York school to teach. Alcuin was headmaster by the time Charlemagne dragooned him to teach at his palace school. Alcuin not only taught at Charlemagne’s school, he ran it. He introduced the same curriculum that had been so successful at the York school. Alcuin used the classical framework of the trivium and quadrivium—“The trivium consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, while the quadrivium consists of arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry.” Alcuin taught the basics first: the rules of speaking & writing; how to think in an organized way; then how to persuade through speaking & writing. After that his students were ready for the more complicated subjects in the quadrivium.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcuin
https://jameswoodward.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/alcuin-of-york/
I quoted from this article: https://www.hillsdale.edu/hillsdale-blog/academics/understanding-trivium-quadrivium/

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Help wanted

Charlemagne’s challenge was to consolidate communications across the Holy Roman Empire. There wasn’t much he could do about vernacular languages—the languages used by different tribes in different kingdoms. What he could do was standardize Latin as spoken and written in the Church and government. He wanted a letter or manuscript written by a monk in southern France to be legible and understandable to a monk in northern Germany. Charlemagne needed to find someone smart enough to understand the problem, solve it, and train the monks who did all the writing. He needed a teacher. Where would he find one?

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/consolidate

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Cheeseburgers

Empires are like fast food chains. The successful ones are organized and standardized. F’rinstance, wherever in the world you go to eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger, it will taste and cost the same as a McDonald’s cheeseburger anywhere else in the world. Achieving that consistency takes tremendous managerial skill. Same with empires.

If someone hands you an empire, the first thing you do is start a program of organization and standardization. How do I know this? Look at Darius. Darius managed the Persian Empire with a highway system, postal service and standard weights and measures (including currency). He put up stones chiselled with imperial messages in 3 languages.

Alexander the Great enforced a program of Hellenization—everybody had to speak Greek and adopt Greek culture, laws, religion—across the diverse regions he’d conquered.

Caesar Augustus updated the Roman Empire’s highway system and standardized its weights and measures. His chiselled proclamations were in square capital letters in classic Latin.

Charlemagne inherited Rome’s road system and Rome’s standard weights & measures, so no major overhauls needed there. Communication was the big problem—language. The Church and whatever was left of the government used mediæval Latin. Depending on the tribe or kingdom, regular shmoes spoke Frankish/French/Gallic or German or Anglo-Saxon or Irish or Flemish or Italian or Czech or Polish. Writing was done by scribes (monks), in monasteries, in Latin. They wrote in ink on parchment using broad-nibbed pens. It was natural, since pens are more flexible than chisels, that writing would become rounder, more flowing, more cursive. Monasteries were isolated so each one developed its own version of cursive writing. To sum up: every tribe in the Holy Roman Empire spoke a different language. The one language—Latin—that might have been universal was written differently in every monastery.



https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/2/what-languages-were-spoken-within-the-holy-roman-empire
https://www.quora.com/What-language-s-were-spoken-within-the-Holy-Roman-Empire
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_Latin
https://overviewbible.com/vulgate/

(I don’t want to be misunderstood: this post is NOT some kind of sneaky endorsement of the bloated, pork-laden, power-grabbing “infrastructure” bill currently being promoted by the U.S. administration.)

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How do you run an empire once you have one?

What would you do if a handful of kingdoms—inhabited by tribes who fought with each other a lot—were thrown together and styled “The Holy Roman Empire” and you were put in charge? How would you get the empire up and running? Here are your main problems:

Communication. Each of those tribes is speaking some weird variation of Latin and other languages so they don’t understand each other too well. The economy. There’s been a constant, dreary, never-ending state of war for the past few centuries. Unless they sell swords, it’s been tough for regular shmoes to make a living. Farmers might sell their crops if (apart from the usual worry of late frost or early frost or too much rain or drought) a battalion of soldiers doesn’t march through your field. Banking, finance and the stock market haven’t been invented yet so wealth accumulation isn’t something that most serfs do. Culture. Forget about being a writer or an artist or a musician: those sensitive plants have been drafted into the army. Hardly anybody reads—even Charlemagne has to sound out the letters. Except for a few monks in monasteries, nobody writes. Architecture is mostly about fortifications. There may have been music but nobody wrote down any tunes. So, not much culture. Religion. Not every tribe in the Holy Roman Empire is Christian. Do we force those non-Christians to get with the program?

The Holy Roman Empire is a hot mess. Those countries have been conquered, all right, because Charlemagne came from a family that’s good at commanding a large military. He was great at it. But how was Charlemagne going to run this empire in peacetime?

What would you do?

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The die is cast! Part IV

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, ad 800

(continued from the previous post) …in spite of the non-stop mayhem of Justinian’s rule he manages to achieve the ripe old age of 83 even surviving his beautiful young wife Theodora so the next emperor is his nephew Justin II then Tiberius then Maurice then Phocas who has Maurice and his whole family killed so you can guess Phocas is a pretty violent ruler and the eastern Byzantine Empire continues along the same lines for the next six or so centuries it’s run by despots and becomes a giant complicated overregulated corrupt slow-moving bureaucracy with a population attached so let’s switch back to the western half after all this is supposed to be a history of Western Civ okay since the 400s the Frankish Merovingian kings and Theodoric the Ostrogoth keep France, Italy, Germany & Spain running more or less the same way they had during the Empire one big unifying force is the Christian Church so as these kingdoms and duchies are turning into countries they have Christianity in common in France the Carolingian Dynasty gets started with Charles Martel who slaps down an Arab invasion next is his son Pepin and after him is Charlemagne—Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (as they’re calling themselves by now) from ad 800-814 Charlemagne rules over France, Spain, Italy, Germany, & Hungary and oversees a mini cultural renaissance (more about that in a minute)…

Whew! Time out. Let’s give Gibbon a rest here—after 4 Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® posts of Decline & Fall it may be possible that I’m losing the room. My goal at any rate was to make the jump from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. So here we are! Mission accomplished, gang!

https://www.pallasweb.com/deesis/daily-life-in-constantinople.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okph9wt8I0A
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtu8CveFBGw
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNURBs091pk
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-worldhistory/chapter/the-holy-roman-empire/
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/09/18/may-we-be-frank/
https://www.instagram.com/p/B3-HCj-gCVs/
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/10/24/charlemagne-pope-leo-iii-from-yesterday/
https://www.studentsofhistory.com/charlemagne-the-holy-roman-empire

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The die is cast! Part III

(I’m still giving Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment! Continued from the previous post)

The Byzantine power couple: Justinian & Theodora (or maybe it’s Boris & Natasha, or Gomez & Morticia…)

…so even though Romulus Augustulus surrendered his crown to Odoacer the barbarian it doesn’t mean Odoacer’s the new emperor in the west because let’s face it: the western Empire is over, kaput, yesterday’s news, stick a fork in it—there’s no imperial law enforced by imperial military any longer so Odoacer is king of a handful of kingdoms that will one day become Italy and Dalmatia the Vandals take over the African parts of the old Empire the Huns are still pillaging villages and killing everyone, the Visigoths, Goths, Burgundians and Franks are duking it out over Gaul, in the British Isles the Celtic Britons (like King Arthur) are trying to keep out the Angles and the Saxons but the Saxons take over so the Celtic Britons head for the frontiers (what are today Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and northern France), Visigoths take over Spain, the Lombards (long-beards!) conquer northern Italy then from 493-526 Theodoric the Ostrogoth reclaims a big chunk of the old western Empire by invading Italy then forming alliances with the Goths and Visigoths (during this time the philosopher Boethius is imprisoned and writes A Confederacy of Dunces*) meanwhile in the east we got Emperors Anastasius, Justin I, then in 482 Justin I’s nephew Justinian who more or less shares the throne with his wife the actress, Theodora (before Justinian it was illegal to marry actresses so good news for Hollywood) there’s violent rioting by sports fans who really really support their chariot race teams he builds a new beautiful cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, where an old one had burned down Justinian’s generals Belisarius and Narses fight the Persians, the Vandals in Africa, and the Moors Belisarius also gets back Sicily and Naples from the Goths—Rome too the Franks invade Italy and Belisarius fights them then fights the Persians in Syria Ethiopians ally with Justinian then the Goths revolt and re-recapture Rome until Narses beats them the Franks and Alemanni invade Italy again but get beat again Belisarius keeps out the Bulgarians there are comets and an earthquake a tsunami possibly a volcano whose smoke dimmed the Sun for awhile the bubonic plague famine Justinian codifies the Law everybody in the eastern half decides to speak only Greek except for the government who stick with Latin…**

* Please forgive my lame gag. Arianism—the heresy that says Jesus wasn’t really divine—had rattled Christianity and people were touchy about it. Boethius wrote using his knowledge of Greek philosophy and logic to explain the existence of G-d and the divinity of Christ. When he was (innocently) caught up in political intrigue, Boethius was imprisoned and later executed. While serving his sentence Boethius wrote his masterwork, The Consolation of Philosophy (which book is one character’s obsession in the zany novel A Confederacy of Dunces). https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius
https://groveatlantic.com/book/a-confederacy-of-dunces/

** Even by the standards of the other emperors Justinian seems to have a whole lot of war and mayhem going on—Procopius wrote about it in his tell-all biography:
http://byzantinemilitary.blogspot.com/2016/05/procopius-how-justinian-ruined-his.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ius
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justinian_I
https://nefchronicles.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/justinian-theodora-rise-of-a-farmer-a-striptease/

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/arts/television/sam-denoff-tv-writer-is-dead-at-83.html

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