Maybe you have heard of Alcuin of York. If you haven’t heard of him, perhaps you have heard of Charlemagne. Alcuin was recruited by Charlemagne to help rescue his palace and his kingdom from creeping, growing ignorance. Charlemagne ruled over a dark kingdom, in the middle of the Dark Ages. After the conquest of Rome (the ultimate sack of Rome occurred in 476 AD), with its invasion and then settling of the barbarians, much learning was lost as the years rolled by. When Charlemagne came to the throne in 771 AD, even he could not read and write. For some reason or another, this bothered Charlemagne greatly. He knew enough to know that he knew far too little–not just for a king but for a man.

In those days, a learned man was hard to find. Alcuin was from York–as in York, England. Charlemagne ruled in central and western Europe (from 771 to 814 AD) in what was called the Holy Roman Empire (not really Roman, not really holy, but an empire). So how did Alcuin come to meet Charlemagne? Alcuin was on a errand to Italy to meet with the bishop of Rome (aka, the Pope) and stopped to see Charlemagne on his travels. Once Charlemagne realized that Alcuin was a superlative scholar and teacher, he all but but arrested him and forced him to begin teaching at his palace. Alcuin, you see, was exceedingly well-educated, having been trained in the cathedral school in York by eminent school masters. He excelled so much as a student that he eventually became the school master of the cathedral school himself. Charlemagne succeeded in persuading Alcuin to lead and reform the palace school, requesting that Alcuin teach not only the Christian religion but the seven liberal arts as well.

In 782 AD, Alcuin joined a group of other scholars that Charlemagne had recruited and began his reforms in earnest. Under his leadership the nobility attending the palace school were taught the liberal arts with Charlemagne himself as one of his students. The king was a voracious student, no doubt trying to make up for lost time. He learned to read, but apparently never did learn to write well. After the reforms in the palace school Alcuin (and Charlemagne) set out to reform learning throughout the empire. Edicts were sent to monastery abbots and nobles urging and requiring reform. Alcuin began to travel and help start and reform schools. These reforms became a significant part of what historians call the Carolingian Renaissance.

In our own age, we have reformers galore, thousands of self-proclaimed experts, constant innovation, constant pedagogical and curricular experimentation. Alcuin taught the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Any chance that contemporary reformers will return to these master arts? That would be revolutionary.