Christian Living Explained: Alcuin’s De virtutibus et vitiis liber in a Carolingian Instructional Manual

SESSION I: Lived Religion in the Early Middle Ages

Christian Living Explained: Alcuin’s De virtutibus et vitiis liber in a Carolingian Instructional Manual

Laura A. Hohman (The Catholic University of America)


This paper focused on Alcuin of York’s contribution to the standardisation of Carolingian Christian texts for pastoral instruction. Carolingian reformers in the 8th and 9th century had the daunting task of Christianising their populace from the top down. How did they proceed without an established school network? They created and circulated instructional manuals packed with various texts on pastoral care. The works were carefully and intentionally selected and used a mixture of classical and repurposed Christian texts to aid in instruction.

Scholars can use these manuals to look at how Carolingians instructed their pastors. This paper focused on Alcuin’s text as an ideal teaching resource for pastors in training. The final manuscript was completed in the 9th century and was a modest work written in clear Carolingian minuscule. The manuscript was a mix of theological and liturgical materials but contained no penitential or liturgical calendar as it was not meant for use in urban centres. Alcuin’s text was used to familiarise pastors with texts and train them prior to ministering to their flock. Alcuin wrote this manual around 800 A.D. Alcuin was intentionally brief and clear to reach his audience and did not claim to be wholly original. He was not a monk but familiar with monastic life as he had lived in a monastery without taking monastic vows. To reconcile his longing for monastic life while doing his duty for the secular world, he created a new kind of Virtues and Vices treatise. He was familiar with the original Virtues and Vices treatise written by Cassian and Gregory. Like Gregory, Alcuin listed Pride as the worst vice. He also agreed with Gregory and Cassian that Gluttony was the first sin of man.

Hohman discussed how Alcuin differed from Gregory and Cassian in his choice of listing the order and importance of the vices. He uniquely merged and changed the original teachings on vices by Gregory and Cassian to suit his bias and teaching needs. Alcuin couples positive and negative reinforcements to spur his readers to action. These reminders were intended to motivate Christians to work for salvation, and be more merciful towards others lest God revoke his blessings upon them. Another important theme in his work is “memoria” – the importance of retaining knowledge. Remembering and honouring from personal experience – pondering upon future punishments, memory of past experiences, and the joys of the world to come. He included both implicit and explicit ways the pastor should relate to his flock, such as how to proceed in their relationship and modelled pastoral care through gentle love. Priests were protectors of the faith and teachers of the word, therefore, they needed to take extra precautions to avoid temptation lest their message to the flock become tainted. Christian living was not a mystical experience – it was action within daily life and through the guidance of a loving and caring pastor. Alcuin gave pastors in training an invaluable resource for the modern needs of Carolingian pastoral training. Reformers spread and repurposed orthodox texts that worked. Carolingian Reformers were compilers due to time constraint and the fact that they had an entire populace to educate. They were imaginative and had intent behind the texts they selected. Alcuin’s treatise was part of the the front lines of the Carolingian Reform movement.

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