Want to get quick answers to questions like what is life or what is the moon? The medieval scholar Alcuin can give you them!
Alcuin of York was one of the greatest scholars of the Carolingian era. Invited by Charlemagne to come to his court in 782, Alcuin would write about theology, grammar and poetry. He was also the tutor to Charlemagne’s sons Pepin and Louis.
In one of his works, Alcuin created a dialogue between himself and Pepin, in which the young prince asks him a series of questions. Alcuin made use of ancient sources to create his answers, but his work offers some insights into the thoughts the scholar, which at times could be very shrewd and even very funny. The text begin with:
Pepin: What is a letter?
Alcuin: The guardian of history.
Pepin: What is a word?
Alcuin: The betrayer of the mind.
Pepin: What produces a word?
Alcuin: The tongue.
Pepin: What is the tongue?
Alcuin: The whipper of air.
Pepin: What is the air?
Alcuin: The guardian of life.
Pepin: What is life?
Alcuin: The joy of the blessed, the sorrow of the wretched, the expectation of death.
Pepin: What is death?
Alcuin: An unavoidable event, an uncertain pilgrimaged, the tears of the living, the final confirmation of a will, the thief of mankind.
In another section, Pepin asks Alcuin about parts of the body:
Pepin: What is a head?
Alcuin: The pinnacle of the body.
Pepin: What is the body?
Alcuin: The dwelling place of the soul.
Pepin: What is hair?
Alcuin: The clothing of the head.
Pepin: What is a beard?
Alcuin: A difference between the sexes, a token of age.
Pepin: What is the brain?
Alcuin: The preserver of memory.
Pepin: What are eyes?
Alcuin: The guides of the body, dishes of light, spies of the mind.
Pepin: What are nostrils?
Alcuin: Conveyers of odor.
Pepin: What are ears?
Alcuin: Collectors of sound.
Pepin: What are teeth?
Alcuin: The millstones of our biting.
Pepin: What is the lung?
Alcuin: The preserver of air.
Pepin: What is the heart?
Alcuin: The receptacle of life.
Alcuin even offers answers about nature:
Pepin: What is the sun?
Alcuin: The light of the world, the adornment of the heavens, the grace of nature, the splendour of the day, the dispenser of hours.
Pepin: What is the moon?
Alcuin: The eye of night, the bringer of dew, the foreteller of storms.
Pepin: What are stars?
Alcuin: A painting of the heavens, guides for sailors, ornaments of the night.
Pepin: What is the sea?
Alcuin: The way of the bold, the end of land, the divider of regions, the home of rivers, the source of rain, a refuge in danger, the grace of satisfaction.
Pepin: What is water?
Alcuin: The helper of life, the cleanser of dirt.
Alcuin continues to give more answers to questions:
Pepin: What are vegetables?
Alcuin: The friends of physicians, the joy of cooks.
Pepin: What is it that makes bitter things taste better?
Pepin: What is that people never grow tired of?
Pepin: What is sleep for those who are wide awake?
Alcuin: A hope.
Pepin: What is hope?
Alcuin: A cooling off after work, uncertain success.
Pepin: What is friendship?
Alcuin: A similarity of minds.
Pepin: What is faith?
Alcuin: Certainty of what is unknown and wonderful.
You can read more of Pepin’s questions, and Alcuin’s answers in Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, edited and translated by Paul Edward Dutton, which was first published by Broadview Press in 1993.
Top Image: Charlemagne at Alcuin, painted by Jean-Victor Schnetz in 1830, now at the Louvre