When we use the word “hero” we usually think of someone in the military fighting against impossible odds, but persevering to keep the cause alive. Do you ever think of educators and scholars as heroes? Military heroes have famous names like George Washington or Audie Murphy. But what if there were people who saw their entire civilization crumbling…the lights going out across their world…and yet they got to work preserving the learning of the past so that future generations could benefit and rebuild a world of culture and science again?
As the western Roman Empire fell into decay in the late fourth century, there were Romans who believed it was important to preserve the learning of ancient pagans and Christians. We can thank men like Boethius, Benedict of Nursia, Cassiodorus, the historian Procopius, and countless unnamed monks and nuns who continued to write, copy, and promote classical education. None of those people were perfect…none of us in any generation are. Some contributed more than others, but they kept the lamps of learning alive in the “dark ages.”
By the eighth century, there was a flowering of education in northern Europe. One scholar stood out among all: Alcuin of York. He was not anything really “important” like a knight or a priest or bishop. He was a deacon in his church. He was also a poet, a mathematician, theologian, and a philosopher. The generation after him called him “the most learned man anywhere to be found.” Alcuin left for us a collection of math problems (all word problems) which shows that the medieval world was not composed of a bunch of sword-swinging dummies. They could hold their own with mathematicians of any era. He systematized and helped in preserving for us the Carolingian script which had both upper case and lower case letters. The deacon from York actually invented the question mark, although it did not look like our modern version.
At the court of Charlemagne, Alcuin wrote and had copied manuals on grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics. Learning to argue a point in a logical manner was important to people of his day. He also wrote a history of the church in York England, and numerous commentaries on the Bible. Because he lived and taught at the court of Charlemagne he inspired in the Frankish kingdom a love of Latin culture and literature that continued to flourish throughout the Middle Ages.
He never fought in any battles or discovered any great cures for illnesses. Alcuin just learned and taught, copied and inspired.