The scholarly deacon

Daily Reading for May 20 • Alcuin, Deacon, and Abbot of Tours, 804

Charlemagne invited a number of scholars to come to the court to assist him, most notably Alcuin, the celebrated deacon of York. . . .The prayers of the Carolingian period bore a personal and devotional character. Several good examples of prayer books (libelli precum–small booklets of prayer) have survived. It has long been held that Alcuin was the compiler of libelli such as these. While questions of authority and textual originality are far from settled, the choice of texts and their compilation prove especially revelatory of the spirituality of the early Middle Ages and serve to delineate the boundaries of the penitential and confessional discipline of this period. Far from being original, the libelli are rather evidence of prayer collections that had been fairly well circulated. The books are punctuated by prayers of Irish and Anglo-Saxon origin, called confessions, along with many other penitential prayers. Furthermore, these booklets, which were compiled principally in the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon lands, are patterned after the monastic psalter. Most of the prayers that are of devotional nature seem to have been intended for private use, a characteristic typical of Irish spirituality at this time. . . .

One feature of the Celtic prayers is the confession of sins. The sinner enumerates all the parts of the body as though each part has been guilty of perpetrating sin. . . .The confession attributed to the pen of Alcuin is of an equivalent length to the Irish examples and contains the typical anatomical list. However, this list is in reverse order, beginning with the feet and terminating with the head. Composed for Charlemagne, this prayer demonstrates the Celtic influence on the deacon from York. The way in which sins are spoken of is very dynamic: the feet are slow to obey the commandments of the Lord, the knees bend more in fornication than in prayer, and the stomach swells with gluttony and drunkenness. . . .Contrasted with the Roman style of prayer, these texts are marked by affective exuberance, a trait characteristic of Irish devotion.

From “The Conversion of the Nations” by Michael S. Driscoll, in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, edited by Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (Oxford, 2006).

Past Posts