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In search of Alcuin of York's 'lost' library
Alcuin of York
The library may have been destroyed during Viking raids on York

A new exhibition in York is shedding light on one of Europe's most important 'lost' libraries.

Eighth-century York was one of Europe's leading intellectual centres owing to the library and school headed by the scholar, Alcuin of York.

Whilst plenty of evidence exists about the school, all trace of Alcuin's library has vanished.

The exhibition runs in the Old Palace at the Minster, which now houses the Minster Library, until April.

Alcuin of York

He was born between 730 and 740 and his family may have been modest landowners in Yorkshire.

Alcuin was educated in the cathedral school at York, and went on to become master of the school in 778.

The library has vanished. No books now existing can be proven to have come from it. But it was extraordinary.
Dr Mary Garrison, University of York

He was sent to Rome, in 781, to petition the Pope on behalf of York and on his return he met with Charlemagne, King of the Franks.

Impressed by the scholarly man, the King invited him to stay at the royal court where he became one of Charlemagne's chief advisers on religious and educational matters.

Towards the end of his life he became abbot of St Martin's monastery at Tours in France.

Solving the mystery

The new exhibition, organised by Dr Mary Garrison, of the University of York's Department of History, assembles clues to try and solve the mystery of what became of Alcuin's library.

It also features new designs by Yorkshire calligraphers; Dorothy Wilkinson, Sue Sparrow and Angela Dalleywater based on the distinctive eighth-century Carolingian minuscule script that Alcuin encouraged his scribes to use.

York Minster library
The present library at the Minster is to host the exhibition on Alcuin's library

The display also includes high quality photographs of manuscripts, which are now preserved in various locations across Europe and North America.

Dr Garrison says: "The library has vanished. No books now existing can be proven to have come from it. But it was extraordinary.

"Students came from afar to study with Alcuin. The library was dispersed or destroyed, but the surviving information about its growth, use and disappearance make a fascinating and inspiring story."

She believes the library may have been sent to mainland Europe or was destroyed during the Viking attacks on York and Northumbria in 866 and 867.

"The school and library of York were the finest in eighth-century Europe. Alcuin and his teacher before him taught a range of subjects wider than any other scholars of their time," Dr Garrison says.


The exhibition is a collaboration between the Minster library, the University, local calligraphers, the Yorkshire Museum, and the Danelaw Living History Centre at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming.

The Very Reverend Keith Jones, Dean of York, says:

"Scholarship and letters have been studied at York since the eighth-century and these beautiful traces of Alcuin's library are a very moving record of that long history still alive today."

Alcuin's Library: The Great Lost Library of Eighth-century York runs until 15 April 2011.


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