The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 16 (2015)

The Rhetoric of Heresy: Alcuin, Adoptionism, and the Art of Language

Laura M. CarlsonMailto: Icon

Past & Present Fellow, Institute of Historical Research, London

©2016 by Laura M. Carlson. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2016 by The Heroic Age. Permissions granted for educational and personal purposes only.

Abstract: The twilight of Alcuin of York's career, following his appointment as abbot of St. Martin of Tours in 796 and prior to his death in 804, witnessed two major themes in his writing: the composition of treatises on language (i.e., De Dialectica and Diputatio de Rhetorica et de Virtutibus) and works against the pervasive Spanish "heresy" of Adoptionism. Despite Alcuin's reputation for assisting in the renaissance of classical and late antique grammatical and rhetorical work among the Carolingian intellectual elite, few scholars have investigated the extent to which Alcuin applied classical rhetorical or dialectical forms either within his political or theological treatises and letters. Considering the copious amounts of material Alcuin presented against the Adoptionist controversy throughout his career, this material provides an excellent resource with which to see how (or if) Alcuin employed his study of language outside the realm of the educational treatise. The use of rhetorical or dialectical devices to argue against the Adoptionist "heresy," what Alcuin considered to be the most important theological controversy of his lifetime, will augment our understanding of the evolution of Christian discourse and the role of language during this period.

§1.  Within the first few lines of Alcuin of York's Disputatio de Rhetorica et Virtutibus (c. 795), in which Charlemagne and Alcuin have an imaginary discussion about the value of rhetoric, Charlemagne straightforwardly asks Alcuin about the purpose of the linguistic discipline. "[It is] the art of speaking well,"1 Alcuin replies, echoing the definition of generations of both Christian and pagan grammarians and rhetoricians before him, from Isidore of Seville back to Cicero (Ad bene dicendi scientiam. Alcuin Disputatio de Rhetorica et Virtutibus).2 The "orality" of rhetoric remains Alcuin's focus for the remainder of the treatise, a text dedicated to the civic and political aspects of argument (e.g., how to present a legal case) and predominantly a synthesis of prior treatments of the subject, predominantly Cicero's De Inventione and Julius Victor's Ars Rhetorica, itself a fourth century summary of Cicero's De Oratore and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria (Kempshall 2008, 7). Despite this clear exhortation (and Alcuin's obvious interest) in the oral components to this discipline, analysis of this treatise has yielded conclusions about anything but Alcuin's interest in performative discourse. The most well-known and continually influential of these studies, Luitpold Wallach's Alcuin and Charlemagne, insisted that this text was not intended to be a treatise about rhetoric at all, but rather a speculum principis: a description of the royal virtues Charlemagne should embody so as to provide a good example to his subjects (Wallach 1959, 71; Luscombe 1997, 3).

§2.  This is perhaps a possible explanation for the treatise's existence, but an overly complicated one. Its intention as a political, rather than a specifically linguistic, treatise does not conform to either the milieu of rhetorical study during the period or its manuscript transmission history, as the Disputatio de Rhetorica et Virtutibus is typically paired with the De Dialectica, one of Alcuin's linguistice treatises.3 Although I do not mean to suggest that the treatise is apolitical in nature; however the approach to Alcuin's interest in rhetoric solely as a message of political acumen produces a disjointed understanding of not only Alcuin's appreciation for classical rhetorical study, but also more generally, the role of rhetoric as relevant to persuasive literate and oral discourse within the Carolingian world.

§3.  Scholars have been too quick to dismiss the applicability of Alcuin's rhetorical treatise with the argument that neither court cases nor evidence of oral discourse survive from the period. Yet this is far too narrow a perspective of the available material. Alcuin's reception and adaptation of the classical and late antique means of forming an argument played a vital role in his response to what he perceived to be a dangerous christological heresy: Adoptionism, a small Christian sect associated predominantly with northern Spain. The many public debates between Alcuin and the Adoptionist leaders have yet to be considered by scholars at all, let alone any potential relevance of these debates to understanding the use of rhetoric during this period. Alcuin's numerous surviving treatises on the topic of Adoptionism have never been considered as potential transcriptions of these public debates, let alone as witnesses to a continuing rhetorical tradition as part of an emergent Christian epistolary style, a precursor to the ars dictaminis of eleventh- and twelfth-century scholars. Even if these treatises were intended originally to be delivered as written (as opposed to oral) discourse, Alcuin's continued castigation of the Adoptionists for their lack of rhetorical style or eloquence implies Alcuin's practical application of this discipline as a skill to be used in the theological trenches rather than an academic discipline reserved only for the schoolroom. Both of these possibilities should force a reconsideration of Alcuin and the role of rhetoric within the Carolingian literate and oral world within the 790s.

§4.  But first we must situate Alcuin's involvement in the Adoptionist heresy within the larger framework of his education and career at the Carolingian court. Carolingian interest in Adoptionism was a direct result of Charlemagne's military success in the Spanish March in 789 (Chandler 2002 507; Cavadini 1993, 71). The heresy and its two leaders, archbishop Elipandus of Toledo (d. 805) and the bishop Felix of Urgel (d. 818), had faced censure from Spanish ecclesiastics, particularly from Beatus of Liebana, since the mid-780s; however, only under Carolingian rule during the 790s did adherents of the movement face castigation on a European-wide scale.4 Accused of reviving Nestorian ideas about the dual substance of Christ (i.e., Christ was "adopted" as the son of God), Adoptionism was declared anathema by the papacy as well as Frankish and Italian bishops. We can broadly divide Alcuin's involvement in the Carolingian response to Adoptionism into two waves. The first wave broadly may be defined as the aftermath of Charlemagne's conquest of the March in 789: including the 792 Council of Regensburg following which Felix was forced to recant his beliefs in Rome before Pope Hadrian I and the landmark 794 Synod of Frankfurt, during which the Adoptionists were denounced by the Frankish and Italian bishops as well as the pope (Hadrian I had been aware of the Adoptionist heresy in Spain as early as the mid-780s (judging from a letter dated to approximately 785); however, the Carolingian mission to bring Felix to Rome in order to recant before Hadrian demonstrates a Carolingian, rather than necessarily papal, interest in the heresy.5 The second wave, roughly the period between 797 and Alcuin's death in 804, was initiated by a 797 letter from Felix to Alcuin on the nature of Adoptionism and included the 798 Council of Rome and the 799 Council of Aachen.6 This was in addition to a Carolingian conversion mission to the Spanish March so as to prevent the heresy from spreading northwards led by Leidrad (archbishop of Lyons), Nefridius (archbishop of Narbonne), and Benedict of Aniane (Cavadini 1993, 185). Both of these anti-heretical "waves" should be understood within the context of the oral and written debates they fostered, that is, the public theological sparring between Felix and Alcuin as well as the numerous treatises and letters written between the various camps on the subject of heresy over the years. Although the agenda of many of these councils (namely that of Frankfurt) included matters beyond simply the theological merits of Adoptionism, all shared an ulterior objective: to confront publicly leaders of the Adoptionist sect and demonstrate the error of their ways.

§5.  Throughout his career, Alcuin time and again found himself (or placed himself) at the vanguard of Frankish opposition to Adoptionism. Alcuin's career at the Frankish court mirrors that of the rise and fall of the heresy within the early medieval Mediterranean. In the wake of the 794 Synod of Frankfurt, Alcuin was responsible for both the official letter of the Frankish bishops, the Epistola Episcoporum Franciae and a similarly themed letter assuming the voice of Charlemagne himself, the Epistola Karoli Magni ad Elipandum et Episcopos Hispaniae. Additionally, in his later years, following his retirement to the monastery of Tours in 796, Alcuin composed a number of treatises against the Spanish Adoptionists, including a small book against what he called the "heresy of Felix" (Liber Adversus Haeresin Felicis), a four-part work against Elipandus (Adversus Elipandum Libri IV), and finally, a prodigious seven-book treatise against Felix (Adversus Felicem Urgellitanum Episcopum Libri VII). This was in addition to the numerous letters written to Felix and Elipandus over the years, alongside other written works to various members of the Frankish intellectual elite on the subject of Adoptionism, be it preachers sent to the Spanish March to try and quell the heresy directly, as in the case with Benedict of Aniane, or simply to others he thought the matter of interest to discuss (and, from the variety of addressees of his letters, Alcuin seemed confident that this was a matter of interest to everybody).

§6.  Despite Adoptionism's prevalence in the writing of Alcuin, historians have overlooked these treatises and letters as to their value in understanding either Alcuin's compositional style or their potential importance in conveying elements of rhetorical discourse within the Adoptionist debates. Even Adoptionism itself is rarely granted a central place in the study of Carolingian religious politics, John Cavadini's 1993 work, The Last Christology of the West, notwithstanding. Although certainly the primacy of the 794 Synod of Frankfurt has been remarked upon for several years as the bastion of Carolingian attempts at Christian orthodoxy in the west, Alcuin's continued written efforts at fighting the christological heresy have remained strangely unexamined. Of course, several isolated attempts have been made over the years to understand exactly why Adoptionism proved of such interest to Alcuin (and seemingly to few others) during the late eighth century during both his career at the Carolingian court and following his retirement to the monastery of Tours (Cavadini 1997; Bullough 1997; Heil 1965). D. A. Bullough casually dismissed Alcuin's letter on behalf of the Frankish bishops from 794 saying, "there is no attempt to construct a systematic argument in the letter," a seemingly strange career move for Alcuin, who at other times had proven himself more than willing to show off his verbal prowess (Bullough 2003, 281). Such an attitude seemingly stands in stark contrast to Alcuin's other most lasting contributions to the Carolingian written world: his various texts on the importance of language, or rather, the study thereof, comprising of the De Grammatica, De Orthographia, the Disputatio de Rhetorica et Virtutibus, and the De Dialectica. Many of these texts were composed following his aforementioned retirement, a time during which he also composed the majority of his anti-Adoptionist treatises: Alcuin probably composed the Liber contra Haeresin Felicis ca. 797–8, and the Contra Felicem Urgellitanum libri VII and Contra Elipandum Libri IV in 799 (Heil 1970, 68–9). So it would seem that Alcuin's golden years were spent composing predominantly two types of texts: works elevating the study of language, encouraging the literate elite to seize upon the linguistic arts of the classical past, and anti-Adoptionist treatises and letters that blatantly appear to ignore his own advice.

§7.  This is certainly a strange paradox and its exploration merits discussion. To what extent was Alcuin's criticism of Felix and Elipandus based on aspects of language, i.e., the Adoptionists' inability to construct a successful argument? Our knowledge of Alcuin's awareness of classical rhetoric originates predominantly from his Disputatio de Rhetorica et Virtutibus and, more generally, the state of rhetorical learning within the early medieval west. The primacy of Cicero's De Oratore and Julius Victor's Ars Rhetorica within Alcuin's text, in addition to the discipline of rhetoric as mentioned in Boethius's De Differentii Topicis and Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae, provide us with a fuller understanding of Alcuin's background in not only the forms of classical rhetoric but also its assimilation within a Christian literate discourse. Designed as a handbook for the orator in terms of both written and spoken persuasive performance, Cicero's De Oratore emphasized the union of eloquence (elocutio) and wisdom (sapientia) (Cicero De Oratore 1.8.34, 1.10.44; Ward 1975, 47). Although the rhetorical discipline had often been considered outside the realm of morality, Cicero, in both the De Oratore and the De Inventione praised the virtuous orator, he who used his powers of eloquence for the well-being of humanity. Although it was possible within Cicero's treatise to be "eloquent" without also being virtuous (Cicero refers to this type of orator as the disertus homo), the best and most successful orator was he who argued persuasively and virtuously (Cicero De Inventione 4b2; De Oratore 1.21.94–5). Marius Victorinus, another clear influence on Alcuin's rhetorical treatise, echoed and furthered this precept: wisdom without eloquence is useless as it cannot be communicated to anyone. Yet, eloquence without wisdom is not possible: without wisdom, one speaks "with a jumble of words," with no possibility of coherence. Such would also define Alcuin's attacks against the Adoptionists.

§8.  Just as Alcuin's sources are clear within his Disputatio, this rhetorical background is also obvious within his anti-Adoptionist treatises and letters. Alcuin's obvious awareness of Julius Victor also should not pass without comment, particularly in terms of the role of rhetoric within the epistolary tradition in Christian literate discourse. Although letter writing had long been an implicit element of classical rhetoric, Julius Victor's fourth-century Ars rhetorica was the first treatise to treat it formally (Purcell 1996, 41; Kempshall 2008, 12). Victor recommended letters as a means by which to deal with public matters, a genre that lent itself to the applications of all styles of rhetoric, "… sed est eloquentiae, sicut reliquarum rerum, fundamentum sapientia" (Julius Victor Ars Rhetorica, 93). Although it would not be until the twelfth century that letter writing was seized upon as a popular rhetorical exercise, particularly with the ars dictaminis, Alcuin's knowledge of this text and clear application of its precepts within his anti-Adoptionist texts suggests an earlier appreciation for rhetorical letter writing (Purcell 1996, 42).

§9.  Augustine's contributions to Alcuin's (and the early medieval literate community's) perspectives on rhetoric also help to qualify Alcuin's use of rhetoric against the Adoptionists. Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana argues that teachers of divine scripture should be encouraged to use the faculties of rhetoric to combat heretical viewpoints:

The general function of eloquence … is to speak in a manner fitted to persuade … And when we teach what we have to say with the help of the divine testimonies, what is our aim if not to be listened to with obedience? … And who would wish to listen to [someone] unless captivated by a certain charm? Who does not realize that a person who is not understood cannot be listened to either with pleasure or with obedience? (Augustine De Doctrina Christiana 4.24.143–4.26.147).

The dangers of using rhetoric to argue against virtue remained present in the minds of medieval writers, including Alcuin.7 The acceptance of the "pagan" discipline, despite its presence and promotion within Augustine's work, remained at times tenuous. Yet Alcuin, along with an ever increasing majority of Christian scholars, accepted the uses of rhetoric within a Christian medium: that access to and awareness of grammar fosters a writer or speaker's ability to compose a coherent argument, particularly helpful when one was writing to convince others of Christianity's theological supremacy. Yet the ability to use rhetoric successfully was predicated upon extensive training and education in the discipline, a qualification of which few could boast. The rarity of such an education within the period, along with the enduring prominence of the sermo humilis (the Christian literate style that emphasized simplicity, considered the diametrical opposite to rhetorical speech), meant that rhetoric sparring was often confined to the very upper echelons of the educated elite. In essence, one had to know the rules (i.e., the technique of rhetoric) in order to play the game (i.e., develop a "rhetorical" argument). Without said training, attacking one's opponent on the grounds that they had make a rhetorical misstep were rendered null and void. A writer or speaker untrained in the linguistic disciplines was considered no better than an illiterate (rusticus) and could not be judged on the same level as one who had "Item si rusticitas mala est, utique grammaticam non legere malum est, quia omnis homo absque grammatica rusticus est" (Alcuin De Dialectica 12. Banniard 1992, 338).

§10.  So when we look at Alcuin's arguments and find consistent accusations of "failures" in rhetoric or logic, it suggests Alcuin's presupposition that he was contending with two men educated in the classical manner (i.e., trained in rhetoric). Alcuin's arguments against the Adoptionists are not to the extent that they are unlearned; the term rusticitas does not appear in any of his treatises to either Felix or Elipandus. Rather, the attack here is that they have failed to apply the style of rhetoric properly to their argument, a clear sign that their argument in and of itself is flawed. They cannot use rhetoric properly, because their argument makes no sense. Looking at the beginning of the second book of the seven-part work against Felix, we find the opening lines full of references to the art of argument or the Adoptionists' lack of eloquence:

The reader should not accuse my speech of having a perplexing and disorderly method of reasoning as it were, on the grounds that it does not proceed quickly down a straight path, but takes a more circuitous and convoluted way of speaking, as I necessarily have to follow the course set out in this debate.
Non debet mihi lector imputare sermonis mei confusam quodammodo disputationem et inordinatam, quia non recto tramite currentis, sed circuloso loquacitatis rotatu disputantis vestigia sequi necessarium habeo. Et prout ordo proponentis exierit, sermo respondentis subsequatur (Alcuin Contra Felicem Urgellitanum 2.1).

Alcuin breaks the proverbial "fourth wall" in this section, apologizing to his reader for his meandering rhetorical style. This, he explains, is a result of Felix's incapacity to argue coherently. Accordingly, Alcuin's own arguments must be circuitous in order to follow the Adoptionists' sloppy work. This is not a failing Alcuin attributes to Felix only; rather, the failure at rhetoric has a theological foundation, one just as applicable to Elipandus. In Alcuin's 799 treatise against the archbishop of Toledo, a response to a rather vitriolic letter sent by Elipandus sometime earlier that year, Alcuin frames his case with an impressive use of Scriptural and patristic quotations.8 In response, Alcuin composed the Adversus Elipandum Libri IV). Yet also sprinkled within this treatise are other, more secular, references to Elipandus's refusal or inability to write eloquently or to understand the foundations of a logical argument. In the second book, Alcuin refers not to a patristic work, but rather to the late antique Christian rhetorician, Marius Victorinus, and beyond that, to Cicero himself:

Et multa alia legentes, et pie intelligentes de veritate, quae in Christo est, seu de duarum naturarum proprietatibus, seu de singularitate unius personae, in ejusdem Patris litteris inveniri poterunt. Nec non his praefatis Patribus praecipuus rhetor Victorinus valde similia suis innexuit disputationibus, qui de Tulliana schola ad bella processit ecclesiastica, tam fortis fidei defensor factus, quam clarus inter rhetores habebatur (Alcuin Adversus Elipandum, PL 101:292D).9

§11.  In swift succession, Alcuin invokes the names of famous rhetoricians, equating them with the authoritative christological testimony of those such as Pope Vigilius, Leo, and Eutychius. In Alcuin's argument, he praises these men not only for their religious authority, but their rhetorical skills. But just as he elevates those writers for their soundness in reason and eloquence, he derides Elipandus for his dearth of rhetorical ability, referring to his lack of any "refinement of eloquence" or "brilliance of wisdom":

Sic etiam, sic te egisse cognovimus, frater Elipante, dum non haberes nec decorem eloquentiae, nec fulgorem sapientiae, vel insolita qualibet secta nomen tuum divulgare curasti; nec tibi alia salutis restat via, nisi prompta manu deleas chirographum iniquitatis, quod in secreta tui cordis scripsisti paginula; et novis catholicae fidei syllabis pristinae infidelitatis apices obrumbrare incipias (Alcuin, Adversus Elipandum, PL 101:287B).

Most of the other sources Alcuin cites are given epithets for their eloquence: Gregory the Great is described as a nobilis eloquentiae vir, rendering the insult to Elipandus all the more potent:

Gregorius scilicet Romanae sedis episcopus, nobilis eloquentiae vir, et purissimus in catholica fide doctor, multis in locis litterarum suarum unigenitum verumque Dei Filium Redemptorem nostrum esse testatur. Ejusdem Albini de incarnatione Christi et de duabus in eo naturis Libelli duo necnon de veritate unius personae liber primus qui et tertius adversus Elipandum (Alcuin Adversus Elipandum, PL 101:287D).

Other patristic writers praised for their eloquence include Pope Leo and Isidore of Seville:

Consideremus quoque quid Leo papa Romanus, vir in fide catholica veracissimus, et in eloquentia clarissimus de divinae in Christo et humanae consortio naturae enarret. Ait enim ita in homilia, quam de nativitate Domini nostri Jesu Christi scripsit … (Adversus Felicis Haeresin PL 101: 103C).
Beati itaque Isidori clarissimi doctoris non solum Hispaniae, verum etiam cunctarum Latinae eloquentiae Ecclesiarum perplurima legebamus opuscula, et in magna habemus veneratione (Alcuin, Adversus Elipandum, PL 101:266A).

§12.  These insults certainly serve Alcuin's purpose; however, as isolated cases they do not show the extent to which Alcuin applied a particular rhetorical style with which to combat Felix and Elipandus's christological viewpoints. To demonstrate Alcuin's rhetorical motivation, we must turn to a letter written around the year 799, not to Felix or Elipandus, but instead to a "certain noble virgin," possibly Gundrada (Alcuin Epistola 204). Praising her grammatical wisdom and perception as well as her Catholic faith, Alcuin provides her with a number of what he refers to explicitly as dialectical or logical questions, those formulated to prove the error of the Adoptionist heresy:

Quia novi prudentiam vestram optime in dialecticis subtilitatibus eruditam esse, placuit paucas interrogations dialecticae disciplinae huic nostrae cartulae iniungere, quibus evacuari possit adsertio adoptionis vel nuncupationis in Christo. (Alcuin Epistola 204).

In asking these questions, Alcuin builds a modified "logical" argument against Adoptionist beliefs, referring to the exercise as interrogationes dialecticae disciplinae, topics intended to show the nun a legitimate and effective means by which she could refute these heretical views.10 Alcuin constructs his argument using what we might recognize as syllogisms: the definition of fatherhood, the nature of truth, the relationship between one's "own" (proprius) and one's "adopted" (adoptivus) son, etc. (Alcuin Epistola 204). Each interrogatio forces Alcuin's imagined Adoptionist opponent into recognizing that he is arguing a contradictory proposition, a logical impossibility.

§13.  These questions could be dismissed as an intellectual exercise, one destined for an orthodox nun rather than intended to be practical fodder against the Adoptionist perspective. Yet when we contrast many of the topics found in both Alcuin's Epistola 204 and his arguments against Felix in the Contra Felicem Urgellitanum Episcopum Libri Septem, we find not only similar themes regarding the dual nature of Christ (as we would expect), but methods of demonstrating how the Adoptionist perspective is logically flawed. Arguments regarding the nature of Christ's duality in his letter to Gundrada:

It ought to be asked, if one son of one father can be both the "proper" and "adopted." If he says it is not possible, it ought to be inferred: thus nor ought it to be believed in any way that he is certainly one person, both the "proper" and "adopted" son of God the father."
Interrogandum est, si unus filius unius patris utrumque possit esse proprius et adoptivus. Si dicit non posse inferendum est: nec Christus ullatenus credendus, qui una est certissime persona, proprius et adoptivus Dei patris filius. (Epistola 204)

are mirrored in his treatise to Felix:

And I propose the argument to you: If that man, which the son of God assumed, was adopted, he who assumed him was adopted, because he is one person in man and God and is altogether one son, not two sons. However in what way can one son be a father's own and adopted son? If he is adopted, he cannot be "his own;" if he is "his own," he cannot be adopted of the same father. However to be two sons, one "his own" and the other "adopted" is to believe the most wicked thing about Christ.
Proponam et ego argumentum tibi: Si ille homo, quem assumpsit Filius Dei, adoptivus est, adoptivus est ille qui eum assumpsit, quia una persona est in homine et in Deo, et est omnino unus filius, non duo filii. Unus autem filius, quomodo potest esse proprius et adoptivus unius patris? Si adoptivus est, proprius esse non poterit: si proprius, adoptivus esse non poterit ejusdem patris. Duos autem esse filios, unum proprium et alterum adoptivum, nefandissimum est credere de Christo (Alcuin Contra Felicem Urgellitanum Episcopum Libri Septem 2.12 [PL 101:155D]).

§14.  These arguments are not merely, as Alcuin has often been accused, merely leveling relevant Scriptural or patristic quotations at the Adoptionists, but rather shows a more insightful, and indeed, more rational and analytical argument. And this was certainly a skill Alcuin was more than aware of employing. Indeed, Alcuin rarely missed the opportunity to applaud his own rhetorical efforts against the Adoptionists. In a letter dated approximately to 800, he boasted to Arno of Salzburg how he recently read over his books against Felix, a text he had recently sent to Charlemagne for approval, and was impressed by "its eloquence, its flowery language, its rationality in faith and in its use of authority via testimonies" (Alcuin Epistola 208). Just as we have found in the treatises, this letter confirms how Alcuin saw the Adoptionists failing on two distinct but related levels: positing a ridiculous (and heretical) theory regarding the nature of Christ and attempting to defend it by means of rhetoric. Yet their inability to argue this topic convincingly was indicative of both their poor education and further testimony that their position was logically absurd.

§15.  Thus far our discussion has examined Alcuin's anti-Adoptionist rhetoric from purely a literate or written standpoint. Yet this belies the numerous public and oral debates between the Frankish episcopal elite and the Adoptionists. Although involved with a number of the earlier public castigations of Felix (as in the 794 Synod of Frankfurt), Alcuin promoted his own chance to spar orally with the Spanish theologians. In a letter dated to approximately May of 799 or 800, Alcuin of York invited Arn, archbishop of Salzburg, to a special contentio to be held at Aachen that summer.11 This public "debate" was yet another opportunity for Alcuin to refute the theological perspectives of Felix. What specific format this contentio sermonis took will unfortunately be forever lost as no official records survive from the meeting. Yet the public theological showdown between Alcuin and Felix should not be dismissed as inconsequential in its impact within the Carolingian literate world, particularly in the accolades Alcuin received as a result of his oratorical ability. In the Vita Alcuini, written during the 820s, Alcuin resembles the conquering hero of Carolingian Christianity:

And so [Charlemagne] called Alcuin of Tours his teacher, and miserable Felix, the defender of this heresy, from the Spanish regions to a great synod of bishops at the imperial palace at Aachen; and he himself sitting in the middle of those two, he ordered Felix, although greatly repulsed, to argue rationally in disputation with the most learned Alcuin about the nature of the son of God according to the flesh.
Advocans namque Albinum, institutorem suum, Turonis et miserum Felicem, heresis huius astructorem, de Ispaniae partibus, congregavit synodum magnam episcoporum in Aquisgrani imperiali palatio; in quorum ipse sedens medio, Felicem, licet valde repugnantem, de natura Filii Dei secundum carnem cum Albino doctissimo disputando rationabiliter confligere iussit. (Vita Alcuini 10).

Such a description conjures an image of a public debate, moderated by Charlemagne himself, an image confirmed by Alcuin's frequent mention of the contentio in letters both to Arn of Salzburg and to Charlemagne himself (Alcuin Epistola 207; Epistola 164).12 Felix's failure to convince the assembled "jury" of Frankish ecclesiastical elite of his position resulted in his public "confession," the Confessio fidei Felicis. Alcuin rejoiced in the strength of his own rhetorical ability, bolstered by his knowledge of Scriptural and patristic passages with which to defeat his theological opponent. In a letter, dated very shortly after the conclusion of the Council of Aachen, Alcuin writes to Felix regarding the "high status" of the entire affair, how proud he was that they were able to debate the adoptione carnis in filio Dei not violently but that each side was judged according to the ratione veritatis (Alcuin Epistola 199).

§16.  In terms of this contentio's relationship to the nature of oral discourse within the Carolingian intellectual world, it has been suggested that some of Alcuin's later treatises against Adoptionism could represent transcribed "oratorical notes," revealing something of the oral debate between Alcuin and Felix at the 799 Council of Aachen.13 To view the treatises in this way would certainly be useful as means to glean information about public performance during this period; however, little in the treatises suggests that they were intended to be used in an oral format specifically. The frequent use of words such as loqui, loquela, elocution, oratio, dictio, dicere, and sententias within Alcuin's work, although initially indicative of oral performance, were applicable in either written or oral formats during this period, as has been shown by Michel Banniard (1992, 339). Regardless, the evidence of both the surviving written treatises of Alcuin and his promotion of an oral debate with the Adoptionist leader suggests a heightened awareness and appreciation of the role of dialogue during this period, one that has not yet been fully explored as a literate or oral medium relevant to the Carolingian world on a practical level. Alcuin's constant reference to Felix's work as an oratio implies an approach to the problem as at least partially a rhetorical one: his attacks partially constitute how Felix has incorrectly argued within a specific genre, that of a speech (a genre that could be equally applicable to written or oral discourse):

Nova proponentis argumentatio, novum libelli poscit exordium, ne confusa sermonis series legenti fastidium faciat, et minus intelligatur quid cui parti conveniat, si non competentibus locis ab alio principio orationis incipiat textus. (Alcuin Contra Felicem Urgellitanum Episcopum Libri Septem 3.1 [PL 101:161D]).

§17.  The role of scholastic dialogue and its relationship with dialectic within the medieval period usually invokes discussions of the eleventh and twelfth century, particularly in light of the growth of universities at that time (Weijers 1995, Bazan et al. 1985). Yet its role within Carolingian Europe remains unexplored in terms of its application outside the schoolroom (Laistener 1957). Alcuin's clear indebtedness to writers such as Augustine and Boethius, both of whom rekindled the art of dialogue and disputation within the early medieval Christian literate discourse, clearly suggests the liveliness or acceptance of oral dispute during this period. As opposed to studies of twelfth-century theologians such as Anselm of Bec, whose investigations into the relationship between faith and reason are well studied, Alcuin's anti-Adoptionist works have yet to be considered on this level. Recent work on Anselm of Bec, increasingly lauded as reviving the nature of debate and disputation within the eleventh and twelfth centuries, has emphasized his reliance on the verb disputare, using it a total of forty times within his corpus of writing, seemingly a clear sign of his revivalist intentions towards classical disputation (Novikoff 2012, 339). As a point of comparison, Alcuin, within only his anti-Adoptionist treatises, uses the same verb (or noun form) a total of thirty-four times: twenty-seven in the Contra Felicem and seven times within his two works against Elipandus, Contra Epistolam sibi ab Elipandu directam libri quatuor and De Incarnatione Christi et de Duabus in eo Naturis Libelli Duo Necnon de Veritate Unius Personae Liber Primus Qui et Tertius Adversus Elipandum. Despite his clear vocabulary choices, designed to be reminiscent of rational investigation and dialectical argument, Alcuin's role in the history of scholastic disputation remains more or less ignored. This surely is a rich field for future study.

§18.  We must take two things predominantly from the few examples we have looked at within Alcuin's anti-Adoptionist work. First is his clear reliance upon a number of rhetorical and dialectical strategies with which to argue his case against Felix and Elipandus. Wrapping rhetorical and dialectical vocabulary and strategies within treatises ostensibly devoted only to quotations of Scriptural and patristic texts, Alcuin constructed a subtle but devastating argument against the Adoptionists. Felix and Elipandus have not only misinterpreted or openly flouted established Catholic teaching on the nature of Christ, they rejected the clear logic of Christ's dual nature. Even more damning, they argued their case poorly, failing to employ any sense of eloquence or wisdom in order to prove their hopeless cause. Alcuin's attack on the Adoptionists thus is comprehensive; they failed on every possible level.

§19.  But we must also look at Alcuin's arguments within the framework of written discourse within this period. Alcuin's treatises provide a unique window with which to understand the nature of theological argument and the epistolary format within the late eighth century. The obvious public nature of Alcuin's debate with the Adoptionists reflects a long-standing heritage of Christian discourse within the early medieval west, in which letters and treatises, ostensibly to a single recipient, instead denoted a far more public forum for debate and discussion. Although the years of arguing in the Roman senate were long gone, Alcuin's public theological confrontations with Felix appear reminiscent of this codified system of rhetorical discourse. And it is a similar tone we can find in Alcuin's writing: employing his understanding and training in the linguistic disciplines to debate the tenets of Adoptionism with its two major proponents. Yet the structure of his arguments reveal a larger purpose: to use these linguistic disciplines to discredit Felix and Elipandus on a broader, more public stage: to reveal not only their spiritual errors but their fundamental irrationality and poor use of language. Did this stem from a worry that Adoptionism would spread to the rest of the Carolingian world if allowed to go unchecked? The profusion of Alcuin's works on this topic would seem to suggest so. Yet, the intellectual undertones and wider historical context to these treatises does not add up. In the numerous letters Alcuin sent to the anti-Adoptionist preachers destined for the Spanish March during the late eighth century, spearheaded by Benedict of Aniane, Theodulf of Orleans, and Nefridius of Narbonne, we cannot find Alcuin advocating applying this logic on a popular scale. Alcuin's texts against Adoptionism were intended to help Carolingian preachers well versed in rhetorical education, for their own edification and in preparation for facing the Adoptionist masses (Alcuin Epistola 200). The missions were working in a different register, designed to stem the Adoptionist tide among the laity, probably a predominantly illiterate population. We see few concerns within the Adoptionist texts as to the conversion of priests and the noble elite to the Adoptionist cause, those most likely to be able to access, let alone read, Alcuin's rhetorical treatises we looked at above. Alcuin's multi-part works were relevant only for the educated elite: those fluent in the discourse in which Alcuin was writing, those who could clue in to both the Scriptural and rhetorical devices Alcuin was using, a circumscribed but public sphere. Alcuin may then have been working towards two goals within the treatises: to prove the Adoptionists wrong but also to display a rhetorical mastery to his intellectual peers in the Carolingian world, those not in danger of Adoptionism, but those familiar and perhaps appreciative of his dialectical know-how. Although we cannot call Alcuin's style innovative, he was certainly a participant in an established and evolving style of Christian discourse within the early medieval west, and his employment of these strategies during the eighth century reveals the extent to which the linguistic disciplines were still relevant within the Carolingian educated literary world. While we might not be able to place Alcuin's anti-Adoptionist works on par with the twelfth century scholastic debates, we might at least, perhaps for the first time, place them as distant forerunners within the development of Christian intellectual dialogue. Just as the eleventh and twelfth century saw a rise in scholastic disputation as result of developments in monastic learning, so too perhaps did Alcuin's treatises emerge from a society increasingly interested in the varying roles and functions of the written word.


1. Translation in Alcuin 1941, 69. [Back]

2. Alcuin's definition appears to come from Cassiodorus's De Rhetorica 1: bene dicendi scientia and Isidore of Seville's De Rhetorica et Dialectica in his Etymologiae 2.1: Rhetorica est bene dicendi scientia. [Back]

3. The Disputatio de Rhetorica et Virtutibus survives in at least eighteen ninth-century manuscripts, many of which also contain the De Dialectica (Kempshall 2008, 8). [Back]

4. Beatus of Liebana composed a letter to the priest Heretius of Osma against Elipandus and his Adoptionist beliefs ca. 785. Censure from the Carolingians seems not to have antedated 788, during which Felix, despite already having faced castigation for his beliefs within Spain, was not prevented from signing a synodal letter at the Council of Narbonne (Hefele and LeClercq 1910, 3:1026). [Back]

5. Felix's trip to Rome is recorded in the Einhardi Annales, under AD 792. It is also mentioned in the Annales Mettenses Priores, under the same year. The condemnation of the Frankish and Italian episcopacy can be found in their respective letters following the Synod: the Epistola Episcoporum Franciae and the Libellus sacrosyllabus Episcoporum Italiae, which was probably composed by Paulinus of Aquileia. [Back]

6. Felix's letter to Alcuin is mentioned in Alcuin's Epistola 23, incorrectly ascribed by Dümmler to the year 793. [Back]

7. This necessarily raises the issue between Christian acceptance and valuation of classical rhetorical style and the sermo humilis, the simple speech advocated frequently in Augustine's writing and seized upon by early medieval writers. Augustine's wavering perspective on the value of classical linguistic study is exemplified in De Doctrina Christiana, "Dixit ergo quidam eloquens et verum dixit ita dicere debere eloquentem, ut doceat, ut delectet, ut flectat. Deinde addidit: 'Docere necessitates est, delectare suauitatis, flectere victoriae", the last being a direct quotation of Cicero's De Oratore 2.27.15. His perspective on the use of rhetoric can also be found in "Quoniam si acutum et feruens ingenium adsit, facilius adhaeret eloquentia legentibus et audientibus eloquences, quam eloquentiae precept sectantibus. Nec desunt ecclesiasticae litterae, etiam praeter canonem in auctoritatis arce salubriter collocatum, quas legend homo capax, etsi id non agat, sed tantummodo rebus quae ibi dicuntur intentus sit, etiam eloquio quo dicuntur, dum in his versatur, imbuitur, accedente vel maxime exercitatione sive scribendi sive dictandi, postremo etiam dicendi, quae secundum pietatis ac fidei regulam sentit. Si autem tale desit ingenium, nec illa rhetorica praecepta capiuntur, nec si magno labore inculcate quantulacumque ex parte capiantur, aliquid prosunt" (De Doctrina Christiana 4.3.4; Banniard 1992, 85). [Back]

8. Elipandus's letter to Alcuin is preserved in Alcuin Epistola 182. [Back]

9. The Patralogia Latina lists Alcuin's works towards Elipandus separately (the Beati Alcuini Contra Epistolam sibi ab Elipando Directam Libri Quatuor (PL 101:231–270) and the Ejudem Albini de Incarnatione Christi et de duabus in eo naturis libelli duo necnon de veritate unius personae liber primus qui et tertius adversus Elipandum (PL 101:271–298)), although these are in reality a combination of both Alcuin's letters to Elipandus and the larger four-book work which is called Adversus Elipandum Libri IV, the third and fourth books of which double as a mini two-book treatise on the incarnation of Christ and his nature. For the purposes of clarity, all citations refer to the Patralogia Latina volume and column numbers. [Back]

10. John Cavadini believes this letter was intended also as a reference for the anti-Adoptionist preachers in the Spanish March, although I have found no evidence to support the theory (Cavadini 1993, 181). [Back]

11. Contentio in Lewis and Short: "In rhetoric, a contrasting of one thought with another, antihetisis", found in Auct. Her. 4.15.21; Cicero's De Oratore, 3, 53, 203; Quintillian 9, 1, 31; 9,2,2. In Blaise's Medieval: "revolt" or "litigation". This word could also have Biblical resonance, Blaise Patristic "contention": Resistance or Stubbornness to God (Romans 2:8). Alcuin Epistola 194). [Back]

12. Dümmler believed that this quotation referred not to the Spanish Adoptionist controversy, but rather Alcuin's sparring with Theodulf of Orleans. I have found no evidence to confirm this theory. [Back]

13. This was suggested to me by Prof. Mary Carruthers during a June 2012 colloquium. [Back]

Works Cited

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———. 1863b. Contra Felicem Urgellitanum Episcopum Libri Septem. Patrologia Latina 101:119–230.  [Back]

———. 1863c. De Dialectica. Patrologia Latina 101:949–976.  [Back]

———. 1863d. Dialogus de Rhetorica et Virtutibus. Patrologia Latina 101:919–950.  [Back]

———. 1863e. Liber Adversus Haeresin Felicis. Patrologia Latina 101:85–120.  [Back]

———. 1895. Epistolae. In Epistolae Karolini Aevi, edited by Ernst Dümmler. MGH Epistolae 4. Berlin.  [Back]

———. 1941. The Rhetoric of Alcuin and Charlemagne. Edited and translated by Wilbur Samuel Howell. New York: Russell & Russell.  [Back]

Arndt, Wilhelm, ed. 1887. Vita Alcuini. MGH Scriptores 15.1. Hanover: Hahn.  [Back]

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———. 1993. The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785–820. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  [Back]

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Novikoff, Alex. 2012. "Towards a Cultural History of Scholastic Disputation" American Historical Review 117:331–364.  [Back]

Purcell, William. 1996. Ars Poetriae: Rhetorical and Grammatical Invention at the Margin of Literacy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.  [Back]

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Ward, John. 1975. "Artificiosa Eloquentia" in the Middle Ages. PhD thesis, University of Toronto.  [Back]

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Last Modified: 04-Apr-2016