Nature/Nurture: Aldhelm, Alcuin, and the Rediscovery of Latin Measure

Translator’s Note

Raban Maur (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (right)
Carolingian Manuscript
manuscriptum Fuldense ca. 831/40, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Wien

These two Latin poems look like the simplest of nature meditations — a storm, a bird. Looking at the distance between the dates of their authors, Aldhelm (639-709) and Alcuin (735-804), we might suppose the world of the early Middle Ages to have been static and simple, changing little in a hundred years. Looking at the poems, we might suppose that the lives of these authors were bucolic. Neither supposition is true. Both men led busy, civilized, and politically active lives, and both men used their church positions to work for a cause that roused them passionately: helping to rediscover the Latin language, the poetry of its classical period, and the way that poetry was supposed to sound.

As far as we know, Aldhelm was the first Anglo-Saxon to write Latin verse. The lines I have translated here, from the Carmen Rhythmicum, are in accentual-syllabic verse. This was the type of Latin poetry that had become most common by the sixth century, because the vowels of spoken Latin had lost the distinction between long and short that had been the basis of classical prosody. (Accentual-syllabic meter is the meter English speakers know best, the meter of poets from Chaucer to contemporary formalists.) Aldhelm was comfortable with this sort of poetry — the full poem is quite long — and according to William of Malmesbury, he also wrote poetry and songs in Old English, which were probably in alliterative verse, though none of those have come down to us.

… I prefer to think that for both poets, what they composed was a combi-nation of learning and life, and that ancient poetry arouses people to learning precisely because they discover in it the universality of their own real feelings.

He also spent considerable time teaching those in power the metrical workings of classical Latin hexameters. He wanted his students to recover contact with a kind of poetic measure that people had forgotten how to hear. To teach the old form, he composed a hundred riddles in Latin hexameters, based on the Aenigmata of Symphosius, and inserted them as examples in his long letter to King Aldfrith of Northumbria. The love of riddles is a clear feature of Anglo-Saxon culture, so in that way, Aldhelm’s Englishness influenced his Latin.

His teaching succeeded, and Alcuin’s life and work show us that success. It was Alcuin who brought to the court of Charlemagne the knowledge of Latin culture he had gained in Anglo-Saxon England, which is why most of us hear of him first as the chief architect of the Carolingian Renaissance.

To understand what he was up against, we have to imagine a world in which everyone was writing what seemed to be Latin, but pronouncing it in ways that differed markedly from place to place. For example, viridiarium, “orchard,” was normally pronounced vair-jair in one local variety of Romance, but not in northern France. Alcuin’s aim was to teach everyone to pronounce Latin in the same way, and he wrote, “He who does not follow me wishes to speak without law!” His regimentation preserved Latin learning for later centuries, although it created problems at the time: church councils had to enjoin homilists to present their sermons a second time in a pronunciation the laity could understand.

So did the work of these poets — both so focused on language, measure, and grammar — reflect at all what was in their hearts? Was it simply a reaching back to the classical models? The classical materials are certainly there, the borrowings from myth, the incorporation of pagan ideas into the Christian world view. But I prefer to think that for both poets, what they composed was a combination of learning and life. Ancient poetry inspires people to learning precisely because they discover in it the universality of their own real feelings.


  • Ostler, Nicholas. Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2007.

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