Gillian Spraggs
←  return to index

Alcuin of York

[c. 735–804]

Alcuin of York became an advisor and tutor to the Emperor Charlemagne in 781. This dialogue is one of several which he wrote for educational use. Pippin was one of Charlemagne’s sons.

Many of the answers recall the kennings of Anglo-Saxon poetry. A number of the questions are riddles. The piece is a remarkable mixture of the poetic, the philosophical and the scientific – the science of the Ancient World.

The Debate between the princely and noble youth Pippin and Alcuin the Scholar

Pippin. What is a document?

Alcuin. The preserver of history.

P. What is a word?

A. The revealer of the mind.

P. What generates the word?

A. The tongue.

P. What is the tongue?

A. The winnower of the breath.

P. What is breath?

A. The preserver of life.

P. What is life?

A. A delight to the blessed, a grief to the unhappy, an experience of waiting for death.

P. What is death?

A. An inevitable happening, an unpredictable journey, the tears of the living, the coming into force of a testament, the robber of human beings.

P. What is a human being?

A. A slave to death, a traveller passing through, a stranger in the place.

P. To what is a human being similar?

A. To a fruit tree. [1]

P. What is his or her situation?

A. Like that of a candle in the wind.

P. Where is he or she situated?

A. Between six directions.

P. Which?

A. Above, below; before, behind; to the right and to the left.

P. How many partners has he or she?

A. Four.

P. Which?

A. Heat, cold, dryness, moisture.

P. In how many ways is he or she liable to change?

A. Six.

P. Which?

A. From hunger and from fulness, from rest and from work, from wakefulness and from sleep.

P. What is sleep?

A. The image of death.

P. What is freedom for a human being?

A. Integrity.

P. What is the head?

A. The highest point of the body.

P. What is the body?

A. The home of the mind.

P. What is hair?

A. The head’s clothing.

P. What is a beard?

A. A distinguishing mark of sex, an ornament of age.

P. What is the brain?

A. The servant of the memory.

P. What are the eyes?

A. The leaders of the body, a vessel of light, the disclosers of the soul.

P. What are the nostrils?

A. The conductor of smells.

P. What is the face?

A. An image of the soul.

P. What is the mouth?

A. The body’s nourisher.

P. What are teeth?

A. The mills that grind what has been bitten.

P. What are the lips?

A. The door-leaves of the mouth.

P. What is the throat?

A. A devourer of food.

P. What are the hands?

A. The body’s workmen.

P. What are fingers?

A. The pluckers of the strings.

P. What is a lung?

A. The keeper of breath.

P. What is the heart?

A. The container of life.

P. What is the liver?

A. The preserver of heat.

P. What is the gall-bladder?

A. The awakener of rage.

P. What is the spleen?

A. A capacious holder of laughter and happiness.

P. What is the stomach?

A. The digester of food.

P. What is the belly?

A. The guardian of fragments.

P. What are the bones?

A. The body’s strength.

P. What are the hips?

A. The architrave of the columns.

P. What are the legs?

A. The columns of the body.

P. What are the feet?

A. A mobile foundation.

P. What is blood?

A. A fluid of the veins, the nourishment of life.

P. What are the veins?

A. The fountains of the flesh.

P. What is the sky?

A. A revolving sphere, a vast height.

P. What is light?

A. The visibility of everything.

P. What is day?

A. An encouragement to labour.

P. What is the sun?

A. The splendour of the world, a beauty in the sky, a grace of nature, the ornament of the day, the divider of the hours.

P. What is the moon?

A. The eye of night, liberally shedding dew, the foreteller of tempests.

P. What are the stars?

A. A painting in the height, the guides of sailors, night’s adornment.

P. What is the rain?

A. The earth’s fertilizer, engenderer of fruits.

P. What is mist?

A. Night in the daytime, hard work for the eyes.

P. What is the wind?

A. A troubling of the air, a moving of the waters, a drying up of the earth.

P. What is the earth?

A. The mother of growing things, the nurturer of living things, the storehouse of life, the devourer of everything.

P. What is the sea?

A. The path of daring, the boundary of the earth, the separator of territories, the resting-place of rivers, the source of showers, a refuge in dangers, a grace among delights.

P. What are rivers?

A. An unfailing motion, the refreshment of the sun, the watering of the earth.

P. What is water?

A. The support of life, the cleanser of dirt.

P. What is fire?

A. An excessive heat, the warming of that which grows, the ripening of fruit.

P. What is cold?

A. A trembling of the limbs.

P. What is ice?

A. The persecution of plants, destroyer of leaves, the earth’s fetter, a bridge over water.

P. What is snow?

A. Dry water.

P. What is winter?

A. Summer’s exile.

P. What is spring?

A. The earth’s painter.

P. What is summer?

A. The earth’s reclothing, the ripening of fruits.

P. What is autumn?

A. The granary of the year.

P. What is the year?

A. The chariot of the world.

P. Who draws it?

A. Night and day, cold and heat.

P. Who is its charioteer?

A. Sun and moon.

P. How many palaces have they?

A. Twelve.

P. Who are the governors of the palaces?

A. Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces.

P. How many days do they stay in each palace?

A. Sun 30 days and ten half-hours. Moon two days and eight hours and two-thirds of an hour.

P. Master, I am afraid to go into the height.

A. What draws you into the height?

P. Curiosity.

A. If you are afraid, let us come down. I shall follow you wherever you go.

P. If I knew what a ship was, I should have provided one so that you would be able to come to me.

A. A ship is a wandering home, a lodging-house in any place, a traveller without footprints, a neighbour to the shore.

P. What is the shore?

A. The wall of the earth.

P. What is grass?

A. The earth’s clothing.

P. What are herbs?

A. The friends of physicians, the praise of cooks.

P. What is it that makes bitter things sweet?

A. Hunger.

P. What is it that a tired man does not make?

A. Wealth.

P. What is sleep to the vigilant?

A. Hope.

P. What is hope?

A. A relief from labour, an uncertainty about the outcome.

P. What is friendship?

A. Minds meeting in equality.

P. What is faith?

A. A certitude of something that is both unknown and wonderful.

P. What is a wonder?

A. Not long ago, I saw a man who never was, who stood, moved and walked.

P. How can this happen? Explain it to me.

A. It is an image in water.

P. Why did I not understand this of my own accord?

A. Since you are a young man of good ability and natural intelligence, I shall propound to you some other wonders; see if you are able to interpret them of your own accord.

P. Let us do this, so long as you correct me if I make a mistake.

A. I shall do as you wish. Some unknown person spoke with me without tongue and voice, one who never was before, nor shall be again, and whom I was not used to hearing, and did not know.

P. Perhaps a dream disturbed you, master?

A. Just so, son. And hear another: I saw dead things engender life, and the dead were consumed by the breath of life.

P. From the friction of trees is born fire, that devours the trees.

A. It is the truth. I heard the dead speaking many things.

P. Never a good thing, unless they are suspended in the air. [2]

A. True. I saw inextinguishable fire resting in water.

P. You wish to convey by this a flint stone in water, I believe.

A. It is as you believe. I saw a dead thing sitting above that which is of the living, and in the laughter of the dead the living is dying.

P. Our cooks had a knowledge of this. [3]

A. They had knowledge of it. But place your finger on your lips, so that the boys may not hear what this is. I was out with others at a hunt, in which if we caught anything we carried nothing with us; what we carried home with us is what we were unable to catch.

P. This is a hunt for something that belongs among peasants. [4]

A. It is. I saw someone born before he was conceived.

P. You saw this, and perhaps you ate it.

A. I ate it. [5] Who is it who does not exist, who has a name, and makes a response to the one who is calling him?

P. Ask the papyrus-rushes in the wood. [6]

A. I saw a stranger running with his home, and he was silent, while his home was making a noise.

P. Provide me with a net, and I shall show it to you. [7].

A. What is it that you are not able to see except with your eyes closed?

P. He who is snoring demonstrates it to you. [8]

A. I saw a man holding eight in his hand, and from eight he took away seven, and six remained.

P. The boys in school know this. [9]

A. What is it that rises again higher if the head has been taken away?

P. Look at your bed, and you shall find it there. [10]

A. Three there have been: one never born and once dead; another once born, never dead; the third once born and twice dead.

P. The first is called by the same name as the earth, the second as my God, the third as a poor man. [11]

A. I saw a female flying, having an iron beak, a wooden body, and a feathery tail, carrying death.

P. It is the soldiers’ ally. [12]

A. What is a soldier?

P. The wall of the empire, the terror of foes, a glorious servitude.

A. What is it that is and is not?

P. Nothing.

A. How can it be and not be?

P. It exists in name and not in actuality.

A. What is it that is a silent messenger?

P. That which I hold in my hand.

A. What do you hold in your hand?

P. Your letter, master.

A. Enjoy reading it, son.

translated by Gillian Spraggs

Kennings: figurative expressions used in Anglo-Saxon poetry to stand in for terms in common speech. They take the form of compound words or brief phrases, and often feel rather like riddles. Quite a number of the descriptive answers in this dialogue have a kenning-like quality: for instance, when Alcuin calls lips 'the door-leaves of the mouth' or ice 'the earth's fetter'. [return]

1. ‘To a fruit tree’: see Matthew chapter 7 verses 16–20 [return]

2. ‘suspended in the air’: bells [return]

3. ‘Our cooks had a knowledge of this’: explained as ‘a burning wick in a lump of lard’ [return]

4. ‘something that belongs among peasants’: lice or fleas [return]

5. ‘I ate it’: an egg [return]

6. ‘Ask the papyrus-rushes in the wood’: the answer is an echo. Pippin's response is puzzling, unless it is an obscure reference to Ovid's story of Echo and Narcissus. [return]

7. ‘Provide me with a net’: a fish [return]

8. ‘He who is snoring demonstrates it’: sleep [return]

9. ‘The boys in school know this’: puzzling. Perhaps a piece of finger-play? The fingers of the hand can be read as a Roman eight (VIII); fold down the first four and you take away seven (VII), leaving one and the fingers of the other hand’: six digits. I am indebted to Mog Singer for this suggestion. [return]

10. ‘Look at your bed, and you shall find it there’: answer unknown. If you think you have guessed it, let me know! [return]

11. ‘the same name as the earth’: Adam (Hebrew, 'earth'); ‘as my God’: Elijah (Hebrew, 'God is the Lord'); ‘a poor man’: Lazarus [return]

12. ‘the soldiers’ ally’: an arrow (Latin sagitta, feminine gender) [return]

return to top ↑
© Gillian Spraggs, 2006
page added to site on 3 October, 2006 | last modified 24 November, 2006