A Medieval Letter for Modern Times

This post is dedicated to the memory of Father Jacques Hamel and all those slaughtered for their faith (or lack thereof) in the name of Islam.


To Bishop Higbald and the whole community of the church of Lindisfarne,

good sons in Christ of a most blessed father,

the holy Bishop Cuthbert,

Alcuin, a deacon, sends greeting and blessing in Christ.

When I was with you your loving friendship gave me great joy. Now that I am away your tragic sufferings daily bring me sorrow, since the pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street. I can only cry from my heart before Christ’s altar:

O Lord, spare thy people and do not give the Gentiles thine inheritance, lest the heathen say, ‘Where is the God of the Christians?’

What assurance can the churches of Britain have, if Saint Cuthbert and so great a company of saints do not defend their own?

Is this the beginning of the great suffering, or the outcome of the sins of those who live there?

It has not happened by chance, but is the sign of some great guilt.

You who survive, stand like men, fight bravely and defend the camp of God.

Remember how Judas Maccabaeus cleansed the Temple and freed the people from a foreign yoke.

If anything needs correction in your way of gentleness, correct it quickly.

Recall your patrons who left you for a season. It was not that they lacked influence with God, but they were silent, we know not why.

Do not glory in the vanity of dress; that is cause for shame, not boasting, in priests and servants of God.

Do not blur the words of your prayers by drunkenness.

Do not go out after the indulgences of the flesh and the greed of the world, but stand firm in the service of God and the discipline of the monastic life, that the holy fathers whose sons you are may not cease to protect you. May you remain safe through their prayers, as you walk in their footsteps.

Do not be degenerate sons, having such fathers. They will not cease protecting you, if they see you following their example.

Do not be dismayed by this disaster. God chastises every son whom he accepts, so perhaps he has chastised you more because he loves you more.

Jerusalem, a city loved by God was destroyed, with the Temple of God, in Babylonian flames.

Rome, surrounded by its company of holy apostles and countless martyrs, was devastated by the heathen, but quickly recovered through the goodness of God.

Almost the whole of Europe has been denuded with fire and sword by Goths and Huns, but now by God’s mercy is as bright with churches as the sky with stars and in them the offices of the Christian religion grow and flourish.

Encourage each other, saying,

Let us return to the Lord our God, for he is very forgiving and never deserts those who hope in him.

And you, holy father, leader of God’s people, shepherd of a holy flock, physician of souls, light set on a candle-stick, be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you.

May your community be of exemplary character, to bring others to life, not to damnation.

Let your dinners be sober, not drunken.

Let your clothes befit your station.

Do not copy the men of the world in vanity, for vain dress and useless adornment are a reproach to you before men and a sin before God. It is better to dress your immortal soul in good ways than to deck with fine clothes the body that soon rots in dust. Clothe and feed Christ in the poor, that so doing you may reign with Christ.

Redemption is a man’s true riches. If we loved gold we should send it to heaven to be kept there for us. We have what we love: let us love the eternal which will not perish. Let us love the true, not the transitory, riches.

Let us win praise with God, not man. Let us do as the! saints whom we praise. Let us follow in their footsteps on earth, to be worthy to share their glory in heaven.

May divine goodness keep you from all adversity and bring you, dear brothers, to the glory of the heavenly kingdom with your fathers.

When our lord King Charles returns from defeating his enemies, by God’s mercy, I plan to go to him, and if I can then do anything for you about the boys who have been carried off by the pagans as prisoners or about any other of your needs, I shall make every effort to see that it is done.

Fare well, beloved in Christ, and be ever strengthened in well-doing.


The formatting and emphasis of the letter is my own.

The text of this letter was taken from “Alcuin, Letter to Higbald (793)” which also contains this brief biography of Alcuin:

Alcuin was born in England around 732, and educated at York by Egbert, who had been a student of the Venerable Bede. He met Charlemagne at Parma in 781, and the great emperor invited him to participate in his palace school. Alcuin accepted the invitation, and remained as an educator at the Carolingian court until 796, when he retired to become abbot at St. Martin’s at Tours. He died in 804. Alcuin was among the most important intellectual figures of his age, and a major architect of the Carolingian renaissance. His works include school texts and dialogues, some biblical commentaries, theological treatises, poems, and many letters. Alcuin sent the letter below to the Bishop Higbald and the monastic community at Lindisfarne in 793, after the famous monastery of St. Cuthbert had been sacked by Vikings.

 Used under fair use of the copyright notice.

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One thought on “A Medieval Letter for Modern Times

  1. Thanks for reminding us that we are joined in history by Saint Cuthbert. I was thinking this morning of the Garden of Eden and life ever afterwards, which has been how it is now in our tumultuous world. I remembered Milton’s idea of the “Fortunate Fall” and thought of the complexity of evil that challenges and the wonder of goodness that has never been overcome.

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