There used to be a Twitter account called Best of Wikipedia — it was a wonderful source for quirky things you might not have chanced upon in your normal browsing. Alas, it’s been quiet since November, so we’re left to our own devices. For some reason or another I was reading about Scholasticism, the dominant approach to teaching and learning in medieval Europe. Its early days came to pass during the Carolingian Renaissance in the late 700’s under Charlemagne.
Besides uniting Central Europe, Charlemagne was also a patron of learning, and used his influence to bring scholars from across the continent to his court. Most importantly, he recognized that the decline of literacy and the splintering of Latin into mutually incomprehensible regional dialects caused difficulties for the administration of an empire, so he ordered that every abbey in his domain should start a school. The idea of widespread schooling was a novel one at the time, and the long-term impact of this decision is probably incalculable. Sure, most of the scholarship may have been devoted to the interpretation of classic texts rather than the production of new knowledge, but you have to think that all that learning helped lay the groundwork for the eventual climb out of the Dark Ages. Start people thinking, and you never know where they will go.
So I was especially fascinated to read about Alcuin of York, one of Charlemagne’s greatest scholars. He was a respected teacher in Northumbria before being brought to court, where he had an enormous effect on the scholarship — establishing the liberal arts (the trivium and quadrivium) as the basis for the curriculum, and convincing Charlemagne not to put pagans to death if they refused to convert. He also produced a textbook of math problems with solutions, from which we learn that medieval word problems were more colorful than those we have today — these include the problem of the three jealous husbands and the problem of the wolf, goat and cabbage.
But it’s clear to me what Alcuin’s greatest achievement really was: he’s the guy who invented lower case letters. Can you imagine a world in which everything was written in ALL CAPS? Every time we read a crazy person ranting on the internet, we should give thanks to Alcuin that not everybody sounds like that.