Alcuin of York

c.730/737 - 19 May 804

Alcuin, also known as Ealwhine, Albinus, Flaccus was born in York, and educated at the cloister school, of which in 778 he became master. Taught Trivium and Quadrivium.

In 781, while returning from Rome, he met Charlemagne at Parma and joined his court at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen). Asked to oppose the "Adoptionist" heresy. Persuaded Charlemagne to abolish the death penalty for paganism, 797.

In 796 he settled in Tours as abbott of the school there, St Martins of Marmoutier. [Founded by Martin of Tours, Bishop 371. Charles Martel had stopped the Muslim advance into France at the battle of Tours 732. Tours was on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. The Abbey was pillaged by norsemen/Normans 853, but under the Normans became one of the richest in Europe by 1000. It was disestablished 1799, demolished, and is now grounds of a school.]

He was considered "The most learned man anywhere to be found". His works include poems, grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, theology, ethics, biographies, letters, and a collection of puzzles, including two famous ferry problems; the simplest being the one about a traveller with a wolf, a goat, and a box of cabbages.

About the ferry problem: "It appears in a mixed collection of about fifty problems which are included in the Works of Alcuin of Northumbria, who sent "some examples of subtlety in Arithmetic, for your enjoyment" to accompany his letter LXXXV to his august pupl, the Emperor Charlemagne. It is fair - and perhaps enough - to remark that in its original form our problem reflected the dangers and crudities of contemporary behaviour in a way which Bachet [who included it in his Problemes Plaisants et Delectables of 1612] evidently thought unsuitable for the polite society of seventeenth century France. Those who seek more details will find them in the Latin original." [T. H. O'Beirne]

My version of Alcuin's ferry problem: Chessics #2: Three jealous, chivalrous, punctilious officers A, B, C, and their wives a, b, c, cross a river using a canoe that will take only two persons, each using a paddle. How are they to get across? Jealousy means that in her husband's absence a wife must be in exclusively female company. Chivalry means that the men do as much of the paddling as possible. Punctiliousness means that all operations are carried out in order of rank. Aa 1st, Bb 2nd, Cc 3rd. Under these conditions the solution is unique.

Solution: The rowers are in turn: Aa, A, bc, a, BC, Bb, AB, c, ab, C, Cc, 11 crossings.

Sources and Links

Chambers Biographical Dictionary.
T. H. O'Beirne, Puzzles and Paradoxes 1965.
St Andrews University
BBC Ancient History
Catholic Encyclopedia
Gillian Spraggs The dialogue of riddles between Pippin and Alcuin.
Angus Graham Alcuin's De Rhetorica.
St Andrews Alcuin's Propositiones [Puzzles]
British History