RL’s review of Michael Kieling, Terrena non amare sed coelestia: Theologie der Welt in Alkuins Commentaria super Ecclesiasten, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2002, in Dutch Review of Church History 84 (2004), pp.556-558.



 Father Kieling’s monograph participates simultaneously in at least three recent scholarly developments: an “augmentation exponentielle"[1] of studies of Qohelet; a renewal of interest in Carolingian exegesis; a reassessment of Alkuin’s contribution to Biblical exegesis in the middle ages. 


  Although Alkuin's importance as a central intellectual figure in the Carolingian Renaissance has never been seriously questioned, his exegetical work, until recently, has often been dismissed as derivative and unoriginal. In addition, his separate exegetical works are relatively few for a man of his station and century; trained in the rich exegetical tradition of Bede, he had the mission of transmitting that tradition to the continent, yet he left only five derivative and relatively slight works on Genesis, some of the Psalms, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and some of the Pauline letters, along with one far more substantial work on the Gospel of John.  A work on Proverbs mentioned in the Vita Alkuini is now lost, and several other works sometimes associated with his name are probably not his. Some of his letters also contain exegesis (e.g., 136 to Charlemagne on Luke 22:36 and Matthew 26.52). Although his commentary on Genesis was used by Remigius of Auxerre and translated by Aelfric of Eynsham, the influence of his exegetical work was slight, perhaps because his transparent agenda was insistently reductive: his theological works, dogmatic, liturgical, and moral, all tend to support the vision of Charlemagne as a source of political unity, a Christian monarch whose realms might come to embody the ideal of Christian unity and peace, giving an ecclesiastical coherence that corresponded with the political.


Lately, however, assessments of Alkuin’s exegesis have become more generous, though not unanimously.[2][2] Father Kieling argues that Alkuin is a central figure for an understanding of Carolingian exegesis, particularly for having conveyed the exegetical legacy associated with Jerome and Gregory the Great. While Kieling abundantly demonstrates Alkuin’s indebtedness to Jerome’s commentary on Ecclesiastes (“Am den meisten Stellen ist seine Interpretation mit der Vorlage identisch”), he also insists that the results are sufficiently emancipated from Jerome to be an “eigenständige Leistung”. In the course of his attempt to make a case for this argument, he offers some very useful distinctions about different kinds of anagogical and tropological levels of allegory, but many readers will find that Alkuin’s additions and subtractions to and from the text of Jerome (princeps exegetorum), while more than ornamental, are not substantial enough to earn the abbot of Tours (his contemporary and rival Theodulf conceded only that he was nostrorum gloria vatum) the right to be considered a rigorously original theologian.[3]


Kieling, however, does succeed in accomplishing a number of very useful tasks: he establishes the importance of the library of Tours in Alkuin’s intellectual development; he sets Alkuin’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes  both in the context of Carolingian exegesis and in the context of earlier medieval  commentaries; he examines several manuscripts of Alkuin’s work and of the Bible to determine which version of the Vulgate Alkuin used,  and concludes with a three-part section devoted to Alkuin’s theology. In this final section Kieling focuses upon the Christological aspect of Alkuin’s reading of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes noster Christus est), on Alkuin’s insistence on the superiority of celestial to terrestial matters, and on his use of the tradition of contemptus mundi as a literary and theological topos.  At this point Kieling does not take the opportunity to consider the historical, political conditions that must have contributed to creating the abbot’s personal perspective; certainly the tumult of life at court, and the daily chaos and danger against which even monastic life offered only discontinuous protection (see Alkuin’s De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii , a poem on the destruction of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793, for a relentless use of commonplaces associated with contemptus mundi) would have provoked some thoughts about the vanity of earthly life in the mind of an early ninth-century cleric.


In addition, although he points out that no other book of the bible has been more variously interpreted, and that both Alkuin and Gregory the Great were uncomfortable with what they recognized as the hedonistic-Epicurean elements in the text, Kieling does not offer more than cursory attention to answering the question why a late eighth-century English aristocrat, who was acquisitive, egotistic, imitative, encyclopedic, sensual, a worldly collector of information, wealth, and friends, who turned towards inwardness late in life, would have selected a text that is so difficult, filled with apparent contradictions, and which continues to generate controversy in the twenty-first century.[4] Perhaps the aging Alkuin leaves us a clue in his eloquent comments on Ecclesiastes 12.5, where his poetic and exegetical powers operate simultaneously on the topic of mortality:


 Florebit amygdalum, impinguabitur locusta, et dissipabitur capparis, quoniam ibit homo in domum aeternitatis suae, et circuibunt in platea plangentes. Per metaphoram etiam nunc de membris nostris Ecclesiastis sermo est, quod cum senectus advenerit, capillus incanuerit, intumuerint pedes, libido refriguerit, et homo fuerit dissolutus, tunc revertatur in terram suam aeternitatis suae, ad sepulcrum, exsequiis rite celebratis atque finitis, plangentium in platea circa sepulcrum turba praecedente.


[1] Marie Maussion, Le mal, le bien et le jugement de Dieu dans le livre de Qohelet, Gottingen, 2003, pp. 5-6, attributes the phrase to Martin Rose, Rien de nouveau, Göttingen, 1999, but does not give the page number.

[2] For a brief, selective bibliography on the problem, see Michael Fox, “Alcuin the Exegete,” in The Study of the Bible in the Carolingian Era, ed. By Celia Chazelle and Burton Van Name Edwards, Brepols, Turnhout, 2003, p. 41, footnote 9.

[3] In addition, although he had been ordained a deacon, no incontrovertible evidence exists that he was ordained to the priesthood or ever took monastic vows. 


[4] Eberhard Bons presents the problematic nature of the text succinctly:


Wie kann eine christliche Auslegung dann heute mit einem Buch umgehen, das wegen seiner inhaltlichen Besonderheiten wie en Fremdkörper im jüdischen wie auch im christlichen Kanon wirkt?, “Das Buch Kohelet in jüdischer und christlicher Interpretation,”  in Das Buch Kohelet, Berlin, 1997, pp. 327-328.


On the other hand, Michael V. Fox, finds a "reasonably clear message" and argues that the contradictions readers have found "... are real and striking, but they do not submerge the message that rises to the surface over all the philosophical inconsistencies and structural disarray," in Quohelet and his Contradictions, Sheffield, 1989, p. 9,