Harriet Beecher Stowe vs. Alcuin

You know what's great about today? (Well, besides the fact that it's Monday and a lot of clergy -- and half of the Supreme Executive Committee -- have the day off). We begin an entire week of Saintly Sixteen match-ups! We kick things off with a 19th century laywoman taking on an 8th century deacon. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Alcuin vie for a spot in the Elate Eight.

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hbsHarriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life among the Lowly, got an early start in her literary career. When she was 13, she graduated from the local girls' school in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her composition, entitled, "Can the immortality of the soul be proved by the light of nature?" was read aloud at the ceremony. Her father, Lyman Beecher, at the time the most famous preacher in the country, wanted to know who the smart aleck was, and was shocked to learn it was his daughter. Harriet was thrilled with herself.

Initially content to stay out of the argument over slavery in the mid-1800s, two events changed Harriet's mind. The first was the death of her 18-month-old son, in the Cincinnati cholera epidemic of 1849. Cholera was new to the United States at the time, so there was no medical treatment. Afterwards, Harriet wrote that she didn't think she could ever be reconciled to the child's death, unless it allowed her to do some great good for others -- but that the loss also helped her empathize with slave mothers who lost their children on the auction block.

When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed the next year, directly implicating even those in Northern states in the institution of slavery, Harriet knew she needed to do something. She said later: "I no more thought of style or literary excellence than the mother who rushes into the street and cries for help to save her children from a burning house, thinks of the teachings of the rhetorician or the elocutionist."

She approached the editor of the anti-slavery paper, the National Era, proposing that she write three or four short sketches, which grew into a serialized form of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  

The intense popularity of the book enraged the slaveholding establishment, causing them to accuse Harriet of fabrication and lying through her teeth, but Harriet was prepared. She published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1854, in which she directed her white audience to the numerous slave narratives that she had used in her research for her novel, essentially arguing that, if she had lied, it had been to tone down the horrible truth about slavery. It had the added benefit of bringing the first-person slave narratives of Solomon Northrup (of “12 Years a Slave” fame), Frederick Douglass, and many others, to a wider audience. 

"What makes saintliness in my view, as distinguished from ordinary goodness, is a certain quality of magnanimity and greatness of soul that brings life within the circle of the heroic," she wrote. Very appropriate for such a feisty character.

-- Megan Castellan


This quirky 8th Century teacher, theologian, liturgist, and bad poet was responsible for the Christian-based European renaissance that went hand-in-hand with the reign of Charlemagne, a program that was especially focused on educating the clergy so they could educate the people. One of his most notable achievements was to convince Charlemagne that forcing people to accept baptism or be executed was not good Christian policy.

He was also the inventor of the Carolingian miniscule, a form of writing that allowed so many ancient texts to be quickly and clearly reproduced. He may even have been the inventor of the question mark, which, in addition to inspiring the 60’s band ? & The Mysterians to challenge us all to cry 96 tears, was prominently featured in his discourses and other teaching documents.

Here is such an example, a discourse between Pippin, Charlemagne’s son, and Alcuin:

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.
P. What is his or her situation?
A. Like that of a candle in the wind. (translated by Gillian Spraggs)

Alcuin wrote many textbooks, including the Propositions for Sharpening Youth that included problems like this one:

A certain  man needed  to take  a wolf,  a she-goat, and a  load of cabbage across a  river. However, he could only find a boat which would carry two of these  [at a  time]. Thus, what rule did he employ so as to get all of them across unharmed? (Translated from the Latin by Peter J. Burkholder) (Post your answer in the comments!)

His Bible translation (an update of Jerome’s Vulgate combined with the Northumbrian Ceolfrith Bible) was produced in volumes that contained both illumination (sometimes with gold letters on purple vellum) and illustration and text arranged in cartoon-strip-like registers, thus bringing the Irish tradition of illuminated Gospels to the European continent.

Toward the end of his life, he wrote this about his career:

In the morning, at the height of my powers, I sowed the seed in Britain, now in the evening when my blood is growing cold I am still sowing in France, hoping both will grow, by the grace of God, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning…

-- Penny Nash


Harriet Beecher Stowe vs. Alcuin

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe (53%, 2,535 Votes)
  • Alcuin (47%, 2,278 Votes)

Total Voters: 4,813

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160 comments on “Harriet Beecher Stowe vs. Alcuin”

  1. When Charlemagne's son asked Alcuin about life, his answer was beautiful in its simplicity. Definitely tipped the scale for me! I'm sticking with my original choice. Go Alcuin!!!

  2. Not an easy choice today but I like the thought provoking questions of Alcuin. He also seemed a gentle soul.

    1. Hi Alison, you know, Alcuin seemed that way to me also. Another good reason for sticking with my original choice!

      1. Good morning, Maddy and Aly! I agree wholeheartedly with you Ladies and cast my vote for Alcuin. His thoughtful, gentle spirit speaks to me.

  3. The influence he had on Charlemagne, the expression "candle in the wnd", and his use of the question mark have drawn me to vote for the quirky Alcuin.

    1. Nah - Alcuin should just grab his cell phone and call for a bigger boat. Or walk across the bridge that's just over there. Or (my favorite) give the cabbage to the goat (I hate cabbage), milk the goat to make cheese (yay feta!!) and let the wolf go free (why is he transporting a wolf long distances anyway? Leave the wolf in its natural habitat!)

    2. That's the answer I had in mind, the rule being I suppose that you shouldn't leave unsupervised a creature and its food source if you don't want said creature to eat said food. There may be a more elegant way to express that, but it eliminates leaving either wolf & goat or goat & cabbage while you go back to get the remaining cargo.

      I think I'm voting for Alcuin, even though I've never like story problems.

    3. Thank you for that answer, even if it isn't what he would have said. Do we know what he thought the answer was?

    4. Actually since the boat can only take 2 (the man plus one other item), he would have to transport the goat first, leaving the wolf and cabbages. Then he would go back for the cabbages. After dropping off the cabbages, he would pick up the goat (he can't leave it on the same side as the cabbages or it would eat them) and transports it back to the original side and leaves it there while he then ferries the wolf to the cabbage side. He leaves the wolf with the cabbages, goes back to the original side (with an empty boat) and ferries the goat. I hope the goat doesn't get seasick because it ends up criscrossing the river 3 times. I guess it could also be solved by moving the cabbages 3 times, too. This is one of my favorite riddles ever since elementary school and for that reason, I'll give Alcuin my vote.

      1. Great! this is why living in the middle is so difficult! Multiple unintended journeys.

    5. First he would take the goat over, then the wolf. Next he would bring back the goat, leave her, and take the cabbage over. Last, he would come back alone and take the goat over.
      This is a hard choice, but I'm going with Alcuin even though I know he won't win. HBS did some wonderful and important things in her life, and I almost voted for her. Then I thought about the bigger picture of Alcuin's encouragement of education, his invention of the Carolingian miniscule, and his surprisingly modern view of choice as to baptism/belief. Stowe had a great influence on society, but Alcuin had a greater influence on both society and the church.

    6. You can't take two things. The boat only holds two items, and the man is one of the two. He has to take one thing at a time. The goat can't stay with the wolf b/c she'd be eaten. The cabbage can't stay with the goat b/c she'd eat it.

  4. Tough call, but I had to give the edge to Alcuin for his contention that forced baptism was inconsistent with Christian principles. If only subsequent generations had heeded his advice!

  5. I wanted to vote for Alcuin, but the thought of those slave women and their children and the role she played in ending slavery swayed me to vote for Harriet.

  6. A novel solution to the wolf-goat-cabbage riddle is here: http://xkcd.com/1134/ . I hope this other sort of humour does not offend Lent Madness readers!

    As for how to vote I'm meditating on it. It does seem the moderns have an unfair advantage over the ancients, so I'm feeling biased...

  7. I know I'm going off topic here, sorry, but this question is for Tim/Scott: can one get booted out of LM for being nasty, snarky or just plain hostile? No hurry to answer, I am blessed/cursed with a curious mind. Thanks!
    Peace out, Madeleine

    1. Not presuming to speak for the SEC, but as a member of the Madness community, I would say that LM operates under the rule of "You Can't Say You Can't Play." Commenters are assumed to be adults and are expected to interact freely but with respect for one another. The SEC shouldn't have to waste its time in the painful task of editing out personal attacks. Yes, there is snark, and some passionate skirmishing about ideas and beliefs. But rarely is the give and take personal. When that happens, there is a collective cringe, and probably some praying. We're all in the boat at once, and, unlike she-goats, wolves, and cabbages, we can figure out ways to arrive on the other shore without harm.

    2. Thanks to Madeleine, for raising a reasonable question that has been lurking on the margin, and to Peg, for answering it.

      I've seen some posts that seemed too competitive for the context. A few happy culture warriors stick their tongues out at others from time to time. A very few have drawn the line between self-expression and blasphemy in ways that 'strain the bonds of affection.' If we parody a sporting event during Lent, some will lean to the 'lenten' and others to the 'madness.'

      But every day another choice seems to tug different bits of self out of people, so the thing can be its own antidote. Nor have the worst comments come from daily posters. I assume that the site's moderators are volunteering their time, but can check this on a normal smart phone at lunch.

      My guess is that utter banishment is very rarely useful here, but that simple deletion of discourteous posts would be for the good of the whole. And for all we know, that's what they try to do.

      Speaking for myself, the 'Lenten Madness' parody strikes me as a gimmick that the site will gradually outgrow. Nobody can laugh at the same joke for 40 days each year. Since I ignore the pseudo-athletic banter, I do not mind it, but I suspect that it inspires the occasional braying imitator in the threads. As the manic banter of the SEC calms down, so too will the problem Madeleine mentions, such as that is.

  8. Here's my guess: take the wolf and cabbage first and then go back for the goat. I think the archbishops should give a mug to the first person who gives the right answer.

      1. Feed the cabbage to the goat, then the goat to the wolf, then take the wolf with a tummy full of cabbage-fed goat across. (I don't like cabbage & I don't like goats.)

  9. Carolingian miniscule and helping start the Irish tradition of illuminated Gospels, educating the masses, seeming simplicity, gentleness, and a man of peace - Alcuin for the win today. At least, that's my vote.

  10. Oh, I see that Mary Nelle was first. OK, the first two people giving the right answer should get a mug.

  11. Definitely Alcuin. Whoever wrote this brief bio apparently did not like scholarly monks and/or mathematical word problems.

  12. I guess I'm chatty today...third comment in 10 minutes. Anyway....

    An editing mishap here folks. Miniscule is spelled minuscule. Even my poor, old computer caught the spelling error as I was typing this comment...and I'm sure that LM has supplied their Celebrity Bloggers with the most up-to-date systems for writing their entries.

    1. In my online dictionary, it says that miniscule is an alternate spelling of minuscule. With the contemporary emphasis on "mini" referring to skirts, malls, homes, and all manner of things and creatures not-so-great and small, the former seems logically preferable to me, though the latter seems more traditional. (How's that for a pedantic former editor turned clergy?)

    2. Today we have emancipation vs. education, war vs. peace; my vote has to go to Alcuin for his influence on Charlemagne (no forced baptisms) and contributions to forming and re-forming the human knowledge base and framework for thinking ever since!

    3. Thanks, Carol - you are of course right. My fault for not catching the misspelling. It is minuscule, which also means "not capital" letters.

  13. Room for two, including you
    The goat is ferried first
    Dead head back and ferry sack
    And swap at other shore
    Lone wolf rides, no woe betides
    As you dead head once more
    To grab the goat for final float
    The river crossed uncursed

    1. "Oh, wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful, wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all hooping!" [--W. Shakespeare, As You Like It]

      I knew it had to be more complicated than just two trips, but I couldn't get there. And in verse! Does Bob get the mug???

    2. Nice! The solution definitely had to involve some going back and forth for at least one of the...not sure what to call them...entities? items? pieces of cargo? how to group wolf, goat, and cabbage into one noun?...things to be taken across. But the verse is an extra flourish!

      1. Three times, actually -- the sack is swapped for the goat in line 4. The goat waits at the original location as the lone wolf rides to join the sack (of cabbage).

        I'm glad to see Alcuin creep up in the vote, but it looks like cultural concerns trump ultimate concerns yet again. Fingers crossed for a late minute upset, that ought have been a cake walk.

    3. Both were memorable and interesting. But I think Alcuin's update of the Vulgate and incorporation of the Northumbrian Bible and his bringing the Irish illuminated tradition to Europe tips the scale in his favour. Few things are more important in advancing Christianity than bringing Scripture to those who could not previously read or follow it, and illustrations would have allowed many unlettered Christians to see and appreciate the teachings of Christ. Not that I think the common folk would have owned or handled a precious book, but many local priests ministering to the people were barely literate and seeing the illustrations would likely have helped them greatly in spreading the words.

    4. This is a tame wolf? I surely would not want to be alone with a wild one....in the boat or not!

  14. Today's choices exemplify the apples-oranges challenge to decision making for LM. Alcuin & Stowe did lasting good, they contributed to our heritage and we can stand in awe of both. But to judge one is more or less qualified for a golden halo? I don't like it. That is Lent Madness in all it absurdity. Much less controversial to figure out the wolf-cabbage-goat problem.

  15. Alcuin wins in a walk ... What better symbol for the mystery of God than a question mark?

    1. Too late! Never thought of it like that. Oh well, it is just a game. Heh, heh, snort , chortle!1

  16. Like Grace Paley I've just discovered that I am capable of "enormous changes at the last minute." All prepared to back another Maine-based laywoman to the Golden Halo - even through the SEC didn't offer her to my care as a CB (so nicely done, Megan!) - I was completely turned around by the final quote by Alcuin in Penny's excellent write-up.

    "...hoping both will grow, by the grace of God, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning…" Lovely. I'm a sucker for the ancients who still speak to us in our time.

    So Alcuin it is! (Until tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday when Bach, Brooks, and Bedell hit the Saintly Sixteen.)

    1. For some reason I'm indulging in comment reading more carefully today...and your familiar name and reflections support my change in intitial thinking. Infatuated with illuminations, and a happy educator of all things Christian and youth.... Alcuin for now!

  17. “I no more thought of style or literary excellence than the mother who rushes into the street and cries for help to save her children from a burning house, thinks of the teachings of the rhetorician or the elocutionist.”
    When one carries the message one can not determine what message is received or when it will be heard. That is for God to decide. AND she is from New England. Harriet has my vote.

    1. How could I not vote for a feisty woman who promoted the welfare of others, wrote heedless of literary rules and understood the challenges of motherhood. I also have an Aunt Harriet, so I am prejudiced. lol

  18. I did not vote for Stowe in the first round because she was against Bishop Holly. However, I am voting for her now. I think she was led by the Holy Spirit not only to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, but also to publish the key to it, which brought attention to the slave narratives which have become so important to our understanding. In other words, I see her not so much as an author, but as a crusader, although she is clearly both.
    If we are called to love our brothers and sisters, then combating slavery is the most important thing one can do, for many reasons. However, since slavery tried to dictate what the slaves' religious life could be, it was a deliberate affront to God.

    1. Combating slavery is still necessary, as we learned during the last Super Bowl and in various other venues. As we vote for Harriet let us also remember our sisters and brothers today who need advocates and concrete help to overcome today's less obvious form of slavery and slave trafficking!

      1. Here, here. I have a friend from our church who is actively involved in stopping human trafficking and she showed us highlights of a trip she took to India and what she shared was absolutely appalling!!!!

  19. HBS for me today. Stepped out of her comfort zone, dared to challenge the powers of her day, lived her convictions out loud, in her own words brought "life within the circle of the heroic."

  20. Harriet Beecher Stowe gets my vote again. Nothing against Alcuin, but for me she epitomizes faith in action. Go Harriet!!

  21. As to "? and the Mysterians" - I am a child of the sixties and always thought their name was"Question mark and the mysterians" Who knew!!! 96 tears indeed!
    as to the goat, cabbage and wolf (or whatever!) obviously you can not leave the goat and the cabbage together - goat would eat cabbage Like wise, you cannot leave the goat and the wolf together - wolf would eat goat So... bring the goat over first - drop him off
    then bring cabbage over, pick up goat and go back - leave goat and bring wolf over and drop him off with cabbage - go back and bring goat over - now all are on the other shore with no one eating anyone (unless the transporter gets hungry and eats the goat and cabbage!!!

        1. There is only room for two things at a time in the boat . . . and one of those things must be the human operating the boat.

  22. Hooray for the book of Kells, and the question mark. I'm pretty sure Harriet would vote for Alcuin. They both illuminated the world. And here's an alternate riddle solution: Put the cabbage in the boat and use it to lure the goat to swim across the river, which in turn lures the wolf to swim behind the goat. How you keep the lot of them unharmed on the other side is a riddle for another day.

  23. guess I goofed! thought transit could only be for one of the three! that's what happens when you're a child of the 60's - muddled brain!!
    BTW I voted for Harriet - used to live in Watertown MA right next to her beautifull cemetary burial spot - talk about God present on earth - if you haven't been, go!

  24. I hate to vote down Harriet, but Alcuin wins for all the reasons stated in previous comments.

    1. Too right, Mary! I have read Uncle Tom's Cabin so it was a difficult choice, but in the end I have to go with gentle Alcuin. Who I doubt had a cell phone.