Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alain de Lille

ALAIN de Lille, or de L'Isle, Latinè, Alanus ab Insulis, de Insulis, or Insulensis (1114–1203), was one of the most illustrious scholars of his age, and for his attainments in theology, philosophy, history, poetry, and natural science, acquired the designation of ‘Doctor universalis.’ His nationality has not been ascertained with unquestioned accuracy. He is variously claimed as a German by the Germans, and by the French as a Frenchman (Dempster's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Scotorum, lib. i.); as a native of Spain, of Sicily, and of Lille, otherwise Ryssel, in Flanders; and as an Englishman, ‘natione Anglicus’ (Cottonian MSS., Titus D. xx. p. 138). Dempster himself describes Alain as a Scot, ‘in Mona insula natus,’ and quotes in confirmation an epitaph which he assumes to refer to him at the convent of St. James without the walls of Würzburg:—

  Scotia quem genuit, Germania condit Alanum.

Dempster also inserts the name of ‘Alanus ab Insulis, aut Anticlaudianus’ in his ‘Scotorum Scriptorum Nomenclatura,’ and refers his death to the year 1300, for which there seems no authority. Alanus de Insulis has been identified with Alanus de Insulis—more properly called Alain de Flandre, or Alanus Flandrensis—who began his career as a disciple of St. Bernard at Clairvaux, became successively abbot of Larivour, in Champagne, A.D. 1140, and bishop of Auxerre in or about 1152. He quitted his see, probably in 1167, and retired either to his former abbey of Larivour or to Clairvaux, where he died, as is frequently affirmed, in the year 1181 or 1182, but really, on autographic evidence presented by the authors of ‘Gallia Christiana,’ not earlier than 1185. Casimir Oudin has an elaborate dissertation to prove that the bishop of Auxerre and the ‘Doctor universalis’ were one and the same person (Commentarius de Scriptoribus Ecclesiasticis); but M. Louis Ellies-Dupin is careful to distinguish the two Alains whom Oudin would confound (Table Universelle des Auteurs Eccléstiastiques); and the arguments of the latter are greatly, if not conclusively, invalidated by the later researches of the Abbé Lebeuf and of Dom Brial in the ‘Histoire Littéraire de la France.’ Whether the ‘Doctor universalis’ was of British birth or not—and his own statement, supposing him, as is on the whole most reasonable, to have been the author of the ‘Commentary on the Prophecies of Merlin,’ that he was born at Lille, where he was living as a little boy, puerulus, in 1128, is against Dempster's assumption—it is probable that he passed a considerable portion of his life in England, in various parts of which the Cistercians had early established themselves, beginning with Waverley, in Surrey, in 1128. It is thus that the interest is explained which Alain manifested in the fortunes of this country, his considerable acquaintance with whose history is illustrated by his work on Merlin just referred to, ‘Prophetia Anglicana Merlini Ambrosii Britanni; unà cum Septem Libris Explanationum,’ in which Alain foretells all kinds of disaster to England. The list of Alain's works is extensive, even of those whose genuineness has stood the test of rigorous criticism; and they vary as exegetical, rhetorical, doctrinal, hortatory, homiletical, polemical, scientific, moral, and disciplinary. Many of them, having been otherwise issued singly or in different groupings, were brought together in one volume, and published with the title of ‘Alani Magni de Insulis Opera moralia, parænetica, et polemica, edita a Carolo de Visch,’ fol. Antwerpiæ, 1653. They are of value and importance in an ascending scale, as they are theological, controversial, or poetical. The most considerable is an heroic poem in nine books, entitled ‘Anticlaudianus,’ frequently used as a sobriquet of the author, or, more at length, ‘Cyclopædia Anticlaudiani: seu, de Officio Viri Boni,’ which, since its first publication, 8vo, Basiliæ, 1536, has gone through numerous editions. The work is a complimentary imitation of Claudian's satire upon Rufinus, the minister of Theodosius the Great. Claudian had imagined a monster of iniquity commissioned by the Furies to desolate the earth; the author of ‘Anticlaudianus,’ on the other hand, supposes a hero formed by the Virtues to be the vehicle of blessings to mankind.

In the dearth of biographical particulars, it is natural that fables should cluster about the name of a man of the character and the epoch of Alain. A pleasantly dramatic story, for instance, is told of his anti-heretical achievements, incognito, at the Lateran council, held in 1180 or—an alternative which involves the necessity of a posthumous attendance—in 1215. A statement of Henry of Ghent (Henricus Gandavensis), whose death took place less than a century after that of Alain, renders it probable that the latter was rector of the ecclesiastical school at Paris; although the assertion is not corroborated by other writers of or near his own time. Having been rebuked by a child on the bank of the Seine for daring to meditate an exposition of the mystery of the Trinity, in substantially the same way as St. Augustine is said to have been by the seaside, Alain is recorded to have quitted the university in remorse, and to have retired to the abbey of Citeaux. For this tradition, however, may be substituted a more natural explanation of his retirement, on which he entered in order to exchange, in the decline of life, ‘the literary bustle and rivalry of the schools for the religious seclusion of the convent’ (Biog. Dict. Soc. D. U. K.). He died in 1203 in the abbey of Citeaux, where an epitaph, which is asserted to refer to Alain de Lille, speaks of him as one

   Qui duo, qui septem, qui totum scibile scivit.

[Dempster's Scotorum Scriptorum Nomenclatura, 1620, and Historia Ecsclesiastica Gentis Scotorum, 1627; MS. Cotton. Titus, D. xx. f. 138; Ellies-Dupin's Table Universelle des Auteurs Ecclésiastiques, 1698–1711; Oudin's Commentarius de Scriptoribus Ecclesiæ Antiquis, 1722 ; Moreri's Grand Dictionnaire Historique, 1740; Tanner's Bibliotheca Britannico-Hibernica, 1748; Historica Relatio de Vita et Morte Alani Magni de Insulis, Doctoris Universalis, in Migne's Patrologiæ Cursus completus, vol. ccx. 1855; Albert Dupuis' Alain de Lille, Etudes de Philosophie Scholastique, 1859; Brunet's Manuel du Libraire, vol. i. 1860; Histoire Littéraire de la France, vol. xiv.]

A. H. G.