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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world


Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Apollonius (ascetic and monastic leader in Egypt, 4th c., S02466) as an exemplary virgin. Written in Latin in southern Britain, for the nuns at the monastery at Barking (south-east Britain), c. 675/686.

Evidence ID

E06573

Type of Evidence

Literary - Other

Major author/Major anonymous work

Aldhelm

Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 38

Tempore scelestissimi Iuliani, qui ab ecclesiastico clericatus gradu discedens et a recto religionis tramite errabundis anfractibus exorbitans ritu gentilium lugubriter apostatare coeperat, fuit quidam apud Thebaidam vir vitae venerabilis, Apollonius nomine, qui anno aetatis quinto decimo vastae solitudinis secreta penetrans et mortalium contubernia subterfugiens delituisse fertur haud procul a veterrimo delubro, in quo redemptor noster ingressus, quem nefanda Antipatris proles insectabatur, omnes simulacrorum toracidas ad solum cernuas diruit, secundum praesagum Esaiae vaticinium: Ecce dominus sedet super nubem levem et veniet in Aegiptum et commovebuntur manufacta Aegiptiorum a facie eius et cadent in terram. Nubs, inquit , levis: castissimum videlicet Mariae virginis gremium humanae corruptionis spurcitia et virili complexu carens praefigurat. Denique praefatus Dei famulus octenis temporum lustris hoc est quater denis annorum curriculis horrorem deserti non lassabundis, sed indefessis viribus tolerans quingentorum circiter monachorum archimandrita et rector extiterat. Qui ob praeclaram virginitatis gloriam multis miraculorum signis et prodigiis coruscans centies diurnis et totidem nocturnis horarum spatiis dominum a interpellans genua curvo poplite flexisse scribitur [...]

[...] Hic aliquando, cum Iulianus, qui tyrannidem et apostasiam pariter arripuit, non modo in clericali gradu constitutos, sed etiam monachica professione fungentes ad militiae cingulum cogeret, in ergastuli latibulum truditur; sed intempestae noctis conticinio angelus limpidissimo lucis radio resplendens tremibundis custodibus claustra carceris reserans virum Dei de latebrosis lautumiae squaloribus eripuit.

Quadam die Apollonius, cum iter carperet, gentilium turmas circumquaque cum simulacro debachantes orationum vinculis quasi radicitus fixas sub divo et torrido solis caumate immobiles manere fecit nec usquam aut aliorsum ulterius progredi valentes. Sed cum comperissent rem per virum Dei gestam, ilico missis legatariis spoponderunt, si eis facultas abeundi daretur, omnes spretis caeremoniarum culturis se fidem catholicam credituros et fribulam simulacri effigiem in frustae fracturos aut in favillam et cinerem crematuros, quod ita gestum rerum probavit eventus.

Lis aliquando propemodum satis cruenta inter duo populosa credentium et incredulorum praedia gerebatur : fortuito n casu contigit , ut praefatus vir Dei armatas peltarum testudine catervas iamiamque strictis mucronibus alternatim se iugulaturas offendisset. Qui cum verbis pacificis confusam utriusque vulgi simultatem magnopere mitigare niteretur et exortam furentis cunei crudelitatem sedare temptaret, quidam bellicosus incentor et fautor certaminis ac crudescentis signifer duelli fertur bachanti et furibundo strepitu restitisse, dicens se spreta pace sequestra leto tenus pugnaturum. Tum sanctus
Optata, inquit, tibi verbis fortuna contingat! Ceteris enim violati foederis clasma concorditer reconciliantibus solus ultricem cruentae mortis vindictam exsolves. Insuper nefandum cadaver nequaquam ut ceteros mortales sepulcri sarcofagus receptet [...] Ita cruenta fors evenit, ut profeticus sermo praedixit .

Tempore quodam, cum sacrosancta paschalis sollemnitas intra speleum celebraretur et plures ad viri Dei speluncam velut examen ad alvearium pro festivitate frequentanda certatim glomerarentur, qua peracta solitae frugalitatis dapibus saginantur [...] – tum fusis ad polum precibus Dei patrocinium fideliter implorant. Et dicto citius pro foribus vestibuli tantas diliciarum affluentias gerulis, quos numquam noverant, gestantibus solita pietate Christus familicis suis tam ubertim contulit [...]

[...] Contigit aliquando, dum calamitosa famis atrocitate promiscuum Aegipti vulgus crudeliter grassaretur, plures ad eum catervatim stipis gratia confluxisse; ast ille tres sportulas crustulis et tortellis? refertas unius diei tantum intervallo fratribus victus alimoniam praebituras fertili benedictione fecundans familicis vulgi turmis exhibuit, quae quaternis mensibus cum panis copia plebis inopiam refocilantes ab imminentis famis inedia et discrimine defendunt [...]


'In the time of the most wicked (emperor) Julian, who, departing from the ecclesiastical rank of office and deviating from the path of religion and wandering digressions, had begun most lamentably to apostatize in favour of the pagans' cult, there was a certain man of venerable life from of the Thebaid [Upper Egypt] by the name of APOLLONIUS, who, in the fifteenth year of his life, is said to have sheltered himself not far from that ancient sanctuary into which our Redeemer – whom the nefarious son of Antipater was persecuting – entered and overthrew all the statues" he says, "is swift": it prefigures, that is, the most chaste bosom of the Virgin Mary which is devoid of the filth of human corruption and of masculine embrace. At length the aforementioned servant of God, (Apollonius), tolerating the horror of the desert not with flagging but with indefatigable energy for the space of eight
lustra, that is to say, forty years, was the abbot and rector of approximately five hundred monks. It is written that Apollonius – shining forth in many evidences of marvels and miracles as a result of the bright glory of his virginity – had called on the Lord on bended knee a hundred times in the space of the daylight hours, and as many times at night [...]

[...] Apollonius was thrust at one time into the obscurity of a dungeon when Julian, who had taken on dictatorship and apostasy together, compelled not only those who held some ecclesiastical position, but even those engaged in the monastic vocation, to enter military service. But in the stillness of the dead of night and angel blazing with the most brilliant ray of light (and) opening the doors of the prison while the guards trembled, snatched the man of God from the obscure filth of the underground cell.

On a particular day, when Apollonius was taking a journey, with the chains of prayers he made some crowds of pagans revelling everywhere around an effigy remain immobile [...] But when they discovered what had been done by the man of God, they promised straightaway by intermediaries sent (to him) that, if the means of moving were given to them, they would all reject the idolatry of their heathen ceremonies and would put their faith in the orthodox belief, and would smash the worthless statue of their idol into smithereens, or would burn it to cinders and ashes; and the ending of the affair showed that so it was done.

At another time, likewise, a very bloody battle was being waged between two populous settlements, one of believers, one of non-believers. It just so happened that the aforementioned man of God had come upon the crowds armed with a phalanx of shields and with their swords already drawn on each side in readiness for slaughter. When Apollonius sought earnestly to mitigate [...] a certain pugnacious troublemaker, instigator of the encounter and leader of the worsening quarrel, is said to have resisted with an insane and furious outcry, saying that he scorned any peaceful settlement and would fight to the death. Then the saintly man said, "May the outcome you have wished for follow your words! The others have harmoniously repaired the lesion of the violated alliance; you alone shall pay the vengeful punishment of bloody death! What is more, no tomb shall ever receive your wicked corpse [...]" Thus the bloody event came to pass, just as the prophetic announcement had forewarned.

At another time, the holy festival of Easter was being celebrated within the retreat (of Apollonius), and many were eagerly gathering at the cave of the man of God like a swarm (of bees) at the beehive, in order to participate in the celebration. When it was over they were feasted with the banquet of his usual frugality [...] then, pouring out prayers to the heavens, they faithfully implore the protection of God. And, no sooner had the word been spoken than Christ, with his usual compassion in abundance for his hungry servants, sent to the cave-entrance porters whom none of them had seen before, bearing such an abundance of delicacies [...]

[...] It happened one time, while the calamitous atrocity of famine was ravaging the people of Egypt indiscriminately, that many flocked to (Apollonius) in hordes for the sake of a handout. And he showed to the starving throngs of people three tiny baskets filled with crusts and buns – which were to provide the sustenance of food for the monks for the space of one day only; and he gave them the power of increase through a fertile benediction. These crusts and buns, reviving the indigent populace with their abundance of bread, kept the people from hunger and imminent starvation [...]'

Text: Ehwald 119, 286-91. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 103-6.

Non Liturgical Activity

Composing and translating saint-related texts
Transmission, copying and reading saint-related texts

Miracles

Miracle during lifetime
Freeing prisoners, exiles, captives, slaves
Miracles experienced by the saint
Miracles causing conversion
Punishing miracle
Revelation of hidden knowledge (past, present and future)
Material support (supply of food, water, drink, money)

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits
Pagans
Monarchs and their family
Angels
Crowds

Source

Aldhelm’s prose treatise On Virginity (De Virginitate), for Abbess Hildelith and the nuns of Barking (south-east Britain), survives in twenty manuscripts, the earliest of which are 9th c. Together with its later, poetic counterpart, it forms what Bede described in 731 as a ‘twinned work’ (opus geminatum), although there is a notable difference between the content and style of the two sections, the second part constituting more than a straightforward ‘versification’ of the first (see E06659).

Aldhelm (ob. 709/10) appears to have been a son of Centwine, king of the
Gewisse or West Saxons (south-west Britain) from 676 until 682/5, when he abdicated and retired to a monastery. We do not know when Aldhelm himself took religious vows, but he definitely attended, perhaps for many years, Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian’s school at Canterbury (from shortly after 670?), and possibly studied at the Irish foundation of Iona, off the coast of north-west Britain (perhaps in the 660s?). Around 682/6 he became abbot of the West Saxon monastery of Malmesbury, and in 689 probably accompanied King Cædwalla on his pilgrimage to Rome (see E05710 and E06661). In 705/6 he was appointed ‘bishop west of the wood’ in his home kingdom (later identifiable with the diocese of Sherborne). (For all aspects of Aldhelm’s career see now Lapidge, 2007.)

At the core of
On Virginity is a lengthy catalogue of exemplary virgins, first men (Old Testament prophets; New Testament figures; martyrs and other saints of the Roman Empire), then women (Mary; martyrs and other saints of the Empire), followed by some remarks on a group of non-virginal, Old Testament sancti who in some sense prefigured Christ. As with Bede in his Marytrology (725/31), Aldhelm makes good use of Roman Martyrdoms and Acts in his accounts of many post-Biblical saints. Although he does not seem to have had the same range of hagiographical material at hand as Bede later would at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow (north-east Britain), his use of the texts is more creative, and he extensively reworks them in his characteristically florid prose style.

The prose
On Virginity presents difficulties with dating, but the author’s reference to himself in its preface as only a ‘servant’ (bernaculus) of the Church would seem to place it before his abbacy in 682/6 (ibid., 67-9). Meanwhile – if the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester is correct – Aldhelm’s chief dedicatee Hildelith only appears to have taken control over Barking in 675, thus allowing us to date the work cautiously to somewhere within 675/86. This is significant, since it suggests that the many Martyrdoms which Aldhelm used among his sources (including several translated from the Greek) were available to him in southern Britain before his probable visit to Rome in 689.


Discussion

Aldhelm's main source for this passage is Rufinus' History of the Monks, ch. 7 (Lapidge and Herren, 1979, 177).


Bibliography

Edition:

Ehwald, R., Aldhelmi opera (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi 15; Berlin, 1919).

Translation:

Lapidge, M., and Herren, M.,
Aldhelm, The Prose Works (Cambridge, 1979).

Further reading:

Lapidge, M., "The Career of Aldhelm," Anglo-Saxon England 36 (2007), 15-69.


Record Created By

Benjamin Savill

Date Last Modified

22/06/2020

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristMariaCertain
S02466Apollonius, ascetic and monastic leader in Egypt, 4th c.ApolloniusCertain


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Benjamin Savill, Cult of Saints, E06573 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E06573