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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 *Mary (Mother of Christ, S00033) 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

E06574

Type of Evidence

Literary - Other

Major author/Major anonymous work

Aldhelm

Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 40

En, ut supra retulimus, beata Maria, virgo perpetua, hortus conclusus, fons signatus, virgula radicis, gerula floris, aurora solis, nurus patris, genetrix et germana filii simulque sponsa ac felix bernacula, sanctarum socrus animarum , supernorum regina civium, columba inter LX reginas et bis quadragenas pelices, propter perenne puritatis privilegium obsidem saeculi, monarchum mundi, rectorem poli, redemptorem soli archangelo pronuntiante, paracleto obumbrante praecordiis trepudiantibus feliciter suscipere meruit.

'Well now, as we mentioned above, the blessed MARY, the perpetual virgin, "a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up" [Song of Songs 4:12], "the rod out of the root of Jesse bearing a flower" [Is. 11:1], the dawn of the sun, the daughter-in-law of her Father, the mother and sister of the Son and at the same time his bride and blessed handmaid, the mother-in-law of holy souls, the queen of the heavenly citizens, "a dove among threescore queens and fourscore concubines" [Song of Songs 6:7-8]: because of the privilege of her perpetual purity, was blessedly found worthy to beget, with joyful heart, the ransom of the world, the monarch of the earth, with the archangel announcing (this to her) and the Holy Ghost enveloping (her).'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 292. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 106-7.

Non Liturgical Activity

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

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits
Angels

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 sources for this passage are Biblical.


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

12/04/2020

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristMariaCertain


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Benjamin Savill, Cult of Saints, E06574 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E06574