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E06534: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, notes how some consider the *martyrs (S00060) to occupy an equal (or superior?) rank to virgins. Written in Latin in southern Britain, for the nuns at the monastery at Barking (south-east Britain), c. 675/686.

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posted on 18.09.2018, 00:00 by bsavill
Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 19

Porro tripertitam humani generis distantiam orthodoxae fidei cultricem catholica recipit ecclesia, sicut in quodam volumine angelica relatione refertur, quomodo virginitas, castitas, iugalitas tripertitis gradibus separatim differant [...] His igitur tribus graduum ordinibus, quibus credentium multitudo in catholica florens ecclesia discernitur, evangelicum paradigma centesimum, sexagesimum et tricesimum fructum iuxta meritorum mercimonium spopondit, licet quidam centesimi fructus manipulos evangelicis novalibus ubertim pululantes et granigera spicarum glumula germinantes martiribus sacrum pro Christianae professionis titulo cruorem ritu rivi rorantibus deputare soleant [...]

'Moreover, the catholic Church accepts a three-fold distinction of the human race, which increases orthodox faith, as it is described by an angelic narrative in a certain volume, how 'virginity', 'chastity' and 'conjugality' differ the one from the other in three ranks [...] To these three levels of ranks, therefore, into which the flourishing multitude of believers in the catholic Church is divided, the gospel parable has promised hundred-fold, sixty-fold and thirty-fold fruit according to the outlay of their merits, even though certain (authorities) are accustomed to allot the sheaves of the hundred-fold harvest, sprouting abundantly in the fallow lands of the gospel and putting forth grain-bearing ears of corn, to the martyrs who pour out their holy blood in the manner of a stream for the glory of the Christian faith...'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 248-9. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 75-6.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Martyrs, unnamed or name lost : S00060

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Other



Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Major author/Major anonymous work


Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits


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.


The 'certain volume' described by Aldhelm appears to be the Martyrdom of Victoria in the cycle The Martyrdom of Calocerus, Parthenius, Victoria, Anatolia and Audax (E02486), 'where a similar three-fold distinction is briefly enunciated' (Lapidge and Herren, 1979, 194).


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.

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