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E06535: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Elijah (Old Testament prophet, S00217) as an exemplary virgin. 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 2018-09-18, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 20

Helias, vates virginitatis gratia decoratus et spiritu afflatus profetico, caeli claustra et obstacula nimborum precibus patefecit geminosque militum penticotharcos caelestis foci fulmine flagrantes et supernis arsuros incendiis crudeli flamma combustos extorruit, qui et deinceps, ut poeta heroico exametro refert,

Aurea flammigeris evectus in astra quadrigis
Sidereum penetravit iter

et infra

Humani metam non contigit aevi.

Sublatus in caelum in quadam secreti climatis regione dinturna membrorum vegetatione vitaliter degens hactenus generali mortis debito caruisse dinoscitur, quam cuncti volentis naturae legibus addicti et primae praevaricationis nexibus adstricti quasi inevitabile vectigal et fiscale tributum pendere coguntur.

'ELIJAH, a prophet adorned with the favour of virginity and inspired by the prophetic spirit, opened the locks of heaven and the obstacles of the clouds [i.e. produced rain] with his prayers, and (also) scorched the two captains of fifty men, blazing with the lightning of celestial fire, and consumed them with cruel flame - who are to be burned (in any case) with the heavenly conflagration; he who thereafter, as the poet [i.e. Caelius Sedulius] says in epic hexameter:

Borne aloft the golden stars in a fiery chariot
Entered the sidereal path... [Carmen Paschale I. 179-80]

And further on,

He did not arrive at the limit of human life [ibid., I. 183]

Elevated to the heavens in a certain region of secluded country, continuing alive in the perpetual vitality of his members, he is known to have remained aloof thus far from the general destiny of death which all people, subject of the laws of nature's will and fettered by the bonds of the first transgression, are compelled to pay as if it were an inevitable tax or a fiscal tribute.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 249-50. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 76.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Elijah, Old Testament prophet : S00217

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Other


  • Latin

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 - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather) Assumption/otherworldly journey

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.


Aldhelm's main sources for this passage are Biblical: 1 Kings 18:45 and 2 Kings 1:9-2:11 (Lapidge and Herren, 1979, 176).


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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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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