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E06539: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names the *Three Hebrew Youths of the Old Testament Book of Daniel (S01198) as exemplary virgins, rejecting a Jewish tradition that they were eunuchs. 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, 21

Ea tempestate etiam tres pueri avita Ebreorum stirpe progeniti et in transmigratione Babiloniae ad Chaldeos abducti nequaquam carnalis copulae voluptatibus operam dedidisse leguntur, sed in arto spontaneae virginitatis proposito permansisse memopantur, quamvis importuna Iudeorum garrulitas fribula falsitatis deleramenta confingat asserens, nequaquam eosdem puberes aut praefatum collegam externae peregrinationis participem ultroneos castitatis caelibes, sed invitos spadones extitisse, qui secundo eunuchorum gradui evangelica veritatis astipulatione deputantur. Hi denique in tantum paternae traditionis regulam et divinae sanctionis censuram servasse scribuntur, ut etiam ad obtinendam integritatis et continentiae gloriam opulentas regalium ferculorum dilicias et principalis alimoniae pulmentum in tenerrima pubertate contempserint; vilibus tantum leguminibus vitam sustentare contenti lascivam iuventutis petulantiam refrenarunt. Quamobrem inorme Chaldaici regnatoris simulacrum, quod colosi sublimitatem centenis ac septenis pedibus in alto porrectam bis tricena cubitorum proceritate vincebat, licet horrendus salpicum clangor increpuerit et musica sambucorum armonia persultans insonuerit simulque flammivoma camini incendia naptarum fomite sarmentorumque nutrimine succensa terribiliter torruerint, flexis poplitibus suspicere refragabantur et pro inflexibili rigidae mentis constantia angelico fulti suffragio ambustas malleoli machinas crepitantesque clibani globos fide invicta vicerunt.

'... Also at that time three youths [sc. Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego] born of the ancestral race of the Hebrews and carried off to the Chaldeans in the transmigration to Babylon, are read to have devoted themselves in no wise to the pleasures of carnal copulation, even though the troublesome chattering of the Jews fabricates frivolous absurdities of falsehood, asserting that in no way were these youths, or their aforementioned fellow [Daniel], the sharer of their journey into foreign lands, voluntary devotees of chastity, but rather unwilling eunuchs – who are accordingly assigned to the second rank of eunuchs by the evangelical affirmation of the truth [Matth. 19:12]. These (youths) in fact are recorded as having kept the rule of their paternal tradition and the law of divine sanction to such an extent, that for (the purpose of) obtaining the glory of integrity and continence they even spurned the opulent delights of regal feasts and the sauces of princely food in their tenderest youth; content to sustain their life merely with humble pulse, they curbed the playful high spirits of their youth.

As a result of this, they refused to behold on bended knees the enormous statue of the Chaldean tyrant – which exceeded the height of the Colossus of Rhodes, lifted 170 feet high with its (immense) stature of 60 cubits – even though the horrendous blaring of trumpets thundered and the musical harmony of psalteries echoed resoundingly, and at the same time the flame-belching volcano of the furnace, stoked up with the kindling of naphtha and the fuel of firewood, blazed fearfully; and, supported by angelic assistance because of the inflexible constancy of their fixed resolve, they conquered with their unconquerable faith the scorching engines of incineration and the crackling flames of the furnace.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 252. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 78.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Three Hebrew Youths of the Old Testament Book of Daniel : S01198

Saint Name in Source

tres pueri

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 - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Jews Pagans Eunuchs Angels


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 source for this passage is Biblical: Daniel 3:12-30 (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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