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E06546: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *John the Baptist (S00020) as an exemplary virgin. Written in Latin in southern Britain, for the nuns at the monastery at Barking (south-east Britain), c. 675/686.

online resource
posted on 2018-09-20, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 23

Iohannes, sacer materna nondum editus matrice profeta, veteris instrumenti meta et prima rudi dumtaxat regnante gratia asperrimae poenitudinis lima, vox verbi salebrosos complanans anfractus, praeco regis saluberrimum Christi devulgans adventum, supernae prolis paranymphus primitivae dispensans ecclesiae rudimentum, nonne pro integritate castimoniae totius castitatis auctorem polo patente, voce per aethera tonante, spiritu in simulacro alitis descendente Iordanis gurgite tinctum, mundus mundum et virgo virginem baptizasse describitur? Quique torrido castitatis ardore flagrans vetitos regalis tori hymeneos compescens olidarumque polluta nuptiarum contubernia aporians asperrimae invectionis severitate coercuit et huius rei gratia putidos ergastuli squalores libenter laturus purpureo carnis cruore rubris fibrarum rivulis decurso sacram redemptoris passionem misticis praesagminibus portenderat.

'JOHN THE BAPTIST, a holy prophet even before he had issued from the maternal womb, the boundary of the ancient text [i.e. the last of the Old Testament prophets] and the first file of the roughest penalty while an infant grace held sway, a voice smoothing out the rough divergencies of the Word, a herald proclaiming the saving advent of Christ the king, the bridegroom's assistant regulating the first principles of the primitive Church: is he not, because of the integrity of his chastity, described as being baptized - himself pure and a virgin - a pure virgin, the author of all chastity, submerged in the river Jordan with the heavens opening, with the voice thundering through the skies and with the Spirit descending in the likeness of a dove? (It is the same John the Baptist), who, burning with the torrid ardour of chastity, reproving the forbidden nuptials of the king's [i.e. Herod's] marriage and putting a check on the polluted cohabitation of a reeking union, resisted (them) with the severity of harshest invective; and for the sake of this he was ready to endure willingly the putrid squalor of a prison; (and) with the crimson gore of his flesh, poured out in the ruby rivulets of his entrails, he portended in mystical tropology the holy passion of (our) Redeemer.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 253-4. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 79-80.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

John the Baptist : S00020

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 - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Monarchs and their family


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: Matt. 3:1-16, Mark 6:16-29 (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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