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E06547: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *John (the Apostle and Evangelist, S00042) as an exemplary virgin, noting the belief of some that he may have never died and that the breathing from his tomb produces an exhalation of dust. 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 2018-09-20, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 23

Iohannes, quadripertitae scriptor historiae et verax evangelicae relationis tetrarcha, quem salvator, unica mundi redemptio et conservandae castitatis alma praefiguratio, propter virginalis pudicitiae gloriam inter ceteros peculiariter pio dilexit affectu, miris virtutum signis per totum orbem claruit. Etenim vimina virgultorum silvestria e frondosis nemoribus allata mutavit in obrizum flaventis auri metallum, teretes quoque scopulorum glareas et rotundos scruporum lapillulos de arenosis litorum sablonibus adductos contra creaturae ritum in rubicundas gemmarum congeries superna potestate fretus facillime convertit. Nec non dispersa gemmarum fragmina, quae decepta germanorum simplicitas secundum stolidissimi sofistae monita ad spectaculum vulgi minutatim in frusta friabat, in pristinum reformavit statum, sed et matronam, quam suprema sors gemina mortis multaverat urna, turbis pauperculorum subnixa prece poscentibus, quos sumptuosa erogatae stipis alimonia sustentabat, oratione sequestra de letifero sopore suscitavit, cumque furibunda paganorum ferocitate crudeliter cogeretur, ut mortiferum poculi haustum, in quo dirorum virulentus graminum sucus simulque truculenta regulorum et aspidum venena atque quadripedis robetae et spalagii pestifera confectio humanae naturae nocitura habebatur, potando consummaret, praemisso Christi labaro tutus et Christi vexillo armatus nec venenata draconum detrimenta tremibundus extimuit nec horrida mortis discrimina pallidus expavit. Gemina quoque defunctorum cadavera, quos letale virus crudeli mortis exitio perniciter prostraverat, in pristinum vitae statum restituit et sic in castitate florens usque cicneam vetulae senectutis canitiem feliciter permansit. Nonnulli vero eundem non generali morte defunctum, sed speciali somno soporatum in sarcofago vitaliter quiescere contendunt, pro eo quod salvator dixerit: Sic eum volo manere, donec veniam, praesertim cum de sepulcri tumba pulvis ebulliat et quasi reciproco spirantis flatu in superficie antri sensim scaturiat?

'JOHN, the author of the fourth part of the (Gospel) story and the true tetrarch of the evangelical narrative, whom our Saviour, the unique redemption of the world and the benign model of how to preserve chastity, loved specially among the other (disciples) with holy affection because of the glory of his virginal purity, was famous through the entire world by the wondrous signs of his virtues. For he changed the branches of forest shrubs, brought to him from leafy groves, into the purest metal of yellow gold; relying on heavenly power, he also with the greatest ease converted the smooth pebbles of the cliffs and the the rounded grains of little rock fetched from the sandy gavel of beaches, against the customary laws of creation, into rubied heaps of jewels. In addition, he reformed to their pristine state the scattered fragments of jewels which the duped simplicity of (two) brothers, following the advice of an extremely stupid sophist, had smashed into tiny bits as a public spectacle. But by means of intermediating prayer he also raised from deadly sleep the matron, whom the final destiny had destined with a double urn of death, at the entreaties, with earnest supplication, of crowds of peasants whom (the matron) had sustained with the lavish nourishment of donated alms. And when he was cruelly compelled by the insane ferocity of pagans to consume by drinking the deadly draught of a cup in which contained the virulent juice of deadly herbs together with the grim poisons of adders and asps and a pestilent confection of the venomous four-footed toad and of the poisonous fly harmful to mankind, protected by the ensign of Christ going on before an armed with Christ's standard he did not shrink trembling from poisonous contagion of the serpents nor did he dread with pallor the terrifying perils of death. He also restored to their original state of vitality two corpses of dead people whom a lethal venom had suddenly aid low with the cruel onslaught of death; and so, flourishing in chastity, he persisted in blessedness up to the snowy whiteness of old age.

Certain people contend indeed that he did not depart according to the usual death, but that he lies alive in the tomb, put to sleep in a special trance, because of that which the Saviour had said: "So I will have him to remain till I come" [John 21:22] - particularly since the dust bubbles up from the vault of his crypt as if with the alternating inhalations of someone breathing.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 254-5. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 80-81.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

John, the Apostle and Evangelist : S00042

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 Miracle after death Power over life and death Miracle with animals and plants Power over objects

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Women Pagans Crowds


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 Isidore of Seville's On the Origin and Death of the Fathers, ch. 72 (Lapidge and Herren, 1979, 176). For the story that John had not died, but lived on in his tomb, see E07861, E00496, E07840.


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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