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E06553: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Ambrose (bishop of Milan, ob. 397, S00490) 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 2018-09-20, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 26

Ambrosium vero superni nectaris ambrosia redolentem sub taciturnitatis velamento delitescere non patiar, cuius mellifluam dogmatum dulcedinem et purae virginitatis praerogativam pulchra praesagia portendebant, siquidem, infantulus cum in cunis supinus quiesceret, ex improviso examen apium ora labraque sine periculo pausantis complevit, quae ingrediendi et egrediendi per tenera pueruli labella certatim vices frequentabant ac demum genitore Ambrosio eventum rei praestulante et, a berna, quae altrix infantis fuerat, ne abigerentur, imperante supernis caeli climatibus per aethera evolantes catervatim mortalium visus aufugiunt. Qualis autem vel quantus idem patriarcha virtutum gloria et miraculorum signis effulserit, neminem reor expertum, nisi qui gesta conversationis illius a Paulino , viro venerabili, digesta didicerit.

'I shall not indeed allow AMBROSE, redolent with the ambrosia of heavenly nectar, to lie hidden behind a veil of silence – (Ambrose), whose mellifluous sweetness of doctrine and the privilege of pure virginity were prefigured by beautiful omens since, when as a baby he was lying quietly on his back in his cradle, a swarm of bees unexpectedly filled the mouth and lips of the resting child without any danger, and eagerly jostled for room to come and go through the child's tender lips; and, at length, with Ambrose's father awaiting the outcome of the event and commanding that (the bees) not be driven off by the servant-girl, who was the child's nurse, (the bees), flying away through the atmosphere to heavenly regions of the sky, fled in swarms from the sight of mortals. In what way and how greatly this same patriarch shone through the glory of his virtues and the signs of his miracles, I think no-one (will have discovered), except someone who has studied the accomplishments of his life as set forth by the venerable Paulinus.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 260. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 84-5.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Ambrose, bishop of Milan, ob. 397 : S00490

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 with animals and plants

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Women Relatives of the saint Slaves/ servants Animals


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 Paulinus' Life of Ambrose (E00850) (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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