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E06556: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Basil (bishop of Caesarea, ob. 379, S00837) 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, 27

Basilius, pontifex et celeberrimus Cappadox, Athenis aeque ut praefatus collega rethoricis sofismatum edoctus disciplinis, qui regularem monasticae conversationis normam, reciprocis scedarum sciscitationibus vicaria litterarum relatione respondens, luce clarius ad liquidum digessit [...] is, inquam, quod integritatis gratia incorruptus corporaliter floruerit, ex ipsius elogio coniecturam capesso ita prosequentis: Et feminam non cognosco et virgo non sum. Vetus quippe consuetudo peritorum esse fertur contionatorum, qui pro rostris in edito stantes popularibus catervis contionantur, ut sic in diversae contionis cuneo et dispari sexu ceu propria ita interdum aliena fruniscantur persona [...] Hoc ergo contionandi genere praefatus antistes sermocinari creditur [...]

'BASIL (was) the most renowned Cappadocian bishop, trained at Athens in the rhetorical disciplines of sophistic like his previously mentioned colleague [Gregory of Nazianzus], who expounded with certainty (and) more clearly than light the regular practices of the monastic life [...] That this Basil, I say, flourished corporeally incorrupt, by virtue of his integrity, I shall understand as an interpretation of his own maxim, as follows, "I do not know a woman, and yet I am not a virgin." For in fact it is said to be an ancient practice of skilled orators who, standing high up in their pulpits harangue throngs of people, that, in the audience of the diverse assembly with its differences of sexes, they sometimes use a different persona just as their own [...] The previously mentioned bishop is therefore thought to be speaking in the manner of oratory [...]'

Ehwald 1919, 263-4. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 86-7.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Basil, bishop of Caesarea, ob. 379 : S00780

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


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 Rufinus' Continuation of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, 2.9; Jerome's De viris illustribus 116; and John Cassian's De institutis coenobiorum 6.19 (Lapidge and Herren, 1979, 177).


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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