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E06559: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Paul (the First Anchorite, S00089) 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, 28

Paulus itidem inclitus et patrum celeberrimus, qui a pellaci genero caecae cupidinis philargiria decepto contra iura naturae proditus et publicatus a primaevo pubertatis tirocinio Memphiticae solitudinis deserta penetrans, qua carnalis spurcitiae blandimenta fatescunt et mundani luxus oblectamenta vilescunt, horrendos beluarum barritus et truculentos leonum fremitus ardentis fidei defensaculo fretus intrepidus contempserat, consuta dumtaxat palmarum plecta et praedulci dactulorum sagina squalidum sustentans corpusculum naturae debitum solvit. Nonne propter florentis pudicitiae castimoniam finetenus inextricabili repagulo conservatam bis senis temporum lustris id est vicies terna annorum intercapidine bucellam crustulae semiplenam, quam penniger praepes indefessis famulatibus et reciprocis volatibus hiulco advexerat rostro, usque ad decrepitam vitae senectam inexhaustam gratulabundus accepto ferre promeruit?

'PAUL (THE HERMIT), likewise glorious and most renowned of fathers, who, betrayed in violation of the laws of nature by a deceitful brother-in-law (who had been) deceived by the greed of blind avarice, and prostituted from the first immaturity of adolescence, entering the deserts of the Egyptian wilderness – where the attractions of carnal filth grow faint and the pleasures of worldly delight become worthless – fearlessly scorned the horrendous trumpetings of elephants and the savage roars of lions, protected by the rampart of burning faith. Sustaining his starveling little body merely with a woven patchwork of palm-leaves and with the sweet nourishment of dates, he paid his debt to nature. Was he not found worthy, because of the stainlessness of his flowering chastity, preserved to the very end with an indissoluble restrain for twice six lustra – that is, for an interval of sixty years – to receive a half-mouthful of bread which a feathered bird brought in its open beak – and he giving thanks for the gift – with tireless service and recurrent flights, never running our right up to the feeble old age of his life?'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 265. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 87-8.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Paul, the First Anchorite : S00089

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 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 sources for this passage is Jerome's Life of Paul of Thebes (E00750) (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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