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E06560: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Hilarion (anchorite in Palestine and Cyprus, ob. 371, S00099) 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, 29

Hilarion, opinatissimus Palestinae solitudinis accola, ethnicis parentibus idolorum culturae deditis oriundus, rosa, ut dicitur, rubicunda de spinetis vulgo nascentibus florens, ea tempestate, qua praedictus Antonius per Aegiptum celeber fama vulgabatur, claruit, cuius vitam Hieronimus, caelestis bibliothecae egregius cultor universorumque interpretum praestantissimus, tantis opinionum rumusculis extollit [...] Qui ob integritatem castimoniae conservandam mortalium contubernia i declinans primo pubertatis tempore squalentis heremi vastitatem lustraturus prius paene contemplativam quam practicam contra rerum naturam rudis habitator exercuit vitam [...] Qua propter innumeris miraculorum prodigiis coruscans antiquis aequiperabatur patriarchis [...] O quanta est pudicitiae virtus, quae bachantis beluae rabiem humillima sprece compescuit et tumentem aequoris insaniam indulta potestate compressit [...]

'HILARION, the most famous inhabitant of the Palestinian desert, born of heathen parents given to the worship of idols, a crimson rose flowering – as it is said – from thorns burgeoning everywhere, was famous at the time when the aforementioned Anthony was celebrated by reputation throughout Egypt. Jerome, the distinguished student of the celestial library and the most excellent of all exegetes, praises his life with such a babble of good reports [...] Hilarion, for the sake of preserving the integrity of his chastity, rejecting the cohabitation with (other) mortals, ready from the first times of his infancy to range over the empty expanse of the foul desert as an early inhabitant (of it), practised a contemplative life, contrary to the usual nature of things, almost earlier than an active one [...] Wherefore, he resplendently equalled the ancient patriarchs with innumerable prodigious miracles [...] Oh, how great is the force of virginity, which curbed the insanity of a raging monster with a humble prayer, and held back the swelling fury of the sea with the power bestowed upon him [...]'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 266-7. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 89-9, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Hilarion, anchorite in Palestine and Cyprus, ob. 371 : S00099

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 with animals and plants Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather)

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Relatives of the saint Pagans


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 Jerome's Life of Hilarion (E00694) (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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