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E06565: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Athanasius (bishop of Alexandria, ob. 373, S00294), who was taught by *Alexandros (bishop of Alexandria, ob. 326/28, S00733), 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, 32

Quid referam sanctae recordationis Athanasium, cuius rumigerula meritorum gloria et florigera pudicitiae praeconia quamquam specialiter apud Alexandriam et Aegiptum clarescerent, per totos tamen mundi cardines, ubi fides catholica fructi feris palmitibus frondescit, longe lateque percrebruit. Cuius altor et dogmatista beatus Alexander, Alexandriae pontifex, ab ipsa cunabulorum teneritudine extitisse memoratur, tam notariorum caracteres quam grammaticorum periodos colo et commate sequestratim distinctas affabiliter instruendo, qui videlicet Alexander, postquam ilia Arii scismatici in abstrusum latrinae cuniculum turpiter defluxerant, ecclesiae triumphali tropeo sublimatur [...]

[...] Igitur Athanasius post obitum Alexandri sumpto ecclesiae praesulatu quantas hereticorum machinas expertus sit, quot fraudulentas scismaticorum strofas pertulerit [...] aliud argumenti genus molientes comminiscuntur, ut prostituta pellax virum castissimum prostibuli stupro, quo penitus a pubertate incorrupto corpore caruit, insimulare procaciter machinaretur; quae cum universum a falsae garrulitatis incestum velut fetidam melancoliae nausiam de recessibus falsi pectoris evomuisset, statim per Timotheum presbiterum, quem nefandis ulnarum gremiis procax obuncabat, apologitica verborum veritate acsi fixa peltarum testudine defenditur. Verumtamen aemulorum vesaniae cedens, qui contra virum Dei zelantes rancida livoris invidia torquebantur, profugus longe proficiscens exulat adeo, ut sex annorum intercapidine n arida cisternae latebra delitescens nequaquam limpido solis radio potiretur, sed mens Deo dedita cote durior, ferro fortior, adamante rigidior omnes calamitatum insectationes, quas Clandistina lividorum conspiratio hostiliter irrogabat, inflexi cordis constantia aequanimiter perferebat.

'Why should I mention ATHANASIUS of blessed remembrance, the renowned glory of whose merits and flourish report of whose virginity, although particularly illustrious in Alexandria and Egypt, yet resounded far and wide through all the corners of the world where the catholic faith is putting forth fruit-bearing shoots? His tutor and instructor from the very tenderness of the cradle is said to have been the blessed Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, who taught him in a kindly manner the written characters which scribes use, as well as the periods of the grammarians, distinguished separately by cola and commata. This is the same Alexander who, after the bowels of Arius the heretic had flowed foully into the hidden hole of the latrine, is honoured with the triumphal trophy of the Church [...]

[...] Athansius took on the episcopacy of the church after the death of Alexander; and what great machinations by heretics he experienced, how many fraudulent plots by schismatics [...] they devise the building up of another kind of proof, so that a deceitful prostitute would impudently contrive to accuse the thoroughly chaste man of debauchery in a brothel – from which, his body uncorrupted from puberty onwards, he was completely free. When the prostitute had vomited up from the recesses of her false breast the entire lewdness of false verbosity, like the stinking vomit of biliousness, (Athanasius) is immediately defended by the priest Timothy – whom the insolent woman was clasping in the foul embrace of her arms – by a veracious verbal defence, as if by a fixed phalanx of shields. But Athanasius, giving in to the insanity of his rivals – who in their zeal against the man of God were twisted with the loathsome envy of spite – (and) setting out to wander far away exiles himself, so far that hiding in the dry hollow of a cistern for the space of six years, he in no way received a clear ray of the sun; but his mind dedicated to God – harder than a whetstone, stronger than iron, more rigid than adamantine steel – suffered impassively with the constancy of an unbending spirit all the calamitous persecutions which the clandestine conspiracy of envious people were malevolently bringing against him.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 272-4. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 92-4.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Athanasios, bishop of Alexandria, ob. 373 : S00294 Alexandros, bishop of Alexandria, ob. 326/328 : S00733

Saint Name in Source

Athanasius Alexander

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 - lesser clergy Heretics The socially marginal (beggars, prostitutes, thieves)


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 Rufinus' Continuation of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, 1.14-18 (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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