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E06566: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Babylas (bishop and martyr of Antioch, S00061), 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 dlambert
Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 33

Quid beatum Babilam loquar, qui dominici gregis excubias et mandras ecclesiae adversus truculentam tyrannorum rabiem velut contra ferinam luporum ferocitatem non more mercenarii, sed solertia pastorali tuebatur? Cum esset summi pontificatus infula praeditus, Numerianum Augustum interfectorum cruore contaminatum non permisit basilicae sacrarium intrando pollutis pedibus profanare [...]

[...] Mox imperante Augusto ad calumniam pontificis et infamiam cleri boias in collo et compedes in cruribus nectunt; insuper exquisitis poenarum machinamentis sacratissimos viventis hostiae artus acriter dilacerant. Nec non et tres germanos a puerulos, quos Babilas sub disciplinae pedagogio regulariter instruendos acceperat, ad regis praesentiam simul introducunt. Quos imperator mira fidei constantia munitos, cum verborum argumentis fallere nequiret, cruentis verberum ictibus vapulare praecepit; cernens autem furibundus princeps invictam parvulorum constantiam percunctatur venerandum praesulem, utrum filii sui veraciter essent. Respondisse legitur: Filii mei vere sunt secundum Deum; mulierem autem coram Deo meo non cognovi, ex quo natus sum. Tunc sanctus Babilas decollandi sortitus sententiam cum tribus alumnis capite truncatur et rubris venarum rivulis sacratur.

'What shall I say about the blessed BABILAS, who kept the watches over the Lord's flock, and the sheep-folds of the Church, against the cruel madness of tyrants, as if against the bestial ferocity of wolves, not in the manner of a hireling, but with a shepherd's care? When he was adorned with the insignia of the highest pontificate, he did not allow Numerianus Augustus, defiled with the blood of those he had killed, to profane the sanctuary of the basilica [...]

[...] Soon, at the command of Augustus, they bound a yoke on his neck and and shackles on his feet, to the calumny of the pontiff and the infamy of the clergy; what is more, they flayed the most holy limbs of their living victim with refined instruments of torture. Also, they brought into the king's presence at the same time three young brothers, whom Babilas had taken into the guidance of his tutelage to be duly instructed. When the emperor could not deceive them with verbal arguments – since they were armed with an amazing constancy of faith – he ordered them to be flogged with bloody strokes of the lash. But seeing the boys' constancy unvanquished, the raging ruler asks the venerable bishop whether these boys were truly his sons. He is said to have replied: "They are truly my sons according to God; but in the presence of my God, since I was born, I have known no woman." Then the saintly Babilas, receiving the sentence of decapitation together with his three pupils, was beheaded and (so) sanctified by the red rivulets of his veins.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 274-5. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 94-5.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Babylas, bishop and martyr of Antioch, and companions : S00061 Three Children, martyrs of Antioch : S00319

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 - bishops


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 the Latin translation of the Martyrdom of Babylas and his Companions (E02421)(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.

Usage metrics

    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity