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E06567: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Cosmas/Kosmas and Damianos (physician martyrs of Syria, S00385), as exemplary virgins. 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, 34

Sed et operae pretium reor, ut celeberrimos spiritalis militiae bellatores et caelestis medicinae archiatros Cosmam et Damianum nequaquam ab historica virginum relatione dirimentes velut indignos ceterorum consortio sequestremus. Quos in superno Hierusolimae municipatu praedistinatos et aethralis litteraturae albo descriptos cum praedictis commanipularibus laetabundos fore fiducialiter confidimus [...] Exin eculei tormento vexatos et gabuli patibulo suspensos, insuper diris sagittarum ictibus obrutos angelicum protexit patrocinium. Ad ultimum decollandi sortiti sententiam cum palma virginitatis triumpho martirii agonizarunt.

'But I think it worthwhile that we do not in any way exclude from (our) historical account of virgins – as if unworthy of the company of others – COSMAS and DAMIANUS, the most famous warriors of spiritual warfare and arch-physicians of spiritual warfare. We confidently trust that these two, predestined to citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem and inscribed in the register of celestial writing, will rejoice with their aforementioned colleagues [...] the patronage of angels protected them (while they were) tormented by the anguish of the rack and the suspended from the fork of the gallows, and in addition buried under the dreadful blows of arrows. In the end they were sentenced to be beheaded: with their palm of virginity they earned a martyr's triumph.'

Text: Ehwald, 275-6. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 95-6.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Kosmas and Damianos, brothers, physician martyrs of Syria : S00385

Saint Name in Source

Cosmas et Damianus

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

Pagans Angels


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 Martyrdom of Cosmas and Damian (E?????) (Lapidge and Herren, 1979, 177), which tells the same story as the Greek 'Arabian' Martyrdom of the saints (E07077).


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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