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E06575: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Caecilia (virgin and martyr of Rome, S00146) 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 2018-09-21, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 40

[...] Verum mihi de Mariae perpetua virginitate, quae ante sacri seminis receptaculum virgo favorabilis exstitit et post caelestis puerperii praeconium virgo favorabilior permansit, sollicite scribenti repente ad memoriam rediit, quomodo Caecilia, virgo sacratissima, indultae iugalitatis consortia ac pacta proci sponsalia obtentu castitatis refutans velut spurca latrinarum purgamenta laudabili spiritus fervore contempserit, despexerit, respuerit; quae, licet organica bis quinquagenis et ter quinis sonorum vocibus concreparet armonia, acsi letiferos Sirinarum concentus, cum inexpertos quosque ad vitae pericula pellexerint, sub praetextu integritatis surdis auribus auscultabat. Quamobrem procum proprium et futurum, si virginitatis fortuna pateretur, levirum a superstitiosa de lubrorum cultura convertens baptismatis fonte renatos visibiliter angelicis perfrui conspectibus fecit, quibus caelicola ab astris destinatus candidis ac purpureis contexta serta floribus obtulit Istas, inquiens, coronas inmaculato (corde) et mundo corpore custodite, quia de paradiso dei eas ad vos attuli!

'Truly, it suddenly came into my mind as I am writing carefully about the perpetual virginity of Mary – who was a virgin full of grace before receiving the sacred seed, and who remained a virgin of even greater grace after the honour of her divine child-bearing – how CAECILIA, a most holy virgin, refused the companionship of a conferred marriage and the betrothal ceremonies of her suitor on the grounds of her chastity, and scorned, despised and rejected them with laudable spiritual fervour, just as the foul excrement of the latrine. And although the music of the organ with its one hundred and fifteen musical notes was sounding, she listened with deaf ears, under the pretext of her chastity, as if to the deadly harmonies of the Sirens when they entice each and every inexperienced person towards the dangers of life. As a result of this, she converted her own suitor and her future brother-in-law – if the condition of virginity were to allow (it) – from the superstitious worship of pagan shrines; and when they were reborn through the baptismal font she made them visibly enjoy an angelic presence: for an angel sent from the stars brought to them some garlands woven with white and crimson flowers, saying, "Guard these crowns with an immaculate heart and a pure body, since I have brought them to you from the paradise of God (himself)."'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 292. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 107.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Caecilia, virgin and martyr of Rome : S00146 Mary, Mother of Christ : S00033

Saint Name in Source

Caecilia Maria

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 Martyrdom of Caecilia (E02519) (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