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E06576: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Agatha (virgin and martyr of Catania, S00794) 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, 41

Sed et a celeberrimus virginis Agathae rumor ea tempestate longiuscule erebrescens, qua Dioclitianus imperator augustae potestatis monarchiam gubernans truculenta tormentorum edicta orthodoxae fidei cultoribus irrogabat, totam Trinacriae provinciam penetravit. Cuius integritatis castimoniam nec membrorum crudelis dilaceratio compescere nec lictorum atrox vexatio praepedire nec acria testularum fragmina infringere vel torrida carbonum incendia ullatenus vincere valuerunt, quin potius ut adamantinus scopulus contra illata carnificum tormenta ferro fortior induruit. Cuius rei documenta et non fictae veritatis indicia Siculus indigena et Catenensis oppidi municeps concorditer adstipulantur; qui cum Aetnaei montis incendia favillis late scintillantibus bullirent sulfureisque flammarum globis fervida torrentum flumina in praeceps currentia crepitarent, sacram sarcofagi tumbam, qua virginale corpusculum claudebatur, quasi turris obstaculum et muri propugnaculum ruituris ignium imbribus opposuerunt et mox horrendos focorum ardores obvia quaeque crematuros et liquefactas scopulorum congeries voraturos dicto citius cum virginis suffragio sopierunt.

'But also the universal renown of the virgin AGATHA was growing far and wide and had spread through the entire province of Sicily at that time when the emperor Diocletian, exercising the authority of imperial power, was inflicting grim decrees of punishment on the followers of the orthodox faith. The cruel rending of her limbs could not subdue, the vicious persecution of the lictors could not impede, the sharp splinters of potsherds could not weaken, the searing hot coals could not in anyway overcome (Agatha's) innocent purity; rather, like an adamantine rock, she became harder than iron in the face of the tortures imposed by the executioners. The attestation of this fact, and the proofs of a not fictitious truth, are jointly confirmed by a native of Sicily and a citizen of the town of Catania: when the fires of Mt Etna boiled over with lava throwing off sparks far and wide and streams of its torrents ablaze with sulphurous balls of fire roared as they flowed headlong (down the mountainside), these men opposed the holy coffin in which lay the virginal little body (of Agatha) to the engulfing streams of fire, as if it were a towered bastion or a walled fortress; and in the twinkling of an eye, with the virgin's assistance, they straightaway calmed the terrifying inferno of flames which was going to burn everything in its way and devour the liquefied masses of rock.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 293. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 107-8.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Agatha, virgin and martyr of Catania : S00794

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 - Miracles

Miracle after death Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather)

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body


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 Agatha (E01916) (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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