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E06584: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Agnes (virgin and martyr of Rome, S00097) 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, 45

Sed et operae pretium videtur, ut gloriosum illustris Agnae exemplar caelibes integritatis aemulatores et carnalis spurcitiae contemptores minime lateat, quin immo eiusdem virginalis propositi participibus et castae sodalitatis consortibus innotescat. Quae pro integritate servanda omnem ornamentorum gloriam a proco, praefecti filio, oblatam, quatenus optata impetraret conubia, ut lurida etentis cloacae volutabra contempnens huiuscemodi responsa reddidisse fertur: 'Discede a me, fomes peccati, nutrimentum facinoris, pabulum mortis, quia iam ab alio amatore praeventa sum, qui me anulo fidei suae subarravit, circumdedit me vernantibus atque coruscantibus gemmis, induit me ciclade auro texta, cuius pater feminam nescit, cuius mater virgo est, cui angeli serviunt, cuius pulchritudinem sol et luna admirantur' [...]

[...] Cuius tumba in cimeterio posita gravissimam Constantinae virginis valitudinem, cuius mentionem infra caraxabimus, velut caelesti medicamine fotam incolomitati pristinae restituit.

'And it seems important that the glorious example of the distinguished AGNES should not be concealed from the celibate imitators of her purity and from the despisers of carnal filth – rather, that it should become known to the adherents of the same virginal undertaking and to the companions of chaste fellowship. Agnes, in order to reserve her purity, scorned like the yellow-brown scum of a reeking sewer all the ornaments of marriage which were offered by her suitor, a prefect's son, so that he might obtain the marriage he wanted; and she is said to have replied in the following way: "Depart from me, oh incentive to sin, nourishment of evil, food of death; for I am ready to be engaged by another lover who has betrothed himself to me with a ring of good faith, surrounded me with glowing and glistening gems, and dressed me with a robe woven from gold; whose father knew no woman, whose mother is a virgin, who the angels attend and whose beauty the sun and moon adore" [...]

[...] Her tomb (was) placed in a cemetery, where it restored to pristine health, as if by celestial medicine, the serious illness of the virgin Constantina, whose mention we shall pen below.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 298-9. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 111-112.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Agnes, virgin and martyr of Rome : S00097 Constantia/Constantina, virgin daughter of Constantine, ob. 354 : S02468

Saint Name in Source

Agna Constantina

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 - Places

Burial site of a saint - cemetery/catacomb

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Visiting graves and shrines

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Healing diseases and disabilities

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives



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 Agnes (E02457) (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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