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E06630: Aldhelm, in his prose On Virginity, names *Eustochium (virgin daughter of Paula, follower of Jerome, ob. c. 420, S02487) and *Demetrias (virgin and aristocrat of Rome, 5th c., S02488) 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 2018-09-27, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Aldhelm, prose On Virginity, 49

His igitur praefatis virginum catervis nequaquam Eustochii et Demetriadis virtutum rumusculus, qui passim per Europam crebrescens diffunditur, a nostris litterarum scedulis et apicum pittaciolis excludatur. Quarum prior, favorabilis filia Paulae et beatae Blesellae germana, adeo apud Occidentis imperium solerti librorum ingenio praedita claruit, ut in orthodoxorum bibliothecis, ubi sagacissimi Hieronimi commenta recitantur, illius quoque opinio crebra lectionis assiduitate divulgetur, siquidem sexies terna vel ter sena in Esaiae vaticinium volumina ad eandem prolixa sermonum serie virginem describuntur. Sed et residua canonicarum commentariola scripturarum, quae praefatus divinae legis interpres et matris solertia et virginis compulsus industria desuda(vi)t, universa singillatim e commemorare pertensum est, quae vestrae sagacitatis filosofiam a per patentes librorum campos (curiose) cursitantem nequaquam delitescere reor; cui etiam exortatorium de virginitate servanda insigniter edidit opusculum.

Secundam vero nobili stirpis prosapia oriundam in tantum vagabunda rumorum praeconia extollebant, ut etiam transmarinis litterarum caracteribus imbuta usque ad summam virtutis farum virgineis meritorum gradibus conscenderit, siquidem flagitante eiusdem genetrice volumen prolixa et lepida sermonum serie digestum ad praefatam Christi tirunculam citra pontum dirigitur, in quo rudimenta vitae illius caraxantur ita: Scribendum est igitur ad Demetriadem, virginem Christi, virginem nobilem, virginem divitem et, quod his maius est, ardore fidei nobilitatem divitiasque calcantem et infra: Quae summo loco nata, in summis opibus summisque deliciis nutrita tantis tamque variis vitae huius blandimentis velut tenacissimis quibusdam vinculis irretita subito eruperit cunctaque simul bona corporis animi virtute mutarit; et post pauca Meminit enim, inquit, quas mundi opes gloriamque respuerit, quas denique contempserit vitae praesentis illecebras, quibus voluptatibiis renuntiaverit. Rursus ante calcem voluminis, cum supremi examinis exemplum terroremque iudicantis, qui aequa discretionis bilance singulorum facta trutinabit, eleganter exponeret, ita exorsus est: Recens factum est, quod ipsa vidisti, cum ad stridulae bucinae sonum Gothorumque clangorem lugubri oppressa metu e domina orbis Roma contremuit et infra Si ita, inquit, mortales timemus hostes et humanam manum, quid faciemus, cum coeperit clangor et terribilis tuba intonare de caelo et ad illam archangeli vocem omni bucina clariorem totus simul remugiet mundus? – Tunc tu iustorum choris et sanctis comitata virginibus in sponsi obviam obvolas et cetera .

'Accordingly, the report of the virtues of EUSTOCHIUM and DEMETRIAS, which, growing apace, is spread everywhere throughout Europe, should not be excluded from the previously mentioned throngs of virgins by the sheets of our writing and by the parchment-leaves of our letters. The first of these, (Eustochium), the beloved daughter of Paula and the sister of the blessed Blesella, was renowned to such an extent throughout the western Empire for the brilliant quality of her book-learning, that in libraries of patristic writings, where the commentaries of the wise Jerome are read, her reputation is made known by the frequent repetition of reading, since the eighteen volume (of Jerome) on the prophesies of Isaiah are dedicated to this same virgin in a lengthy series of words. But it is most exacting to enumerate one by one all the remaining commentaries on the canonical scriptures which the aforementioned interpreter of the divine law,driven on by the intelligence of the mother (Paula) and the diligence of the daughter (Eustochium), laboriously produced – I think that these commentaries are in no way unknown to the wisdom of your intelligence, racing curiously through the wide-open fields of books. Jerome also produced for Eustochium in a most polished way a small exhortatory work on preserving virginity [i.e. Letter 22].

Wandering reports of fame extolled the second (virgin), (Demetrias), born from the stock of a noble family, to such an extent that, imbued with instruction in letters from across the sea, she ascended the highest beacon of virtue on the virginal stairs of her merits; since indeed, at her mother's request, a volume written in a developed and elegant style was sent over the sea to the aforesaid servant of Christ, in which the principles of her life were thus described. "Therefore I must write to Demetrias, a virgin of Christ, a noble virgin, a wealthy virgin and, what is greater than these things, a virgin spurning her nobility and wealth in the ardour of her faith," and further on: "(Demetrias), born in this high station, nourished with the greatest riches and the greatest luxuries, and ensnarled with so many and so various attractions of this life as if (entangled) in exceedingly tenacious chains, suddenly broke free and transformed all her bodily goods by the power of her soul" and a little later he says: "For she recalls what riches and glory of this world she has rejected, and what allurements of this present life she has scorned, what pleasures she has renounced" [Ep. ad Demetriadem 1]. Again, just before the end of the book, when he finely was expounding the subject of the Last Judgement, and the severity of the Judge who shall weigh up he deeds of every person in his just scale of judgment, he began in this way: "It happened recently, and you yourself witnessed it, when at the sound of the shrill trumpet and tumult of the Goths, Rome, the mistress of the world, trembled, overwhelmed with melancholy fear,' and later on he says, 'If to this degree we fear mortal enemies and human handiwork, what shall we do when the uproar and terrible trumpet shall begin to thunder from the heavens, and at the voice of the archangel, clearer than any trumpet, the entire universe shall rumble? Then shall you fly to meet your bride-groom, accompanied by holy virgins and choirs of the just" [Ep. ad Demetriadem 30], and so on.'

Text: Ehwald 1919, 303-4. Translation: Lapidge and Herren 1979, 115-16.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Eustochium, virgin daughter of Paula, follower of Jerome, ob. c. 420 : S02487 Demetrias, virgin and aristocrat of Rome, 5th c. : S02488

Saint Name in Source

Eustochium Demetrias

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 - monks/nuns/hermits Ecclesiastics – unspecified Relatives of the saint Foreigners (including Barbarians) Aristocrats Women


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 are Jerome, Ep. 22, and the Letter to Demetrias, now understood to have been authored by Pelagius (Lapidge and Herren, 1979, 178, 196).


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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