Aldhelm (Old English: Ealdhelm, Latin: Aldhelmus Malmesberiensis) (c. 639 – 25 May 709), Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, Bishop of Sherborne, and a writer and scholar of Latin poetry, was born before the middle of the 7th century. He is said to have been the son of Kenten, who was of the royal house of Wessex.[1] He was certainly not, as his early biographer Faritius asserts, the brother of King Ine.[2] After his death he was venerated as a saint, his feast day being the day of his death, 25 May.


Bishop of Sherborne, Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey
Stained glass window showing Aldhelm, installed in St Aldhelm's Church, Malmesbury in 1938
Other post(s)Abbot of Malmesbury (675-705)
Personal details
Bornc. 639
Died25 May 709
Doulting, Somerset
DenominationRoman Catholic
Feast day25 May
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church
Anglican Communion
AttributesMonk playing a harp; or bishop with staff sprouting ash leaves
PatronageMalmesbury; Sherborne; musicians; songwriters
ShrinesMalmesbury Abbey, now destroyed.

Life edit

Early life and education edit

Aldhelm received his first education in the school of the Irish scholar and monk Máeldub (also Maildubh, Maildulf or Meldun) (died c. 675),[3] who had settled in the British stronghold of Bladon (or Bladow) on the site of the town called Mailduberi, Maldubesburg, Meldunesburg, etc., and finally Malmesbury, after him.[2]

In 668, Pope Vitalian sent Theodore of Tarsus to be Archbishop of Canterbury. At the same time the North African scholar Hadrian became abbot of St Augustine's at Canterbury. Aldhelm was one of his disciples,[1] for he addresses him as the 'venerable preceptor of my rude childhood.' He must, nevertheless, have been thirty years of age when he began to study with Hadrian. His studies included Roman law, astronomy, astrology, the art of reckoning and the difficulties of the calendar. He learned, according to the doubtful statements of the early lives, both Greek and Hebrew. He certainly introduces many Latinized Greek words into his works.[2]

Ill health compelled Aldhelm to leave Canterbury and he returned to Malmesbury Abbey, where he was a monk under Máeldub for fourteen years, dating probably from 661 and including the period of his studies with Hadrian.[2]

Abbot of Malmesbury edit

When Máeldub died, Aldhelm was appointed in 675,[1] according to a charter of doubtful authenticity cited by William of Malmesbury, by Leuthere, Bishop of Winchester (671–676), to succeed to the direction of the monastery, of which he became the first abbot.[2][3]

Aldhelm introduced the Benedictine rule and secured the right of the election of the abbot by the monks themselves. The community at Malmesbury increased, and Aldhelm was able to found two other monasteries as centres of learning, at Frome, Somerset and at Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. Following a pilgrimage to Rome, he was given permission by Pope Sergius I in a Papal Bull of 701 to establish the monastery at Frome, where he had already built a church circa 685.[4] The Anglo-Saxon building of St Laurence's Church, Bradford-on-Avon dates back to his time, and may safely be regarded as his. At Malmesbury he built a new church to replace Máeldub's modest building,[3] and obtained considerable grants of land for the monastery.[2] Aldhelm held this post until circa 705 when he became Bishop of Winchester.[5]

Wall plaque at the Catholic Church of St Aldhelm, Malmesbury. The inscription says 'St Aldhelm 639–709, Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne, Latin Poet and Ecclesiastical Writer.'

Easter controversy edit

Aldhelm was deputed by a synod of the church in Wessex to remonstrate with the Britons of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall) on the Easter controversy. British Christians followed a unique system of calculation for the date of Easter and also bore a distinctive tonsure; these customs are generally associated with the practice known as Celtic Christianity. Aldhelm wrote a long and rather acrimonious letter to king Geraint of Dumnonia (Geruntius) achieving ultimate agreement with Rome.[6] Aldhelm also personally visited Devon & Cornwall about this time, potentially on a diplomatic mission,[7] which he recounts in his Carmen Rhythmicum.

Bishop of Sherborne edit

In 705, or perhaps earlier, Hædde, Bishop of Winchester, died, and the diocese was divided into two parts.[8] Sherborne was the new see, of which Aldhelm became the first bishop around 705.[9] He wished to resign the abbey of Malmesbury which he had governed for thirty years, but yielding to the remonstrances of the monks he continued to direct it until his death. He was now an old man, but he showed great activity in his new functions. The cathedral church which he built at Sherborne, though replaced later by a Norman church, is described by William of Malmesbury.[2] In his capacity as bishop, he displayed a great deal of energy. This included going into public places where he would sing hymns and passages from the gospels interspersed with bits of clowning to draw attention to his message.

Organ edit

Rogers has Aldhelm claiming to have built an innovative organ,[10] "a mighty instrument, with innumerable tones, blown with belows, and enclosed in a gilded case." (It is not clear from the source cited whether the device was innovative for the premises, the locale, or a fundamental advance on existing known technologies.)

Death and veneration edit

Conceptual statue of St Aldhelm in Sherborne Abbey by Marzia Colonna

Aldhelm was on his rounds in his diocese when he died at the church in Doulting village in 709, the Church of St Aldhelm and St Aldhelm's Well in the village are dedicated to him.[9][11] The body was taken to Malmesbury, and crosses were set up by his friend, Egwin, Bishop of Worcester, at the various stopping-places.[12] He was buried in the church of St Michael at Malmesbury Abbey.[13] His biographers relate miracles due to his sanctity worked during his lifetime and at his shrine.[2] The cape in Dorset commonly known as St Alban's Head is more properly called St. Aldhelm's Head in his honour.

Aldhelm was revered as a saint after his death, with his feast day being celebrated on 25 May.[1] His relics were translated in 980 by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury.[13] He is commemorated by a statue in niche 124 of the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral. There is also a statue in Sherborne Abbey of Aldhelm, created in 2004 by Marzia Colonna.[14]

Flag of Saint Aldhelm

Aldhelm's flag may be flown in his celebration. The flag, a white cross on a red background, is a colour reversed version of England's St. George flag.[15][16]

Aldhelm is remembered in the Church of England with a commemoration on 25 May.[17]

Writings edit

Aldhelm's collected works were edited by Rudolf Ehwald, Aldhelmi opera (Berlin, 1919). An earlier edition by J. A. Giles, Patres eccl. Angl. (Oxford, 1844) was reprinted by J. P. Migne in his Patrologiae Cursus, vol. 89 (1850).

Contemporary reputation edit

Aldhelm's fame as a scholar spread to other countries. Artwil, the son of an Irish king, submitted his writings for Aldhelm's approval, and Cellanus, an Irish monk from Peronne, was one of his correspondents. Aldhelm was the first Anglo-Saxon, so far as is known, to write in Latin verse, and his letter to Acircius (Aldfrith or Eadfrith, king of Northumbria) is a treatise on Latin prosody for the use of his countrymen. In this work he included his most famous productions, one hundred and one riddles in Latin hexameters. Each of them is a complete picture, and one of them, De creatura, runs to 83 lines.[2]

That Aldhelm's merits as a scholar were early recognised in his own country is shown by the encomium of Bede (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 5.18), who speaks of him as a wonder of erudition. His fame reached Italy, and at the request of Pope Sergius I he paid a visit to Rome, of which, however, there is no notice in his extant writings. On his return, bringing with him privileges for his monastery and a magnificent altar, he received a popular ovation.[2]

Aldhelm wrote in elaborate, grandiloquent and very difficult Latin, known as hermeneutic style. This verborum garrulitas shows the influence of Irish models and became England's dominant Latin style for centuries,[18] though eventually it came to be regarded as barbarous.[19] His works became standard school texts in monastic schools, until his influence declined around the time of the Norman Conquest.

Modern reputation edit

Modern historians have contrasting views of his writings. Peter Hunter Blair compares him unfavourably to Bede: "In the mind of his older contemporary, Aldhelm, learning of equal depth produced little more than an extravagant form of intellectual curiosity...Like Bede he drank deeply from the streams of Irish and Mediterranean scholarship, but their waters produced in him a state of intellectual intoxication which delighted its beholders, but which left little to posterity."[20] However, Michael Lapidge praises his immense learning, observing that his knowledge of Latin texts is greater than any other pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon writer, and that "the originality and importance of his corpus of Latin writings well justifies his status as the first English man of letters".[21]

Prose edit

  • De Laude Virginitatis (the prose De Virginitate), a Latin treatise on virginity addressed to the nuns of the double monastery at Barking, is Aldhelm's best-known work. After a long preface extolling the merits of virginity, he commemorates a great number of male and female saints. Aldhelm later wrote a shorter, poetic version (see below).
  • Epistola ad Acircium, a Latin treatise dedicated to one Acircius, understood to be King Aldfrith of Northumbria (r. 685-704/5). The chief source of his Epistola ad Acircium (ed. A. Mai, Class. Auct. vol. V) is Priscian. The acrostic introduction gives the sentence, 'Aldhelmus cecinit millenis versibus odas,' whether read from the initial or final letters of the lines.[2] After an address to King Aldfrith, the letter consists of three treatises:
    • De septenario, treatise on the number seven in arithmology
    • De metris, treatise on metre, including the Enigmata (see below).
    • De pedum regulis, didactive treatise on metrical feet, such as iambs and spondees.
  • Epistola ad Geruntium, a letter written in latin to Geraint, King of Dumnonia concerning articles of the Council of Hertford. It was supposed to have been destroyed by the Britons (William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum p.361), but was discovered with others of Aldhelm's in the correspondence of St Boniface, archbishop of Mainz.[2]
  • Other Letters. Correspondents include Bishop Leuthere, Hadrian, Eahfrid, Cellanus, Sergius and Aldhelm's pupils Wihtfrith and Æthelwald who was responsible for part of the Carmen rhythmicum.[22]
    • A long letter to Eahfrid, a scholar just returned from Ireland (first printed in Usher, Veterum Epistt. Hiber. Sylloge, 1632), is of interest as casting light on the relations between English and Irish scholars.[2]

Poetry edit

  • Carmen de virginitate (the poetic De Virginitate). Aldhelm wrote a shorter, poetic version of De Laude Virginitatis, which closes with a battle of the virtues against the vices, the De octo principalibus vitiis (first printed by Delrio, Mainz, 1601). The two works are what is sometimes called an opus geminatum or "twin work".
  • Carmen rhythmicum, rhythmic poem which describes a travel through western England and the way a wooden church was affected by a storm.
  • Carmina ecclesiastica (modern title), i.e. a number of Latin tituli designed for inscription on a church or altar. They are: (1) In Basilica Sanctorum Petri et Pauli, for a church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, possibly the church which Aldhelm founded at Malmesbury, (2) In Basilica Beatae Mariae Semper Virginis, St Mary's Church, possibly also at Malmesbury, (3) In Ecclesia Mariae a Bugge Extructa, for the church built by Bugga, that is Eadburh of Minster-in-Thanet, a royal lady of the house of Wessex, (4) the twelve tituli known collectively as In Duodecim Apostolorum Aris and (5) In sancti Matthiae Apostoli Ecclesia.
  • Aenigmata, one hundred riddles included in the Epistola ad Acircium.

Lost works edit

According to William of Malmesbury, Aldhelm also wrote poetry in Old English and set his own compositions to music, but none of his songs, which were still popular in the time of Alfred, have survived. Finding his people slow to come to church, he is said to have stood at the end of a bridge singing songs in the vernacular, thus collecting a crowd to listen to exhortations on sacred subjects.[2][23]

Churches dedicated to St Aldhelm edit

Editions and translations edit

Complete works edit

  • Ehwald, Rudolf (ed.). Aldhelmi Opera. MGH Scriptores. Auctores antiquissimi 15. Berlin, 1919. Scans available from the Digital MGH.
  • Aldhelm: The Prose Works. Trans. Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren. D. S. Brewer, 1979. ISBN 0-85991-041-5.
  • Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Trans. Michael Lapidge and James L. Rosier. Boydell & Brewer, 1984. ISBN 0-85991-146-2.

Prosa de virginitate edit

  • Gwara, Scott (ed.), Aldhelmi Malmesbiriensis Prosa de virginitate: cum glosa latina atque anglosaxonica, 2 vols, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, 124, 124a (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001).

The Enigmata edit

  • The Riddles of Aldhelm. Text and translation by James Hall Pittman. Yale University Press, 1925.
  • Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm’s Riddles in the British Library ms Royal 12.C.xxiii, ed. and trans. by Nancy Porter Stork, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Studies and Texts, 98 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990).
  • Saint Aldhelm's Riddles Translated by A.M. Juster, University of Toronto Press, 2015, ISBN 978-1-4426-2892-2.

See also edit

Citations edit

  1. ^ a b c d Walsh A New Dictionary of Saints pp. 21–22
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Aldhelm". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 535–536.
  3. ^ a b c "St. Aldhelm (c. 639 – 709)", Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury
  4. ^ Annette Burkitt, Flesh and Bones of Frome Selwood and Wessex, 2017, The Hobnob Press, p341 ISBN 978 1 906978 50 1
  5. ^ "St Aldhelm". Athelstan Museum. Retrieved 10 January 2021.
  6. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  7. ^ Probert, Duncan (2010). "New light on Aldhelm's letter to King Gerent of Dumnonia". Aldhelm and Sherborne : essays to celebrate the founding of the bishopric. Oxbow Books. pp. 110–28. ISBN 978-1-84217-357-2.
  8. ^ "Sherborne Town". Sherborne Town. Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  9. ^ a b Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 222
  10. ^ Rogers, W. H. Hamilton (1888). Memorials of the West, Historical and Descriptive, Collected on the Borderland of Somerset, Dorset and Devon. James G. Commin. p. 49.
  11. ^ "Doulting Conservation Area Appraisal" (PDF). Mendip Council. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 June 2011. Retrieved 20 November 2010.
  12. ^ Thurston, Herbert (1907). St. Aldhelm. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 21 September 2012. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  13. ^ a b Blair "Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Saints" Local Saints and Local Churches p. 512
  14. ^ "The Art of Worship, the Bishop of Salisbury at Sherborne Abbey Festival". The Fine Times Recorder. Retrieved 8 November 2017.
  15. ^ The flag
  16. ^ Wessex flag flying advice
  17. ^ "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 27 March 2021.
  18. ^ The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th Edition. Edited by Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 2000 p. 15
  19. ^ Chisholm 1911, p. 535.
  20. ^ Hunter Blair 2003, p. 326.
  21. ^ Lapidge 2004.
  22. ^ "Æthelwald 17". Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
  23. ^ Aldhelm (1925). The riddles of Aldhelm. Yale studies in English, 67. James Hall Pitman (trans.). New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 69.

Sources edit

  • Blair, John (2002). "A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Saints". In Thacker, Aland; Sharpe, Richard (eds.). Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 495–565. ISBN 0-19-820394-2.
  • Fryde, E. B.; Greenway, D. E.; Porter, S.; Roy, I. (1996). Handbook of British Chronology (Third revised ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56350-X.
  • Holweck, F.G. A Biographical Dictionary of the Saints. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1924.
  • Hunter Blair, Peter (2003). An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83085-0.
  • Lapidge, Michael (2004). "Aldhelm [St Aldhelm] (d. 709/10)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/308. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. Retrieved 5 May 2021. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  • Lapidge, Michael. "The Career of Aldhelm." Anglo-Saxon England 36 (2007): 15–69.
  • Marenbon, John, "Les Sources du Vocabulaire d'Aldhelm" in Bulletin du Cange: Archivvm Latinitatis Medii Aevi MCMLXXVII- MCMLXXVIII. Tome XLI. E.J.Brill, Leiden. 1979.
  • Orchard, Andy. The Poetic Art of Aldhelm. Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-45090-X.
  • Walsh, Michael. A New Dictionary of Saints: East and West. London: Burns & Oates, 2007. ISBN 0-86012-438-X
  • G.T. Dempsey. Aldhelm of Malmesbury and the Ending of Late Antiquity (= Studia Traditionis Theologiae 16), Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2015. ISBN 978-2-503-55490-7

External links edit

Christian titles
Preceded by
Diocese created
Bishop of Sherborne
Succeeded by