The translation of St. Aldhelm of Sherborne’s existing prose works in “Aldhelm: The Prose Works”, made by Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Latin scholars Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren, helps provide much needed information for the student of the Anglo-Saxon Church. The work was originally published in 1979. It is as a translation enjoyable and readable, considering the ‘verbosa garrulitas’ of St. Aldhelm’s prose style!
The existing prose works of St. Aldhelm are the following:
Epistola ad Acircium
Letters of Aldhelm
There also is printed two “Aldhelmian Charters” at the end of the book, but these are generally not received as works of St. Aldhelm, although similar in style.
Short Noice About St. Aldhelm
Who was St. Aldhelm, by the way? He was a prominent figure in the early Anglo-Saxon Church, living from approximately 639 AD to 709 AD. St. Bede the Venerable gives the following information related to him in his “Ecclesiastical History”:
The South Saxons Received Eadbert and Eolla, and the West Saxons, Daniel and Aldhelm, for their Bishops. Of the Writings of the same Aldhelm. [A.D. 705.]
In the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord 705, Alfrid, King of the Northumbrians, died just before the twentieth year of his reign. His son, Osred, a boy about eight years of age, succeeding him in the throne, reigned eleven years. In the beginning of his reign, Hedda, Bishop of the West Saxons, departed to the Heavenly Kingdom; for he was a good and just man, and exercised his episcopal duties rather by his innate love of virtue, than by what he had gained from learning. The Most Reverend Prelate, Pechthelm, of whom we shall speak in the proper place, and who was a long time either deacon or monk with his successor Aldhelm, is wont to relate that many miraculous cures have been wrought in theplace where he died, through the merit of his sanctity; and that the men of that province used to carry the dust from thence for the sick, which, when they had put into water, the sprinkling or drinking thereof restored health to many sick men and beasts; so that the holy earth being frequently carried away, there was a considerable hole left.
Upon his death the Bishopric of that province was divided into two dioceses. One of them was given to Daniel, which he governs to this day; the other to Aldhelm, wherein he most worthily presided four years; both of them were well instructed, as well in ecclesiastical affairs as in the knowledge of the Scriptures. Aldhelm, when he was only a priest and abbot of the monastery of Malmesbury, by order of a Synod of his own nation, wrote a notable book against the error of the Britons, in not celebrating Pascha at the proper time, and in doing several other things not consonant to the purity and the peace of the Church; and by the reading of this book he persuaded many of them, who were subject to the West Saxons, to the adopt the Catholic celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection. He likewise wrote a notable book “On Virginity” [De Virginitate], which, in imitation of Sedulius, he composed double, that is, in hexameter verse and prose. He wrote some other books, as being a man most learned in all respects, for he had a clean style, and was, as I have said, wonderful for ecclesiastical and liberal erudition. On his death, Forthere was made Bishop in his stead, and is living at this time being likewise a man very learned in Holy Writ. [Ecclesiastical History, Book V: 18]
Into such a world, so seemingly distant from ours, are we plunged in reading of St. Aldhelm. More distant because the utter sanctity of its inhabitants, such as St. Hedda the Bishop, by God’s Grace, so abounded to the sanctification of all things such blessed men touched, as to make the very earth healing and holy. How far are we away from beholding such men today! Into such a life we find St. Aldhelm.
We are not given much information here by St. Bede. There is certainly more than enough information around the web, especially on google books, about St. Aldhelm. In order to pass quickly to very short overviews of his prose works, I ask the readers, if they are so interested, to turn to various pieces one can find on wikipedia or on google books.
Epistle to King Aldfrith
The “Epistola ad Acircium” is generally recognized to be addressed to King Alfrdth [Alfrid] of Northumbria [+705AD]. St. Aldhelm has some years previous struck up a friendship with the King, and was anxious to remain in contact with the devout and learned monarch. St. Bede says of King Alfridth that he was a “man most learned in Scripture” [Ecclesiastical History IV:26], and the “Irish Chronicle” says of the King in its death notice of him: “Aldfrith son of Osuiu, sapiens [wise], king of the English dies.” [AU 704:5] The Epistle is mainly concerned with discourse concerning the mystical signification of the number 7 in Holy Scriptures and other sources. St. Aldhelm says:
“For the Catholic Decree of the Fathers have ordained that the seven-fold calculation of numbers portend mystical allegory not only according to a single and sevenfold course, but also by a tenfold chain of computations, just as the illustrious ‘man of desires’ [Dan. 9:23], subject to divine worship though amongst a barbarous people from the very earliest beginnings of his education, (when he was) filled with the spirit of prophecy when Gabriel unlocked the mysteries of history with secret keys, declared: after seventy weeks have been traversed and extended down to the cradles of the leaders of Bethelehem, who will rule the people of Israel and the accursed nations with a rod of iron, that is, after the cycles of ninety-eight lustra [a lustra is a five-year period–NFTU] have rolled by…”
St. Aldhelm mentions the connection between the number seven and the seven clerical grades of the Church:
“In very truth the adornments of the Universal Church, according to the Decrees of the ancients, are contained in the Seven Ranks of Holy Offices, which receive increments of powers distinguished by the name from the first rank of the sacrament [i.e. porter] through exorcists and acolytes and extend by degrees as far as the helm of the highest pontificate and the spiritual insignia of bishops.”
St. Aldhelm connects this all back, at the very beginning, to the creation:
“This sevenfold measure of intervals, I say, came to be sacred from the very beginning of the new-born world. For not only the entirety of all creation, which the revolving and moving pinnacle of the heavens and the double hemispheres gird, is said to have brought into being in a multitude of forms in the sevenfold course of a single week, when HE Who Lives in Eternity made all things simultaneously in a single stroke, but also the hoped for rest of future promise and the perennial felicity of the blessed life, which shall be paid to each and every one accord to the amount of his merits, is granted to the innocent and those free of the offence of sin only through a sevenfold increment of times, one thousand in number, after the throng of the impious has been separated.”
At the very end of the Epistle, St. Aldhelm exhorts the pious King Aldfrith to remember the following:
“Therefore, in all your works, reflect ont he last things, and you shall not sin unto eternity….For what is the prosperity of the perishable world or the felicity of deceitful life? Is it not–to employ the closes comparison–like the dream that vanishes, the smoke that grows faint, or the foam that disappears? ‘If riches abound,’ said the Psalmist, ‘set not your heart upon them.’ [Ps.56:11] Would not that the possession of present things be our repayment in the future! Would not that the abundance of perishable things become a dearth of things to follow! Would not that the allurements of the seductive world beget the loss of eternal blessedness! Rather, once the interval of (this) fragile life has been coursed, may there follow, with Christ’s assistance, the perpetual rewards of our merits. Which may He, Who hung upon the gibbet for our sake, deign to accomplish, living and reigning forever, together with the Eternal Father and the Holy Spirit forever, world without end. Amen.”
No better advice could a cleric give to a ruler [or any man]!
We next come to the longest of the prose works: “De Virginitate” or “On Virginity.” From the Old Testament figures, to those in the pages of the New Testament, to the early Martyrs to the Desert Fathers and more, St. Aldhelm raises a blessed encomium to the saints. It is not possible to go through all in such a short note as this small review. But, a few will be given. First, the Holy and Righteous Priest-King Melchisedech.
“Therefore, as we mentioned earlier, just as the future virginity of the Incarnate Word was prefigured in the mystical foreshadowings of a mystery through Jeremiah and Daniel and other associates in the same resolve and companions of flourishing chastity, so through the guiltless Abel gentle innocence and suffering, and through Melchisedech the episcopal authority of heavenly power and the sacerdotal office of the divine priesthood, are prefigured.
“The first of these, (Abel), if going back further I may begin from the beginning, because of the worthy palm of his innocence and the glory of his original submissiveness, was the first of mortals to be found worthy to offer burnt-offerings, which were approved and welcome in the divine sight, when the sacrifices of his brother’s offering had been spurned; because of which his blood was savagely spilt by his treacherous and wicked brother who thus broke the inextricable bond of kinship in defiance of Divine Law and human custom, and (so), with the crimson covering of his precious blood, he prefigured until the end of time the future passion of Our Benevolent Redeemer.
“Melchisedech, however, flourished at the beginning of the world’s age and was the first to attain to the dignity of the highest priesthood and be endowed with the distinguished rank of episcopal authority. At that same time, when a dispute had arisen between kings, Melchisedech went out to meet the Patriarch [i.e. Abraham] with his three hundred and eighteen servants bringing back his famous booty, and–after an enormous slaughter of people–bringing home the numerous spoils of the Sodomites, together with his cousin [i.e. Lot], and did he not, by reason of the sanctity of his life, in offering up his symbolic libations of bread and wine, prefigure typologically the Person of Our Redeemer, such that rightly do the oracles of David prophecy concerning the Priesthood of Christ, through which he offered up a twofold sacrifice: ‘Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech’? The stock of his paternal kind and the line of his maternal family are obscure, the nature of his real birth being unknown to man, as the apostle attests, ‘without father, without mother, without genealogy’–even though the popular tradition of the Hebrews thinks that his father was Shem, the first-born son of Noah, the ancestor of Abraham, Nachor, and Aaron. But there is a considerable difference between the dubious traditions of the Pharisees and the elaborate exposition of Holy Scripture; for the catholic Church in no way accepts the trifles of apocryphal (books) and the uncertain tales of (other) absurdities.” [De Virginitate, sec. LIV (54)]
The work was written for a convent of nuns, particularly Hildelith, Justina, Cuthbug, Osburg, Eulalia, and others. On his way to a Synod, St. Aldhelm had received a letter from the nuns asking for a treatise of exhortation. The result was “De Virginitate”. In an admirable passage in the treatise, St. Aldhelm touches on the question which St. Augustine in Book I of “The City of God” wrote about: “What of those, who, by no fault of their own, were deprived of their virginity, such as those who have been raped? Those who were enslaved and forced into terrible evils by violence?” Such a question is just as relevant in the period of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages as it is today.
To this St. Aldhelm calls forth the teachings of St. Augustine and St. Prosper:
“For every privilege of pure virginity is preserved only in the fortress of the free mind rather than being contained in the restricted confines of the flesh; and it is beneficially safeguarded by the inflexible judgment of the free will, rather than being diminished by the enforced servitude of the body. Whence Augustine of Africa, the Bishop of Hippo Regis, declares in an elegant sentence of prose, saying, ‘Thus the sanctity of the body is not lost provided that the sanctity of the soul remains, even if the body is overcome, just as the sanctity of the body is lost if the purity of the soul is violated, even if the body is intact.’ [De. Civit. Dei I. 18] Prosper of Aquitaine sweetened this (statement) into lines and half-lines of verse in his honeyed epigrams, saying:
The unimpaired mind loses nothing in a violated body,
The woulds of the flesh do not stain it, if it’s unwilling;
Nor does the unengaged will take on the guilt of the deed:
It’s a greater sin to will a crime than to suffer it;
Thus all (sins) revert to the depths of the heart
So that often the soul is guilty without the flesh,
Since it alone conceives and inwardly performs with invisible movements
That which is withheld from the untouched body. [Epig. LIL]
After going through multitudes of the virgin saints, St. Aldhelm, near the end of his book, compares his praises to that of an artist who paints beautiful pictures, though is himself ugly:
Meanwhile, I have set out thus far the beauty of comely virginity and the lovely countenance of chastity, and have painted them with the various hues of their virtue, as if with the colours of flowers, just as artists of portraits of the nobility and painters of royal personages are accustomed to adorn their images with guilded flakes of metal and to decorate the most beautiful features of their bodies with forged ornamentation, when nevertheless these same artists are usually ugly and contemptible by the clumsy nature of their bodies, and it is the royal icon painted with its ornamented wreath which is the subject of praise, not the despicable person of the painter which is revered. I think that the Bishop of the Apostolic See [i.e. Gregory the Great] was speaking of this when he said, “I, a loathsome painter, have painted a beautiful man; and I who am still tossed on the waves of sin direct others to the shore of perfection.’ [Reg. past., 4]
Thus, it is far easier to praise the saints, than to imitate them.
The Letters of Aldhelm
The existing corpus of St. Aldhelm’s letters, range from complete, to heavily fragmented. A shame that a figure who was perhaps the most well-known Anglo-Saxon writer on the Continent, would, by the late Medieval period, come to near oblivion in terms of his existing works.
Though, perhaps the most important of these letters is Letter IV, addressed to the Britonic King of Dumnonia, Geraint. For some time the Celtic Churches of Britain had fallen into a dreadful schism. They had consistently refused to accede to the correct Paschal calculation after numerous attempts to correct their usage. There are a number of reasons for this. But, it seems that most important was the nationalist sentiment of the British peoples [and by ‘British’ we mean the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain, the people today called the Welsh and Cornish]. Numerous other problems had crept into the British Church, such as the continued usage of single-handed consecrations a normative [as opposed to an exceptional] practice; their adherence to a degraded form of the tonsure; their gradual loss of the canonical system of metropolitans; and, perhaps, most terrible of all, their utter hatred for those who disagreed with them, especially for the English saints.
It is not necessary to agree with all of St. Aldhelm’s arguments in this Letter, especially, and unfortunately, his reliance upon the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, to nevertheless see the main and valid points. The worst ethnic hatred and malice was to be faced, from one people to another, while both professed the same Orthodox Faith. Indeed, despite perhaps some tense relations, the Celtic Churches of Ireland showed no such hatred and animosity as a general rule [the presence of the English monastic community in Mayo, and the large number of English students welcomed with open arms into Irish monasteries demonstrates this]; the Irish had by and large solved the question of their incorrect Paschcal cycle at the Synod of Magh Lene in the 620s. By the early 700s, Iona and the few outlying areas had accepted the corrected Paschal dating. Yet, the British refused to accept this.
St. Aldhelm says:
“For indeed we have heard and received report from the relation of diverse rumours that your bishops are not at all in harmony with the rule of the Catholic Faith according to the precepts of Scripture, and, on account of their animosities and verbal assaults, a grave schism and cruel scandal may arise in the Church of Christ.”
St. Aldhelm speaks of the pride of the British bishops:
“How every difference from the Catholic Faith and what a departure from the evangelical tradition it is that Bishops of Dyfed, on the other said of the strait of the River Severn, glorying in the private purity of their own ways of life, detest our communion to such a great extent that they disdain equally to celebrate the divine offices in church with us and to take courses of food at table for the sake of charity. Rather they cast the scraps of their dinners and the remains of their feasts to be devoured by the jaws of ravenous dogs and filthy pigs, and they order the vessels and flaggons [i.e. those use in common with clergy of the Roman Church] to be purified and purged with grains of sandy gravel, or with the dusky cinders of ash. No greeting of peace is offered, no kiss of affectionate brotherhood is bestowed according to the words of the Apostle: ‘Salute one another with an holy kiss.’ [Rom. 16:16]”
Indeed, St. Aldhelm testifies that if anyone from him goes to visit them:
“they do not deign to admit us to the company of their brotherhood until we have been compelled to spend the space of forty days in penance; and in this they unfortunately imitate the heretics, who liked to call themselves ‘cathari’ [i.e. Novatians–NFTU], thatis, ‘pure ones.’ With ‘alas, alas’ rather than with ‘bravo’ and with tearful voices and lamenting sobs do I think one ought to groan mournfully over such great errors; and they are known to do all this contrary to the teachings of the Gospel.”
St. Aldhelm continues to compare them to the Pharisees. And he does not hesitate to censure them for their lack of the proper tonsure in the form of the Roman Church. This argument about the correct tonsure may seem to have little relevance today, but, in such an age where ecclesiastical discipline was widely enforced, to use the wrong tonsure was considered a grave offense. The Synod of Trullo, near contemporaneous with these events, censures those who ‘grow long hair’ on their heads and say they are monks: “As touching so-called hermits, who dressed in black and with a growth of hair on their head go about the cities and associate with laymen and women, and insult their own profession, we decree, if they choose to tonsure their hair and adopt the habit (or garb) of other Monks, that they be installed in a Monastery and be enrolled with their brethren there. But if they do not prefer to do so, they must be driven out of the cities altogether and be forced to dwell in deserts, from which they formed the name they have applied to themselves.”
Yet, the British, like the Irish, using the Roman Canon of the Mass [Anaphora] commemorate the Bishop of Rome as their Patriarch [the Irish called their version of the Canon the “Canon of Pope Gelasius”, which itself had been introduced into Ireland in the 500s during the Second Order of Irish saints by imported teachings from Wales]. Yet, fi they recognized and used this Anaphora, and undoubtedly commemorated the Bishop of Rome as their Patriarch, recognizing him as a Successor of St. Peter [of course, we need not see how this implied the exorbitant and fanatical claims of the later ultramontane heretics], then why do they attack viciously the tonsure of St. Peter? We can only be reminded of how when St. Augustine of Canterbury, decades before, discussed these issues, found that they admitted “that it was the true way of righteousness which Augustine taught; but that they could not depart from their ancient customs without the consent and leave of their people.” For such a small account, to simply correct the Paschal calculation, and to use the Petrine tonsure, we find so much animosity raised!
In the end, St. Aldhelm’s letter seems to have, as St. Bede stated above, persuaded many to adopt the correct Paschcal calculation, and to begin to end this dreadful schism; a schism motivated by national hatreds. Yet, only by the time of the most holy Elfodd, Bishop of Bangor [+809], called “Archbishop of Gwyneed” that we see this controversy come to an end.
The other letters of [or to] St. Aldhelm are also valuable. We have Letter IX, written by the learned Irish monk Cellanus to Aldhelm. This certainly demonstrates the friendly amity between the Orthodox English and Irish, as a general rule, at the time. Certainly there could be jabs at one another [for example, St. Aldhelm sternly is against English students leaving abroad to go to Irish schools, when there is the perfectly good ecclesiastical School of Canterbury founded by Sts. Theodore and Hadrian]. Indeed, in Letter V to Heahfrith St. Aldhelm says that he should not be ‘accused by someone of insulting Irish savants…especially as I mean to busy myself with building and forging in good humour the reputation of our own (scholars).”
We find that Cellanus begs St. Aldhelm to send them some of his sermons, saying:
“send us a few little sermons from those most beautiful lips of yours–from whose most pure source sweet rivulets, when dispersed, may restore the mind of many–to the place where Master Furseus rests in holy and incorrupt body.”
The “Master Furseus” is a reference to St. Fursey, who reposed in 650 AD, having been a missionary to Britain and the Continent, reposed in France.
Little else can be said of the letters, other than to recommend that others read them.
The prose works of St. Aldhelm is a valuable edition to have in ones library for study of the Pre-Schism saints of the Orthodox West. It may not be as large as other works, but, it certainly gives us a window into the life of the early Anglo-Saxon Church, and the relations it had with other local Churches. Perhaps in the future the “Poetic Works” of St. Aldhelm can be examined. By reading these works we can gain a greater veneration and appreciation for St. Aldhelm, and asking for his intercessions, be followers of him, as he was a follower of Christ.