Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne

From Academic Kids

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Stained glass window showing Aldhelm, installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1928 in memory of Rev. Canon C. D. H. McMillan, Vicar of Malmesbury from 1907 to 1919.

Saint Aldhelm (c.639 - May 25, 709), Abbot of Malmesbury, Bishop of Sherborne, Latin poet and Anglo-Saxon literature scholar, 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. He was certainly not, as Aldhelm's early biographer Faritius asserts, the brother of King Ine.

Aldhelm received his first education in the school of an Irish scholar and monk, Maildulf (also Maeldubh or Meldun) (died c. 675), 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.

In 668, Pope Vitalian sent Theodore of Tarsus to be Archbishop of Canterbury. At the same time the African scholar Hadrian, became abbot of St Augustine's at Canterbury. Aldhelm was one of his disciples, 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.

Ill health compelled him to leave Canterbury, and he returned to Malmesbury, where he was a monk under Maildulf for fourteen years, dating probably from 661, and including the period of his studies with Hadrian. When Maildulf died, Aldhelm was appointed in 675, according to a charter of doubtful authenticity cited by William of Malmesbury, by Leutherius, bishop of Dorchester (671 - 676), to succeed to the direction of the monastery, of which he became the first abbot.

Aldhelm introduced the Benedictine rule, and secured the right of the election of the abbot to the monks themselves. The community at Malmesbury increased, and Aldhelm was able to found two other monasteries as centres of learning, at Frome and at Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England. The little church of St Lawrence at Bradford on Avon dates back to his time, and may safely be regarded as his. At Malmesbury he built a new church to replace Maildulf's modest building, and obtained considerable grants of land for the monastery.

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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.'

His 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 we know, 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, 101 riddles in Latin hexameters. Each of them is a complete picture, and one of them runs to 83 lines.

That his merits as a scholar were early recognized in his own country is shown by the encomium of Bede (Historiam Ecclesiasticam 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.

He was deputed by a synod of the church in Wessex to remonstrate with the Britons of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall) on their differences from the Roman practice in the shape of the tonsure and the date of Easter. This he did in a long and rather acrimonious letter to their king Geraint (Geruntius) achieving ultimate agreement with Rome.

In 705, or perhaps earlier, Haeddi, bishop of Winchester, died, and the diocese was divided into two parts. Sherborne was the new see, of which Aldhelm reluctantly became the first bishop. 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.

Aldhelm was on his rounds in his diocese when he died in the church of Doulting on May 25, 709. The body was taken to Malmesbury, and crosses were set up by his friend, Bishop Ecgwine of Worcester, at the various stopping-places. He was buried in the church of St Michael. His biographers relate miracles due to his sanctity worked during his lifetime and at his shrine.

Aldhelm wrote poetry in Anglo-Saxon also, and set his own compositions to music, but none of his songs, which were still popular in the time of Alfred, have come down to us. 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. Aldhelm wrote in elaborate and grandiloquent and very difficult Latin, which soon came to be regarded as barbarous. Much admired as he was by his contemporaries, his fame as a scholar therefore soon declined, but his reputation as a pioneer in Latin scholarship in England and as a teacher remains.

Aldhelm's works were collected in J. A. Giles's Patres eccl. Angl. (Oxford, 1844), and reprinted by JP Migne in his Patrologiae Cursus, vol. 89 (1850). The letter to Geraint, king of Domnonia, was supposed to have been destroyed by the Britons (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum, p. 361), but was discovered with others of Aldhelm's in the correspondence of St Boniface, archbishop of Mainz. 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.

Next to the riddles, Aldhelm's best-known work is De Laude Virginitatis sive de Virginitate Sanctorum, a Latin treatise addressed about 705 to the nuns of Barking, in which he commemorates a great number of saints. This was afterwards turned by Aldhelm into Latin verse (printed by Delrio, Mainz, 1601).

The chief source of his Epistola ad Acircium sive liber de septenario, et de metris, aenigmatibus ac pedum regulis (ed. A. Mai, Class. Auct. vol. v.) is Priscian. For the riddles included in it, his model was the collection known as Symposii aenigmata. The acrostic introduction gives the sentence, 'Aldhelmus cecinit millenis versibus odas,' whether read from the initial or final letters of the lines. His Latin poems include one on the dedication of a basilica built by Bugge (or Eadburga), a royal lady of the house of Wessex.


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