Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Latin Writings in England to the Time of Alfred > Aldhelm and his School
  The Roman Mission to Kent and its results Bede’s Ecclesiastical History  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

V. Latin Writings in England to the Time of Alfred.

§ 5. Aldhelm and his School.


The first considerable literary figure among English writers of Latin is undoubtedly Aldhelm, who died bishop of Sherborne in 709. Much of his life was passed at Malmesbury, and the account given by William of Malmesbury, on the authority of king Alfred’s Handbook, of Aldhelm’s skill as a poet in the vernacular, and of his singing to the harp songs of his own composing by which he hoped to teach the country people, is probably the only fact associated with his name in the minds of most. Glad as we should be to possess these English poems, it is certain that Aldhelm and his contemporaries must have thought little of them in comparison with his Latin works. There may have been many in the land who could compose in English; but there were assuredly very few who were capable of producing writings such as those on which Aldhelm’s reputation rests.   29
  For our purpose one fact derived from a letter of Aldhelm himself is of extreme importance. In his youth he was for a considerable time a pupil of Hadrian of Canterbury.   30
  A late biographer, Faricius, credits Aldhelm with a knowledge of Greek (derived from two teachers procured by king Ine from Athens), of Hebrew and of Latin, which tongue no one had employed to greater advantage since Vergil. These statements cannot be taken quite as they stand. We do not hear from any other source of the Athenian teachers, and the Greek which Aldhelm undoubtedly knew he could perfectly well have learned from Hadrian. There is, practically, nothing to show that he knew Hebrew, and we need not spend time in examining the remark about Vergil. In spite of this and similar exaggerations, the fact remains that Aldhelm’s learning is really very great for his time.   31
  The writings of his which we possess are the following: 1. A number of letters. 2. A prose treatise on the praise of virginity. 3. A versification, in hexameters, of the same treatise. 4. A prose book on the number seven and on meters, especially the hexameter, containing also a collection of one hundred riddles in verse. 5. Occasional poems, principally inscriptions for altars or the like.   32
  Of the letters (several of which have been preserved among the correspondence of St. Boniface) two are of particular interest. The first of these, addressed to the Welsh king Geraint, complains of the irregularities of the British clergy in regard to the form of the tonsure and the observance of Easter, and of their unchristian attitude towards the English clergy, with whom they refuse to hold any intercourse. It warns the king of the dangers incurred by those who are out of communion with the church of Peter, and begs him to use his influence in favour of union. The style and vocabulary of this letter are unusually plain and straightforward. Few words appear to be inserted simply for the sake of adorning the page. It is a sincere and business-like document.   33
  The other offers a wide contrast. It is written to one Eahfrid on his return from Ireland, whither he had gone for purposes of study, and is intended to show that equally good teaching could be obtained in England. With this in view, Aldhelm pours out all the resources of an extremely rich and varied vocabulary upon his correspondent. In the opening lines the figure of alliteration is employed to an alarming extent: out of sixteen consecutive words fifteen begin with a p. Once or twice the writer breaks without rime or reason into Greek (the phrase ad doxam onomatis kyrii is a good example); and Latinised Greek words stud the text, together with unfamiliar Latin. Elaborate passages of metaphor, too, occur—one about bees, of which Aldhelm is specially fond—and the whole affords as concentrated a sample of the author’s “learned” style as it is possible to find in a small compass. An interesting feature in the theme is a panegyric on Theodore and Hadrian, who are extolled as capable of routing and putting to shame all the scholars of Ireland.   34
  It is evident that this letter was much admired, for it survives in a good many copies, in juxtaposition with the treatise on virginity, with which it has no connection.   35
  The two books in prose and verse on virginity were the most popular of Aldhelm’s writings. A short sketch of their contents must be given.   36
  The prose treatise is addressed to a group of nuns, some of whom have English names, while others have adopted the names of virgin saints. They are headed by Hildelitha, who afterwards became abbess of Barking. We have, first, a thanks-giving for the learning and virtue of the community, a lengthy comparison of nuns to bees and a panegyric on the state of virginity, with a warning against the eight principal vices. Then follows the main body of the work, consisting of a number of examples of men and women who have excelled in chastity. The first order of these is taken from the Old Testament (Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Daniel, the Three Children); the second from the New (John Baptist, John Evangelist, Thomas, Paul, Luke). From the subsequent history of the church come Clement of Rome, Sylvester, Ambrose, Martin, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Felix. A group of hermits and monks follows: Antony, Paul, Hilarion, John, Benedict. Then, some who suffered for chastity as confessors (Malchus, Narcissus, Athanasius) or as martyrs (Babylas, Cosmas and Damian, Chrysanthus and Daria, Julian and Basilissa). Last among the male examples are two more hermits, Amos and Apollonius. Next follow the heroines: the Virgin Mary, Cecilia, Agatha, Lucy, Justina, Eugenia, Agnes, Thecla, Eulalia, Scholastica, Christina, Dorothea, Constantina, Eustochium, Demetrias, Agape, Irene and Chionia, Rufina and Secunda, Anatolia and Victoria. In most of these cases the substance of the saint’s history is given, sometimes at considerable length.   37
  After this, a few examples are cited of persons who were in some way notable in connection with chastity, though not all celibate: Joseph, David, Samson, Abel, Melchizedek are brought forward. A warning against splendour of attire occupies some space and is followed by an apology for the style of the work, as having been written under the pressure of many occupations. The conclusion of the whole is a request for the prayers of the recipients.   38
  The poetical form of the treatise is later than the prosaic. It begins with a very elaborate double acrostic, the initials and finals of the lines forming one and the same hexameter verse: the initials are to be read downward and the finals upwards. The book is this time addressed to an abbess Maxima, whose English name does not appear to be known. The arrangement of the poem coincides generally, but not exactly with that of the prose book. The preliminary praise of virginity is shorter. Some examples (Thomas, Felix, Christina, Dorothea) are omitted, and a couple (Gervasius and Protasius, and Jerome) added.   39
  After the story of Anatolia and Victoria the poem diverges from prose and gives a description of the eight principal vices, modelled, not very closely, upon Prudentius’s Psychomachia. It ends by deprecating criticism and by asking for the prayers of the reader.   40
  The source and style of these books are the chief matters which engage our attention. With regard to the source of the prose treatise in particular, we see that Aldhelm had access to a very considerable library of Christian authors. It included (taking the citations as they occur in the text) an unidentified work in which an angel appears as speaker (not The Shepherd of Hermas), Isidore, Pseudo-Melito’s Passion of John, Acts of Thomas, Revelation of Paul (in the fullest Latin text), Recognitions of Clement, Acts of Sylvester, Paulinus’s Life of Ambrose, Sulpicius Severus, lives of Gregory and Basil, Athanasius’s Life of Antony, Vitae Patrum, Gregory’s Dialogues, Rufinus’s version of Eusebius, Jerome’s letter and his Life of Malchus, and an extensive collection of Passions of Martyrs. Among poets, Vergil and Prosper are prominent. In this enumeration only the obvious sources have been reckoned. A list of the books whose influence is perceptible in phrases or allusions would be of equal length.   41
  The style recalls the intricate ornamentation of the Celtic manuscripts of the time. The thought is simple, as are the ingredients of the patterns in the manuscripts; but it is involved in exhausting periods, and wonderful words are dotted about in them like spangles. We have seen that, to some scholars in this age, learning meant chiefly the knowledge of strange words. Aldhelm is not free from this delusion. A fairly close rendering of a paragraph from the prose treatise will convey a better idea of his manner than many lines of description.
Paul, formerly Saul, the Benjamin of the prophecy, at morning devouring the prey and at evening dividing the spoil; who, by his fearsome bidding, compelled the pythoness, prophesying the vanities of deceit through the spirit of necromancy and thereby heaping up in abundance the sumptuous wealth of her lords and enriching them to satiety with the pleasant treasures of her gains to set before her impudent lips the door of dumb silence; and who, marvellous to tell, spent unhurt four times six hours in the deep bottom of the sea, and bore four times forty blows, less one, by the sharp torment of cruelty: was it not in virtue of his prerogative of intact purity that, exploring the third heaven, he beheld the souls of the citizens above with virgin glances, and sought out the hidden things of the celestial host in an experience of matters that might not be spoken; though the Revelation (as they call it) of Paul babbles of his visiting the delights of flowery paradise in a golden ship. Yet the divine law forbids the followers of the catholic faith to believe anything beyond what the ordinance of canonical truth publishes, and the decisions of orthodox Fathers in written decretals have commanded us to give up utterly and banish far from us this and other fevered fancies of spurious books, as thundering words horrifying to the ear.
  42
  Another important production of our author—important as exemplifying his secular learning, though it never attained the popularity of his other words—is the Letter to Acircius (king Aldfrith of Northumbria), which contains a disquisition on the number seven, a treatise on the hexameter and a collection of riddles in verse. The portion of the book which deals with metre is illustrated by very many examples from Latin poets. A large number of the classical quotations must, no doubt, be put down to the credit of the grammarian Audax, from whom much of the text is borrowed; but a very considerable proportion is, certainly, derived from Aldhelm’s own reading. We may be sure, for instance, that he had access to Vergil, Ovid, Lucan, Cicero, Pliny, Sallust, Solinus. The list of Christian poets is astonishing: Juvencus, the author of the versified Latin Old Testament, who is now called Cyprianus, Sedulius, Arator, Alcimus Avitus, Prudentius, Prosper, Corippus, Venantius Fortunatus, Paulinus of Pèrigueux and an otherwise unknown Paulus Quaestor are all used. A little group of Spanish authorities, in particular the grammatical work of Julian of Toledo, is a curious feature. The traces of Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Seneca, Dracontius, Sidonius are slight. Orosius, Lactantius, Junilius and a number of grammarians may close our catalogue, which, it will be recognised, is a very impressive one.   43
  The riddles which occur in the midst of this treatise are among the most attractive part of Aldhelm’s work. They are modelled on those of Symphosius (a fifth century writer) but are not, like his, confined to the limits of three lines apiece. They are, for the most part, ingenious little descriptions of simple objects: e.g.—to take a series at random—the locust, the nightcrow, the gnat, the spindle, the cupping-glass, the evening, the dagger, the bubble. That this form of wit-sharpening made a great appeal to the mind of our ancestors is amply evident from many passages in the Old English literature,—notably The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturn, and the documents related thereto; and are not the periphrases of all early Scandinavian poetry exemplifications of the same tendency? As we have seen, Aldhelm’s riddles were copiously imitated by Englishmen in later centuries.  3    44
  We have seen something of the number of Latin authors who were known to Aldhelm. It may be added here that, in a letter to Hedda, bishop of Winchester, he describes himself, apparently, as engaged in the study of Roman law, and, certainly, as occupied with metres and with the science of astronomical calculation.   45
  It would be interesting to be able to show that, besides knowing the Greek language (as we are sure he did), he possessed Greek books, apart from Latin versions; but it is not really possible to find much evidence to this effect. He once cites Judith “according to the Septuagint”; in another place he calls the Acts of the Apostles the Praxapostolos; elsewhere he gives the name of a work of St. Basil in Greek, and mentions Homer and Hesiod. Not much can be built on these small foundations. The probability is that he read Greek books when studying under Hadrian, but that in later life he possessed none of his own.   46
  Summing up the literary work of Aldhelm, we find in him a good representative of the pupils of Theodore and Hadrian, on whom both Roman and Greek influences have been exercised; and we see in him also one for whom the grandiloquence of the Celt, the love of an out-of-the way vocabulary, of sound rather at the cost of sense, had great attraction. We cannot truly declare that the literature of the world would be much the poorer for the loss of his writings; but it is fair to say that there is in them, despite all their affectation, a great deal of freshness and vigour; that they are marked by the faults of youth rather than by those of senescence. That they were immensely popular we can see from the number of existing copies of the treatise on virginity and the letter to Aldfrith. Most of these are early and are distinguished by the beauty of their script. One, now at Lambeth, has a rather well-known frontispiece representing the author and a group of nuns.   47
  Additional evidence of the importance of Aldhelm as a literary figure is afforded by the existence of what we may call the Aldhelmian school of English Latinists. The works of these are neither many in number nor large in compass; but the distribution of the writers covers a fairly considerable space both geographically and in time. Little attention has hitherto been paid to them in this country, and, on all accounts, they deserve notice.   48
  First among them may be reckoned a series of five interesting little poems which have been preserved (as have several of Aldhelm’s letters) among the correspondence of St. Boniface. They are written in pairs of eight-syllabled lines.   49
  The first of these has in its opening couplet an allusion to Aldhelm’s  4  name, and seems to be addressed to him by a cantor at Malmesbury. In a very spirited fashion it describes a storm in late June, which unroofed the dormitory or some other of the buildings of a monastery where the writer was. It is not easy to see whether this place was Malmesbury abbey or a monastic house in Devonshire. The second poem is, as appears from an accompanying letter, by one Aethilwald (usually but not rightly identified with Ethelbald, king of the Mercians from 716 to 757) and describes a visit to Rome, dwelling with great particularity upon some silken fabrics which the pilgrims had brought back with them. Of the remaining three, one is a short prayer, the next an address to Aldhelm, who is called Cassis prisca (i.e., Old helmet), most likely by Aethilwald, and the last is supposed to be Aldhelm’s reply thereto. These poems are very favourable specimens of the Aldhelmian style.   50
  Two direct imitators of Aldhelm, Tatwin and Eusebius, come next under consideration. Both were men of eminence: Tatwin died archbishop of Canterbury in 734, and Eusebius is almost certainly identical with Hwaetberct, abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow from 716. Two collections of riddles in Latin hexameters by these persons have survived. In that of Tatwin ingenuity is prominent: he makes the initials and finals of the first line of each riddle into an acrostic of hexameters. That of Eusebius is supplementary to Tatwin’s; it makes up the forty riddles of the latter to one hundred, the number contained in Aldhelm’s collection, which had undoubtedly served as a model to both writers. St. Boniface (d. 755) is the last noteworthy individual who can be claimed as a member of this school. He employs the short eight-syllabled lines as the vehicle of an acrostic on the words Nithardus vive felix; and he writes a series of enigmas on the virtues and vices, in hexameters, in which the acrostic is extensively employed. Some of his letters, too, are couched in the true Aldhelmian style. Several of his correspondents, moreover, and the authors of a good many letters not addressed to him which are nevertheless preserved with his own, bear the same stamp. Among them are three or four short poems in eight-syllabled metre. Especially noteworthy are a letter from Lul and others to an abbess Cuneburga and an anonymous letter to an abbess and a nun.   51
  The Aldhelmian school, with the single exception of Eusebius (Hwaetberct), consists of men nurtured in the south and west of England. The two other great men who remain to be considered are representatives of the north. We have hinted already that the Latin culture of the northern English was more directly dependent upon Rome than was that of Canterbury, with its eastern flavour, or that of the west, where Celtic influence may be suspected. We do not forget Aidan’s work in the north; yet that had but faint effects upon literature; and the fact remains that the eccentricities and affectations of Aldhelm have no parallel in the work of Bede.   52
 
  Bede is by far the greatest name which our period presents. Like the later Alcuin, he was of European reputation; but he owed that reputation to the sheer excellence of his books. Alcuin occupied a great and influential position, and used the opportunities which it gave him with the best effect. But he has left no writing which we value much for its own sake. Bede, on the other hand, made an indelible mark on the literature of succeeding centuries, and our debt to him can hardly be exaggerated.   53
  Not many lives of great men have been less eventful. It seems probable that the longest journey he ever took was from Jarrow to York, and that the greatest crisis of his life was the pestilence in 686 which decimated the monks of Jarrow. He died in 735 at Jarrow, where, practically, his whole life of sixty-three years had been spent. The story of his last hours, as Cuthbert (afterwards abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow) tells it in his famous letter to Cuthwin, is of unapproached beauty in its kind. One of the latest utterances of the great scholar is an index to the tone and temper of the whole man.
“It is time,” he said, “if so it seem good to my Maker, that I should be set free from the flesh, and go to Him who, when I was not, fashioned me out of nothing. I have lived a long time, and my merciful Judge has ordained my life well for me. The time for me to be set free is at hand, for indeed my soul much desires to behold my King Christ in His beauty.”
  54
  Over and over again has the life of Bede been sketched, and the long and varied list of his works reviewed and discussed. By none has this been better done than by Plummer, in connection with his admirable edition of the History. From this source we borrow the chronology of Bede’s writings which will be here set forth.   55
  To the period between 691 and 703 belong the tracts on metre, on figures of speech in Scripture, on orthography; to 703 the small work De Temporibus; to 708 the letter to Plegwin on the six ages. The metrical life of Cuthbert was written before 705. In or before 716 fall the commentaries on the Apocalypse, Acts, catholic Epistles, Luke, Samuel and two exegetical letters to Acca; after 716 the history of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and commentary on Mark; about 720 the prose life of Cuthbert and commentary on Genesis; before 725 the book De Natura Rerum; in 725 the large work De Temporum Ratione; in 725--731 commentaries on Ezra and Nehemiah, and books on the Tabernacle and the Temple; the Ecclesiastical History of the English Race in 731; Retractationes on the Acts and the letter to Egbert must be placed after this. For the following works no date can be accurately fixed: on the Holy Places, questions on the books of Kings, commentaries on Proverbs, Canticles, the Song of Habakkuk, Tobit, the martyrology, homilies, hymns and a few minor tracts.   56
  The names of these books suggest to us, first of all, Bede’s industry and, next, his wide range of interests. Theology, no doubt, is a dominant factor in the list, but we have, besides, natural science, grammar and history; nor is poetry excluded.   57
  It is not possible here to do more than briefly characterise the mass of his works. Of the grammatical treatises and those which relate to natural science it may be said that they are, to a very large extent, compilations. To Pliny and Isidore, in particular, Bede owes much in the book De Natura Rerum. Similarly, his commentaries are often little more than catenae of extracts from the four Latin Doctors. Probably the supplementary comment on the Acts, called Retractationes, is one of the most interesting to us of the series, since it demonstrates Bede’s knowledge of Greek, and shows that he had before him, when writing, the Graeco-Latin copy of the Acts already mentioned, which is now in the Bodleian.   58
  The historical works are, of course, those which distinguish Bede above all others. There are four books which come under this head. Two of them may be very shortly dismissed. First, the Martyrology. We cannot be sure how much of this, in its present form, is Bede’s, for it has been enlarged, as was natural enough, by many hands. The popularity of it is evident from the fact that it formed the basis of recensions by Florus of Lyons, Rabanus of Mainz, Ado of Vienne, Notker of St. Gall and Usuard. Next the short work De Temporibus, written in 705. This consists of a few brief chapters on the divisions of time and the calculations connected with the observance of Easter, and ends with a very curt chronicle of the chief events in the six ages of the world’s history. In 725 Bede expanded this little tract into a much larger book, De Temporum Ratione, and the chronicle of the six ages of the world with which this concludes has been one of the most far-reaching in its influence of all his works. It served as a model and as a source of information to numberless subsequent chroniclers. “In chronology,” says Plummer, “Bede has the enormous merit of being the first chronicler who gave the date from Christ’s birth, in addition to the year of the world, and thus introduced the use of the Dionysian era into western Europe.” One of the main topics of the book, the methods of calculating the date of Easter, is one which interested the men of his day far more than ourselves. A principal reason for this lies in the nearness and urgency of the controversies which so long divided the Celtic from the English church on this subject. It was also one of the few which brought the mathematical side of men’s intellects into play in the service of religion.   59

Note 3. See ante, Chapter IV. p. 66. [ back ]
Note 4. Henry Bradley has pointed out (English Historical Review , 1900, p. 291) that the first poem is, most likely, addressed to Helmquist, not Aldhelm; and that the fifth is by Aethilwald and addressed to one Oua. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  The Roman Mission to Kent and its results Bede’s Ecclesiastical History  
 
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