And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 29. november 2011

From the quill of old virgins

Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.
- 1 Corinthians, 7:25

But so that, lacking the firm support of the scriptures, I am not blamed by someone for the verbose garrulity or garrulous verbosity of my dissertation, I shall attempt to weave with Christ's favour a most beautiful crown of virginity, plucking crimson flowers of purity from the meadow of holy books.
- On Virginity, Aldhelm of Malmesbury (translated by Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren)

He [Aldhelm] has his meed of praise, the glory won by his deserts; we must pursue our narrative.
- The History of the English Kings, William of Malmesbury (translated by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom)

Since I am writing my MA thesis on Edward the Confessor I decided to read up on what people in the Middle Ages thought about one of his prime claims to sanctity, namely chastity. Somehow I came across a little treatise most likely written in the latter quarter of the 7th century by the monk Aldhelm of Malmesbury (d. 709/10) and I decided to investigate it. 

 Despite being only marginally relevant to my thesis subject, I managed to take plenty of notes.

The treatise in question, On Virginity or De Virginitate, is the first implement of an opus geminatum, a double work, written by Aldhelm to Abbess Hildelith of Barking Abbey so that she might learn of the glorious virginal forebears found in the Bible and Christian mythology. It was later completed by the second implement, also dealing with virginity but this time in verse. The stylistic model for this work was Opus Paschale by Caelius Sedulius (5th century), described as the first Christian epic, whereas the subject-matter had already been expounded by church-fathers such as Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine, the latter three well known to Aldhelm himself. Like his antecedents in trade Aldhelm too enjoyed popularity and he became a widely known author and a stylistic influence on Bishop Boniface of Mainz, Bishop Daniel of Winchester and Abbess Eadburg of Thanet to mention a few. After the Norman conquest Aldhelm's popularity faded, but he received significant attention from William of Malmesbury (c. 1090-1143) who dedicated a large portion to him in the book The Deeds of the English Bishops and lamented that Aldhelm was no longer as appreciated as he had been in ages past.

I embarked on the project with a quaint mixture of dread and anticipation, for after reading the introductory material I soon realised that this was no easy text to deal with. As the translators and editors themselves tersely point out on page four:

Indeed, Aldhelm's love of verbiage for its own sake - he calls it "verbose garrulity or garrulous verbosity" - must often exasperate the well-intentioned reader who, having penetrated the lexical and syntactical obscurities of a two-page long sentence, finds that he is left with a trivial apopthegm of the merest banality.

And all of this dedicated to the matter of virgins. Not your ordinary bedside reading material, in other words, and I soon found out that the thinly veiled frustration of the editors was well merited. Aldhelm was quite obviously a man who enjoyed writing, who knew quite a bit and had even more to say, and was not afraid of sacrificing clarity for the sake of convolution. Since I picked this up in the middle of my research I was tempted to just skim it or read a small selection so as not to spend too much time trapped in its verbal wilderness, but I eventually decided to go through with it; partly as a challenge, partly because I was sick of not finishing books due to my research. Consequently I spent some late evenings charging through Aldhelm's maze of words, often enjoying his prose, equally often laughing loudly because of some odd phrase. One if these phrases is, I think, one of my favourite phrases of all times. In one of his sections of some length he compares the three levels of virginity he operates with to threads in an embroidery or tapestry, and after he has kept this going for some length he suddenly bursts out "But why are we rhetoricising about the tintings of fabric-dyes?" whereupon he continues with a lengthy simile replacing the fabric-dyes with diverse metals. What the editors and translators diagnosed as "love of verbiage for its own sake" proved very true indeed, and I burst out laughing as soon as I had read it. This may also explain my note on page 56 that sums it up by "Virginity and chastity compared in a tiresome array of similes."

Aldhelm's prose On Virginity is divided into two parts: an introduction where he writes about virginity and a catalogue of virgins from the Bible and Christian legends. He operates, as stated, with a hierarchy in which virginitas (virginity, signifying the monastic alternative) is the purest option, likened to gold and a whole range of other things, since Aldhelm is far from sparing with his similes. The second best option is that of castitas (chastity, a wedlock which is untainted by carnal activity or, as Aldhelm puts it, "the commerce of matrimony), and this is likened to silver and so on. The third option is iugalitas (conjugality, the consummated marriage) which in Aldhelm's opinion does not rank very high, and it is obvious he would have preferred that Christ had spoken quite vehemently against wedlock due to the risk of carnal activity.

This tripartite division differs from that of Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine who identified the stages of female chastity as virginity, womanhood and marriage, and the difference is due to a particular dilemma Aldhelm was confronted with.The treatise is written to the Abbey of Barking, a nunnery whose members mostly came from the noble estate and were in many cases women who had divorced their husbands to dedicate themselves to the monastic life of virginity, despite this being expressly forbidden in Christian teaching. To reconcile his views with the situation of his audience he therefore uses his own tripartite division rather than the one established by the church fathers. Aldhelm also points out that although virginity is the purer option, compared to which "(...) all the sublime loftiness of wedded folk, takes second place", virgins run the risk of becoming tainted with pride by knowledge of their purity. Chastity, Aldhelm asserts, is therefore lesser than virginity in that it is not as pure, but chastity assures humility which is important to avoid pride which is of the devil and must be shunned. Virginity is nonetheless better, despite the risk of pride, because in reward for virginity men and women are endowed with prophetic powers "and things closed in the mystical coverings of the sacraments are divinely unlocked."

 Wall-plaque at the Catholic Church of St. Aldhelm. Yes, he became a saint.

On Virginity is a curious and highly interesting work, not seldom beautiful in its voluble prose sprawling the pages like a briar bush but more often frustratingly dense, not because it is lofty but because Aldhelm - or rather his translator as Aldhelm did not have these things - is miserly with periods and lavish with semicolons. Among his most beautiful sections I would like to present the following:

O excellent grace of virginity,which like a rose grown from thorny shoots blushed with a crimson flower and never withers with the defect of dread mortality, and although the tired fragility of the moribund flesh droops and ages with stooping and bent senility as the terminus of death approaches, virginity alone in the manner of happy youth continually flourishes and is constantly growing!
- page 74

I shall not indeed allow AMBROSE, redolent with the ambrosia of heavenly nectar, to lie hidden behind a veil of silence - [Ambrose], whose mellifluous sweetness of doctrine and the privilege of pure virginity were prefigured by beautiful omens (...)
- page 84

However, despite Aldhelm's mastery of language it is oftentimes a bit too evident that the piece comes from the quill of an old virgin who becomes exceedingly pompous when praising and borderline scatological when deriding the matter at hand. It is well worth a read, especially if you have an interest in the Middle Ages, but it must be met with a very open mind since both the subject-matter and the conclusions are strange to our times and difficult to get to terms with.

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