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A Portrait of Aldhelm, In Aldhelm's 'De Virginitate'

A Portrait of Aldhelm, In Aldhelm's 'De Virginitate'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 920

Shelfmark: Royal MS 7 D.xxiv

Item number: f.85v

Length: 16.8

Width: 12

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated Manuscript

The Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne, Aldhelm wrote 'About Virginity' ('De Virginitate') in two versions. He wrote the first about 705 in prose for Abbess Hildelith and the nuns of Barking. A few years later he produced a poetic version of the work. This manuscript presents the prose version and a copy of one of his letters. 'About Virginity' concerns purity as a Christian virtue. Aldhelm uses allegory to portray his subject, using elaborate images of the early Christian male and female virgin martyrs as warriors and athletes triumphing over evil. Aldhelm's style in Latin matches his elaborate images, full of obscure figures of speech and difficult grammar. Despite its difficulty, 'About Virginity' was copied in this manuscript at Winchester two centuries after he died. King Alfred the Great admired his writings, and it is possible that his admiration brought about this copy, following his program to revive learning.

Medieval manuscripts often begin with a portrait of the author, a practice taken from Roman books. When this copy of 'About Virginity' was made, an artist drew on the first page a man writing, presumably meant as a 'portrait' of Aldhelm. The drawing was done with a stylus, indented into the surface of the vellum, but it was never inked in or painted. Later in the 10th century, when many of the glosses in Old English were added, the drawing was partly redrawn with ink, leaving part of the indented original drawing is clearly visible. Even though unfinished, it provides an example of how drawing was relied upon in throughout this period, when production of manuscripts stepped up as part of the program of improving learning along with reform of the church and monasteries.

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