A Decorated Letter, In Aldhelm's 'De Virginitate' f.86r
Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum
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.
The prologue of 'About Virginity' begins with its first letter fantastically decorated with beast heads in the style of the late 9th and 10th centuries. Compared with the animal decoration of earlier books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the colours are generally more low-key and the animals more three-dimensional. Between the lines of the text are words in Latin and Old English, written in later in the 10th century to aid the reader's understanding of Aldhelm's difficult style. The small size of the book indicates that it was to be read by one or a few individuals at a time.