Happy St Aldhelm’s Day
Today, May 25, is the feast of St Aldhelm, the unofficial patron saint of Wessex. If the region’s small but feisty band of identity campaigners (http://wessexsociety.org) had their way, May 25 would be a public holiday Round These Parts. And why not? He’s the most important early English Christian most people haven’t heard of.
Aldhelm was born about 640 and was related to Ine, King of Wessex, but may well have been of Celtic stock. As a boy, he was sent to join a scholarly community in the forests near Malmesbury to train under the Irish scholar, Maeldubh.
Aldhelm was the first English scholar worthy of the name. When Malmesbury became a monastery, he was appointed abbot (that’s him in the picture, from a window at Malmesbury Abbey). He knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and attracted scholars from other lands. He was also a poet, and was said to be able to play any musical instrument around at the time.
He realized that if he was to bring the word of God to the peasant masses, he was going to have to dumb his act down. His solution to this was to stand on the town bridge at Malmesbury reciting funny poems and playing popular songs all mixed up with hymns and bible stories.
“If,” wrote William of Malmesbury, “he had proceeded with severity and excommunication, he would have made no impression whatever upon them.”
Not that he was all fun and games. Whenever he felt any sexual urges he’d go and stand in the river Avon until they passed. He was also, we’re told, in the habit of reading the psalter while standing up to his shoulders in ice-cold water.
Aldhelm travelled extensively (by the standards of the time), became the first bishop of Sherborne, founded Glastonbury Abbey and various other monastic houses and churches. He may have built the tiny church of St Laurence in Bradford-on-Avon, one of the most remarkable religious buildings in all of England, although some experts claim that the building that’s there now was probably built after Aldhelm’s death on the foundations of the original.
He is also generally credited with having founded the town of Frome. He wrote extensively on everything from virginity through to forest management. His Latin poem (he wrote in Latin when he was being serious) extolling the virtues of virginity was much admired at the time and later. He wrote this to some nuns at Barking in Essex, calling them “Flowers of the Church, sisters of monastic life, scholarly pupils, pearls of Christ, jewels of Paradise, and sharers of the eternal home.”
Miracles? OK, when in Rome, he supposedly got a nine-day-old baby which gossips were saying had been fathered by the Pope to say in adult talk that the Pope was not its dad. When visiting a village in Wiltshire, he stuck his ash walking-stick in the ground and was preaching to the locals when it started to turn into a proper tree, with leaves and bark and stuff. The village has been called Bishopstrow (Bishop’s Tree) ever since.
Aldhelm died on May 25 709 when visiting the parish of Doulting, near Shepton Mallet in Somerset. The story goes that shortly after dying, he appeared in a vision to the Bishop of Winchester telling him of his death and commanding him to come to Doulting. The Bishop came at once and made arrangements for the body to be carried the 49 miles from Doulting back to Malmesbury. The march took seven days and at each nightly halt a stone cross was later set up. None of these remain, apart from a fragment of a cross in Bath. As he was dying, he was given water from the well at Doulting – it’s still there – which was later supposed to have healing powers, especially good for eye ailments.
Although plenty of his scholarly work in Latin survives, none of his English poems, songs and jokes remain. This is a great shame because whatever his intellectual achievements, he deserves to be remembered as the poet-preacher and the man who first translated the Psalms into the Anglo-Saxon tongue. And as a man who, in the peerless words of King Alfred the Great, “won men to heed sacred things by taking his stand as a gleeman and singing English songs on a bridge.”
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