Article

Aldhelm of Malmesbury

Rosalind C. Love

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0002
Aldhelm of Malmesbury

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
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Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury (Wiltshire) and then bishop of Sherborne from about 705, was described by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History (written some twenty-five years after Aldhelm’s death) as “most learned” (doctissimus). Most of the information we have about Aldhelm’s life and concerns derives from his surviving works, which in all their variety and striking character show him to have been indeed a man of remarkable learning and intellect. He has been written of as the “first English man of letters”—in the sense that he is the first of the Anglo-Saxons to have composed extensively in Latin, both in prose and metrical verse. Aldhelm left works that were extraordinarily influential not just in his own day but also for centuries afterward. In that regard his achievement is considerable, and an understanding of its extent and nature is crucial for our picture of literary culture in early England. Aldhelm himself was well aware of the path-breaking quality of his work, describing himself as the first of the Germanic race to write about Latin meter. His surviving works include a small collection of letters on various topics, a long treatise on Latin verse composition (which incorporates one hundred of Aldhelm’s own riddle-poems), a treatise on the importance of virginity paired with a poem on the same subject, a collection of dedicatory verses for various churches and altars, and a rhythmical poem describing a journey through Cornwall and Devon in stormy weather. He attained a competence in Latin verse composition, which is remarkable for one who was not a native speaker of the language. But Aldhelm is perhaps best known for his prose style, since at his most enthusiastic, he produced layered and knotty sentences that seem endless and are peppered with unfamiliar vocabulary: even something simple could not be expressed without many preferably polysyllabic words. In truth, this style is much less impenetrable than is often claimed: as Aldhelm always carefully signposted his clause structure. His style was certainly much admired, both in his own day and later on: manuscripts of his works survive from the 10th century, for example, with copious annotation—apparently testifying to an enthusiastic readership.

Article.  6475 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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