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Aldhelm (c.639–709) was one of the most learned men of his time. Thought to be related to West Saxon kings and educated at Malmesbury under the Irish scholar Maildubh, he also studied briefly at the Canterbury school flourishing under Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian after 669. A distinguished scholar, teacher, ecclesiastically energetic, appointed abbot of Malmesbury c.675, and first bishop of Sherborne c.705, Aldhelm founded monasteries, built churches, and a surviving letter shows him writing to Geraint, king of Dumnonia, urging conformity with the Roman observance of Easter. He comments on being weighed down ‘with the burdens of pastoral care’ and ‘great tumultuous uproars in secular affairs’. Yet it is said he would sing, minstrel-like, to attract passers-by in order to preach to them.

His sophisticated style of writing and use of obscure vocabulary and difficult Latin was greatly admired and imitated. Widely studied in England, his works were transmitted by missionaries to continental centres of learning, then reimported for the late 9th- and 10th-cent. revival of English learning. Extant works include ecclesiastical poems, rhythmical verse, and a number of letters. His Letter to Acircius, a metrical treatise incorporating a hundred ‘riddles’ or ‘mysteries’, was addressed to the Northumbrian king Aldfrith, probably his godson. His largest work, De virginitate, dedicated to the nuns at Barking (Essex), is a twofold treatise in prose and verse, which became a stylistic model for subsequent Anglo-Latin works. None of the vernacular poems he is said to have written has survived.

Audrey MacDonald