In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Aldhelm of Malmesbury

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Aldhelm’s Literary Style and its Influence

Medieval Studies Aldhelm of Malmesbury
Rosalind C. Love
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0002


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.

General Overviews

The standard edition of all Aldhelm’s known works is Ehwald’s (Aldhelm 1919), which includes a substantial introduction (in Latin) on the manuscripts. Both Lapidge and Herren (Aldhelm 1979) and Lapidge and Rosier (Aldhelm 1985) include general introductions to Aldhelm’s career and writings; Lapidge 2004 also provides a good entry point into the subject. Lapidge 1986 sets the scene for Aldhelm’s literary career by constructing a picture of the remarkable Canterbury school which he attended briefly at some point during his career. Both Lapidge and Herren have revisited Aldhelm more recently: Herren 2005 explores the relatively neglected question of his theology, and Lapidge 2007 advances a fascinating new theory on his career.

  • Aldhelm. Aldhelmi Opera Omnia. Edited by Rudolf Ehwald. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi 15. Berlin, Weidmann: 1919.

    A critical edition with full apparatus of notes on sources, index of word forms, and description of the manuscripts; it is doubtful that this edition will ever be superseded completely.

  • Aldhelm. Aldhelm: The Prose Works. Translated by Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1979.

    Incorporates both a general introduction to Aldhelm and also individual introductions to each of the works translated. An appendix suggests emendations to Ehwald’s 1919 edition (Aldhelm 1919). Reprinted in 2009 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer).

  • Aldhelm. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Translated by Michael Lapidge and James L. Rosier. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1985.

    Includes a general introduction to Aldhelm as well as introductions to the individual works translated. The appendix by Neil Wright translates and discusses Aldhelm’s prose writings on metrics. Reprinted in 2009 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer).

  • Herren, Michael. “Aldhelm the Theologian.” In Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge. 2 vols. Edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard, 68–89. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

    Gathers up what can be gleaned from Aldhelm’s writings about his theological and spiritual standpoint.

  • Lapidge, Michael. “The School of Theodore and Hadrian.” Anglo-Saxon England 15 (1986): 45–72.

    Reconstructs what can be known about the school at Canterbury presided over by Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, and his colleague Hadrian, at which Aldhelm is known to have studied, and for which his letters and other writings provide crucial evidence. Reprinted in Lapidge’s Anglo-Latin Literature 600–899 (Rio Grande, OH: Hambledon, 1996), pp. 141–168.

  • Lapidge, Michael. “Aldhelm [St. Aldhelm] (d. 709/10).” In The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1. Edited by Henry Matthew, 619–623. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Authoritative summary account of Aldhelm and his writings.

  • Lapidge, Michael. The Anglo-Saxon Library. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Analyzes of the extent of Aldhelm’s learning and the books available to him at Malmesbury. See pp. 93–106 and 178–191.

  • Lapidge, Michael. “The Career of Aldhelm.” Anglo-Saxon England 36 (2007): 15–69.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0263675107000026

    A fresh look at Aldhelm’s family background and the connections that shaped his education and career. Advances a new theory about his time spent on Iona studying Virgil, and about Aldhelm’s much conjectured visit to Rome.

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