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St Aldhelm’s bees (De uirginitate prosa cc. IV-VI): some observations on a literary tradition

Augustine Casiday

Anglo-Saxon England / Volume33 / December 2004

Although the classic comparison of monks to bees owes its enduring success chiefly to the Vita S. Antonii, one of the most interesting developments of that simile is found in the prose treatise De uirginitate by Aldhelm of Malmesbury. In his writings, Aldhelm demonstrates familiarity with most of the conventional similes – monks are like bees in their industry, their intelligence, their chastity, and so on – but he also insists that monks are like bees in their ‘voluntary solidarity’ and obedience to leadership. This is a novel claim, one that I will argue Aldhelm makes by introducing a theme known from other Christian (and pagan) literature into his advice to nuns. The present article will describe the traditions incorporated by Aldhelm into his claim that monks, like bees, are obedient to a fault. In this way, this article will offer a broad view of the literary heritage to which Aldhelm’s treatise belongs and in which it should be interpreted. This will entail an assessment of which sources Aldhelm likely knew. While this assessment is indebted to the excellent notes by Rudolf Ehwald (as indeed all scholarship subsequent to Ehwald must be),it will not be bound by Ehwald’s conclusions. In some instances, I will posit sources not mentioned by, and perhaps not detected by, Ehwald; in others, I will with trepidation suggest refinements to Ehwald’s work. It is hoped that on these grounds the article will be useful to students both of late antique monasticism and of Anglo-Saxon England. Since this is the goal of the article, it will be convenient to begin each section with an excerpt from Aldhelm and follow it with the relevant antecedents; each section will then be concluded with a return to Aldhelm; this will allow us to appreciate the distinctiveness of Aldhelm’s contribution. The article itself will be concluded with an overview of the comparisons and of the relationship between the earlier writings and Aldhelm’s.

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