Folklore Sunday: St Aldhelm’s Loathly Lady

Ok, so folklore Friday is so late this week, its folklore Sunday…. but I was on a roll Friday with my psalter project….

No, no… good St. Aldhelm didn’t have any meetings with a lady at the ford, as much as he did like to sing from bridges apparently…not sure if this is folklore but close enough.

This loathly lady appears in Aldhelm’s On Virginity:

“At one time King Constantine searches certain presages and dreams for future events. For when he stretched out his royal limbs on a cushion of feathers, he saw by chance and discerned in his vision the figure of a wrinkled woman misshapen, with an aged appearance, who stooped and walked troubled with trembling limbs; what is more the cruel fate of death had already touched her. The illustrious priest Silvester ordered the king to revive the decrepit limbs of the little old woman so that she would once again enjoy life. Then, through prayers of the king, a beautiful young girl arose, the same whom the stern countenance of old age had previously disfigured and, although she formerly lay still as a corpse in the death of decay, nevertheless, she immediately becomes a girl lovely in appearance. When he beholds her, the rejoicing king crowns her with a wreath, binding her temples with a garland of glittering gold, and he adorns her with with a covering of a robe as well as with gowns. Like a queen she wears a ruby-colored necklace around her neck — such was the beautiful appearance of the virgin. Then Helen, in conversation, teaching the king what was to happen, explaining the future omens of the dream, said thus to the Augustan king: ‘She will always be yours and will escape the finally of death, except for the time when the last ages shall burn in dire flames’.

The emperor lay awake in his high bed, frightened, pale, and gripped by fear of the dream. he gathered together in a group sophists eloquent in their skill, who cast about philosophical speculations with windy words. …they produced nothing by their vapid haranguing, but rather fashioned many trivialities with their false words. Then the emperor, fasting, chastised his temperate body and for seven days declined rich foods, begging that the prophecy be revealed by the Lord Christ.

…when sleep took hold of his royal limbs in the bed, Silvester spoke to the emperor, revealing the mystery of these things: ‘The woman, whom you though was old in grim appearance, who disgusted you so much by her decrepit senility, is the city which men commonly call by the name Byzantium: henceforth let it be called Constantinople for all time. Indeed, in your name it will preform triumphs throughout all ages. In this city the once lofty heights of walls have grown old and now, fallen from their eminence, they lie strewn on the ground. The walls decay and battlements totter — decay shatters these things and old age destroys them. But I will order you to keep my commands: transported on the back of a hoofed animal through forlorn countryside, remember to carve a furrow with the tip of a standard. Thus riding through the land you shall push the flag-staff in your right hand, digging four furrows in a continuous line [ie the four sides of a rectangular plot], on which, having erected lofty towers of a fortress you shall renew the walls of the building with red brick. In it your offspring will reign and that of your grandchildren — as numerous offspring of your fathers have reigned — their offspring and the fathers of their fathers will be gathered in it.’ ” (Carmen de Virginitate, p. 116-117)

 

Strange little story to send to some nuns. Notice that Aldhelm says that Constantine ‘revived’ her with his prayers and she takes on the ‘beautiful appearance of a virgin’. 🙂 Linking in with our previous folklore stories, we can imagine a story (or stories) something like this on Ida and Bearnoch of Bernicia, or perhaps his grandson Æthelfrith and his wife Bebba of Bebbanburgh.

Historically this the oldest surviving version of the loathly lady motif in the British Isles, both by its setting in the time of Constantine the Great and in the oldest surviving work. In her 1998 article on this episode, Jane Stevenson argued that Aldhelm was introducing an Irish sovereignty story into the legend of Constantine; indeed, inserting itself into the Greek Life of Sylvester which only survives from much later than Aldhelm’s work. Her argument is too complex to summarize here, so I recommend her work to you if you are interested in Constantine, Aldhelm, Greek texts, or Irish influence on the Anglo-Saxons.

~~~

Michael Lapidge and James Rosier, trans. (1985) Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. DS Brewer.

Jane Stevenson, (1998) “Constantine, St Aldhelm and the Loathly Lady” p. 189-206 in Constantine: History, historiography and legend. Samuel Lieu and Dominic Montserrat, eds. London and New York: Routledge.

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