Virginitas and castitas : virginity dilemma in seventh- and eighth-century England

  • Hiu Ki Chan

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis examines the evolving interpretation of virginity in seventh- and eighth-century England, a period marked by the Christianisation and identity formation of the English church. By analysing the development of the concept of virginitas and castitas in treatises, letters, and female hagiographical portrayals, this study identifies changes and developments in the understanding of virginity during the transmission of knowledge and culture between England and the Continent. The central argument of this thesis is that virginity, as a social ideal, underwent continuous reinterpretation and reshaping during the early medieval period in England. At the heart of this reinterpretation lies a recurring dilemma concerning the conceptualisation of virginity as either a physical or spiritual virtue. This thesis demonstrates that seventh- and eighth-century England witnessed a trend towards spiritualising the concept of virginity, particularly evident in the works of Aldhelm of Malmesbury and Venerable Bede. After summarising the descriptions and topoi of virginity in early Christian and Merovingian literature that inspired later English understandings of the (Chapter 1 and 2), this thesis analyses Aldhelm’s Prosa de Virginitate and its distinctive treatment of virginity in comparison with earlier works (Chapter 3). It further explores how Aldhelm reimagined the meaning of virginity through various saintly exemplars, revealing the theme of his virginity dilemma. The study then provides a systematic analysis of Bede’s comments on virginity as found in his exegetical, martyrological, and historical writings while comparing Bede’s portrayal of Æthelthryth with his theoretical understanding of virginity and other portrayals of religious women (Chapter 5 and 6). This research makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the complexities and fluidity of the concept of virginity in early medieval England and its place within the broader Christian tradition. Moreover, this study enriches the field by providing a rigorous investigation of Aldhelm and Bede’s interpretations of virginity, which have been overlooked in current scholarship.
Date of Award29 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorJames Trevor Palmer (Supervisor)

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 15 August 2026

Cite this