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“In Praise of Virginity” Up for Auction at Sotheby’s

Vanity is a tough pitfall to avoid, apparently even for seventh-century nuns. The Telegraph reports that on July 10th 2012, Sotheby’s London is offering 60 lots on the auction block, comprising selections from the manuscript collection of Martin Schøyen. The lots include many historically and literarily significant pieces, including a leaf from an ancient manuscript of Homer’s Iliad and a number of appealing and fascinating choices from the Dark Ages.

One of the pieces attracting attention is “De Laude Virginitatis” (In Praise of Virginity) a Latin missive from the year (approximately) 800. Printed on vellum, this funny and fantastic piece of advice was written by Anglo-Saxon cleric Aldhelm, who put it forth as a series of guidelines and admonitions to the nuns of Barking Abbey. It is not enough to abstain from sex, the author cautions, but rather, one must guard against impurity of the mind and spirit.

Addressing the issue of clothing, he writes: “If you dress yourself sumptuously and go out in public so as to attract notice, if you rivet the eyes of young men to you and draw the sighs of adolescents after you, and nourish the fires of sexual anticipation … you cannot be excused as if you were of a chaste and modest mind.”

Warning that both nuns and clergymen are dressing inappropriately, he adds: “It shames me to speak of the bold impudence of conceit and the fine insolence of stupidity which are found both among nuns who abide under the rule of a settlement, and among the men of the Church … With many-coloured vestments and with elegant adornments, the body is set off and the external form decked out limb by limb.”

In fact, throughout the seventh-century text, there is tremendous importance assigned to costume, both for the nuns, and for male members of the church, as well. The manuscript is especially noteworthy as the author, a male, addressed the writing largely to the women of the order. He thusly indicated he expected the nuns to study the writing, ascribing to them a respect of equal studious abilities to their male counterparts, which was rarely if ever found at the time. Any writings at all created for female readership were largely uheard of.

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