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639 : ALDHELM AND OLD ENGLISH HYMNS

Aldhelm, who it is thought was born around the year 639, is regarded as one of most important literary and ecclesiastical figures of Britain before the Norman Conquest. He was a man of learning, who had studied at Canterbury with Hadrian, a North African was sent by Pope Vitalian to Canterbury to be abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey.

Very little is known about Aldhelm’s life. He is mentioned in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which confirms that Aldhelm was abbot of Malmesbury Abbey and later bishop of Sherborne. He contributed greatly to the expansion of Christanity in South West Britain. The enlargement of the abbey at Malmesbury which he oversaw during his time there, and the churches at Bradford-upon-Avon and Wareham which he established are notable examples of his legacy.

Upon his death he left a substantial body of writings which are widely recognised as the largest by any Anglo-Saxon in Britain. In these are found many hymns and songs of praise. They employ traditional Latin meters in which Aldhelm would have been schooled at Canterbury.

But his reputation as a preacher and pastor is perhaps the most famous part of his legacy. Much of his output was in the style of Old English oral poetry and his ability at crafting poems, ballads and hymns in this style has been an enduring part of his legacy. He used his oral poetry to bring the message of the Gospels to the poor and illiterate, and he would often sing hymns and ballads in the open in order to attract people.

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