Essex girls don’t exactly have a reputation for being paragons of virtue – and it seems 1,300 years ago that was no different.
A book of advice issued to nuns in the 7th century has revealed that even then the church had concerns about their conduct.
The book shows a senior cleric’s disgust at the amount of flesh the nuns of Barking Abbey put on show and their relationship with the opposite sex.
No sexy outfits: Nuns in Essex were warned to avoid garments that would ‘nourish the fires of sexual anticipation’ in this 1,300-year-old book of advice now up for auction
It warns the congregation to dress appropriately and to avoid garments which ‘set off’ the body before giving a series of pointers to the girls on the benefits of virginity and how to avoid the sin of pride.
The author of De Laude Virginitatis [In Praise of Virginity] is the Anglo-Saxon cleric Aldhelm, who goes on to say he is ashamed of the nuns’ ‘bold impudence’ and ‘stupidity’.
He tells the nuns that abstinence from sex is not enough – their ‘stainlessness of bodily virginity’ must be accompanied by a ‘chastity of the spirit’ if they are to avoid the ‘untamed impulses of bodily wantonness’.
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.’
Aldhelm, shown in this stained glass window installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1928, told the Essex nuns to keep themselves pure and avoid the gaze of young men
Stereotype: The manuscript suggests Aldhelm would not have approved if he had seen the hit ITV reality show The Only Way Is Essex
Not an Essex girl: The example of a paragon of virtue Aldhelm used was St Scholastica, pictured left with the Lady Madonna and child (centre) flanked by Saint Ursula (right)
As well as lifestyle advice, Aldhelm includes biographies of female saints famed for their virginity who he holds up as role models, including Scholastica, the patron saint of nuns and twin sister of St Benedict; Christina, tortured to death for her faith by her pagan father; and Dorothy, executed for her Christianity after turning down a marriage proposal.
Written in Latin, the book, which is now up for sale, is the first known text from England to be aimed at a female readership.
St Christina The Martyr, pictured in this icon, was another role model Aldhelm suggested who was famed for her virginity
At the time, Barking was a country village outside London and its abbey, founded in 666AD, was home to generations of nuns for more than 800 years.
Whilst Aldhelm had no ecclesiastical authority over the abbey, his advice would have been heeded because he was a noted scholar of his day.
Aldhelm was also of royal blood, founded two monasteries and served as an abbot and a bishop.
Four pages of the book are up for auction at Sotheby’s next month and expected to fetch £500,000.
They are written in Latin and inscribed on vellum – high quality parchment made from sheep skin or calf hide.
At one stage the book is believed to have been owned by St Dunstan, a tenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury.
Timothy Bolton, a specialist in western medieval manuscripts at Sotheby’s, told The Sunday Telegraph: ‘Aldhelm’s work is remarkable because there simply aren’t any texts by English authors addressed to women before this.
‘He expects the nuns to study and understand his sophisticated writings, raising the bar of education for women to the same level of men, becoming the first English feminist author.’