Posted by: kljolly | February 16, 2018

Hehstald or Hægsteald: Virginity and Celibacy in Old English

While transcribing the ordeal formulas in Durham A.IV.19, I fell down another research rabbit hole—or should I say hare hole, since Anglo-Saxon England had no rabbits.

I was pondering what Aldred would have made of the hot water ordeal (fols. 48r1-49v4) and hot iron ordeal (fols. 54r1-55r22), especially considering that he blithely skipped glossing the first page of the hot iron ordeal, moving directly from the intervening marriage blessings interrupted by Scribe E’s erasure and interpolated text on fol. 54r.  It almost seems as if he carried on mid-word from a marriage bed benediction to a litany of heavenly witnesses in the adjuration for hot iron without skipping a beat.

  • fols. 48r1-49r4  hot water ordeal Scribe O, glossed by Aldred
  • fols. 49v4-51r4 blessing and mass for a nun Scribe O, glossed by Aldred
  • fols. 51r4-53r23 nupital mass and blessings, interrupted by Scribe O, glossed by Aldred
  • fol. 53v hymn over erasure by Scribe e, not glossed
  • folio 54 starts a new quire
  • fols. 54r1-55r22 hot iron ordeal Scribe O, Aldred skips 54r, glosses 54v1-55r

What gave me pause in the hot iron ordeal was noticing Aldred’s gloss of Lat. uirginum with OE hehstaldra (fol. 54v6).  Curious as to the range of meanings in the term, I started checking dictionaries and glossaries about the origins, as well as the literal, social, and figurative uses of hæg-, hago-, heh-steald in its adjective and noun forms and with various suffixes (-had, –lic, –mann, –nes).  In the DOE_ [Haegsteald Combined] and Bosworth-Toller, the sense slips from Germanic roots of hag as enclosure or fence + steald as settlement or dwelling, to suppositions about a dependant young warrior or household retainer, hence unmarried and without his own household, to novice (tiro) and on to the religiously inflected celibate, and virginity.

Complicating our understanding is that at least three distinctions may be at work that are never entirely clear within themselves and in relation to each other:

  • social status: between married and unmarried;
  • gender and sex: cælebs and OE hægsteald as masculine/male and Lat. virgo and OE fæmne (the usual gloss) as feminine/female;
  • sexual activity: virginity as never having had sexual intercourse; celibacy as not having sexual intercourse presently and in the future; and chastity as limiting or foregoing sexual activity in the present and/or within marriage.

Twisting and turning through the warren of scholarly views on hægsteald in relation to celibacy and virginity, I discovered a number of surprising things, the last of which is that those who rely on the dictionary collocations without paying attention to the manuscript context of each use fall into serious errors.

Because when it comes down to actually separating out the uses by source, three things become clear:

  • Only Aldred consistently and unusually uses OE hehstald and its variants to gloss Lat. virgo and virginity, specifically women such as the Virgin Mary as well as virginal males, both in the Lindisfarne Gospels and Durham A.IV.19. OE fæmne is the more common translation of virgo in the Gospels and elsewhere.  I have not found a place where Aldred glosses Lat. cælebs or cælibatus.
  • The non-Aldredian uses of OE hægsteald and its variants for celibate (cælebs and cælibatus) occur only in tenth and eleventh century glosses and glossaries, particularly some associated with Aldhelm’s Prose De Virginitate, but none of them refer directly to virginitas and are in fact primarily, if not exclusively male (see below). In any case, the basic meaning of cælebs in Latin sources is, like OE hægsteald, young unmarried male, and only in particular religious contexts is it extended to celibacy as vowed sexual abstinence.
  • Only Aldred uses the prefix heh-, or in two cases hegh-, rather than the other variants of hæg-, hago-, heg- . Heh- is a possible Northumbrian variant of hæg.  However, Victor Watts in his article on the placename Hexham commented that, given other compounds with heh- in his glosses, perhaps Aldred understood it as derived from heah, “high,” not hæg as in hag (fenced enclosure).

So what we are looking at with Aldred’s hehstald glosses of virgin and virginity is either an innovation or simply a different word entirely.  Either he was thinking of virginal men and women—including the Virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, and John the Evangelist—as like household retainers, unmarried and sexually abstinent, which would be ironic given that the first two were married to each other.  Or, he was unaware of haga meaning enclosure, taking heh- to mean an elevated life as settled in a “high” dwelling place, a view of virginity as at the top of a sexual hierachy above the chaste and the married found in both Aldhelm and Ælfric (see below).

Secular Contexts

In almost all other Old English texts, we should not assume that hægsteald meant anything other than an unmarried young warrior retainer, sexually abstinent or not. These uses in place names, poetic texts, penitentials, and riddles are almost entirely about social status and refer to males.

  • Hexham (Hagustaldensis) is one of three place names derived from the same root, a name surely Aldred knew from Bede and other sources, even if the monastic site granted to Wilfrid by Queen Æthelthryth c. 672 had fallen into disuse by his time in the mid-tenth century (no mention is made of it after c. 821, although it appears to be in the hands of the Durham provosts in the eleventh century). Donald Bullough, responding to Victor Watts on the place name Hexham, argues that the name has a secular meaning that predates Wilfrid’s foundation of the monastery.
  • The poetic texts with hægsteald as a noun or adjective, from Beowulf to the Paris Psalter, overwhelmingly use it as social category to refer to young unmarried males as dependant retainers in a household. Moreover, the Penitential of Pseudo-Egbert (CCCC 190) makes a distinction between a married householder, hæmedceorl, and a hægsteald as part of the priest’s understanding of the social and personal context for penance (whether rich or poor, clergy or laity, married or unmarried), and also separates penance for sexual transgressions of layman depending on marital status (Junius 121).  This penitential context solidifies the notion that the primary distinction is the bond of marriage, and that both states, married (hæmed) and unmarried (hægsteald) are rooted in some sense of what constitutes a “home.”
  • Riddle 20 builds on this contrast between hæmedceorl and hægsteald, but it is very coy and not really about celibacy or virginity in the religious sense. The putative sword of the riddle is forced by his lord to eschew the joys of the married state (hæmed), and remains on hagostealde, enjoying only the treasure of heroes (hæleþa streona).[1]  As Melanie Heyworth notes in her discussion of Riddle 20, hæman is not only rooted in “home,” but has a strong sexual meaning.  It is used pejoratively when refering to sex outside of marriage, so the riddle might be playing with the connection between the unmarried state and sexual abstinence, but in the context of a male warrior, at least at the literal level (see below for monastic uses of warrior metaphors).
  • Hæmed in contrast to hægsteald also leads us to Aldred’s much debated use of the verb gihamadi in his colophon to the Lindisfarne Gospels where he describes himself as “making a home” in the Lindisfarne community of St. Cuthbert (see Newton, et. al. and my blog response). Perhaps it is a play on words, that Aldred’s household is now the religious community, his sex life a spiritual one—unless he was a married priest?

Religious Contexts

In contrast to these primarily secular, social contexts, the religious use of cælebs and hægsteald to refer to sexual abstinence, and Aldred’s use of hehsteald for virgin, potentially signal some evolving views of celibacy in late Anglo-Saxon England.  These religious uses occur only in tenth- and eleventh-century glosses and glossaries, most particularly associated with Aldhelm’s de Virgnitate. [For more on constructs of virginity, see Lees and Overing, Pasternack, and Cubitt, especially in correlating Aldhelm to later Ælfric]. 


In chapter 19 of his prose De Virginitate, Aldhelm (died c. 710) develops an extended set of patristic metaphors for virginity, chastity, and conjugality, starting with gold, silver, and bronze, and working down to imperial and military imagery.  He concludes that virginity “unharmed by any carnal defilement continues pure out of the spontaneous desire for celibacy” (“ab omni spurcitia carnali illibata spontaneo caelibatus affectu pudica perseverat”), while chastity in marriage “has scorned the commerce of matrimony for the sake of the heavenly kingdom,” and conjugality serves the lowest function by producing children (trans. Lapidge and Herren, pp. 75-76).

The Latin and Old English glosses to this passage in Brussels Bibliothèque Royale 1650, fol. 13r18 are a bit unclear in the ASMMF images, so I am relying on Scott Gwara’s edition (vol. 2, pp. 220-21, lines 22-23).  Above the caelibatus that virginity desires, is first a Latin gloss, castitatis (note genitive case), then above that hægstealdhades. To the right in the margin, another scribe has added vel gehealdsumnysse.  The first glossator appears to be defining the spontaneous virginal desire for a celibacy “of chastity” as the unmarried state (hægstealdhades), perhaps in contrast to the chaste married in the next sentence; while the second glossator is offering the far more common OE gloss for celibacy in Aldhelm, gehealdsumnysse (elsewhere in OE this word carries the broader sense of self restraint, a virtue in monastic life as well as in marriage).

Several things are notable in this gloss:

  • This is the only known case of hægsteald with the suffix –hades outside of Aldred’s glosses of virginity with hehstaldhad, using his unique heh- prefix as noted above (it also occurs in the MacRegol Gospels, Luke 2:36 refering to Anna, but that gloss is copied from Aldred’s Lindisfarne Gospels’ gloss).
  • The only other time hægsteald is used in the Brussels glosses to Aldhelm’s prose de Virginitate is clearly refering to a young man described further as beardless (chapter 36; Gwara, vol. 2,   512-13).
  • The glosses to Aldhelm use fæmne, fæmnhad, and faemhadlic for virgin, virginity, and virginal. In one case, it (AldV 1 1225, AldV 12.1 1174) glosses innupta .i. uirgo with ungehæmed fæmne, demonstrating again the conceptual range of hæmed in relation to sexual activity and marriage. For more on the conceptual range of these terms, see Fischer, sections 2.2, and 2.4.

Although Aldhelm addressed the Prose de Virginitate to the nuns of Barking under Abbess Hildelith, it was a double house that included male monastics as well.  The treatise includes examples of both male and female virgins, and was widely used by later audiences of both genders, including the Brussels glossators and other glossaries. For Aldhelm, “virgin” was a genderless term (Pasternack, pp. 104-07).   Nonetheless, while Aldhelm in his prolixity might have equated virginity and celibacy as genderless equivalents, the eleventh-century glossator who used hægsteald in these two cases may have taken cælebs and celibacy in its primarily masculine sense of unmarried.


Other tenth and eleventh century glossaries seem to confirm this dominant masculine view.  Three other instances of hægsteald glossing cælebs occur in two manuscripts containing glossaries, all with the suffix –mann, which of course does not indicate gender.


BL Harley 3376, fol. 22r

  • BL Harley 3376 contains Latin words glossed with Latin and sometimes Old English. At fol. 22r13-14, a Latin-only gloss specifies:  “Celeps .i. uir sine uxore. uel quirum non uel uirgo cælestem uitam ducens.”  Fol. 23r4- has some Old English below [bracketed here]:  “Celibatus [clængeorn] .i. sine uxore uir. vel uiduatur. vel abstinentia uirginitatis.  Celibes [clængeorne.] .i. casti. steriles. cælestem uitam ducentes.”  Both instances seem to draw together a masculine celibate (a man without a wife) and a virginal woman (uirgo) as alike in pursuing a “heavenly” or “clean” life through sexual abstinence.  Then at fol. 39r2, Colibates is defined as hegstealdmen, which admittedly could be male or female, except we do not find this gloss on virgo or virginity as we do with Aldred.
  • BLCottonCleoAiiifol87r

    BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii, fol. 87r

  • BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii, fol. 87ra13 has celeps glossed above it with hægstealdman. This entry occurs in a topically arranged glossary, under a section titled “De Domibus” (starting on fol. 86ra3).
  • blcottoncleoaiiifol104v.png

    BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii, fol. 104v

  • BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii, fol. 104va5 [image] has celibes hegstealdman under a heading “De agne. xxxvi,” in a glossary to Aldhelm’s De laude virginitatis, both prose and verse. This particular gloss is probably a reference to Aldhelm’s prose de Virginitate chapter 45, which offers Agnes as an exemplar for celibate imitators (“sed et operae pretium videtur, ut gloriosum illustris Agnae exemplar caelibes integritatis aemulatores et carnalis spurcitiae contemptores minime lateat;” see Lapidge and Herren, pp. 111-12; Gwara, vol. 2, pp. 630-31)). Given the context, this could imply a female use of cælebs, but I am not convinced that was understood by this glossator.

In a religious context, both Aldhelm and possibly these later Anglo-Saxon glossators seem to understand celibacy as akin to virginity in terms of sexual abstinence for either gender:  a man or a woman can be described as celibate or as a virgin.  However, excluding Aldred’s use of hehstald exclusively for virgin, OE hægsteald is only used to gloss celibate and not virgin.  Consequently, its meaning even in a religious context remains close to the secular social meaning as a term primarily for the unmarried state of a man, who would be encouraged to adopt sexual abstinence.

Liber Scintillarum

A  monastic appropriation of this essentially masculine social category, hægsteald, would not be surprising, but I would argue that it occured belatedly, and possibly via the military meaning of Lat. tiro as novice, one of the glossed definitions of the noun hægsteald in the DOE that only occurs in one text, the Liber Scintillarum.

Katherine Allen Smith discusses the emergence of military tropes in monastic ideology, rooted in the Benedictine Rule and early medieval hagiography, but reaching full expression in the twelfth century.  She notes the use of Lat. tiro to indicate the kind of soldierly training a monastic novice would undergo (pp. 95, 114-21).

This military comparison is explicit in the seventh-century text known as Defensor’s Liber Scintillarum, and in its eleventh-century Old English interlinear version (BL Royal 7.C.IV; EETS 93, p. 205), here quoting Jerome:  a teacher, magister/lareow, must first be a discipulus/leornincgcniht in the same way that a knight, miles/cniht, must first be a tiro, glossed hægesteald or geongcempa (another military word applied to religious warriors).  This double gloss of tiro reinforces the notion that the monastic metaphor is built on an established meaning of a young warrior in training, thus rooted in masculine social status rather than sexual activity per se.

When it comes to women, the  Liber Scintillarum gloss is one of the sources that heavily uses fæmnhad to gloss virginity, along with the Aldhelm glosses, suggesting the two texts have a lot in common.  Hægesteald remains then, a masculine term for a novice in a monastic context.


The religious association of hægsteald as a metaphor for monastic life seemed to emerge only in the eleventh century in the glosses to Aldhelm and the Liber Scintillarum, undoubtedly an outgrowth of the monastic reform movement begun in the previous century.  The metaphor relies on its primary social meaning of a young unmarried warrior class male in training in a household, in this case a religious community, rather than specificially on celibacy or viriginity exclusively, although of course sexual abstinence is required of the novice.

This conclusion works only insofar as we can isolate Aldred’s uses of hehstald and its compounds glossing virgo and virginity.  Although it may seem circular, this argument works both ways:

  • The experiment of removing Aldred’s glosses brings into focus the non-Aldredian uses of hægsteald words as referencing the masculine social status of an unmarried warrior novice retainer, a cælebs, and secondarily a religious metaphor based on that concept of celibacy as an unmarried sexually abstinent dependant in a religious household.
  • If we take “heh” as “high” in Aldred’s use, then the experiment also reveals his sense of virginity as a spiritual status based on sexual abstinence, regardless of marital status (as in the Virgin Mary), and is used in many cases where another text would use fæmne or mægðhad.
  • Although the meanings of hægsteald and hehstald appear close—as a gloss to celibacy and virginity respectively—the linguistic difference between hæg- and heh– based on Aldred’s very different use of his term suggests that they are two different words.

As a consequence, I would recommend that the DOE disambiguate hehstald from hægsteald.



Bullough, Donald A. “The Place-Name Hexham and Its Interpretation.” N&Q n.s. 46 (1999): 422-27.

Cubitt, Catherine. “Virginity and Misogyny in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England.” Gender & Hist. 12 (2000): 1-32.

Fischer, Andreas Fischer. Engagement, Wedding and Marriage in Old English. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1986.

Gwara, Scott, ed.  Aldhelmi Malmesbiriensis Prosa de virginitate, 2 vols., CCSL 124-124a.

Heyworth, Melanie. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica 79 (2007): 171–84.

Kellermann, Günter. “Aspects of Etymological Inference: a Case Study of OE hægsteald / ModE bachelor and OE hægtesse / ModE witch.” Diachrony within Synchrony: Language History and Cognition. Ed. Kellermann and Michael D. Morrissey. Bern, Frankfurt am Main, and New York: Peter Lang, 1992, 509-28.

Lapidge, Michael and Michael Herren, trans..  Aldhelm:  The Prose Works.  Cambridge:  D. S. Brewer, 1979.

Lees, Clare A. and Gillian R. Overing.  Double Agents:  Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Newton, Francis L., Francis L. Newton, Jr., and Christopher R. J. Scheirer. “Domiciling the evangelists in Anglo-Saxon England: a fresh reading of Aldred’s colophon in the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels.’”  Anglo-Saxon England 41 (2012):  101-144.

Pasternack, Carol Braun. “The Sexual Practices of Virginity and Chastity in Aldhelm’s De Virginitate.” Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England: Essays in Memory of Daniel Gillmore Calder. Ed. Carol Braun Pasternack and Lisa M. C. Weston. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 277. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2004. 93-120.

Smith, Katherine Allen. War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, 37. Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 2011.

Watts, Victor. “The Place-name Hexham: A Mainly Philological Approach.” Nomina 17 (1994): 119-36.


London, BL Cotton Cleopatra A.iii (three glossaries). Gneuss 319.  s. x2/4 or x med, Canterbury St. Augustine’s.

London, BL Cotton Nero D.iv (Lindisfarne Gospels).  Gneuss 343. 687×689, Lindisfarne; OE gloss s. ix ex, Chester-le-Street.

London, BL Harley 3376 (glossary). Gneuss 436.  s. x/xi, W England (Worcester?).  Glossary.

London, BL Royal 7.C.iv (Defensor, Liber Scintillarum). Gneuss 470. s xi1, Canterbury CC?, OE gloss s. xi med.

Brussels, Bibliothèque royale 1650 (1520) (Aldhelm, prose De Uirginitate). Gneuss 806.  s. xi in., Abingdon; Latin and OE glosses s. xi1.  ASMMF 13 (2006), no. 18.

Durham, Cathedral Library A.IV.19 (“Durham Ritual”).  Gneuss 223.  s. ix/x or x in., S England, collectar, liturgical texts; s. x2, Chester-le-Street, additional texts, Old English gloss.   EEMF 16.


[1] Personally, I wonder what the hæleþa streona consists of:  what kinds of treasures does the unmarried warrior retainer enjoy in the household, and why in the next section does he often earn the wrath of a wif  because of his wiry ornament (wirum), presumably the ornamented hilt, while the sword is“fettered” by his lord, presumably sheathed in its scabbard?


  1. Thank you for working this out all the way through!

  2. Although the two cases of the ‘hegh-’ spelling could be seen as a nod towards the original etymology of the word, I note that Aldred also uses the ‘hegh-’ spelling for ‘heh-’ in ‘hehsedl’ (thone): in Matthew 23.22 (f74v) he glosses ‘in throno’ with ‘on heghseðel’. As the ‘heh’ in ‘hehsedl’ definitely means high, it seems reasonable to assume that for Aldred ‘hehstald’ has overtones of exaltation, the state of being elevated.

    • Good point. I had not run the search on Aldred’s other uses of heh/hegh. This was quite a rabbit warren I fell into!

  3. […] The three I am planning to use are the Æcerbot Ritual, the Durham collectar ordeal (see post on Hehstald), and the Darley baptism ritual (see my use of it for Aldred’s […]

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