St Mary’s (Scarborough, UK)



A church of the Blessed Mary, which long before belonged to the Cistercians, and had deteriorated with age; and which many people, both citizens and foreigners ―having gathered together money for the task― restored with notable handiwork and adornment, in the year 1850.

One of the words here with a long and interesting history is Aedes.  The word has a variety of meanings: it can mean House or Dwelling-place, and also (esp. in a pagan context) Temple.  Hence Virgil speaks poetically of the “[apes] clausis cunctatur in aedibus” (“[bees] lingering in closed-up dwelling-places [i.e. hives]”); and Varro describes the Aedilis (Aedile) as “qui aedis sacras et privatas procuraret” (“the one who looked after Aedes, both sacred and private”; De Lingua Latina V.81).

More specifically, it can refer to the shrine as an inner part of a temple; Pliny the Elder, for instance, makes mention of a much-admired sculpture of Hecate “in templo Dianae post aedem” (“in the temple of Diana, behind the shrine”; Naturalis Historia XXXVI.32).

Later on, however, the term came to mean Church, as it does in the inscription above.  I am still looking for evidence of its use in this way among early Christian writers.  Leonard Palmer (pp.186ff) remarks that early Christians preferred to borrow Greek terms such as Ecclesia (Eκκλησία) to describe churches, rather than to use terms like Templum and Fanum, which were laden with pagan connotations.  Perhaps later on, when paganism was not such a going concern, use of Aedes was revived.  I tentatively submit that this might have been due, as often seems to be the case, to the poets: even Avitus of Vienne (ca. A.D. 470-519) uses Vates (SeerSoothsayer) to mean Prophet, where earlier Christian writers (especially prose writers) would have opted for Propheta.  But I should emphasise that this is merely a guess.

Further Reading/Sources
Avitus’ The Fall of Man (De Spiritalis historiae gestis; note that this work had a significant influence on John Milton).
Palmer, Leonard. The Latin Language. London: Faber & Faber, 1954.
Pliny’s (mammoth!) Naturalis Historia.
Varro’s De Lingua Latina.
Virgil’s Georgics.



2 thoughts on “St Mary’s (Scarborough, UK)

  1. Did Augustine of Hippo, writing in the fourth century not already use in “De civitate Dei” the word aedes for a place of worship or temple? You can search online in early medieval texts in a number of websites. The Corpus Corporum at Zürich, , is a kind of meta-portal for several of these sites. It brings you for example the texts in Migne’s Patrologia Latina.

    I like the way you connect at your blog inscriptions, history and the Latin language!

    Kind regards,

    Otto Vervaart, Utrecht, Netherlands

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Dr. Vervaart,

      Thank you for this resource, and for your kind remarks!

      I have looked through Augustine’s “De Civitate Dei”, and the uses I found of “Aedes” are limited to pagan places of worship. A characteristic instance: in his discussion of the goddesses Fortuna and Felicitas (IV.18), he asks (if they are in some sense the same), “Quid diversae aedes, diversae arae, diversa sacra?” Here, and elsewhere, he seems to use “Aedes” specifically as a term for pagan temples. I wonder whether, in other works (in which he is not setting out to refute paganism), he doesn’t lapse into using it as a generic term for places of worship — even Christian ones. I will keep looking, and get back to you if I find anything worth reporting.

      All the best,
      Boaz Schuman


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