Saint Jerome’s letters shows profound concern for women

Saint Jerome was a leader in orienting his life toward women.  Of Jerome’s 123 surviving letters, 36% are addressed to women.  Jerome in his surviving letters addressed by name 20 different women.  Jerome’s letters to women have less diverse types and are more personal than his letters to men.[1]  In a scholarly letter to the learned woman Principia, Jerome stated that he was censured by many for writing to women and preferring women to men.[2]

Jerome wrote many more letters to women than have survived.   In one of his works, Jerome referred to “volumes of letters which I have written to Paula.”  He also noted, “how many letters I have written to Paula and Eustochium I do not know, for I write daily.”[3]

Jerome closely associated with women.  In Rome, Jerome was frequently surrounded by women. Women and Jerome were comfortable discussing scripture and Christian living with each other.  Jerome observed of his relationship with women:

Study had brought about constant companionship, companionship comfortableness, and comfortableness a sense of mutual trust. [4]

The patrician Roman women Fabiola, Paula, and Eustochium followed Jerome from Rome to Jerusalem.   Jerome toured monasteries in Egypt with Paula in the winter of 386/6.[5]  Both Paula and Eustochium financially supported Jerome and lived next to him in Bethlehem.   Jerome eulogized Lea, Blesilla, Fabiola, Paula, and Marcella after their deaths.[6]  They probably would have done the same for him.

two women, Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium, with Saint Jerome

Because Jerome loved women, he told them what they needed to know, not what men thought women wanted to hear.  Jerome was far from the self-abasing, desperately love-seeking man of Roman love elegy.  Rather than keeping women ignorant, Jerome told women directly what men want.  Men debated among themselves about whether men should marry.  They assumed that women should marry.  Jerome, in contrast, strongly supported women not marrying.  Few men have cared as much for women as Jerome did.[7]  Only persons who don’t understand women and don’t truly love them cannot understand why women loved Jerome.

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Data: Letters of Jerome Dataset (Excel version)

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Notes:

[1] See the summary statistics sheet in the Letters of Jerome Dataset.  Saint Jerome is also known as Jerome of Stridon and as Hieronymus.  His full Latin name is Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus.

[2] Jerome, Letter 65 (to Principia, dated 397), from Latin trans. by Medieval Women’s Latin Letters.  In this letter, Jerome refers to women as the “weaker sex.”   That was a conventional term associated with women’s less powerful physical stature and more powerful communication capabilities.  Jerome uses that conventional term in high rhetoric replete with irony.  A simpler presentation is in Jerome’s Letter 126.  Freemantle (1892), p. 601, describes that letter as addressed to “Marcellinus, a Roman official of high rank, and Anapsychia his wife.”  Jerome addresses the husband of high public rank and his wife equally as students of scripture:

Our reverend brother Oceanus to whom you desire an introduction is a great and good man and so learned in the law of the Lord that no words of mine are needed to make him able and willing to instruct you both and to explain to you in conformity with the rules which govern our common studies, my opinion and his on all questions arising out of the scriptures.  In conclusion, my truly holy lord and lady, may Christ our God by his almighty power have you in his safekeeping and cause you to live long and happily.

Letter 126, s. 3, trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 602.

[3] Jerome, De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men, dated 393), s. 54, 135.  Cain (2009), p. 220, observes:

Considering Jerome’s otherwise prolific literary output and the size of his social network, his 123 extant letters are bound to represent only the tiniest fraction of all of the letters he wrote during his long career.

[4] Jerome, Letter 45 (to Asella, dated 385) s. 2, from Latin trans. Cain (2009) p. 107.  Freemantle (1892) provides an alternate translation of the full letter.

[5] Cain (2009) p. 155.

[6] Lea (Letter 23), Blesilla (Letter 39), Fabiola (Letter 77), Paula (Letter 108), and Marcella (Letter 127).  Freemantle (1892) has English translations.

[7] Misrepresentations about Jerome’s relationship with women abound. Some accuse Jerome of being a misogynist. The same has long been claimed of Euripides, and with as little reason. Jerome reportedly was also set up for a false accusation of loving women sexually:

John Beleth tells, for instance, that they used a woman’s clothing to create a false impression of him. He got up one morning to go to matins, as was his custom, and found at his bedside a woman’s gown, which, thinking it was his own, he put on and so proceeded into the church. His adversaries, of course, had done this in order to make it look as if he had a woman in his room.

Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), entry for Saint Jerome, from Latin trans. Ryan (2012) p. 598. John Beleth (Jean Beleth) was a twelfth-century theologian who contributed significantly to the Legenda Aurea. Stories of clothes-swapping bed tricks are common in medieval literature.

[image] Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium with Saint Jerome, Francisco de Zurbarán and Workshop, c. 1640/1650, oil on fabric, Samuel H. Kress Collection, U.S. National Gallery of Art, 1952.5.88, thanks to Wikipedia.

References:

Cain, Andrew. 2009. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford University Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Ryan, William Granger, trans. and Eamon Duffy, intro. 2012. Jacobus de Voragine. The golden legend: readings on the saints. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. (revised version of translation first published in 1941)

One thought on “Saint Jerome’s letters shows profound concern for women”

  1. Hello, a very interesting article and I am particularly grateful for the concise dataset of St. Jerome’s letters. Please could you contact me via email with regards to the the possibility of referencing the dataset?

    Thanks.

    Hollie

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