Jerome to Eustochium on shameful and ashamed women

In 384 GC, the learned Christian scholar and teacher Jerome wrote a letter to the fifteen-year-old Eustochium. She was the daughter of his dear friend Paula, a wealthy, high-born Roman widow. Shunning her life of privilege, Eustochium sought to become a Christian nun living vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Jerome addressed Eustochium as “my Eustochium, my daughter, lady-lord, fellow-servant, and sister {mi Eustochia, filia, domina, conserua, germana}.”[1] With loving concern and great wisdom, Jerome taught Eustochium about shameful and ashamed women.

Jerome didn’t shirk from presenting shocking images to Eustochium. He quoted to her a biblical verse describing a fallen, rejected spouse:

“At your right hand stood the queen wrapped in embroidered clothes of gold.” She shall be made naked, and her skirt thrown over her face. She shall sit by the waters of loneliness with her pitcher put down. She shall spread her legs to all who pass by and be polluted to the top of her head.

{ adstitit regina a dextris tuis in uestitu deaurato, circumdata uarietate. nudabitur et posteriora eius ponentur in facie ipsius; sedebit ad aquas solitudinis et posita base diuaricabit pedes suos omni transeunti et usque ad uerticem polluetur. }[2]

Covering one’s face typically indicates modesty or a sense of shame. But a woman whose face is covered by her lifted skirt is shamefully exposed, at least from a traditional Roman perspective. Jerome urged Eustochium not to be like that woman.

While most Roman men were poor laborers or soldiers enduring brutal violence against men, some women were vastly more privileged. Jerome described to Eustochium such widows:

Look at them in their sedan-chairs with a row of eunuchs preceding them, and their rouged cheeks and their plump, sleek skin. You wouldn’t think that they had lost a husband, but were seeking one. Their houses are full of flatterers, full of banquets. The very clerics whose teaching authority ought to call forth awe, kiss these lady-patrons on the head and extend their hands. You would think, if you didn’t know, that they wanted to bless. In fact they extend their hands to receive a fee for their visit. Meanwhile these ladies, seeing that priests need their help, are lifted up in pride.

{ praecedit caueas basternarum ordo semiuir et rubentibus buccia cutis farsa distenditur, ut eas putes maritos non amisisse, sed quaerere. plena adulatoribus domus, plena conuiuia. clerici ipsi, quos et magisterio esse oportuerat et timori, osculantur capita patronarum et extenta manu, ut benedicere eos putes uelle, si nescias, pretium accipiunt salutandi. illae interim, quae sacerdotes suo uident indigere praesidio, eriguntur in superbiam }

Before recent decades, Christian priests had been exclusively men since the birth of Christ. But that doesn’t mean that men historically have been privileged relative to women, or even that priests have had higher status than wealthy women. The rows of eunuchs carrying women in sedan-chairs aptly represent men’s social position under castration culture and gynocentrism.

eunuchs carry Empress Dowager Cixi in sedan-chair

Although equally deserving of compassion as fully human beings, men tend to receive less compassion than do women. Headlines often efface men, like “missile strike kills 20 civilians, including 2 women.” Jerome described to Eustochium similarly emotive circumstances:

Recently I saw the noblest Roman woman — I keep silent about her name, for I am not a satirist — in the Basilica of Saint Peter. Her eunuchs were in front of her. With her own hand so as to increase her reputation for religiosity she was disbursing single coins to paupers. One moment, such as you might readily know by experience, an old woman of years and rags ran forward to receive another coin. When her turn came, in the place of money she received an extended fist. Thus she, guilty of a crime, had an outflow of blood.

{ uidi nuper — nomina taceo, ne saturam putes — nobilissimam mulierum Romanarum in basilica beati Petri semiuiris antecedentibus propria manu, quo religiosior putaretur, singulos nummos dispertire pauperibus. interea — ut usu nosse perfacile est — anus quaedam annis pannisque obsita praecurrit, ut alterum nummum acciperet; ad quam cum ordine peruenisset, pugnus porrigitur pro denario et tanti criminis reus sanguis effunditur. }

The old, poor dear is of course a woman. The vicious rich Roman whom eunuchs attend is also a woman. Her castrated men attract little concern and compassion.

Jerome understood that human life centers on women. He advised Eustochium:

Let your voice always resonate in your mouth with these words: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return” and “We brought nothing into this world, and we can carry out nothing.”

{ illa tibi semper in ore uox resonet: nudus exiui de utero matris meae, nudus et redeam et: nihil intulimus in hunc mundum nec auferre quid possumus. }[3]

In these key words, “my mother’s womb” is a metonym for “mother earth,” or more generally, the whole world of lived life. Mother earth isn’t a recent sexist social construction. Even apart from the ancient earth goddess Gaia, humans have long regarded the earth as their mother.

Despite her female privilege, Jerome didn’t want Eustochium to be ashamed to be a woman. He observed:

Other women dress as men, changing their clothes as if they are ashamed to be the females that they were born. They cut off their hair and impudently hold up their faces like eunuchs.

{ aliae uirili habitu, ueste mutata, erubescunt feminae esse, quod natae sunt, crinem amputant et inpudenter erigunt facies eunuchinas. }[4]

From Jerome’s Christian perspective, women shouldn’t be ashamed of being women. In contrast, women pretending to be eunuchs belittle women and trivialize castration culture. Such women should be ashamed of their ignorance and heartlessness.

Today no forty-year-old man would write to a fifteen-year-old woman like Jerome wrote to Eustochium more than 1600 years ago. Nonetheless, young women today would benefit significantly from thinking carefully about the issues that Jerome raised to Eustochium. Christians rightly revere Jerome as a great saint. Everyone should honor Jerome as a wise and courageous ally of women.

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Notes:

[1] Jerome, Letters 22, Jerome to Eustochium, section 26, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956), Wright (1933), and Freemantle (1892). All quotes from Jerome are similarly sourced from his letter to Eustochium.

Jerome was about forty years old when he wrote this letter to Eustochium. With respect to “daughter, lady-lord, fellow-servant, sister,” Jerome explained:

one specifies your age, another your merit, yet another your religious vocation, and that one our love

{ aliud enim aetatis, aliud meriti, illud religionis, hoc caritatis est nomen }

Id, section 26. Jerome described Eustochium as “reared among a noble lineage and always in luxury, always in soft pillows {nobili stirpe generatam, et semper in deliciis, semper in plumis}.” Id, section 11. Jerome and Eustochium were fellow religious servants of God. Medieval men referred to their beloved women as “sister.”

[2] Jerome to Eustochium, section 6. Cf. Psalms 44:9, Jeremiah 13:26, Ezekiel 16:25. This quote is colored with historical disparagement of men’s sexuality. From a Jewish and Christian perspective, men do not pollute women through men’s sexuality itself. To the contrary, men offer to women through their sexuality the gift of God’s seminal blessing. Medieval hymns such as “Hail, mother of our Savior {Salve, mater Salvatoris}” dealt with this discursive legacy in a sophisticated way.

Jerome spoke frankly with Eustochium. He wasn’t ashamed to specify directly genitals:

Hear what God says about the devil: “Its strength is in the loins and its power in the navel.” For decency the genitals of man and woman are altered to be called with those names. Thus from the loins of David is said to come the descendant promised to sit on the throne. The seventy-five souls who entered into Egypt similarly came from Jacob’s thigh. When after wrestling with God the girth of his thigh shrank, Jacob ceased to produce children. … To Jerusalem, who was found splattered with blood in the wandering plain, Ezekiel said: “Your navel has not been penetrated.” Therefore, in all attacks against men, the devil’s strength is in the loins. Against women, all its force is in the navel.

{ audi, quid de diabolo suspicetur: uirtus eius in lumbis et potestas eius in umbilico. honeste uiri mulierisque genitalia inmutatis sunt appellata nominibus, unde et de lumbis Dauid super is sedem eius promittitur esse sessurus; et septuaginta et quinque animae introierunt Aegyptum, quae exierunt de femore Iacob, et postquam conluctante deo latitudo femoris eius emarcuit, a liberorum opere cessauit … ad Hierusalem uero, quae respersa sanguine in campo inuenitur erroris, in Ezechiel dicitur: non est praecisus umbilicus tuus. omnis igitur aduersus uiros diaboli uirtus in lumbis est, omnis in umbilico contra feminas fortitudo.}

Jerome to Eustochim, section 11. Cf. Job 40:16, 2 Samuel 7:12, Genesis 46:26, Genesis 32:24-5, Ezekiel 16:4-6. Modern philology, unlike Jerome, has a penis problem.

The subsequent two quotes above are from Jerome to Eustochium, sections 15 (Look at them in their sedan-chairs…) and 32 (Recently I saw the noblest Roman woman…).

[3] Jerome to Eustochium, section 31. Cf. Job 1:21, Genesis 3:19, Sirach 40:1. On Biblical gynocentrism, Song of Songs 5:2-6, Genesis 2:24, and Ephesians 5:31.

[4] Jerome to Eustochium, section 27. Transmen have been readily accepted historically, while transwomen have faced hostility and rejection from women and men aggressively defending women’s privileged social position.

[image] Chinese eunuchs carry Empress Dowager Cixi in a sedan-chair in front of the Summer Palace in Beijing sometime from 1903 to 1905. Photo by Xunling. Preserved with identifier FSA A.13 SC-GR-261 in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

References:

Carroll, Paul, trans. 1956. The Satirical letters of St. Jerome. Chicago: Gateway Editions, distributed by H. Regnery Co.

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.

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-1918. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae {Letters of Saint Eusebius Hieronymus (Jerome)}. Vindobonae: Tempsky. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 54 (Epistulae 1-70), 55 (Epistulae 71-120), and 56 (Epistulae 120-154).

Wright, F. A., ed. and trans. 1933. Select Letters of St. Jerome. Loeb Classical Library, no. 262. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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