men will love: Jerome desired chorus girls in the desert

Saint Jerome is a revered early church father. His translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin has shaped biblical understanding right up to the present day. When he was about thirty years old, Jerome spent time living as solitary ascetic in the Chalcis desert in present-day northern Syria. Jerome there experienced men’s natural will to love even under oppressive circumstances:

Oh, how often, while I was living in the desert, in that lonely vastness, scorched by the burning sun, in a hermit’s savage dwelling-place, how often did I imagine myself surrounded by the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone, filled with bitterness. Horrible sackcloth covered my deformed limbs. … In my fear of Hell I had condemned myself to this prison, where my only companions were scorpions and wild beasts. Nonetheless, I often found myself surrounded by choruses of girls. Though my face was pale with fasting and my limbs were as cold as ice, my mind was burning with desire. The fires of lust kept bubbling up before me even when my flesh alone had been put to death.

{ o quotiens in heremo constitutus et in illa vasta solitudine, quae exusta solis ardoribus horridum monachis praestat habitaculum, putaui me Romanis interesse deliciis! sedebam solus, quia amaritudine repletus eram. horrebam sacco membra deformis … ille igitur ego, qui ob gehennae metum tali me carcere ipse damnaveram, scorpionum tantum socius et ferarum, saepe choris intereram puellarum. pallebant ora ieiuniis io et mens desideriis aestuabat in frigido corpore et ante hominem suum iam carne praemortua sola libidinum incendia bulliebant. }[1]

Medieval Latin poetry abundantly testifies to the commonality of Jerome’s insight into himself as a man. Medieval men ardently loved women. Men’s will to love readily leads them into gyno-idolatry. But a well-developed self-consciousness and higher aspirations can save men from gyno-idolatry.

Jerome imagining Roman chorus girls in the desert

Medieval men made themselves totally dependent on women in love. His beloved woman controlled his existence and determined whether he sorrowed or rejoiced. A medieval poet writing before 1210 thus declared:

An anxious thing indeed is
love, full of misery.
At one time it gives me joy
when I have my heart’s wish,
yet it offers me sighs
when I don’t hold the desired woman.

Nothing is heavier than love,
nothing is lighter than love,
for nothing do I go more happily.
It engraves a stony heart,
transformed from lust —
I am happy when I possess it!

As many as are sands on the seashore,
as leaves on a tree,
as branches in the forest,
so many sorrows do I endure,
infirm in this body,
because I cannot hold her.

Again, as many as are stars
in Heaven, as many men
as I think live under the sky,
so many times I rejoice
when with my hand I can touch her
whom I see forever in my mind.

No wonder is it
that a woman’s love can make
me not lack calumny,
for beneath Heaven’s throne
there is no one who in beauty
can conquer her, to whom I owe myself.

{ Est equidem res anxia
amor, plenus miseria:
nam tunc dat mihi gaudia
cum velle mentis abeo,
item prebet suspiria
cum cupitam non teneo.

Amore nichil gravius,
nichil amore levius,
nichil eo felicius;
gravat corde lapideo,
mutatur ex lascivia —
en felix cum possideo!

Quod sunt arene littore,
quod folia in arbore,
quod rami sunt in nemore,
tot dolores sustineo:
ob oc infirmus corpore,
quod anc tenere nequeo.

Rursus, quot sunt in etere
astra, vel quod sub aere
omines credo vivere,
tot vicibus congaudeo
cum possum manu tangere
quam semper mente video.

Nulli fit ammirabile
quod facit amor femine
me non carere crimine —
nam sub trono etereo
non est que pulcritudine
anc vincat, cui me debeo! }[2]

Just as Dis ardently sought his promised bride Proserpina and Orpheus yearned to be again with his beloved Eurydice, a twelfth-century student was less interested in his classical studies than being with his beloved Lycoris:

When you unveil your golden head’s crowning
hair and bind it into a simple knot,
you are giving back to Orpheus his lamented Eurydice.

But with fingers wandering
about the place of pleasure,
freely running around,
when I bring my hand
under your tender thighs,
I rule the mighty Medes and Persians!

When the flank’s movement feels
the ultimate of love’s work and it becomes sweet,
I sink back amid my lover’s arms,
until I revive for another act of love.

When I see you with your starry
face, I fall to pieces.
But when you laugh
with joy, I’m enticed
and easily captured by means
of love’s allurements.

{ Cum flavi capitis develas verticem
comamque colligis in nodum simplicem
ploratam Orpheo reddis Euridicem.

Sed digitis evagatis
circa locum voluptatis
discursu libero,
sub crure manum
tenero dum perfero,
Medis et Persis impero!

Cum motu lateris sentitur Veneris
illud et ultimum dulcescit operis,
amice mediis relabor brachiis —
dum respiraverim rebus Venereis.

Te quando vultu video
sidereo, depereo;
sed quando rides
lecior, illicior
et levi causa capior
illecebris amoris. }[3]

Such memories of the medieval joy of sex can easily lead men into gyno-idolatry. No later than the twelfth century, a man worshiped as a goddess his beloved Flora. He sang a singsong poem of Flora’s delights:

Virgin Flora,
so distinguished,
so beautiful of face,
her laughter,
her presence,
she blessed me today!

Her appearance
makes a goddess,
her mind’s more than human,
forehead fully
without blemish,
such a lovely virgin girl.

All her attire,
all her features,
are fresh from day to day —
worthy of worship
while not surpassed
even by the noon sun.

{ Virgo Flora,
tam decora,
tam venusta facie,
suo risu,
suo visu
me beavit hodie.

Visus eam
facit deam;
mens excedit hominem.
Frons est tota
sine nota,
sicut decet virginem.

Eius cultus,
eius vultus
recens est cottidie;
digna coli
cum nec soli
cedit in meridie.}[4]

From a medieval Christian perspective, worshiping a woman as a goddess is morally wrong. It’s also factually incorrect. Women are not goddess but fully human beings, just as men are.

More love can save men. Self-conscious, higher love overcomes gyno-idolatry. Saint Jerome explained:

It is difficult for the human soul not to love, and it is necessary that our minds be drawn to some affection. Love of the flesh is overcome by love of the spirit. Desire is quenched by desire. What is taken from one is added to the other. Yes, therefore, always repeat as you lie in bed: “By night have I sought him who my soul adores.”

{ difficile est humanam animam non amare et necesse est, ut in quoscumque mens nostra trahatur affectus. carnis amor spiritus amore superatur; desiderium desiderio restinguitur. quidquid inde minuitur, hinc crescit. quin potius semper ingemina; super lectum meum in noctibus quaesivi, quem dilexit anima mea. }[5]

Many different social constructions disadvantage men. Yet from a Christian perspective, fundamental reality is what it is: God took flesh as a fully masculine human being. Was that part of a divine plan to strengthen men’s resistance to gyno-idolatry? No human can circumscribe the mind of God. Men, don’t try to do that. Instead, when you are in bed alone at night, longing for a beloved woman, find the strength of character to pray and say: “By night I have sought him who my soul adores.” If you can do that, you’re safe, at least temporarily, from gyno-idolatry.

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Notes:

[1] Jerome, Letters 22 (To Eustochium) section 7, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Wright (1933) pp. 90, 92. For an alternate translation, Freemantle (1892). Jerome, who was born about 345, wrote this letter in 383-4. He lived in the Chalcis desert about 375, when he wrote The Life of Paul the First Hermit. Young women prostitutes in the ancient world commonly sang, played instruments, and danced.

As a young man in Rome, Jerome apparently committed sexual sin. He acknowledged:

You know yourselves how treacherous is the path of youth, a path where I fell.

{ Scitis ipsi lubricum adolescentiae iter, in quo et ego lapsus sum }

Jerome, Letters 7 (To Chromatius, Jovinus, and Eusebius), section 4, Latin text and English translation from Wright (1933). Jerome, who never married, indicated more specifically his sexual failing from a Christian perspective:

I extol virginity to Heaven, not because I myself have it, but because, not having it, I admire it all the more. Surely it is a modest and innocent confession to praise in others that which you yourself lack.

{ virginitatem autem in caelum fero, non quia habeo, sed quia miror, quod non habeo. ingenua et verecunda confessio est, quo ipse careas, id in aliis praedicare. }

Jerome, Letters 48 (To Pammachius), section 20, Latin text from Hilberg (1910), English translation (modified) from Freemantle (1892). For an alternate translation, Mierow & Lawler (1963). On Jerome’s experiences as a young man in Rome, Kelly (1975) pp. 20-2.

[2] “Behold, all are gladdened {Ecce letantur omnia}!”, stanzas 3-7 (vv. 13-42), Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 380-2, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The Latin text is from Paris, BnF MS. lat. 3719, folio 40r-v, written before 1210. This manuscript, as Dronke transcribed it, omits some initial h’s in words: (oc, anc, ominies) represent (hoc, hanc, homines), respectively.

[3] “When spring is almost in flower, golden Lycoris {Ver prope florigerum, flava Licori},” stanzas 5-8 (vv. 20-38), Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 375, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This poem survives in Oxford, Bodley MS. Add. A. 44, folio 70v, which was written in the beginning of the thirteenth century.

[4] “Virgin Flora {Virgo Flora},” stanzas 1-3 (vv. 1-18), Latin text from Donke (1965) vol. 2, p. 362, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This poem survives in Munich, MS Clm 14834, folio 26v, written in the twelfth century.

[5] Jerome, Letters 22 (To Eustochium) section 17, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Wright (1933). For an alternate translation, Freemantle (1892).

[image] Temptations of Saint Jerome (Jerome imagining Roman chorus girls in the desert). Painting by Francisco de Zurbarán in 1639. Preserved in the Royal Monastery of Saint Mary of Guadalupe (Extremadura, Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons. Jerome was about 30 years old when he lived as a hermit in the desert. However, in this painting he’s depicted as an old man in the desert. Sexual temptation tends to be a less pressing problem for old men.

References:

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon 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.

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).

Kelly, John N. D. 1975. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. London: Duckworth Gerald.

Mierow, Charles Christopher, trans. and Thomas Comerford Lawler, notes, etc. 1963. The Letters of St. Jerome. London: Longmans, Green. Vol. 1, Letters 1-22.

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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