BMCR 2007.07.06

The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship

, The monk and the book : Jerome and the making of Christian scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 1 online resource (x, 315 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780226899022. $45.00.

Table of Contents

In her Epilogue, W(illiams) reflects sadly that “Jerome left little behind” (264); but she defends the study of Jerome as of more than mere antiquarian interest. “The pretense that it is merely natural, and therefore good, to respond with pleasure to certain books … has been shattered for us as surely as it was for Jerome when he committed himself to valuing the crude utterances of Hebrew prophets over the polished periods of Cicero” (265-6).

This is an exciting claim. It points to the link between an acculturation to certain channels of textual pleasure and the interests of the hegemonic elite. Entry into that elite is conditional upon a certain education, which inculcates a certain type of response to texts (and much else). But the dynamics of this response, being presented as “natural” and not subject to interrogation, are invisible; so, then, are the dynamics of power which are mobilized and reinforced through it. The excitement of the claim derives from the fact that it does indeed seem to illuminate something of the cultural dynamics of Jerome’s time, and link them meaningfully to our own.

This, however, is work which W.’s readers must undertake. In The Monk and the Book, she has supplied us with some of the data with which to pursue this train of thought, but she has not, before this final moment, made the larger extrapolations herself. What she has done is shown us the complexity of the very coupling of her title, of “monk” with “book.”

This book takes “the Book” very seriously, especially in its most material sense. There has been much recent reflection on book production in later antiquity, and how it relates to the invention of a particular type of scholarship,1 but W. attends with exceptional care to the exact circumstances of literary production for Jerome. In her preliminary chapters, she shows us how Jerome inserts himself into a network of literary patronage; how he gradually develops the notion of Hebraica veritas, ostentatiously learning Hebrew and elevating the Jewish biblical canon as standard, as he embarks on his biblical translations; and how he sets about the process of biblical commentary — a vast project of compilatio advertising (with different emphasis at different stages) its debt to both Hebrew and Christian interpretative traditions. The heart of the book, however, is those chapters (4-7) which concern themselves most directly with the material text: on the possible composition of Jerome’s library; on the vexed status of books and reading in monastic culture; on the use of stenographers and copyists; and on the role of readers and patrons.

Through all this, W. is alert to the paradoxical (she would be too polite to say “hypocritical”) nature of Jerome’s enterprise. His elevation of the Jewish canon was neither obvious nor uncomplicated; his virulent anti-Semitism runs alongside an insistence on the importance of Jewish sources which often occludes a Christian intermediary (note esp. 222-31). The study of Hebrew is displayed as a form of self-mortification (60), which allows Jerome to present it as a monastic, not an intellectual, exercise — just as later he likens the work of biblical exegesis to manual labour (167). The very concept of Hebraica veritas imposes a sharp division on previously intermingled interpretative traditions (123, 94) — and then sets Jerome up as an authority upon it. Furthermore, the process of compilatio, while ostensibly casting Jerome as merely a passive compositor (189), was in fact the product of much creative intervention, selection, and interpretation, the more powerful for being masked. Jerome’s ultimate recourse was to refer authority to his prudens lector (192, 236). His interpretative authority was simultaneously created and repudiated.

The most pressing paradox upon which W. insists is that between monastic poverty and the immense, expensive scholarly apparatus which underpinned Jerome’s work. She estimates the contents and cost of his library (both vast); this seems somewhat overstated to me, as she does not take into account here the networks of literary exchange and book-borrowing to which she alludes elsewhere (37, 233-4), but the overall point is well taken. She notes the way in which Jerome’s famed contrast between his own pauperes scidulae and the despised purple codices avoids engaging the question of whether he should be owning books at all. And she shows how he delivers a similar sleight-of-hand in referring to his notarii : their status as traditional props to an elitist scholarly endeavour is effaced as they are cast as guarantors of asceticism, ciphers for a “utilitarian” mode of composition as opposed to the suspect “literary” one of rhetoric (205).

Paradox, of course, was (and arguably is) the stock in trade of Christianity, but this tends to relate to the paradoxical relationship between the material and spiritual realms. Rarely has it been made so clear how paradox could also be the mode of negotiation between two different material realms: the material concerns of ascetic Christianity and those of the educated elite of late antiquity. To return to the question of textual pleasure, W. points out in her epilogue the way in which Jerome promotes the renunciation of such pleasure in determinedly pleasurable persuasive language. But the power dynamics — and further, the ethics — of this use of paradox are never exposed.

This is why, in the end, “The Monk and the Book” is a frustrating — though interesting — work. In contrast with the prodigious and inflammatory talent of its subject, this book is studiously politic and restrained. Perhaps this is the principal fruit of its professed revisionism: to lead it away from the passionate partisanship which the figure of Jerome has traditionally provoked. But in that careful politesse a sense of the extreme issues at stake has been lost. It matters that Jerome should have obscured the power dynamics of his elite cultural pursuits in a miasma of purported humility. It matters that he should have conceived and carried off his exceptionally ambitious project of biblical interpretation. It matters that he intervened, often in abusive and emphatic style, in controversies whose bitter fruits Christians and Jews reap to this day. (It is no coincidence that this book contains an utterly deflationary account of the Vigilantius controversy, rewriting Jerome’s role by not taking seriously his extreme invective.) All these issues matter in an ethical context, because it matters how scholarly power is used. The fewer the holders of elite education, and the greater their prestige, the more it matters. W. exposes for us the infrastructure, as it were, of Jerome’s assumption and use of his power, pointing to paradoxical and self-refuting claims and scenarios; but in her reluctance to explore the ethical impact of those paradoxes, we lose sight of Jerome’s distinctiveness — and, for that matter, distinction.

In a passage claiming his own right to be read as authoritative interpreter (in this case, translator) of the bible, Jerome writes, “lege … primum Samuhel et Malachim meum; meum inquam meum … ” (quoted by W., 89). There it is: the assertiveness, the solipsism, the erudition, the obtuse brilliance of the man, all on display. And it does matter.


1. For example, W.’s own volume, with A. Grafton, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006); The Early Christian Book, ed. W. Klingshirn and L. Safran (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007); a particularly interesting and wide-ranging discussion in the Introduction by M. Vessey to Cassiodorus Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning, tr. J. Halporn (TTH 42: Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2004).