The Influence of Saint Jerome on Medieval Attitudes to Women

The Influence of Saint Jerome on Medieval Attitudes to Women

Jane Barr

First published as Ch. 6, in After Eve,
edited by Janet Martin Soskice.
Collins Marshall Pickering 1990
Reproduced on our website with the necessary permissions

It must be acknowledged at the outset that Jerome’s attitudes to women accorded, on the whole, with those of earlier Church Fathers. Much of his anti-feminist propaganda was not original. What makes Jerome of supreme importance is that it was his writings that were read so widely, his opinions that were quoted and repeated throughout the succeeding centuries. Also Jerome brought to his thinking about women his own particular personal attitudes, which combined a great need of women’s company, and affection for women, with a fear and hatred of their sexuality. Jerome’s highly complicated personality on the one hand, and his immense erudition on the other present us with a fascinating study. Within the bounds of one essay it is possible only to select certain aspects and deal with them briefly.

In what we know of Jerome’s childhood and youth there is little to help us in our understanding of the evolution of his ideas about women. Jerome wrote a large volume of letters, and it is perhaps surprising that he says so little about his parents. We know that he was born to Christian parents who were sufficiently wealthy to provide him with a good education. He does appear to have observed with care and appreciation the tenderness of mother for child, because in one of his letters, urging the duty to love one’s mother, he writes: ‘She put up with your bad behaviour in childhood, she washed your clothes, after getting herself messed up with excrement; she sat by your bed when you were sick.’ One can perhaps discern in his reference to excrement a reflection of his extreme distaste for bodily functions, which came to be so marked in his detestation of the appearance of pregnant women. We know that he had a grandmother of whom he was fond, an aunt with whom he quarrelled, and a brother and sister much younger than himself.

After attending local schools Jerome was sent to Rome where he studied under a well-known grammarian. This is very important for Jerome’s future. His great strength in his scholarship would be based on grammatical and linguistic knowledge. We know that by this time he was already assembling a considerable library. He then proceeded to rhetorical school, and followed up his formal education with a bit of travel, to Trier where he may have first encountered and become interested in monasticism. It has been suggested that Jerome’s later asceticism was his reaction to an ill-spent youth. There is not much evidence for this, but Jerome does hint of scandalous behaviour in his youth, and, in insisting that virginity is the only noble state, he says he is urging the preservation of something that he himself has lost.

The next important stage in his life was his departure for the Middle East in 374 (when he was in his thirties). First came his famous dream in Antioch, in which God punished him severely for being too attached to Roman literature, and he swore an oath to God that he would never again possess or read worldly books. He did not live up to his promises (Jerome was notoriously inconsistent) and was particularly ready to quote from the Roman poets when he needed some anti-feminist ammunition.

After this he went into the Syrian desert to practise the life of a desert hermit, a stage of his life much depicted in art. Jerome spent about three years in the desert, studying, mortifying the flesh, learning Hebrew to prevent his mind being filled with erotic fantasies. (He tells us that his mind boiled with lust in the desert and he was much troubled with visions of dancing-girls.) To his disappointment he found that the desert-hermits were less saintly than he had expected, and, not by any means for the first time, or indeed the last, he quarrelled with those around him, and gave up desert-life in disgust.

After a period of study in Constantinople he went to Rome and spent the next three years there. These were at first very happy and profitable years. Jerome became deeply involved in the religious life of Rome, the Pope took a great interest in his work, he started on a new translation of the Bible (our Vulgate) and, very important for our subject, he became very friendly with a group of well-born Roman matrons. These ladies had already become very interested in asceticism, and when Jerome, with his own recent desert experience, arrived and became known to them, they hailed him with joy, and their delight was reciprocated. They met frequently for prayer and Bible study. They exchanged letters constantly on matters of Biblical exegesis and meanings of Hebrew words. This intimacy gave rise to prurient gossip. There were accusations of sexual impropriety, which Jerome hotly denied, and there was indignation that these ladies, with their high social standing, their beautiful villas on the Aventine Hill, were following a regime which involved dressing in rags, never bathing, and indeed carrying mortification of the flesh to such lengths that one young woman died.

After only three years in Rome, Jerome, unhappy and disaffected, set out for Palestine, accompanied by several of his Roman women friends, and with the aid of their considerable fortunes, he established a monastery and a convent in Bethlehem. There he lived until his death, thirty-five years later, continuing his translation and his writing, assisted by the Roman ladies, and in turn their daughters, and even a grand-daughter. There is something remarkable about the relationship between this arch-misogynist and these women. Jerome had a horror of women’s sexuality. How is his attachment to them and their devotion to him reconcilable with his anti-feminist views? I think he succeeded in seeing these women, with their saintliness, their love of Scripture, their ready acceptance of asceticism, as being no longer women, but men. Let me quote a letter he wrote to Lucinius, a wealthy Spanish nobleman who has made a vow with his wife that they will live the rest of their married lives in complete continence. ‘You have with you one who was once your partner in the flesh, but is now your partner in the spirit, once your wife but now your sister, once a woman but now a man, once an inferior but now an equal.’

Jerome constantly paints pictures of the worthlessness of a woman’s life. He describes women as concerned only with their make-up, their hair, their flirtations; they are always spiteful, quarrelsome, jealous. This can be illustrated from many passages, but I select one from a letter which was picked out by E. M. Forster as the most remarkable. (E. M. Forster devoted some considerable study to St Jerome. ‘That detestable father’, he called him.) This was a letter addressed to a mother and daughter, who are not identified, and may well be imaginary, and it gave Jerome the opportunity to give vent to his criticisms. Addressing the young girl he goes on at length in this vein:

The way you dress is an index of your secret desires. Your bodice is purposely ripped apart to show what is beneath, and, while hiding what is repulsive, to reveal what is beautiful. [Notice Jerome’s distaste for certain parts of the female body.] You wear stays to keep your breasts in place, and confine your body in a girdle. Sometimes you let your shawl drop so as to lay bare your white shoulders . . .

Jerome’s ladies, with their filthy garments, uncombed hair and never-washed bodies, certainly did not fit with such descriptions, He rejoiced, too, if they could hold their emotions in check. He tells with delight how Paula, the dearest to him of his friends, looked away firmly when her little boy held out his arms to her and her daughter wept bitterly on the quay at Ostia when she departed by ship for her new life in Bethlehem. Earlier he had reproached Paula heartlessly for grieving when another daughter died of an overdose of asceticism. He tells how Satan must rejoice at her tears. ‘I miss her just as much as you do,’ he says arrogantly. ‘If you are a true ascetic you should be pleased to be rid of ties. Anyway, don’t worry, I will write about her and make her immortal!’

As you see, Paula had children, indeed she had five children. How did this indulgence in sexual activity escape Jerome’s condemnation? Jerome points out that she had four daughters before having a son, and that clearly she was merely facing the obligation of having to provide her husband with a son. Thus Jerome succeeded in seeing these women as separated from the weaknesses and failings of their kind, and especially from their sexuality.

During his long life Jerome wrote constantly. We have letters, commentaries on books of Scripture, long polemic articles on a variety of subjects, and, most important of all, we have his translation of the Bible. Our purpose here is to concentrate on those writings which expressed his attitudes to women. Interestingly, these are the very pieces of his work which enjoyed the greatest popularity in the thousand years after his death. When one studies the holdings of the great libraries of Europe in the Middle Ages there are almost invariably works of Jerome present, and these are most commonly the letters of Jerome concerned with women’s behaviour, and the Tract Against Jovinian which is concerned with the necessity for virginity.

As I have said, other important figures of the early Church had written anti-feminist documents, but Jerome’s writings in this field became predominant, for, I think, the following reasons.

1. Jerome was universally known and respected, particularly as translator of the Vulgate Bible. His translation was after all the chief version in use throughout the medieval world.

2. Jerome wrote brilliantly. The passion of his utterances, his trenchant satire, combined with the excellence of his Latin style, made his writings eminently readable. Indeed they were such models of style that they were probably sometimes read and copied for that reason alone. His writings, particularly those designed for a wider audience, are often full of stylistic and rhetorical flourishes, and these were admired and copied in certain literary circles. I have in mind the already-quoted letter to Lucinius with its successive contrasts ‘Once a woman, now a man’, etc.; or this – speaking of one of the devoted Roman women – ‘Shut in the narrowness of a solitary cell, she enjoyed the spaciousness of Paradise.’

This leaves us with an important question. Why were the letters about women and virginity so popular? Waves of asceticism spread periodically through society in the Middle Ages. In a time of enthusiasm for asceticism, sexual activity is a particularly attractive subject for attack. A certain amount of warmth, food and shelter is needed for survival, but sex can be banned outright. This may be significant.

Jerome’s greatest achievement was his translation of the Bible. (There was already a Latin Bible in existence but a new and accurate version was needed.) Jerome’s Vulgate has not been traditionally regarded as a medium for the transmission of Jerome’s anti-feminist views, but I think I have proved without doubt that Jerome, in his work as translator, was influenced by his prejudices, and allowed them to interfere with his accurate translation of the text. This is of course of almost unquantifiable importance. The Bible in Jerome’s version was the most widely read book in the Middle Ages. Those who could not read but went to church would hear the Bible read and expounded, and if the very text of Scripture had been tampered with in any way the results could be significant.

Only two examples of Jerome’s mistranslations will be cited here, because they are documented in more detail elsewhere.(1)

In the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, where she attempts to seduce him, the original Hebrew text narrates the story in a straightforward, non-judgmental way. The woman says to Joseph ‘Lie with me’, and the Hebrew says simply ‘and he refused’. Not so Jerome. ‘And he refused’ becomes ‘by no means agreeing to this wicked deed’. In the course of the next few verses we have more condemnatory words introduced, for example stuprum which is a very strong word for vile behaviour. It is as if Jerome cannot somehow tolerate that Holy Writ does not emphasise that the woman is wicked, and feels he must do so. The quite significant changes thus made in biblical narratives are likely to have had some effect on the preaching from these texts in the medieval pulpit.

A very important alteration is made by Jerome in Genesis 3.16. God has been addressing severe words to the serpent in the garden and he finishes his warning to Eve with the words: ‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you,’ While ‘he will rule over you’ makes clear the husband’s predominance over the wife, the impact is softened somewhat by the other half of the verse, ‘Your desire will be for your husband’, the Hebrew word for ‘desire’ here having sexual content. In Jerome’s version, however, that half of the verse is changed to ‘You will be under the power of your husband’ and ‘he will rule over you’ completes the verse. Complete subjection and subordination of the woman is now laid down.

This verse was much quoted, in its new form, by later writers in their exegesis of Genesis 3 and discussion of the situation of women after Eve’s sin in the garden.

Only fifty years after Jerome’s death we find St Eucherius of Lyons asking the question ‘If woman had not sinned, would she now be under the power of her husband [sub potestate viri]?’ Yes, she would, he answers his own question, but it would be a subjection that operated through love. After her sin it became a servitude of fear. Almost the same words are found in the writings of Bede and Alcuin in the eighth century.

In the course of time there is a sharpening of the message. A century later we find Remigius of Auxerre adding that even against her will a woman is now subordinate to her husband. When we come to Hugh of St Victor (Paris, early twelfth century) the situation has deteriorated still further. In commenting on this verse he says: ‘Not only under his rule, as before, but under his domination, so that he may afflict her with wounds.’ Now, if the original mention of the woman’s desire for her husband had remained in the passage, this would have changed the picture altogether.

The far-reaching effects of the change in this verse can be shown also in non-clerical literature. In the late fourteenth century a middle-aged Parisian gentleman wrote a book of instruction for his young wife. His name is unknown, and he is generally designated as ‘Le Menagier de Paris’, or ‘the Goodman of Paris’. He was a gentle, cultivated man and his book is full of kind and thoughtful guidance, mainly concerned with the care of house and lands. It seems to me likely that the Goodman had studied the Latin of the Vulgate carefully, from certain comments he makes on Genesis stories. (He showed particular interest in stories about women.) He states firmly: ‘Wives ought to be subject to their husbands as their master. So commands our God, as St Jerome says.’ Then he goes on to quote Genesis 3.16 to give full and final authority to his wife’s subjection.

Now let us turn to other writings of Jerome, and especially to the letters concerning women, and to the Tract Against Jovinian, to whose popularity I have already referred. There is so much relevant material here that it is necessary to be selective, and it will perhaps suit our purpose best if we study three particular aspects of Jerome’s attitudes and influence, illustrating each of the three with examples from Jerome’s writings.

Firstly let us consider Jerome’s hostility to marriage, and his detestation of second marriages.

He protests that he is not against marriage. ‘I praise marriage, I approve of wedlock, because they produce virgins for me.’ Commenting on St Paul’s statement ‘It is better to marry than to burn’, Jerome removes any grounds for supporting marriage from this verse by saying that this is not at all a commendation of marriage. If marriage were at all good would it be compared with burning? And to say something is better – why you could say it is better to hop about on one leg than have no legs at all!

He finds ammunition against marriage in unexpected places in the Bible.

There is something not good in the number two . . . This we must observe, at least if we would faithfully follow the Hebrew, that while Scripture on the first, third, fourth and sixth days relates that, having finished the works of each, ‘God saw that it was good’, on the second day he omitted this altogether, leaving us to understand that two is not a good number because it prefigures the marriage contract. Hence it was that all the animals which Noah took into the ark in pairs were unclean. Odd numbers denote cleanness.

Here Jerome brings the poet Virgil to his aid (though he had renounced the classical writers) quoting the eighth Eclogue, ‘God delights in uneven numbers.’ He goes on to note that only two animals of an unclean kind were taken into the Ark (as against seven pairs of clean ones) because a second marriage is so terrible that it was not allowed even to the unclean animals.

The New Testament, too, is seen by Jerome to provide many instances of guidance on the marriage question.

For example, Jesus went only once to a marriage, thus showing that men should marry only once. John was unmarried, says Jerome, and therefore his Gospel is the most profound.

Jerome gives as the interpretation of the seed (in the gospel parable) that brings forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold and some ninetyfold, the following. The hundredfold which comes first represents the crown of virginity, the sixtyfold refers to widows, while the thirtyfold indicates the marriage bond. This interpretation was not original to Jerome, but the prominence he gave it helped to make it a medieval commonplace.

Jerome turns to the pagan world also to support his viewpoint. The heathens, said Jerome, placed a Virgin among the twelve signs of the Zodiac by means of which they believe the world to revolve. It is a proof of the little esteem in which they hold marriage that they did not even among the scorpions, centaurs, crabs, fishes, etc., thrust in a married couple.

Jerome’s argumentation was often flawed. He was driven by the desire to convince his audience by any means he could, and he failed to see the weaknesses in his arguments. For example, when he raises a possible objection to his view on the necessity for virginity, namely that if everyone was a virgin the human race would die out, he produces sarcastic and foolish arguments. If all men were philosophers there would be no farmers, and not just farmers – there would be no lawyers or teachers. If all men were leaders, there would be no soldiers. What you are really afraid of, he says, is that if all women were virgins, there would be no prostitutes, no adulteresses. After venting all this spleen he says, quite without heat, that there is no need to worry about the future continuation of the species. Being a virgin is so hard that not many will achieve it.

Jerome more than once elaborates on the hard life of the married woman, her toils over household and children, her worries over her husband’s fidelity, but one does not feel that this sincerely engages his sympathies. He detested marriage and found second marriage especially abhorrent. Here is part of his letter to a woman who is contemplating a second marriage. ‘You’ve already learned the miseries of marriage. It’s like unwholesome food, and now that you have relieved your heaving stomach of its bile, why should you return to it again like a dog to its vomit?’ He enumerates various reasons why women justify second marriages. They need a father for their children. Or ‘perhaps you are afraid that your noble race will die out and your father will not have a brat to crawl about his shoulders and smear his neck with filth.’ Such reasons are eye-wash, says Jerome. No woman marries a man except to get him into her bed. It is the sexual activity involved in marriage that arouses his opposition.

His true feelings are also vividly expressed when he says, ‘Women with child present a revolting spectacle.’ ‘Women soon age, and particularly if they live with men.’

The second aspect I wish to discuss and illustrate is the erotic nature of some of Jerome’s writings. This is particularly obvious in what is probably the most famous letter of all, to the teenage girl Eustochium, daughter of Paula, who had already at the age of thirteen years determined on a life of chastity. He tells her he is not going to list the disadvantages of marriage, how the womb swells in pregnancy, babies wail, husbands are unfaithful and so on, thereby of course doing so. In the course of this very long letter he catalogues the sins of women, describing in detail their frivolous ways, how they dress in such a way as to hide the swelling bellies of their illicit pregnancies, and take pills to bring about abortions. How women claiming to be especially devout set up house along with priests so that they can share their devotions, but in fact share their bed. (This is a reference to the agapetae, a problem for the early Church.) He says that many women pretend to be pious, but think only of their bellies, and ‘those parts of the body closest to their bellies’.

This, while perhaps all rather strong meat for a young girl, is none the less typical Jerome, but what is rather surprising is the extremely erotic tone of his treatment of quotations from the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is an erotic document, but it was commonly interpreted at least in part in a metaphorical manner. Jerome however emphasises the erotic element. He calls Eustochium ‘my lady’ because she is married to our Lord, and says that her mother is the mother-in-law of God. The King, says Jerome to Eustochium, will greatly desire your beauty. He will conduct you into his bedchamber. Ever let your Bridegroom sport with you within. When sleep comes upon you he will come behind the partition and put his hand through the opening, and will touch your body, and you will arise trembling and say, ‘I languish with love.’ Jesus is a jealous lover.

I think we can see the effect of Jerome’s sponsoring of the erotic interpretation as encouraging the adoption of the monastic life by women, and also laying the groundwork for a mystical love-literature of Jesus. Certainly the concept of Bride of Christ is made to sound less asexual than we might have expected from Jerome. But students of Jerome are accustomed to surprises.

The third point, and perhaps the most important one, is this (and here I hold Jerome responsible for a very serious disservice to women). To make his anti-feminist points more strongly, Jerome introduced pagan material, and that in a methodical manner. Now there was present in classical literature a tradition of anti-feminism. In his descriptions of women’s foolish behaviour or their frivolous clothing Jerome is echoing writers like the Latin satirical poets Juvenal and Persius. But in classical writers anti-feminism was rarely formalised. Jerome’s Anti-Jovinian set a new pattern of carefully structured and elaborated anti-feminist polemical writing.

It is a strange irony that this great saint of the Church should have preserved for us a piece of scurrilous anti-feminist writing which would otherwise have been lost, and that he should have assembled anti-feminist quotations to provide a ready ammunition for later writers. In his tirade against Jovinian (a monk who did not share Jerome’s antipathy to marriage) Jerome quotes from a lost work of the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, full of vituperation against women, which would have disappeared into obscurity without Jerome’s citation, but, thanks to Jerome, reached a wide audience. As well as quoting from Theophrastus at length he selects choice sentences from classical authors, for example the remark quoted by Herodotus that when a woman takes off her clothes she sheds her modesty along with them. After telling how the Romans and Greeks admired chastity, naming famous virtuous ladies like Lucretia, he gives vent to furious attacks on all the wicked women of classical lore.

Jerome was also responsible for giving wide publicity to the saying of Sextus the Pythagorean, ‘He who loves his wife too ardently is an adulterer.’ This was much quoted later.

It is likely that much anti-feminist writing in the Middle Ages owes its origin to Jerome’s example, both in formalised attacks and also in the arbitrary dragging-in of a classical tag to add bite to an argument. If Jerome, in expounding Micah 7, verses 5-7, felt it appropriate to quote the famous saying of Virgil from Aeneid IV ‘varium et mutabile semper femina’ [woman is always a fickle and changeable creature], it is not surprising that Walter of Coincy, a monk who wrote a book of instruction for nuns, should have quoted from Ovid’s Amores ‘casta est quam nemo rogavit’ to show that women were chaste only if they had no opportunity to behave otherwise.

When one is tracing Jerome’s influence on medieval attitudes one is somewhat hampered by the fact that he is often quoted without attribution. Plagiarism was not the crime then that it is now. So we can find passages taken over verbatim from Jerome without a mention of his name anywhere.

But there are plenty of acknowledged quotations, and these are found both in clerical and secular literature. It is not possible in the scope of this chapter to make more than a brief mention of examples.

Abelard quotes Jerome to encourage his readers to a life of austerity. But it is interesting to notice that both Abelard and Heloise use Jerome’s arguments for their own purposes. (This is something they may have learned from Jerome.) Heloise, for example, uses Jerome’s arguments against marriage to justify her proposal to remain Abelard’s concubine and not destroy his career by marrying him. But surely if she was really following the spirit of Jerome’s teaching she would renounce totally her sexual involvement with Abelard and re-embrace chastity with fervour! Perhaps Jerome’s device of calling on support from pagan literature encouraged Heloise to point to some of Jerome’s sources as advisers of free love – a use of his material which would of course have horrified Jerome. Abelard uses Jerome’s imagery from the Song of Songs to encourage Heloise in the monastic fife, emphasising that she is now the Bride of Christ.

A more detailed study of the influence of Jerome’s attitudes to women on medieval literature would have to take account of such works as Holy Maidenhood, Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium, the Romance of the Rose, and Lamentations of Matheolus, among others. Most important however would be the works of Chaucer.

Chaucer quotes from Jerome in several of his works, most notably in the Prologue to The Wife of Bath’s Tale. It is in this Prologue, with its references to, and its quotations from, the Against Jovinian, that we see most clearly how wide Jerome’s influence was. I do not think that Chaucer would have used the Against Jovinian in just this way had it not been a well-known piece of writing in his day. He both refers to it by name as if it would be known to his readers, and then uses it subtly and artfully for an audience in the know to enjoy.

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is larded with quotations from the Against Jovinian. Chaucer, that master of irony, puts the words of one of the greatest anti-feminists of all time into the mouth of a woman who unashamedly advocates sexual enjoyment and licence. Jerome’s work is a carefully constructed piece of polemic. It is composed of quotations from Jovinian, and Jerome’s heated response to these, quotations from the Bible in general and the Apostle Paul in particular, anecdotes from classical literature, and the long anti-feminist tirade of Theophrastus.

When one looks at The Wife of Bath’s Prologue it shows some of these features of construction also, and just as Jerome uses the rhetorical device of question and answer, statement and refutation, so does the Wife. When she quotes or paraphrases Jerome she picks and chooses passages which suit her purpose, adroitly omitting whatever does not appeal to her, or wilfully misunderstanding so that she can appear to be claiming Jerome’s support for her own viewpoint.

One or two brief examples of the Wife’s reflections will have to suffice. That much-married lady mentions that she has heard that because Jesus went only once to a wedding she should marry only once. She objects that she has never heard on good authority just how many husbands one may have; is bigamy possible, or octogamy? This highly unusual word comes from Jerome who declares that once one has gone beyond a single marriage – his only approved number (and that of course with reservations) -it matters little whether you have two, three, four or even eight marriages.

The Wife says that since, as far as she can discover, God has forbidden neither marriage not subsequent marriages she shall continue happily in her present ways. After all, where would virginity spring from if not from marriage? This is exactly the purpose of marriage as stated by Jerome.

One can understand and appreciate the cleverness of Chaucer’s portrait of the wife of Bath only if one is familiar with Jerome’s Anti-Jovinian, but one must not attach too much blame to Jerome here. He could not have foreseen the use to which his writings would be put.

Finally, while we have to acknowledge sadly that Jerome’s strident criticisms of women damaged their position seriously for centuries to come, we must recognise that he was zealous for the truth as he saw it, and his view of the truth was that which was prevalent in his time.


See my articles on ‘The Vulgate Genesis and Jerome’s Attitudes to Women’ in Studia, Patristica Vol. XVIII (Pergamon Press, Oxford and New York, 1982), and in OTWSA No. 20/21 (Pretoria, 1982), pp. 1-20.

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