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The Encomiastic “Other” in Jerome’s Epistles

Angela Zielinski Kinney

University of Wales / University of Vienna

A hazy image of the life of Jerome of Stridon can be glimpsed through his letters. These letters paint a portrait of the man as he wished to be seen and remembered for posterity, but they also expose paradoxical interplay between the author’s intellect and his emotions, between his rhetoric and his reality. This paper examines a specific rhetorical strategy used by Jerome to praise his elite friends at the expense of the indigent poor.

The study consists of two parts. It begins by exploring Jerome’s self-representation in his Epistulae. How did a man from a well-off family come to depict himself as living in abject poverty, a romanticized “Other”? How did he describe the people he encouraged in their asceticism? How poor was this elite, educated community of ascetics? This “performance of poverty” is contrasted with his theological and personal opinion of actual socio-economic “Others” – that is, poor people. One of the primary sources for Jerome’s distinction between the “holy poor” and the “vulgar poor” is Contra Vigilantium 13–15, where he argues against sending alms to local churches. Instead, he states, one should donate to the sancti pauperes, those who deliberately renounce the world and set their minds on spiritual things. His argument is remarkably commercial: it is good to give alms to those who can give something back. This sanitized and socially acceptable version of poverty rests upon an insidious interpretation of Mt 5.3.  

With this framework in place, the second half of the study will examine the four quotations of Aeneid 6.625–27 in his corpus (Epp. 60.16, 66.5, 77.6, and 123.16). This Virgilian passage – commonly known as the “many mouths” motif – ultimately has its roots in Iliad 2.488–93, the beginning of the catalogue of ships. The motif has a long literary history, especially in Latin literature (Courcelle 1955), and has been used as an exemplum in the literary-critical treatment of allusion (Farrell 1991, Hinds 1998, Gowers 2005). Although a discussion of the literary history of the motif appears in a commentary on Jerome, Ep. 108 (Cain 2013), its consistent use as an overt “othering” marker by Jerome has not previously been discussed.

Jerome’s four uses of the “many mouths” motif fall into two groups: two examples occur in the context of the barbarian invasions (Epp. 60.16 and 123.16), and two in the context of the suffering poor (Epp. 66.5 and 77.6). Close readings of these four passages show that the motif is consistently used as a literary device meant to distance the author from distasteful subject matter. The two examples pertaining to the barbarians are briefly discussed as “othering” strategies; as the earliest example of the motif in Jerome’s corpus pertains to these incursions (Ep. 60.16), analysis of the “barbarian examples” provides an important background for the use of the motif in the context of the indigent poor in Epp. 66 and 77. The second pair of examples occur in encomiastic epistles for Jerome’s friends, who established a hospice at Porto. In these epistles, the Virgilian “many mouths” motif is used to punctuate grisly descriptions of illnesses and injuries, and in turn to emphasize the holiness of the elite ascetics who deigned to care for them. These passages will be discussed in terms of their dramatic and exploitative function, as well as in the context of the stigmatized (i.e., potentially punitive) injuries that appear in Ep. 77.6: Describam ego nunc diversas hominum calamitates: truncas nares, effossos oculos, semiustos pedes…?

This study of the “many mouths” motif as an “othering” device in Jerome has some bearing on whether Ep. 108.1 is, in fact, an instance of the motif at all (as claimed by Courcelle 1955 and Cain 2013). The paper will conclude with some broader questions about the perception of poverty and illness in late antique Christianity, and a discussion of the role literary allusion can play in exploitation.

Session/Panel Title

Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number

65.4

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