Friday at Kalamazoo Part I: Jerome and Virgil

30 May

NOTE: As I’m sitting at over 2000 words after reporting on the first session, I’m going to split my Friday Kalamazoo report in half. One day I really must learn discipline.

Friday dawned cool and sunny, continuing the excellent weather which largely lasted for the entire Congress. And I’d caught up on my sleep which was great. My room this year overlooked the interior Valley III courtyard so I occasionally was woken up by the sound of folks enjoying a wine social but I’ve also been next to the elevator before or had a room right over an entrance. I’ll take this, thank you very much.

After breakfast I made my way (surprise!) to the exhibit area and worked my way through the booths which I hadn’t yet visited. Generally by this time I would have pretty much completed my shopping but for some reason I was a bit slower this year. Part of it was I kept running into people to talk to which was cool. I was also a bit more selective than last year. Seems strange that it would take longer to buy fewer books but it did. Still, by the end of the morning I’d made it through all but the sellers on one side outside of the main exhibit area (for attendees, the section including Powell’s).

Then I rode the shuttle to Bernhard for Session 230, Late Antiquity I: Christianity and Culture in Western Late Antiquity. This session was one I was looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint though I ended up taking useful notes for only 3 of the 4 papers. In fact, in re-reading this, in some ways this is a lousy session report as I seem unable to keep from interjecting my own thoughts rather than just recounting the papers. I’m leaving it anyway; this is what happens when people give good papers about things I’m interested in.

This was the session which largely consisted of “topics I’m going to get to very soon.” The first paper was no exception as the Saturnalia sits on my bookshelf in the stack of things I’m going to read in the near future. For a brief summary for those less familiar with the period, the Saturnalia, authored by Macrobius around 430, is a fictional dialogue between prominent late Roman Pagans from the later 4th century on a variety of subjects. One of those subjects is Virgil and this was discussed by Eric Hutchinson of Hillsdale College in, “Literature and/as Religion: Christianity and the Reception of Virgil in Saturnalia I.”

The use of Virgil (and other classical authors) by Christians seems to have become a significant issue by the 5th century. The account by Jerome of his dream of being rejected from Heaven due to his love for Pagan Classics is probably the most famous example of Christian denunciation of ancient literature. 1 Despite this, numerous Late Antique Christians display substantial knowledge of pagan literature. Hutchinson explored an aspect of this in this paper. He opened with the basic premise I stated above; that there was an issue with how Virgil would be used by Christians. He states that Macrobius was likely a nominal Christian and that the audience for the Saturnalia would have been nominal Christians. The dialogues may have been important in helping to frame Virgil within the context of 5th century literary culture.

The principals in the dialogue over the use of Virgil are Evangelus and my old buddy Symmachus. Hutchinson provided a handout to help the audience track the discussion. Evangelus argues that Virgil is simply a poet, nothing more, and that to call him a philosopher is a gross exaggeration. Symmachus responds by calling the poem sacred and says that learned men should study it to discover its hidden truths. Hutchinson believes this fits nicely in the debate over the use of pagan literature in the fifth century. I’m looking forward to reading more on this in the future and this paper helped to define the discussion a bit. 2

Next up was Angela Kinney, currently working on the Vulgate Bible Project at Dumbarton Oaks. In fact, Volume IV of that series, for which Angela was the Editor, was released the day after K’zoo. Now if Dumbarton Oaks would just get a booth for the Exhibit Hall. Of course this would leave me poorer. Two years ago Angela gave a very good paper on hagiography I mention this merely to point out that at the time I was doing a lot of my own dead holy people reading and this year she moved into early Christianity which I happen to be reading quite a bit about at the moment. I found this to be very considerate. :)

More seriously, Angela’s paper was titled, “Virgilian Fama as Christian Courier in Jerome’s Epistles.” In this paper she explored Jerome’s portrayal of rumor in his letters and his Vulgate. She opened with a seriously cool image by J. Paul Weber, Das Gerücht, which shows rumor in the form of humanoid creatures coalescing as a mass into a serpent. Nice imagery for this paper as it’s tough to find positive portrayals of serpents in Christian literature.

Weber's Das Gerucht
Das Gerücht, Image from the J. Paul Weber Museum

Jerome uses two terms to describe unverified news; fama and rúmor. My Latin is too weak to discuss this with any real certainty however based on my reading of my dictionaries the two terms seem nearly interchangeable however Jerome uses them very differently. 3 Angela provided multiple examples showing that for Jerome, fama is used positively, rúmor negatively. Jerome’s Vulgate includes 12 instances of fama and it is always used positively while his uses of rúmor are always negative. Fama is used with Jesus’ coming or going and in Ruth 1:19 and is more along the lines of report or word, not an unsubstantiated rumor. Fama has legitimacy, rúmor does not.

Angela also provided examples from Jerome’s epistles. Unfortunately, I don’t have all of his letters in Latin however examples she gave were from CXXX.6 when news of Demetrius’ virginity spread through the world. I do have letter LXXVII in Latin and in LXXVII.11, word of Fabiola’s death is spread by, “Et iam fama volans, tanti praenuntia luctus” bringing crowds to her funeral to praise her. This is a quote from Virgil where fama is the Roman Goddess of Rumor. 4 Interestingly, in the same letter at LXXVII.8 Jerome uses rumor to describe the crowd’s belief that barbarians were about to attack Jerusalem.

This paper really interested me. Jerome is an interesting fellow all on his own and someone I’m not as familiar with as Augustine. Here he seems to be trying to use language to portray sanctified rumor in a different way from the reports which had no religious meaning. There are some implications here for Jerome’s use of language which I probably only halfway perceive. And despite his prior account in letter XXII of his dream, he was quite willing to use classical literature to make a point. This was a good, well presented paper with a clear focus. I enjoyed it.

More Jerome was in store in the form of a paper by Amy Oh of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, “Vigilantius, Jerome, and Biblical Exegesis.” The focus of this paper is over a piece of the conflict between Jerome and Vigilantius. Oh began by providing an overview of this, explaining how initially we find Jerome and Vigilantius friends, or at least friendly when the latter carries a letter of Jerome’s to Paulinus of Nola. This soon changed. Vigilantius apparently accused Jerome of Origenism and Jerome struck back, firmly at first and then really hard.

One particular aspect of this involved a story from the Book of Daniel where a stone is cut from a mountain without hands and strikes a statue, destroying it. This story had often been interpreted as a sign of Christ’s virgin birth where the stone is Christ, the mountain is God, the statue is the Devil (or the barrier to Heaven) and the stone being cut without hands signifies the virgin birth. However Vigilantius, according to Jerome, stated that the mountain was the Devil.

Vigilantius’ interpretation had some precedent. Oh provided a useful handout which showed that Ambrose called mountains the Devil’s kingdom and that Origen believes Zechariah describes the Devil as a mountain. However for Jerome, Vigilantius’ made a huge error as the mountain should be God the Father Almighty, not the Devil.

Oh discussed the possible reasons for this harsh response. She believes that as Jerome had only recently rejected Origen he may have been sensitive to this accusation. For myself, and I mentioned this to her after her paper, I wonder if Jerome may have sensed some dualism in Vigilantius’ interpretation. I’m not up enough on the evolution of Manichaeism and other dualist sects to be definitive about this however even then they believed in a good spiritual portion of the world and an evil matter portion of the world. Would Jerome have sensed this in Vigilantius’ story? Or maybe he was just mad, particularly as he had previously recommended him to Paulinus. Whatever the case, it helped give us one of Jerome’s more well-known (and abusive) pieces a few years later, the Contra Vigilantium. Another good paper and it pointed out some specifics of the Jerome-Vigilantius conflict I hadn’t thought about before.

I took very few notes for the final paper so I’ll leave it alone. In looking at my notes I have a feeling I was so psyched about the prior two papers that I was expanding on them rather than paying attention to what I should have. At least there are a bunch of boxes, circles and arrows in my notes, which I usually don’t do until when I review things later.

So even though I didn’t pay proper attention to one of the papers, I thought this was a very good session. I enjoyed it, learned quite a bit, and after returning home I started flipping through my Vulgate and reading quite a bit of Virgil and Jerome.

NOTE 2: I’m having a bit of trouble figuring out images in WordPress, mainly that when I post an image I’m getting the full image, not a thumbnail. I’ve looked through the settings and help topics and am coming up blank. Is this a theme thing or am I just missing something? Any help with this would be appreciated. If necessary I can write the img src thumbnail-link-to-large-image html code (which I used to know how to do and can probably figure out again) but that seems clunky.

1 See Jerome, Ep. XXII.30. One of the things I’m interested in finding out more about is how influential this dream account was. It gets repeated quite a bit, but the classics keep being used and IIRC, Jerome even quotes from them after he wrote this letter. (A re-reading of Jerome’s Letters is in my “to do in the near future” list.)

2 I think it’s important to note for those a bit newer to this topic that Macrobius was writing a half-century after the protagonists in his dialogue were active. The Saturnalia should not be considered to represent how these individuals actually behaved/spoke but how Macrobius believes it is reasonable for them to have spoken when faced with the issues he presents them. I expect at some point to post something on Late Antique Christian use of Latin Literature once I’ve read more on it. It’s a very interesting topic, not just that this literature was used but why, for example, Virgil largely replaced Homer in the “epic poem” category. This is part of the reason I’ve kept my comments brief for this paper.

3 I’m basing this statement on a perusal of dictionaries, not my, ahem, fluency in the language. I happen to have 16 books on Latin, including 7 dictionaries. Definitions for Fama and rúmor have in common hearsay, common talk, general opinion and rumor. My two Cassell’s (one published in 1959, the other in 1977) both include tradition and report while the older includes intelligence in the definition for Fama. My Smith’s Smaller Latin-English Dictionary (1968) also includes report and tradition. Rúmor is almost exclusively unverified opinion though Smith’s does include reputation. Interestingly, the definitions for rúmor and fama are nearly identical in my Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin by Stelten (1995) with both definitions including report, fame and rumor while fama includes reputation and rúmor includes hearsay and popular opinion. It appears that some uses may have used fama as Jerome does but more commonly it and rúmor are synonymous. They seem split on whether it should be spelled rūmor or rúmor. I’m going with the latter because the page I pulled it from said that rūmor may not be visible in some browsers.

4 I have the Loeb edition of Jerome’s letters which translates this to, “Flying Rumour heralding such woe.” The quote comes from Virgil’s Aeneid XI.139.


Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Conferences, Religion


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3 responses to “Friday at Kalamazoo Part I: Jerome and Virgil

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    June 1, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    The session content is well outside my expertise (though I find Jerome the most empathetic of those late Antique men of letters, myself), but I may be able to help with the WordPress question.

    I’m having a bit of trouble figuring out images in WordPress, mainly that when I post an image I’m getting the full image, not a thumbnail. I’ve looked through the settings and help topics and am coming up blank. Is this a theme thing or am I just missing something?

    The image uploader – I think in both versions though I use the browser one, not the Flash one – allows you to choose from a range of automatic sizes (presumably these are theme-determined to an extent, since themes vary in column width, but I would assume it’s set somewhere else, not least because my old Connections theme actually had a narrower main column than the ‘full’ size). If you’re not getting this, it may be because your settings aren’t configured to allow that; if the sizes aren’t specified, the options stay greyed out, I believe. the place to look from the Dashboard is Settings -> Media, where you can then set what the sizes you want to use should be. Or at least, I can! I never know how closely these things are shared, but that’s what I can tell you, anyway.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    June 2, 2012 at 8:49 am

    Thanks for the image tip. I’ll work on it. Jerome’s quite an interesting person, one of the reasons why I’ve decided to explore him after Ambrose and Augustine (not that I’ve read everything those two have written, particularly Augustine). His influence, after accounting for his Vulgate translation, seems harder to quantify but it’ll be fun trying to figure out (more correctly, figuring out if I agree with what others have said).


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