The Strongest Seed: Jerome's Fashioning of an Ascetic Masculinity in Late Antiquity

Sellick, Jeannie, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Shuve, Karl, Religious Studies, University of Virginia

My dissertation, The Strongest Seed: Jerome’s Fashioning of an Ascetic Masculinity, flips the script on typical discussions about asceticism and sexuality in early Christianity by putting male virginity under the microscope. My lens for this project is the corpus of one particularly prolific, yet infamous, fourth century “Father of the Church,” Jerome of Stridon. Jerome was a Latin theologian, writer, and monastic leader. In both monastic and public life, he championed Christian asceticism, a way of life intended to bring adherents closer to God by limiting their interaction with “material life.” While asceticism included a simple diet, avoidance of decadence, and charity, the aspect Jerome most advocated was sexual abstinence.

While Jerome is (in)famous for his policing of femininity, relatively little work has been done on his view of masculinity. In this dissertation, I argue that Jerome carefully cultivates an image of male sexual chastity and virginity that fits nicely within the existing framework of classical “manliness.” In his vision for monks, the priesthood, and lay masculinity sexual restraint (at the very least) is at the core of what it means to be a Christian man. This idea both subverts and borrows from Greco-Roman masculine ideals. On the one hand, men were expected to be potent and exhibit a great deal of sexual control over their wives and slaves. At the same time, along with this expectation was the idea that men who were too sexual were effeminate due to their lack of restraint and self-control. Yet nowhere in a pre-Christian framework masculinity is there an expectation for a man to be a lifelong virgin. In fact, that expectation was exceedingly rare even for women in the Greco-Roman world. Jerome understands this complicated cultural stew and uses it to his benefit. He artfully appropriates the existing cultural cache of masculine self-restraint and takes it to its (il)logical conclusion that the manliest men are those who do not have sex at all. In lifelong virginity, Jerome argues that men can be like him and even have seed that “produces 100-fold fruit.”

The chapters of this project are grouped largely along generic lines looking at letters, narrative work, and finally polemical treatises. Chapter one, “Cato in the Streets, Nero in the Sheets,” explores the boundary marking and policing of “manly” behavior in Jerome’s epistolary record. Chapter two, “Chastity’s Martyrdom,” focuses on two of Jerome’s hagiographies, the Life of Paul the First Hermit and the Life of Malchus, the Captive Monk. These lives each contain potent depictions of male sexual agency as under threat – there is attempted rape, murder, and forced marriage. Yet Jerome uses his holy heroes to show the sheer power available to me who commit themselves to Christian chastity. The final chapter, “Bitten by a Mad Dog,” revolves around the late fourth century Jovinian controversy and Jerome’s treatise, Against Jovinian. Jerome uses this controversy which, on the surface, is about female virginity and uses it as an opportunity to articulate the superiority of male continence. In doing so, Jerome unwittingly crafts the model of the “virile virgin,” a man whose ultimate claim to masculinity rests on his lifelong chastity.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Late Antiquity, Gender & Sexuality, Virginity, Christianity, Jerome, Masculinity Studies
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