The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship (review)
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Reviewed by
Megan Hale Williams The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006 Pp. xi + 315. $45.

How much did it cost to become Jerome? In the growing body of scholarship on late antique self-fashioning, much has been said about the use of literary and rhetorical techniques to construct identities of many kinds. Little, however, has been said about the economic, social, and technical resources that such self-fashioning might require. Megan Hale Williams's study is therefore a very welcome addition to the conversation. The book addresses with rigor and intelligence the question of costs and resources in the creation of Jerome's ascetic and literary persona and thus raises a number of theoretical questions that future scholarship on Jerome, and on ancient Christian literature more generally, will have to take seriously.

The "fundamental problem" (4) that frames Williams's work is relatively straightforward: Jerome's invention of Latin Christian scholarship was dependent [End Page 113] on a technology of book production and circulation that could be extremely costly and that required extensive networks of patronage and service; it was also overtly located within the ideological confines of ascetic and monastic labor. The tension between asceticism and the economics of intellectual display provides the major thesis of the study, i.e., that Jerome transformed biblical reading into humble labor, particularly by construing the interpretation of Hebrew texts as an ascetic task and by construing his knowledge of previous biblical interpreters' work as submission to their authority. The transformation of reading justified expenditure on scholarship by turning it into pious almsgiving.

These tensions and transformations provide a solid framework for a number of secondary paths of inquiry, which Williams wisely pursues and which provide some of the most stimulating reading in the book. Chapter 4, for example, both attempts to reconstruct the contents of Jerome's library at Bethlehem and places that library in the tradition of public and private libraries in the ancient Mediterranean world. Chapters 5 and 6, perhaps the best chapters, outline Jerome's method of commentary both in terms of his use of prior commentarial sources, understood as real physical objects, and in terms of the practice of dictation to a notarius, thus bridging the gap between the ascetic body as producer of labor and the ascetic text as physically produced.

Williams's attention to the materiality of ascetic books could easily be read within the bounds of the history of the book as a field of study, and her tribute to Roger Chartier's The Order of Books in the title of chapter five, "Towards a Monastic Order of Books," might encourage this reading. It may be equally useful for historians of ancient Christianity, however, to turn Williams's attention to materiality to broader religious questions. Williams does not directly address the liturgical or administrative uses of books in late antique churches, but her work may provide the basis for further research in these areas. For example, given what we may now confidently say we know about Jerome's use of his books, can we extrapolate a late ancient notion or a late ancient economics of material citationality from this highly literary book culture and apply it to the use of prior literary sources in homiletic or other liturgical material? Jerome's own homilies provide a small set of works that might be fundamental to understanding how texts functioned physically inside the ritual sphere. In the same vein, Williams's consideration of Jerome's role as assistant to Damasus in the early 380s opens lines of inquiry as to the physical deployment of texts and writers in the creation and subsidy of church offices and hence in the larger notion of an organized Christian community. Perhaps most fruitful for historians of asceticism would be a closer engagement between the materiality of the book, as Williams outlines it, and the notions of incarnation that ascetic endeavor postulates. If ascetic theory is more nuanced than the idea of "monastic self-mortification" (231) implies, how can an ascetic theory—or economy—of incarnation make sense of the incarnation that occurs in biblical or other...