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A Most Controversial Scholar - an Editorial Review of "Jerome and His Women"

Book Blurb:

The events in this book take place in Ancient Rome at the end of the fourth century, between the years 382 and 385 AD – a short, but critical, timespan in the history of Western civilisation. It was crunch time for the Roman Empire, long racked by internal riots and external threats, particularly from the Germanic tribes to the north. Christianity had developed from a splinter group of Judaism in Roman-occupied Jerusalem into a widespread movement with its own beliefs and rituals which brought it into direct confrontation with the existing social order. The old gods, with their power to unify their subjects, were being replaced by a new and very different God – one available to all, independent of status. While many of the older generation remained faithful to the pagan gods, others were drawn to Christianity and, in worhipping a new God, weakened their allegiance to the Empire. In short, if you worshipped Christ, you could not also worship the Emperor. For the Roman Empire, therefore, the political ramifications of the spread of Christianity were dire. Persecution – that time-honoured recipe of governments the world over to opposition – hadn’t worked either, as the conversion of the Emperor Constantine himself to Christianity in 312 AD had demonstrated.

Was the spread of Christianity the straw that broke the back of the Roman Empire? Many – most famously, the historian Edward Gibbon – argue that it was; at the very least, most agree that it played a critical role in its eventual collapse. But without recourse to a single authoritative text, would Christian leaders have secured their religion’s supremacy in the West? Probably not. It was Damasus I who, in commissioning Jerome to translate the Bible into a single definitive Latin version, accessible to all bequeathed to Christianity the perfect means by which to spread its influence and consolidate its authority. In so doing, he firmly established Rome as the centre of Christianity. It was a political masterstroke, the inspiration of which might elude us in our modern era of digital communication.

This book is, therefore, amongst other things, a tribute to that master statesman Damasus I, as well as one of history’s greatest, albeit most controversial, scholars, Saint Jerome. It is also a tribute to certain women of Late Antiquity who were often scholars in their own right and risked everything they had to adopt the ascetic life – an ideal almost unimaginable in today’s age of celebrated secularity, individuality and hedonism. First and foremost among these women is, of course, Paula.

The main characters are all historical figures – from Damasus, Jerome and Paula down to Toxotius, Hymetius and Praetextata. Those people who figure significantly are expanded upon in the glossary of names at the end of the book. Some lesser characters are my creations, primarily Aetius and Bassus, who I felt could well have existed. In an effort to recreate the spirit of this distant age, I have tried to bring them all to life imaginatively, drawing on knowledge of the times where possible, and reasonable inference where it was not.

I have tried to convey a sense of the heady excitement attached to the theological debates of the day, and the rigorous scholarship underpinning them. As in Ancient Greece, the skills of rhetoric and argument were highly regarded, and matters such as the freedom of the soul and the nature of free will were debated and length and could divide men as easily as bringing them together.

Central to the whole story is the relationship between Jerome and Paula, a much-speculated subject even in their day. Intimacy there undoubtedly was, but whether it was intellectual and spiritual, or something more, I leave it to the reader to make up his or her own mind.

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Editorial Review:

His eyes took in the expectancy of the other man. ‘The Bible,’ Damasus stated slowly and impressively. ‘I need a man who knows not only Greek but Hebrew. I want a revision of the existing Latin translations to produce a single authentic version. Our Church must have one, universally accepted, Bible. We both know the bewildering variety of Latin translations of the Greek version of the Old Testament. It’s essential for my man to go back to the original Hebrew. Not something anyone here can do.’

Jerome has been commissioned to translate the Bible from its source and he is proud to be doing so. But unlike his peers, Jerome does not toe the clerical line. He sees the corruption of the Church, and the behaviour of some of its clergy and he finds it increasingly difficult to keep his sarcastic wit under control.

Now that her husband has died, Paula turns more inward towards her Christian faith. Already a very charitable woman, Paula finds her head turned by Jerome’s preaching. Jerome is everything that Paula would like to be. She wants to visit the places he has

seen and do the things he has done. It does not take long for Paula to become a dedicated follower of Jerome and like Ruth in the Bible, wherever Jerome goes, she will as well.

Jerome and His Women by Joan B O’Hagan is the unforgettable story of St Paula of Rome (the patron saint of widows), and how she first met St Jerome.

Jerome’s God reacts to human behaviour with retributive justice, ensuring that people receive their deserved consequences. The wicked face God’s punishment, while the righteous receive everlasting glory. He is a man of tremendous charisma and a renowned scholar. Despite having all the opportunities to utilise his skills for the greater good, his excessive self-importance drives him to use highly offensive and abusive language towards his fellow clergymen. In the initial pages of this novel, he sees himself as almost superior to the law. He speaks his mind without apology. Witnessing his constant belittlement and ridicule of others is painful, and it diminishes his likability. He is also a man with predatory tendencies. Encouraged by the Bishop of Rome, he targets women of financial standing, particularly widows, and then preaches to them so passionately that they feel the guilt and weight of their “sin”. Jerome holds firm beliefs about marriage and idolises the concept of virginity to a disturbing extent. His words, beliefs, and ability to manipulate his followers with threats of divine punishment make him a powerful and somewhat frightful figure. He possesses a calculated nature, yet his “innocence” touches the hearts of the women he influences. This is especially true of Paula.

Paula, a devoutly religious woman, is heavily influenced by Jerome and embraces his doctrine after her husband passes away. This has devastating effects, not on her, but on her children. Jerome is a character that is very difficult to like. He is responsible for so much suffering in this novel. He looks for a speck of sawdust in the eyes of the women and men he meets, but he pays no attention to the plank in his own. His self-centredness and arrogance are evident in his lack of empathy and consideration for others, yet he desires admiration. He is a religious contradiction and his views and actions do have consequences. It is difficult to feel empathy for such a character and although his skills as a translator are admirable, he has no admirable qualities. Paula, despite her religious indoctrination, is a very likeable character and one that moves the readers sympathy.

And had you been doing your work of translation and research rather than persuading young girls to adopt a life of extreme asceticism, the Lady Blesilla might also be alive today!’ the priest shot back.

The author follows several characters in the course of this novel but the most heartrending story of all is that of Blesilla, Paula’s daughter. Blesilla is a young, beautiful and compassionate woman whose life is destroyed because of Jerome and his teachings. Guilt plagues her for engaging in a secret love affair and for being intimate with her spouse. When her husband dies, Blesilla falls under the influence of her mother and Jerome. She is a passionate woman and enjoys the luxuries her position allows, but through the constant harassment of men like Jerome and Aetius, Blesilla is convinced that what she has done, or is doing, is unforgivable and that she will never find peace after death. She becomes obsessed with cleansing herself of sin to the extent that she not only suffers severe mental distress but also malnutrition. To witness this beautiful and loving character be so publicly shamed and mentally abused by these so-called men of god was utterly heartbreaking. Blesilla’s story haunts the reader long after the last page has been turned.

There are several antagonists in the novel. Jerome is the obvious antagonist, he has perfected narcissism and yet his supporters, especially Paula can see only goodness in him and indeed, Paula goes on to spend the rest of her life with him. Aetius, on the other hand, is an incredibly unsettling character. Initially, he seems rather likeable but as the story progresses his ambition and cruelty become more obvious. His treatment of Juliana is utterly deplorable, as is his treatment of Blesilla.

‘‘With his propensity to stir people up the wrong way, I very much doubt it! I hear things, you know. Both his tongue and his pen have run Jerome into serious trouble at the Lateran. He’s a lonely man ...’

To some, he was a Saint, a scholar who had left his mark on history. To others, he was a friend and wise council. But for those who knew him, Jerome could also be cruel and judgemental. History is, of course, its own judge. It is very obvious that the author has spent many long hours researching this era and is especially well-versed in the life of Jerome. O’Hagan has also brought Ancient Rome gloriously back to life and her historical knowledge shines through in this enthralling work of historical fiction. It is very clear to see the amount of care and consideration O’Hagan has taken to portray a realistic Rome. Reading this book was like taking a step back in time.

Jerome and His Women by Joan B O’Hagan is a monumental work of scholarship. O’Hagan writes with tremendous grace and authority, but above all else, she has an intuitive understanding of what makes history worth reading.


“Jerome and His Women” by Joan B O'Hagan receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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