Jerome (Eusbius Hieronymus) was born in the Roman province of Dalmatia, in the town of Stridon, the precise location of which is unknown. His date of birth is disputed: some scholars accept a date of 331 CE, while others believe he was much later, ca. 347. Jerome studied in Rome under Donatus, the famous Latin grammarian and commentator on Vergil and Terence. Jerome’s writings were devoted to the exposition of Christian history and doctrine, but he continued to find pagan Latin literature attractive, and his writing often contains tropes from traditional Latin literature and rhetoric. Famously, he felt guilty about this: he wrote of a dream in which, after claiming to be a Christian, he was told Ciceronianus es, non Christianus (Letter 22 to Eustochium, section 30).

Jerome is most famous today for his translations of books of the Bible, which became the standard Biblical texts of the Latin Middle Ages, the so-called “Vulgate.” He was convinced that translation of Biblical texts required knowledge of the original Greek and Hebrew, and it was partly for that reason that he spent most of his mature life in the eastern empire, especially Bethlehem.

Throughout his adult life Jerome advocated the importance of asceticism as a central part of the Christian life, with a particular focus on virginity and chastity. As a young man (ca. 375–377 CE) he lived as a hermit, in the Chalcis region of Syria (map); it was then that he wrote his Vita Pauli, a life of Paul of Thebes in Egypt (died ca. 340), traditionally held to have been the first Christian hermit. Shortly before that, in 374, Jerome had met Malchus and his female companion, as he tells us in chapter 2 of this work. Years later, probably between 391–3, he wrote the story he heard at that time.

Along with Athanasius’ Life of Antony (in Greek and in two Latin translations), Jerome’s three monastic lives (Paul of Thebes, Malchus, and Hilarion, another early ascetic) are early examples of Christian hagiography, a genre that was to prove enormously important in the Middle Ages.

In the notes I have drawn freely from Gray’s excellent translation and commentary (2015), to which the reader is referred for more details, especially about language, literary precedents, and historical context.