Jerome's Malchus: Scholarly Perspectives

Malchus the Imperfect Monk

Christa Gray, “‘Holy and Pleasing to God’: A Narratological Approach to Hagiography in Jerome’s Lives of Paul and Malchus.” Ancient Narrative 14 (2017): 104–128, at p. 124.

Jerome’s narrators are not one-dimensional and their voices may open up conflicting interpretations. A similar point applies to his characters: both Antony in the Life of Paul and Malchus in the Captive Monk are not designed as perfect paragons of sanctity but as doubting, struggling, and occasionally failing men. It is a part of the ‘message’ of these texts that their weaknesses do not prevent these characters from contributing to the achievement of a divine purpose.

Narrative Technique in the Vita Malchi

Jiří Šubrt, “Hagiographic Romance: Novelistic Narrative Strategy in Jerome’s Lives of Hermits.” In The Ancient Novel and the Frontiers of Genre, ed. Maríla P. Futre Pinheiro, Gareth L. Schmeling, and Edmund P. Cueva, 205–14. Ancient Narrative, vol. 18. Supplementum. Groningen: Barkhuis, 2014. Pp. 205, 212–213.

Despite its title vita (life) it is not strictly speaking a biography as the narrative only focuses on one adventurous episode from the life of an otherwise unknown monk called Malchus. The Life of Malchus lacks any miraculous and fantastic elements and the plot has a sober, almost “quasi-historical” atmosphere. We can also find there many of the basic ingredients of the ancient novel: the exotic setting of the Near East, the central “couple in love,” unexpected turns of fate, abduction by robbers, pathetic threatening with suicide, adventurous escape from captivity, being saved at the last moment, and the happy ending. The manner of narrative, quite unusual in the hagiographic genre, also betrays inspiration from novelistic literature.

The key to understanding Jerome’s motifs may be the final epilogue in which the authorial narrator sums up the lesson from the story. The elderly Malchus told me this when I was a young man. I have related it to you, now that I myself am an old man. To the chaste I have unfolded a story of chastity: I exhort those of you who are virgins to preserve your chastity. Tell this story to later generations so that they may know that amid swords, amid wild beasts and desert regions, chastity is never taken captive, and that a person who is dedicated to Christ can die but cannot be defeated.

In this passage, in addition to the indispensable exhoratio castitatis, Jerome also puts emphasis on the manner of narrative and the reduplication of the narrative act. The whole narrative was first told by the old man Malchus to Jerome (haec mihi senex Malchus narravit) and then reproduced by Jerome for his listeners (haec ego vobis narravi). The time interval between the two narrative acts is very important. Malchus was telling Jerome his story as an old man (senex) at the time when his listener was a “very young man” (adulescentulus). The same situation is repeated in the second narrative act when Jerome is telling Malchus’s story as an old man (senex) and his presupposed addressees are young people (adulescentuli). Here the narrator clearly defines the intended listeners of his narrative. Malchus’ story is then a specific story intended to be narrated by the old to the young to learn a lesson. It is an exemplary story of chastity (historia castitatis) that is supposed to be passed to those who have not yet lost their chastity (casti) and who may learn a lesson from it. However, the authorial narrator is not content with a repetition of the story in two narrative acts but appeals for another repetition, a kind of “perpetuation” of the narrative act. He encourages his intended listeners to become narrators of the story in the future (when becoming senes) and to pass it to the future generations (et vos narrate posteris). The story of a forced marriage of a captive monk is then presented as an edificatory story aimed at an endless narrative replication (ad narrandum).

Malchus’ wife and Dido

Susan Weingarten, The Saint’s Saints: Hagiography and Geography in Jerome. Leiden: Brill, 2005. At p. 172.

His companion, at first an infelix mulier, just as Dido is infelix Dido (Aen iv, 68), becomes the wife of his chastity coniugem pudicitiae, while the unchaste union of Dido and Aeneas is only called a marriage by Dido: coniugium vocat (ib. 172). Following their union in the cave, Aeneas prepares to leave Dido, and Virgil describes his men scurrying to depart as being like a colony of ants (ib. 402–407). The episode in the cave in the vita Malchi is also followed by a description of a colony of ants which Malchus observes, and from which he draws a Christian lesson (vMal 7). Hagendahl has pointed out the close verbal similarities between these two passages about ants. Thus Malchus is prepared to kill himself in order not to marry: instead he kills his desire for his companion’s body and takes control over his own, even in her presence. Sex is transferred to the mind: magis animae copulam amato quam corporis (6).

This is the central event in this vita written to display castitas. By denying himself sexual use of his own body, the Christian hero has taken over his own body for asceticism. It is no accident that his woman companion is unnamed: she is Christian womankind in general, who must submit to her fate of marriage if necessary. Having married she must then renounce all other sexual contact—but this is her duty, and therefore not so commendable as the unmarried male saint’s voluntary renunciation.

Jerome and the Heroic Personality

E. Coleiro, “St. Jerome's Lives of the Hermits.” Vigiliae Christianae 11 (1957): 161–178, at p. 169.

It is therefore the building of a heroic personality rather than its history that is sought by Jerome, and in Malchus just one particular view of that personality: love for virginity in Malchus. This was not new to Latin literature. Livy himself takes not very different view of history, and the events recorded in earlier books, conspicuously in the second, are continually culminating in such idealised figures as Mucius Scaevola, Cloelia, Coriolanus, Horatius, etc. Where Jerome stops far short of Livy is the lack of connection between such heroic figures and a broad view of current events, as has been noted earlier in this essay. In this sense Jerome is perhaps nearer to Cornelius Nepos than any other Roman writer. Like Nepos he gives us not history but detached historical pictures.

The Romans and the Saracens

Philip Mayerson“Saracens and Romans: Micro-Macro Relationships,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 274 (1989): 71–79, at pp. 72–73.

We should discard the conventional view that the eastern frontier where Romans and Saracens came into contact was a line or a border or a zone separating Romans and Saracens. The eastern frontier encompassed more than those regions east of the via nova Traiana and the military installations extending to the Euphrates; the frontier (limes) also included the regions—usually marginal or semimarginal in terms of habitable capability—that were thinly settled and had extended lines of communication between settled populations. … It was within the interstices of those settled areas that the Saracen was found. He lived and roamed both within and beyond whatever fortified zone the Romans had developed. …

Prior to the Muslim invasions of the seventh century, Arab tribes that were given to raiding did so in pursuit of plunder and prisoners; they  had no interest in taking possession of territory, cities, or provinces. Nor was there any need to, since they were reasonably free to pursue their traditional occupation of raiding communities deep within the imperial lands of the east. From the fourth to the seventh century there are reports, expressed in broad terms, of raids on the provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Phoenicia, and Syria. Rufinus, in his account of the  Saracen queen Mauia, tells of her “harassing the frontier (limes) cities of Palestine and Arabia and at the same time laying waste the neighboring provinces" (PL 21: col. 515). Jerome, in a letter dated ca. 411 (PL 22: col. 1086) reports that “a  sudden attack by barbarians ran through the frontiers (limites) of Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, and Syria like a torrent carrying everything before it.” And in his life of the monk Malchus, Jerome vividly describes (PL 23: cols. 55–56) the capture of Malchus, who was traveling in a convoy close by  a public road that led from Beroea (Aleppo) to Edessa. He was seized by marauding  Saracens and enslaved. Other raids that clearly originated within the Roman provinces of Palestine  and Egypt have been recorded by Cyril of Scythopolis, John Cassian, Evagrius, Choricius of Gaza, and Theophanes. In 619, following the Persian occupation of Palestine, Sophronius brought the body of John Moschus from Rome for burial at Mount Sinai; but when he reached Ascalon he found the road to the Holy Mountain blocked “because of the tyrannical incursions of those who are called Agareni” (PL 74: col. 121). One source even informs us that a region within Palaestina Tertia was off limits to travelers because it must have been, as Egeria put it, terrae Saracenorum.

Opposition to Celibacy and Asceticism

Elizabeth A. Clark, “Antifamilial Tendencies in Ancient Christianity,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1995): 356–380, at pp. 372–373.

Many Christian authors of this era who champion renunciation testify to the fierce opposition that the ascetic's resolve met from fellow Christians. Ambrose thus declares, rather rhetorically, that he would give his life to defend a girl’s choice of perpetual virginity against the violence of her relatives who would seek to tear her away from her "altar." Against the familial “attackers,” he argues that if virgins “have free choice of a life-partner, may they not choose God?”  Jerome insists to a young female correspondent, recently widowed and without children, that she does not owe her allegiance to her “natural” father, in this case a Roman aristocrat who was pressing his daughter to remarry. “You are not his to whom you have been born, but His to whom you have been born again,” Jerome informs her. He goes on to mock her presumed desire (and her father's wish) for children: does her father crave a small grandson to “crawl upon his chest and drool down his neck”? Jerome also reports that his friend and patroness Paula's relatives argued against her lavish—in their eyes, excessive—Christian charities; when she resolved to leave Rome and adopt the monastic life in earnest, her brother, children, and other relatives are all said to have tried to argue her out of her decision. From the Life of Malchus to the Life of Melania the Younger, from the Life of Theodore to the Life of Matrona, parents and relatives—Christian ones, at that—are consistently represented as attempting to thwart the young ascetic's resolution. In part, some of the opposition may have been motivated by the fact that the would-be ascetic was the only surviving offspring—or one of possibly two surviving children—of her family: thus the decision for asceticism might well signal the end of the family line.  But a second, and related, factor is perhaps even more important: the fate of the family's patrimony.

Familial opposition to the would-be ascetic's resolve becomes highly understandable when we consider the vast sums of money that stood to devolve upon ecclesiastical and charitable projects rather than entering the family's coffers.  Here was one arena—a woman's ability to will her property to whom she chose—in which the less restrictive norms of later Roman law manifestly benefited the church: in this case, not surprisingly, we find no nostalgic appeal by the fathers to the “good old days” in which women would have been less able to disperse their funds as they saw fit. The examples of Olympias, of Melania the Younger, and of Demetrias suggest that once the female ascetic could counter the laws forbidding the "under-aged" (i.e., those under twenty-five) to disperse family property without a special exemption, or laws allowing relatives to declare them prodigal or demented, they were free to dispense vast amounts of money and property as they chose-in these cases, to the church, to Christian charities, and to ascetic programs.