On Bones and Libraries: St. Jerome

April 6th, 2010 · 5:48 pm  →  the blog

Jerome became the patron saint of libraries and librarians because of the one task he is most known for: the translation, editing, and assemblage of what became the standard edition of the Bible for over the Millennium: the Vulgate. Various canonical lists of the Bible had been circulating as early as the mid-third century, but only with the Council of Rome in 382 did an official council of bishops agree on the list of books to be included. Known as the Damasine List, it was so named for Pope Damasus I, who headed the council, and who had hired Jerome as his personal secretary. And so it fell to Jerome, also present at the Council, to assemble a fresh translation of this newly ratified library—known first as the “versio vulgata,” or “commonly used translation,” and later simply as the Vulgate.

For all the controversy surrounding the Bible, its apocrypha and conflicting versions, Jerome’s accomplishment had long been seen in terms of divine intervention—as with the Council of Rome, he is guided by the hand of God. Seen in this light, the Bible is perfect: there are no books missing, no books extraneous. It is a perfect library, a collection of exactly the books that God intended for humankind.

Without the certainty of Jerome, every other librarian has only one option: include it all, leave nothing out. It was this caution that had motivated Ptolemy I to build the Library of Alexandria at the end of the third century BCE, in which he hoped to assemble “all the books of all the people of the world.” Ptolemy calculated all the books in the world to be roughly five hundred thousand volumes, but long ago our capacity for books over took any sane number: the complete library is now, quite simply, infinite. If you do not have the divine grace of Jerome, to tell you which books to keep and which to exclude, you are obligated to take in everything, and you are condemned to a library without end.

The Library of Babel

The Library of Babel

This is the library imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story “The Library of Babel.” He describes the library as an “indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical, in fact, to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance.”

Every librarian, every book collector, finds him or herself between these two mythical places—the Perfect Library of God and the Infinite Library of Babel, the one transcribed by Jerome, the other by Borges.

But in some ways, they are closer to one another than they first appear. Borges’ description of the infinite library as a series of hexagonal cells that disappear into the distance, echoes (perhaps coincidently) the Roman catacombs that Jerome would visit while he was a young scholar, with bodies instead of books. “Often,” he later wrote, “I would find myself entering those crypts, deep dug in the earth, with their walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead….Here and there,” he continues, “the light, not entering in through windows, but filtering down from above through shafts, relieved the horror of the darkness. But again, as soon as you found yourself cautiously moving forward, the black night closed around and there came to my mind the line of Virgil, ‘the horror and the silences terrified their souls.’”

It was to terrify his own soul that Jerome came down to those catacombs, so that he could remind himself of his own mortality. This reminder of death—in Latin memento mori, “remember that you will die”—is represented in art by a human skull, the grinning death’s head that awaits, that is all that is left after our own decay. And this skull is a common image in representations of Jerome, the saint who transcribes the immortal Word even as his own mortal body fails him.



For me, the most compelling of these images of Jerome are those by Caravaggio. In one painting he depicts the librarian’s long thin arm stretched out over a great folio, and on that folio—as a compositional counterpoint to Jerome’s haloed head—rests a human skull, reminding him of what awaits, exhorting him to prepare for the next life.

In Jerome’s time, this preparation took the form of asceticism, a word deriving from the Greek askesis, which means “exercise” or “athletic training.” In practice, asceticism was the abstinence of worldly pleasures and all but the most basic needs—the deprivation of one’s physical needs seen as crucial preparation for the time when one was without body, when one was pure spirit.

Jerome begun devoting himself to asceticism when he was about thirty years old, having left Rome for Antioch, after a serious illness led him to abandon his remaining secular studies. He ventured into the deserts of Syria, where a converted Jew taught him Hebrew and he began translations of the Hebrew Scriptures. Eventually, he returned to civilization and allowed himself to be ordained as a bishop, but only under the condition that he be allowed to maintain his ascetic life. Immersed in his books and his translations, Jerome prepared his body for death, and prepared his mind for a life without his hated, corruptible body.

Returning to Rome in 382, Jerome was distinctly out of place—a desert hermit amidst a bustling metropolis. He harangued the city’s clergy for their posh lifestyle, making him more than a few enemies. But eventually a circle of wealthy women, including the widow Paula and her daughter Blaesilla, gravitated to him, following his example and adopting an ascetic lifestyle.

Here in Rome, under the direction of Damasus, the Master Librarian continued work on his perfect library, where his reading itself was a sort of asceticism. As Michel de Montaigne noted 1400 years later, reading “is not a plain and pure pleasure…it has its disagreements, and they are onerous; the soul disports itself, but the body, whose care I have not forgotten, remains inactive, it grows weary and sad.” In the very act of reading and study, Jerome could be said to be forever mortifying his body.

As I read my way through these accounts of his life, I found myself wondering if the very act of reading, or at least book collecting, was itself a kind of memento mori, and whether this was connected to the habit of so many scholars over the centuries who have included human skulls in their libraries, perched amidst their books on endless shelves.

Like Jerome, Borges’ unnamed librarian remains fixated on his own death. “I am preparing to die, a few leagues from the hexagon where I was born,” he tells us early on. “When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.”
The image has always haunted me as quite beautiful, but the passage begs the question: in the Library of Babel, do bones, too, decay? Borges’ description suggests that yes, they do, that at some point during the infinite fall even the librarian’s bones disintegrate. But for a fall to be infinite, there must be something that is always falling, and I prefer to think that the bones remain, and that they fall infinitely, endlessly through the hexagonal galleries, so that as the librarians go about their business in the Library of Babel, every so often comes the sound of bones from some librarian who died so many, many floors up. The shafts of this great library filled with the sporadic clattering of bones, a memento mori falling at terminal velocity.

That Borges neglects the messy detail of bones reminds one that we too often neglect the body of the librarian, and partly for this reason, Caravaggio’s painting of Jerome is striking in that he so forcefully emphasizes the decrepit, ailing body of the great librarian. Jerome is barely alive, more skeletal than flesh, his arm stretched across the folio like a body pulled across the rack, as though the immortal Word were itself some kind of torture device.

Caravaggio reminds us that not only was Jerome a librarian, he was also flesh, mortal. There’s a subversive element to Caravaggio’s painting, precisely because what’s most engaging about the work is Jerome’s hated mortal coil, that which he cannot escape.

The stubborn reality of the body over the immortal Word was a truth that two of Jerome’s followers—the widow Paula and her daughter Blaesilla—were to learn all too well. Both adopted Jerome’s ascetic lifestyle, but after only a few months, Blaesilla, who had recently recovered from a serious illness, collapsed from exhaustion and malnutrition, and shortly died. Paula was grief-stricken at the death of her daughter, but Jerome found her display of earthly emotion both unbecoming and unchristian, and the Master Librarian harshly chastised the mother for her grief at the loss of Blaesilla’s earthly body. Ultimately, Jerome was forced out of Rome, in part because his protector Damasus died, but also because of his indirect role in the death of Blaesilla and his cold indifference to her fate.

Before I read this story, I had always assumed, or wanted to believe, that the narrator in Borges’ fable was a version of Jerome, and that we were listening to the voice of the great librarian himself. But I’m less sure now. Late in the story the narrator describes a librarian greater than himself, whom he calls the Book-Man, the sole librarian who understands the entirety of the Library of Babel, the sole librarian who has read the ultimate book. “On some shelf in some hexagon,” he says, “there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books, and some librarian must have examined that book….” Borges’ narrator opines that the Book-Man is thus analogous to a god, but I would argue that Jerome is a better fit—after all, it is not God that librarians dream of, but Jerome, and if this longing for the Perfect Library sometimes takes the form of idolatry, so be it. We’re told that “there are still vestiges of the sect that worshipped that distant librarian. Many have gone in search of Him. For a hundred years, men beat every possible path—and every path in vain.” And finally, the narrator confesses that he, too, has long searched for the Book-Man: “It is in ventures such as these that I have squandered and spent my years. I cannot think it unlikely that there is such a total book on some shelf in the universe. I pray to the unknown gods that some man—even a single man, tens of centuries ago—has perused and read that book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification.”

Searching himself for the Book-Man, he is not Jerome, sure in the perfection of his work and in the smug knowledge of a library that is so perfect it needs not our bodies nor our bones. He is instead Blaesilla, willing to pledge himself on faith, and willing to annihilate himself in subservience to the dream of a perfect librarian, and the secrets he may hold.