Hairs and graces: in pursuit of the hirsute

Paulinus Noster
December 6, 2002

When Paulinus, Aquitanian magnate, ex-consul and former governor of Campania, turned his back on the secular world and founded a monastery at Nola in Italy in AD395, his conversion to full commitment to monastic Christianity was greeted exultantly by Christian leaders such as Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine. Their delight was not merely at the conversion of a prominent aristocrat: Paulinus was also celebrated in Gaul as a litterateur.

Though his output does not rival theirs in range or importance, the 50 letters and 30 poems that have survived offer insights into this vital period of Christian humanism that was changing the cultural map of western Europe. Yet until a generation ago, these documents were little studied by patristic scholars writing in English. Since then, the balance has been redressed, notably in the work of Peter Brown and William Frend, and more particularly in J. T. Lienhard's Paulinus of Nola and Early Western Monasticism (1977) and D. E. Trout's impressive Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems (1999). The volume under review is a welcome addition, a careful analysis of the content and style of the prose letters.

After a brief survey of the range of Paulinus's correspondents, Catherine Conybeare offers a useful account of the practice of letter-writing in late antiquity with discussion of the regularity of letters, enclosure of gifts and the personalities of the carriers. Paulinus's letters were not intended for the eyes and ears of the recipient alone, but also for members of his community and friends further afield.

The meat of the book is concerned with three topics. The first is the concept of Christian friendship, recently set in the broader 4th-century context by Carolinne White's Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (1992). Here Conybeare is concerned to show that Paulinus is intent on depicting the caritas Christi as transcending the Graeco-Roman notion of amicitia . Peter Brown in his Augustine of Hippo depicted Paulinus as "a cold and lonely man", but the injustice of this assessment is evident in the warmth of his letters to friends in Gaul.

The letters regularly depict his activities in terms of scriptural imagery, and these stylistic techniques form the second main topic of the book. Conybeare claims that "Paulinus's use of images is not mere redundant embellishment, but is fundamental to the practice of his faith... an attempt to sketch the multifarious richness of the divine". She seeks to exemplify this with a section of letter 23 (to his friend Sulpicius Severus, famed author of the Vita S. Martini ), a long disquisition on hair and how our virtues become the hair of our head Christ. What she claims as a "profound rejection of linearity" seems to me a random assemblage of passages linked in a manner characteristic of his literary training. If she had played fair, she would have cited Paulinus's introductory sentence to this riot of hair images: "It is pleasant to give free rein to words... to weave an entire letter out of the subject of hair."

The final chapter, "Homo interior: the inner self", is Conybeare's third main concern. In an impressive discussion, she shows that Paulinus always visualised the essential self in terms of communion with other selves, and she rightly contrasts this vision of community-relation with God with the Neoplatonist notion of the ideal self communing in isolation with the One and the Good.

The book, originally a doctoral thesis, is aimed at specialists in patristics; the numerous Latin citations are carefully and accurately translated. But the date of Augustine's death on page 13 needs attention.

Peter G. Walsh is emeritus professor of humanity, University of Glasgow.

Paulinus Noster: Self and Symbols in the Letters of Paulinus of Nola

Author - Catherine Conybeare
ISBN - 0 19 924072 8
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 187

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