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“The Gardens of Hermits" - public lecture by Virginia Burrus - Thursday, 9/28 @ 7pm, Schapiro 129

Thu, September 28th, 2023
7:00 pm
- 9:00 pm

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Please join Professor Virginia Burrus, Croghan Visiting Professor in Biblical and Early Christian Studies, for her public lecture, “The Gardens of Hermits,” on Thursday, September 28 at 7 p.m. in Schapiro 129. A reception with light refreshments will follow in the atrium. RSVPs to kf8@williams.edu are helpful, but not required.


The Gardens of Hermits

Jerome’s Life of Hilarion (c. 390) offers contrasting portraits of the gardens of two hermits, Antony and Hilarion. When Hilarion visited Antony’s dwelling place in Egypt following the latter’s death, the Egyptian hermit’s disciples were eager to display the evidence of their master’s horticultural labors. “These grape vines, these little trees he planted himself. This little plot he cultivated with his own hands. This pond for irrigating his little garden was constructed with much sweat. This hoe for digging the ground he had for many years.” Antony’s hortulus, also described as a pomarium or orchard, is said to have been “planted with little trees and green with vegetables” (Hil. 31). Antony was the gardener in this jewel-like desert garden, small and tidy, meticulously cultivated to sustain the little community of disciples. But Hilarion does not conform to this model. His garden, which includes fruit trees, like Antony’s, and no doubt vegetables as well, was created and cared for by someone else. He comes to it belatedly, when its growth is already well under way, and his intentions do not seem to be the same as Antony’s, or indeed those of most gardeners. He is pleased to dwell in the garden but is not described as tending it, and he is explicitly said not to eat its fruit (43). This lecture explores how gardening might be considered a religious practice for a late ancient holy man, and what the divergence between the two hermits’ gardens might suggest. Given the fragmentary nature of our historical evidence, I shall take a deliberately anachronistic and speculative approach in engaging these questions. Reading the two brief passages from Jerome’s text against recent theories and techniques of gardening, as well as ancient ones, I open them to possible interpretation as relics of ethical and cosmological praxes that may have been part of the “lived religion” of late ancient hermits.

Virginia Burrus–Bio

Virginia Burrus is the Croghan Visiting Professor of Early Christianity at Williams College (Fall 2023) and the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2021 and is the author, most recently, of Earthquakes and Gardens: Saint Hilarion’s Cyprus (2023); Ancient Christian Ecopoetics (2019); The Lives of Constantina (2020), co-authored with Marco Conti and Dennis Trout; and Byzantine Tree Life (2021), co-authored with Thomas Arentzen and Glenn Peers.


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