About Hermits

The blessing of a hermit.

From Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol. 18v.

By permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College Cambridge.

The blessing of a hermit. From Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol. 18v.

Hermits are outsiders. Though the particular forms of hermit life have been different at different times and in different places, the hermit's seeking out of the margins of Christian society and the limits of social acceptability has been a constant. To the Christian mainstream they offer a challenge: the life of the hermit is at once the highest expression of the Christian ideal of single-minded dedication to God, and a critique of "ordinary" Christianity.

Two periods can be discerned in the study of late-medieval English hermits.

The first period (roughly 1100-1300) represents the English response to a wave of eremitically-inspired monastic reform that had been sweeping continental Europe. To some men, the great Benedictine houses that dominated monastic life seemed to have lost touch with their ideals, becoming enmeshed in local politics and the acquisition of lands and wealth, and absorbed in the ever-increasing complexity of their own rituals. The answer was radical reform: a return to the desert roots of monasticism. Fleeing the monasteries to live as hermits in the forests and wildernesses, these men soon attracted like-minded followers, and before long had become founders of communities, and in some cases religious orders, of their own. These were the origins of the new orders of the High Middle Ages: the Cistercians, Carthusians, Praemonstratensians, and Camaldolese. There were also a number of similar, short-lived communities of hermits that gradually became assimilated into the larger orders, or died out altogether.

Late-medieval hermits are altogether humbler. Few were priests, most were illiterate, and they were generally engaged in what we would now think of as "public works": mending roads, maintaining bridges, manning lighthouses and ferries. Such activities were supported not by public levy but by the charity of the faithful, and hermits therefore are characteristically found begging both for their own sustenance and for the projects on which they were employed. Towards the end of the Middle Ages - and in particular in the context of the labour shortages that followed the Black Death - this itinerant begging brought hermits under the suspicion of a culture obsessed with the problems of vagrancy and 'masterless men'. Attempts were made to put the eremitic life on a more regular footing: rules were written, and hermits' professions started to be recorded.

The vocation doubtless attracted misfits and charismatics (sometimes both at once), but also men of humble origins, without the education or wherewithal for a career in the priesthood or monastery, who nevertheless felt called to a life of religious devotion and public service.

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