About Hermits & Anchorites

Paolo Ucello, 'Episodes of the Hermit Life' (1460).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Paolo Ucello, 'Episodes of the Hermit Life' (1460)
 

Hermits and anchorites are religious solitaries. The Christian solitaries of the western Middle Ages traced their lineage back to the Desert Fathers , who retired to the deserts of North Africa and the Near East in the third and fourth centuries.

This movement was also the origin of western monasticism, and in the earliest period the terms monk (from Greek monos – alone), anchorite (from anachorein – to withdraw) and hermit (eremia – desert) are used interchangeably. Over the course of the Middle Ages, however, the words come to designate distinct vocations.

For the Rule of St Benedict (mid-6th century) hermits and anchorites are a special kind of monk, men who “not in the first fervour of conversion, but after long probation in the monastic life, have learnt to fight against the devil, and taught by the encouragement of others, are now able by God’s assistance to strive hand to hand against the flesh and evil thoughts, and so go forth well prepared, from the army of the Brotherhood, to the single combat of the wilderness.”  [from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/gregory/life_rule.iv.ii.html]

The further distinction between two kinds of solitary vocation develops later – in England apparently during the 11th and 12th centuries. The term anchorite comes to describe a solitary who lives under strict enclosure, usually in a cell attached to a parish church, whilst the hermit’s life is one of rootless, solitary wandering.

Although efforts were made, throughout the Middle Ages, to impose some structure and regularity on the solitary vocations, they remained outside formal institutions and without binding rules: lives lived on the edge.

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