I promised you a post about hermits and here it is. Monasteries had their origins in the practice of Christians from the third century on of going out into the deserts of Egypt and what is now Israel to be alone with God, among them St. Jerome, pictured above.
In the sixth century Saint Benedict created the first monastery as we would recognise it so that people could live a solitary life, but in community, which sounds a bit of a contradiction in terms, but made sense to him and to the people who gathered together in response to what he was doing. ‘Monk’ is derived from the Greek ‘monos’ which means alone. In the eleventh century a revival in eremitism started in Italy which spread across Europe and there were still many hermits in England in the fourteenth century. In some ways it was, by then, seen as a revolution against monasticism, although it was usual in most Benedictine monasteries for there to be two or three hermits associated with the monastery.
Hermits were allowed to leave their hermitages which were usually caves or hovels, but recluses (anchorites and anchoresses) were not. We’ll come on to them next week. Hovel is not necessarily a pejorative term. It just means a hut or small cottage. Living in caves seems dreadful to our modern sensibilities, but people were living in caves in England well into the twentieth century. They only became unfeasible when most homes had electricity, running water and gas. Not all hermitages were small, however, some were quite substantial outposts of a monastery containing chapels and accommodation for travellers
Generally hermits could go where they liked, but their ability to wander was eventually seen as a threat to the stability of the church. Hermitages began to be placed under the supervision of a nearby monastery or bishop in order to maintain some kind of control over where they went and what they did. In 1389 a law was passed stating that hermits had to have letters of accreditation from their bishops in order to prove that they weren’t vagrants. According to the writer, William Langland, there were men who thought their lives would be easier if they pretended to be hermits. I’m not sure what their lives were like if they thought a hermit’s life was better, since the hermit was supposed to renounce the world and be a servant to everyone.
They wore special clothes: a brown habit and white scapular. A scapular is a short cloak that covers the shoulders. This clothing was blessed by a bishop when a man became a hermit. It served two purposes. It was plain, which demonstrated the hermit’s lack of vanity and it also symbolised his rejection of family and society.
Hermits were supposed to provide hospitality to visitors. Their lives were about public service and they could work as guides, ferrymen and river pilots. It was also common for them to earn their keep by repairing roads or bridges.
Hermitages were usually found near these bridges, ferries, fords and causeways and where roads went into a dangerous or unwelcoming area. This goes some way to explaining why so many hermits appear in medieval romances, that is novels in the form of poetry. They usually help the knight with his quest. Knights in romances were always on a quest for one thing or another.
Some fourteenth-century hermits expressed themselves in their writing. Richard Rolle was a hermit in Yorkshire and he wrote commentaries on the Bible as well as devotional lyrics in both Latin and English. A lot of what he wrote was for women recluses (anchoresses). Despite this, he was read by both clerics and lay people.
We’ve seen before that there was a lot of lay interest in the religious life. This was tempered by dissatisfaction with what the church could provide in terms of the spiritual life for people who could not become monks, nuns or priests. Walter Hilton was another hermit and he wrote a book about how lay people could accommodate their desire for spiritual contemplation with the necessities of their secular lives.
Although being a hermit was considered by some to be the pinnacle of monastic life, requiring years of preparation, some lay people showed such an aptitude for it that they were allowed to become hermits by their local bishop.
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Medieval Monasticism by C. H. Lawrence