ARTICLE REVIEWS: HOUSE OF HERMITS

Lynda Coon: "Historical Fact and Exegetical Fiction in the Carolingian Vita S. Sualonis" in Church History, vol. 72, no. 1, 2003, p. 1-17.

The Vita Sualonis or Life of St. Sualo, the Anglo-Saxon hermit, was composed by Ermenerich of Ellwangen in the 9th century. The work is a model of hagiography -- Ermenrich knew almost nothing about the saint, but turned his biography into a  political and ecclesiastical tool to legitimize Sualo's hermitage and its important place in Carolingian-era missions. "While texts such as the Life of Saint Sualo do not bring to light the exactitude of an authoritative narrative voice," notes author Coon, "such allegorical works do illuminate the process of early medieval mythmaking and the fluid boundaries that existed between history and exegesis."

The Life of St. Sualo begins by linking Sualo to St. Boniface, the original and famous Christian missionary in greater Francia and Germania. Sualo became a priest and monk during these travels accompanying Boniface, and then decided to "abandon active participation in missionary preaching in order to take up the life of cloistered virtue." He built a hermitage on land donated to him by the Emperor Charlemagne himself in return for Sualo's perpetual prayer for the royal family. Just before the hermit's death in 794 (a year later), he bequeathed his hermitage, called Solnhofen, to the monastery of Fulda.

Forty years later, Hrabanus Maurus (780-856), abbot of Fulda, entered a bitter dispute raging between Charlemagne's sons Louis and Lothar over control of East Francia. Hrabanus sided with the loser Lothar, and the victorious Louis removed Hrabanus from his abbacy, exiling him to Petersberg, close to Fulda. Here Hrabanus lived as a "hermit-scholar." Additionally, Louis removed Hrabanus' nephew Gundram from his post as court chaplain and deacon and exiled him to the late Sualo's Solnhofen. The two were not far from one another, all in the vicinity of Fulda.

At this time, Ermenrich visited Gundram at Solnhofen. They were friends, and Gundram, clearly miserable in his exile, asked Ermenrich to compose a life of Solnhofen's founder Sualo, in part to impress Louis about the reputation of where his exile resided.

From Ermenrich's point of view, the connection of Sualo to the famous Boniface was more relevant. Boniface's own disciple, St. Sturm, had founded Fulda, and Fulda housed the relics of the martyred Boniface, an important attraction to pilgrims. Thus, The Life of St. Sualo is an attempt to rehabilitate Hrabanus and his circle and especially the preeminence of Fulda. This explains the most obvious characteristic of the narrative, as Coon explains:

Most of the Vita avoids its subject saint, and this narrative circumvention is so striking that it seemingly poses the major stumbling block to any historical analysis of it. The most detailed historical material focuses not on Sualo, but on his magister Boniface.

Whenever the subject Sualo must be addressed, Ermenrich retreats to allegory and myth-making. This is due to the clear fact that Ermenrich writes without available research and primarily to please an old friend. So he makes analogies to biblical events and characters: the apostles bid to silence after the Transfiguration (thus is a hermit silent), and to John the Baptist, who was also an anchorite and who deferred to the preeminence of Jesus (as Sualo did to Boniface, nevertheless taking a role in the missionary wilderness, like the Baptist).

As the narrative continues, Ermenrich even renames Sualo, calling him Solus (meaning, of course, "solitary"). The name plays on the image of Sol or the sun; Ermenrich describes the "shining light" of the hermit held within the humble cell and the humble heart of a saint. Sualo is given a special place as a consecrated priest who exercises power over an institution, however humble the hermitage is. All of this enhances the reputation of Boniface.

The reserved role of such a powerful saint as Sualo should be brought to light and celebrate, argues Ermenrich. Sualo's life is full of charismatic deeds, and soon the author is describing archetypical miracles: curing the sightless, the deaf-mute, the lame. Not unexpectedly, there is no local tradition for Sualo's miracles, and Ermenrich does not bother to cite -- or invent -- any. His purpose is to enhance Fulda, however indirectly. He even makes a contorted analogy between Sualo and the Old Testament Balaam, whom God's angel reprimanded for beating a donkey. Balaam was not aware of his evil deeds. In contrast, Ermenrich depicts Sualo as riding his donkey one day and, perceiving the donkey's fear, identifies a lurking wolf and prays to God to strengthen his donkey, which then charges after the wolf and chases it away.

The whole story and presumed analogy to Balaam is based on the fact that Hrabanus had composed a lengthy exegesis on the Old Testament book of Numbers (in which Balaam occurs) before his exile. Ermenrich must have been aware of it.

The last section of the Life of St. Sualo is composed as a contemporary anedote. Ermenrich records how difficult was his own mountain ascent to Solnhofen to visit the exiled deacon Gundram. A dialog between them is recorded (based on St. Jerome's famous description of Anthony's arduous journey to visit the desert hermit Paul).  Gundram then confesses his unworthiness to be at Solnhofen, and entrusts Ermenrich with relics of Sualo's tomb and maintenance of the holy hut.  Gundram explains how the bishop of Eichstatt had given him permission to exhume and rebury the saint's relics with proper rites and in a presentable shrine. With this act, Gundram believes the true history of Sualo can now be broadcast, and that Ermenrich is so charged to do so.

Is this last bit of information probable? According to archaeologists, Solnhofen had been occupied up to two centuries before the 9th century, and the area clearly Christianized, though Solnhofen may have fallen into disuse up to the coming of Sualo around 750. The site seems thereafter to have been settled but took no place in the network of proselytizing missions in southern Germania -- tangentially corroborating the idea of Solnhofen as a hermitage, since it did not have a monastic status.

The centerpiece of Ermenrich's story, despite its obvious attempt to rehabilitate Fulda (Solnhofen was always nominally administered by Fulda) in the eyes of the Carolingian monarchy, is Sualo's mountain, his "Egyptian-style cell," and the hermit-saint himself. Coon notes, partially quoting another observer:

The "sheer materiality" of the mountain, the hermit's cell, and his tomb "confer credibility to the authoritative interpretation of his life, as if the story itself could be touched and handled." Ermenrich thus provides his audience of pilgrims and ascetics with a stage for memory for their own private, devotional musings on the ascetic life.