REVIEWS Hermits West

Gordon Hall Gerould. "The Hermit and the Saint" in PMLA, vol. 20, no. 3 (1905), p. 529-545.

This old essay on the history of a literary topos or theme is modestly intended to recount the permutations of a tale from culture to culture over the centuries. Because of its age, the article's methodology predates the critical application of cultural and social factors to works of literature and folk narrative, missing this aspect of changes in the genre, merely describing the tales comparatively. Nevertheless, this article is a useful summary of the genre of holy man (i.e., hermit) discovering one holier (i.e., saint) than himself.

The folkloric type originates in Aryan Hindu India during the transitional period when criticism of the rigid Vedic class structure began. The Mahabharata relates the story of a brahmin meditating before his home. A passing crane flies by and leaves its droppings on him. The enraged brahmin curses the bird, and it falls dead from the sky. Later that day, the brahmin seeks alms in the village and comes to an open door. A busy housewife sees him at the door but continues her meal preparation for her husband and family. When she finally goes to the door, the angry brahmin scolds her. "Do you not know that I am a brahmin and have special powers?" he says angrily. "I am no crane, dear brahmin," the woman replies quietly, and goes on to defend her chief duty to her husband and family. The brahmin goes away humbled.

Here the brahmin learns that the virtue of a mere householder can exceed that of a holy man. Of course, by modern literary standards, a further point is class consciousness and the critique of the wealthy and arrogant exploiter of the householder class. The tale derives its appeal from this angle, where theoretical virtue is not necessarily the main concern of the author or the culture that preserved and fostered such a tale.

The genre appears in Persia, then in Arab and Jewish versions, where the hero of the tale is a not a householder but a hunter, or a butcher -- low social ranks but characters who care for their aged parents, tithe, give their meager earnings to the poor, and even ransom a captive.

The virtue, notes author Gerould, is not in the magnanimous act itself but in "the lesson that true goodness lies in the humble performance of duty without outward show of piety." Thus the holy figure is, to use New Testament language, the pharisaic, not the true holy man. The characters presented are socially humble as well as morally so.

But the second Arabian version, which is also part of the Arabian Nights anthology, presents a major shift of class consciousness, representing a clear signal that the court has co-opted the folk in social control of the folk genre. In this tale, no less than a king is presented as the humble protagonist.

A holy man, notes Gerould,

sets out to discover who is more worthy of the protection of heaven than himself and finds a king, who in the midst of outward splendor, lives privately in great austerity with his wife, supporting himself by the labor of his hands. Here we have in a fully developed form the type which the influence of the church was to make predominant in Europe.

Indeed, the cycle now progresses full circle from India -- from the critique of the power class to holding that power class in high esteem. This last type is to be upheld by the Church because it proclaims monarchical subordination to ecclesiastical authority, outlining the correct behavior and relationship of kings to religious authority. At this point, from India to Europe, the genre type has made a 180 degree turn.

In Europe, the tale manifests in the Vitae Patrum, in no fewer than five versions featuring the famous desert hermit Paphnutius. But the Vitae Patrum was compiled in the 17th century, long after the last genuine Paphnutius sources had been identified, and the earliest sources contain nothing scurrilous. In the first three stories, the characters supposed to be more virtuous than the hermit are: 1) a flute-player who later turns robber, 2) an admiral living with his wife "in some splendor, but honestly, charitably, and continently," and 3) a merchant. While the tales are convenient for disparaging eremitism and promoting the powerful, the last two tales reveal the contrivance of all five: those better than the hermit are Pope Gregory the Great and the bishop Severinus!

Here are other versions of the genre:

an Old French story, Provost of Aquileia, written in the 15th century by Jean Mielot, presents the provost or military-political administrator as better in virtue than the hermit because the hermit pursues the provost's wife in several salacious adventures. The story is clearly anticlerical, and a farce intended to scandalize its readers. But Gerould calls it an instance of "Gallic humor."

A version of Mielot appeared in northern England as "The Hermit and Saint Oswald," first printed by the 15th-century Dominican John Herolt. The story is identical to Mielot's, only substituting a king for the provost and a known saint (Oswald) or at least the name for the anonymous hermit of Mielot. (Not unexpectedly, no historical sources on St. Oswald mention any of this.)

Another genre piece is the 13th-century "Der gute Gerhard," a Middle German poem by Rudolf von Ems. This version features Emperor Otto seeking a counterpart in virtue and advised by heaven to emulate the merchant Gerhard of Cologne. This version is identical to the butcher as holy stories in earlier Jewish tales -- except that instead of a hermit or holy man seeking a virtuous counterpart, a king and merchant play the roles -- both from powerful classes.

The Spanish romance "El Conde Lucanor" by Don Juan Manuel features a hermit who discovers that his counterpart in virtue is Richard the Lionheart, so identified because of his deeds of valor against the Saracens.

The crowning work of this genre is the play "El Condenado por Desconfiado" by the Spanish monk and dramatist Tirso de Molina (1579-1648). The work has a far more complex and mature interpretation and plot than previous approximations to the genre, and was influenced by Counter-Reformation theology on morals. "Damned for Defiance" or a similarly translated title for the play stands on its own historically. Gerould notes that all the elements of Eastern and Paphnutian legend are here crafted into what the Spanish philologist and literary historian Ramon Menendez-Pidal (1869-1968) called the "most splendid offshoot of the genre." Here is a condensed plot summary:

Paulo the hermit prays to learn his counterpart in virtue, but is answered by the devil, who recommends Enrico of Naples, whose only virtue is that he cares for his aging father; he is otherwise known as the worst criminal in the city. Paulo is scandalized by Enrico's crimes but dutifully emulates Enrico by becoming a robber. Enrico flees the city on murder charges. He encounters Paulo and joins Paulo's robber band. But when Enrico reenters Naples to care for his father, he is captured and condemned to death. His father persuades Enrico to confess, and Enrico goes to heaven upon execution. Meanwhile, Paulo is mortally wounded in a fight. He learns of Enrico's confession before execution, but Paulo doubts God's grace. He dies, and goes to hell.


The "hermit and saint" folkloric genre pitting the holy man against someone more virtuous was historically a critique against the powerful classes disparaging the humbler classes. In Europe, however, the genre was inverted to show the powerful to be more virtuous ("saint") than the holy men ("hermit"), an inversion of religious values as well as of social order and moral authority. The genre culminates ironically in the contrivance of the Vitae Patrum extending and providing approbation of the inversion. The last major expression of the genre is the sensitive moral drama of Tirso de Molina.