John Howe: "The Awesome Hermit - The Symbolic Significance of the Hermit as a Possible Research Perspective" in Numen, vol. 30, fasc. 1, 1983, p. 106-119.

Some years have passed since John Howe proposed the hermit as a subject for research and not as a mere appendage to antiquarian interest or circumstantial historical study. Since that time, Professor Howe has gone on to publish on medieval ecclesiastical and hagiographical subjects, while studies of hermits have maintained their spotty pace. One broader area of research lately has been the role of anchoresses in feminist historical perspective. Otherwise, hermits are simple the occasional subject of traditional historical interest. But Howe's article proposes a breakthrough and criteria for achieving it.

The article starts with the image of 11th-century Romuald of Ravenna in Peter Damian's biography of the hermit and monastic founder. Romuald's very presence among contemporary authorities leaves them with "internal trembling" and holy fear. Howe notes other 11th and 12th-century hermits whose presence was similarly striking: Peter the Hermit, Norbert of Xanten, Henry of Lausanne, Eilbert of Crespin -- each had a personal aura, plus a disruptive but popular following.

Scholars have taken little serious note of the radical ascetics of this era. As Howe says: "Medieval and Western Church historians have tended to analyze the hermit's popularity descriptively and non-systematically." They have focused on their external nonconformity, their extravagant excesses, their evangelical poverty, their itinerant teaching, their identification with forests and knights, romance and mystery.

Howe rightly points out the contrast with the study of non-Western hermits.

Students of cross-cultural religious phenomena have a broader perspective on hermit popularity. They postulate a social function for the hermit, seeing not only the hermits of Western Christianity but also other radical ascetics such as the malamatis of Islam, the bikkhus of Sri Lanka, and the prophets of Israel ...

These eremitic figures represent a core of charismatic leadership that challenged existing institutions and may have found favor in traditional societies during eras of crisis, as Peter Brown has shown in his study of early Christian desert hermits.

Even while scholars have taken this charisma element into account, their interpretations of its origins and nature have varied. Some have focused on the radical body image of the unkempt ascetic as an image challenge to conventional society. Some have configured the ascetic as a perverted father figure, or pilgrims as a representative of values transcending the structured society of their origins. These approaches all focus on an "expression of the sacred."

These ideas are all useful but, Howe argues, "the cross-cultural theories of the impact of ascetics do not fully elucidate Romuald's charisma." And this is what Howe is trying to identify. The contemporary responses to Romuald show that he was viewed as a figure of holiness but not "the holy." It was Romuald's impeccable conformity to a spiritual ideal that garnered his reputation, in this case the lived "Christ model."

Still, the Christ model "may not be fully adequate to describe how the hermit's holiness is perceived." Peter Damian's account of Romuald's impact on Marquis Rainerius, Emperor Henry II, and a nondescript priest who praises Romuald as a prophet and an angel of God does suggest that the model explains much. Romuald was seen, too, as a spiritual warrior battling demons, desires, and temptations. But still another plausible model exists, namely:

the medieval image of the wild man, a hairy, unkempt, solitary, irrational being, living in uncivilized space, embodying aspects of ancient pagan deities such as Pan and Silvanus and witnessing the same psychological dynamics that had called forth these predecessors.

Romuald fits this bill: he is unshaven, unkempt, solitary, feigned madness once, lives in swamps, cemeteries, and other wild places.

There are so many variables yet no methodology for understanding them. Says Howe:

Romuald's impact on Rainerius and others involved a complex interaction of historical circumstances, a cross-culturally known charismatic role, and a contemporary Christian perception of his role that went far beyond imitation of Christ. What is needed is a research stance that can handle all these variable. I propose that historians of religion might do well to treat the hermit as a religious symbol, a single image expressing various aspects of the sacred.

The word symbol has been misused and abused, but this rough handling has given it a valuable ambiguity, for it can express at one and the same time

  1. the symbol as a cipher (an arbitrary sign),
  2. the symbol as a sign with some inherent connection with its referent(s), and
  3. the symbol as the reality itself.

Thus Howe argues that a religious symbol, something which designates the sacred, is a channel for the sacred, some mysterious way in which the reality of the sacred presents itself. It is the sum of what we know of the sacred but gains further power by being "multivalent," as Howe puts it, "by synthesizing many references into a single image."

How would this be accomplished, given that Western scholars have never taken the ascetic or eremitic figure very seriously? Peter Brown has already been mentioned, and Howe notes that the reconfiguring of John the Baptist as an eremitic figure would point in a constructive and revelatory direction. In the case of eremitic figures,

to multiply the resonances of the sacred individual is rhetorically effective, so long as he apparently conforms to the sacred categories cited and so long as the hagiographic language itself has not become too devalorized by such encomiums.

In other words, the attributes ascribed to the hermit figure must make sense as a totality and not a mere catalog of virtues, miracles, and wonders.

The medieval hermit as symbol links to the "multiple resonances of Christian mythology" as the hermit comes to symbolize what it means, truly means, to be religious -- in this case, to be Christian. To take up the hermit as a symbol would shed light on religion, social change, and religious expression in the era through "modeling within a tradition."

Practically speaking, the era of Romuald would be illuminated by the question of why hermits attained new popularity at this time. What did they symbolize for that society? How did they express the sacred better than contemporary monks, for example? What was the institutional response to eremitism and why did hermits die out by the mid-twelfth century? How does the popularity of hermits in England compare to the continent, and why? What is the relationship between Italo-Greek hermits of the 10th century and the appearance of eremitism in the West later? And what caused the revival of eremitism in 17th-century France?

Howe concludes that the role of holy figures like the hermit establishes the role of modeling within a tradition, a basis for research. A true research model would help avoid the

impressionistic quality of non-selective description, the de-emphasis on the mediating tradition characteristic of sociological abstraction, and the far too timeless image, constant despite varying shades and emphases, that results from concentration on recapitulation of the frontier. At best it enables the holy man to be recognized for his essential holiness, whose expression in all sorts of orthodox and folk images, an expression varying over time, provides a remarkable index of change as well as of continuity.

Such research, necessary for establishing the true character of the Western hermit, will prove fruitful for cross-cultural comparison of ascetics, for "the tight cluster of traits that comprise the radical ascetic life provides a possible place to begin." For example,

How do the values attached to a Western Christian hermit compare to those attached to a ragged Sufi wanderer or to a Ceylonese hermit? How do the similarities and differences of their religious traditions affect their witness of the sacred?

Neglect of the hermit will continue until more scholars, not just popularizers, research the hermit as symbol, the "awesome" hermit. The annales tradition of historians, for one, has a wide net for sociological phenomena into which hermits have fallen but have been largely ignored. Howe's approach would start with the most obvious historical hermits and conceivably would establish a psychohistory in the bargain. Unfortunately, since Howe wrote in 1985, the challenge has been taken up only selectively.