Eremitism versus Monasticism in Medieval Europe

Etymology often reveals the natural source of cultural value attached to a word rather than its mere denotation. The first Western (Greek) word for hermit was eremos, literally "desert," coined in the earliest centuries C.E. The negative sense of eremos was isolation, wasteland, a place abandoned by God and infested with demons. But thee positive sense was the Old Testament Sinai setting of salvation, and the use of the desert by Jesus in the Gospel for meditation in prologue to redemption. 

This use of eremos eventually assigned to the hermit contrasts with monachos, meaning "monk," literally "one." The monk was only one of a community, but the hermit was literally one alone and apart from any social or cenobitic community, dealing directly with God. The desert setting reflected the hermit's state of soul, ever striving for quies or "quiet," what the Greek Christians called hesychia, even applied to the entire regime of spiritual life for monks as well as hermits.

But the hermit, having no binds to communitarian ritual or economics, was free to pursue the depths of religious life. Because the geography and culture of the early eremitic era was predominantly Greek, the theology and sentiment of eremitism evolved a strong spiritual influence in the Eastern Christian tradition, especially in heyschasm.

With some monks, hesychasm evolved into mysticism; with others the spiritual personality of the monastery silence. After the 4th-century era of desert hermits in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, eremitism in the Greek Church evolved into the pinnacle of the monastic path but still tenuously ordered by the monastic institution, inspiring monks to strife toward a mystical state complemented by the physical state of the hermit. This sentiment is expressed by Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022):

Leave me alone, sheltered in my cell.
Let me be with God, who alone is good.
Stay away from me -- even further away.
Let me die alone before my God who has created me.
No one should knock at my door; none should raise their voice.
No one should visit me, neither friend nor relative.
No one should draw my spirit away from meditation. ...
Why should I move out of my cell?
Back to that which I left? Let me be.
I want to cry and mourn over the days and nights I have waster.

Western Eremitism

In the Western world, too, the hermit was the pinnacle of spiritual life rather than an exception, as evidenced in the works of John Cassian (360-435), drawing spiritual guidelines for monks directly from the sayings of the desert hermits. This sentiment was confirmed by the acceptance of his writings in the Greek Church.

But this status of hermits changed quickly with Benedict of Nursia (480-547) and his Rule for monks. Though having experience as a hermit, Benedict became an administrator (as the abbot of a monastery), and quickly identified the psychology of his charges as requiring a rule with explicit definitions and categories.

In chapter one of his Rule, Benedict identifies four types of monks, effectively creating a hierarchy of preferred religious states:

  1. cenobites - a community of monks under an abbot superior and a rule; 
  2. anchorites - hermits within the authority of an abbot;
  3. sarabites - monks living as 2 or 3 without abbot or rule;
  4. gyrovagues - wandering monks or hermits

Cenobites, the first category, would ideally absorb all monks, in Benedict's mind. Reluctantly, he cedes the tenability of hermits, stating that they are:

not in the first fervor of conversion, but after long probation in the monastic life, have learned 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.

The category of sarabites may echo the Eastern Church's occupants of the skete as a transition to complete eremitism. But Benedict only describes unsupervised arrangements of such groups of twos and threes who

have never been tried under any Rule, nor by the experience of a master, as gold is tried in the furnace, but being soft as lead, and by their works still cleaving to the world, are known by their tonsure to lie to God.

The wandering monks or hermits, the gyrovagues (based on the Greek word meaning "to revolve") are completely reprehensible to Benedict. The gyrovagues

travel about all their lives through divers provinces, and stay for two or three days as guests, first in one monastery, then in another; they are always roving, and never settled, giving themselves up altogether to their own pleasures and to the enticements of gluttony, and are in all things worse that the Sarabites.

Thus, without considering any value to the arrangements as such, Benedict dismisses any but the cenobitic life as the legitimate form of religious life. He cxonflates the hermit and the wanderer as well, with mobility the only difference between them.

In the West, allusions to wandering monks and hermits are found in St. Augustine (who calls them circumcelliones, meaning "those who go round and round"), and in John Cassian. Synods at Angers (453), Vannes (465), and Toldeo (633) condemned the religiosi vagabondi. The triumph of the Benedictine Rule in established monasteries under abbots also enforced the expectation of a monk's permanent residence in the first choice of institution. 

But while in part an ecclesiastical issue, landlopers or gyrovagi were a social and economic manifestation of the chaotic conditions of the late Empire and early Middle Ages, wherein the wanderers might be displaced homeless as much as tricksters and thieves. The freedom of the gyrovagi foreshadowed the preaching element of later orders, which would inevitably evolve separately from monks.

As the social and economic collapse spanned centuries, it impacted monasticism itself, which retreated into a rigid mode of self-serving survival and convenience. atrophied into clericalization, and characteristically emphasized ritual and benefices while diminishing the importance of labor and service.

Eremitism suffered the negative reputation of the gyrovagi during this decline; the hermit was to have no place in monasteries, but this very fact of eremitism was viewed by monasteries as reproachable.

The decline of monasteries due to the rigidities mentioned prompted inevitable reforms. The 11th-century reforms in monasticism were led primarily by spiritually-minded monks strongly favoring eremitism. Among these monks on the continet of Europe were Romuald of Ravenna, Steven of Muret, Robert of Arbrissel, Bruno of Cologne, and Robert of Molesmes. They created alternative religious communities based on new spiritual priorities. While retaining the culture of monasticism, the new founders wanted to return to values of poverty and asceticism, to shift from rote prayer and ritual in physically comfortable settings to contemplation and work in the "desert" and "wilderness." They did not want to be poor within a rich community but to go to where poverty or simplicity existed naturally. They wanted the insecurity of Jesus' daily life versus the comfort of dependence or charity. They wanted physical labor and to grow their food rather than employ others to serve them. Erermitical cenobites evolved from their reforms of the Cistercians (Bruno) and Camadolese (Romuald).

These founders and influential figures were concentrated in France and Italy:

Additionally, central Italy was dotted with hermitages concentrated in Montagna du Fiori, Ascolo, Monte Pisano, Luca, Pisa, Monteluco, and Spoleto.

Eremitism versus monasticism

The divergence of spiritual values and expression between hermits and monks was significant The primary contention was over the monastic departure from the teachings of Jesus. An anecdote illustrating this tension is quoted by Benedikt Mertens concerning a hermit Rainaldo's angry rebuff to the Bishop of Chartres, who was trying to remove the former's eremitic status. The hermit describes the original virtues of the early church and how contemporary monks do not practice them:

This form of perfection, by their own witness, the cenobitic cloisters rarely or never embrace, because, as i see it, they happen to exclude as far as possible the poverty that the poor Christ preached. 

As Cinzio Violante further notes: 

[The] demand for absolute poverty, so strong in the hermits, is but one aspect, the strongest and most consistent one, of the whole vast poverty movement inspiring the popular, clerical, and monastic reforms at the beginning of the second millennium as a reaction to the moral and disciplinary ills caused by the involvement of Church institutions in the court economy and the structures of feudal society. In eremitic spirituality, the desire for individual poverty developed into a desire for the absolute poverty of the community itself. The model of the "primitive apostolic life," holding property in common, was gradually replaced by the evangelical ideal of absolute poverty.

The historical significance of the new values did not remain at the abstract level of differences in religious lifestyle. As Leyser points out:

The eremitical movement ... had created institutions where a new spirituality was to flourish; it had broken the monopoly of the black monks. At the same time, it had come much closer to the traditional forms of monasticism than had originally been intended. It was a movement which had proved too popular, and if this made possible its successes, it was likewise the reason for its failures.

These "failures" were essentially the challenge of eremitism to power and authority,  and the challenge to the conventional expression of spiritual life. 

The attempt of Giovanni Gualberto (John Gualbert) to reconcile eremitism and monasticism in the short-lived Vallambrosian movement -- based on his monastery Mabillon, in turn structured to reconcile Benedictine and Camadolese -- popularized the notion of cenobitic eremitism. But it failed due to the increasing divergence of religious vision between monks and hermits. For, as Violante states:

One of the fundamental demands of eremitism, especially in the period under consideration, is to flee the world, to be freed from all worldly concerns and attachment to worldly goods. ... [This] first and foremost demands absolute poverty; this can be achieved in the monastery only with difficulty, and not in a lasting manner. The point of reference and the ideal is no longer the primitive Christian community of the Apostles, but the poor and naked Christ all alone.

The core distinction between hermits and monks was identified by William of Saint-Thierry (1080-1148), who recognized that the hermit is truly free to apply himself or herself entirely to spiritual pursuits, versus the tendency of monastic environments towards material and spiritual self-sufficiency. To his fellow hermits, William wrote: "The responsibility of others is to serve God; yours is to cling to God."

This freedom of the hermit was a rejection of the safe refuge of the monk, at once a defiance of the world and its temptations while yet living in the world and interacting with those who would support the hermit's material needs.

Decline of eremitism

But this flowering of eremitism, which touched the lives and imaginations of peasants, villagers, and the poor with its spiritual values, was short-lived.

By the 13th century, ecclesiastical authorities within monasticism and the church hierarchy -- with the auspices of the papacy -- launched a vigorous consolidation of eremtical interests, turning hermits into monks.

Required acceptance of authority and a rule pushed the hermits toward regular orders, primarily the unwieldy and contrived Order of Hermits of St. Augustine, chartered by Pope Alexander in 1256 as the Ordo Eremitarum S. Augustini. The Williamites eventually adopted the Benedictine rule. Consolidated under the new order of Hermits of St. Augustine were Bonites, Brittinians and miscellaneous eremitical groups: Brothers of Penance called Saccati or "Sack-bearers," the foundations of Durandus of Huesca, Spain, the "Catholic Poor" and doubtless other groups lost to history and those that dissolved.

Within this historical movement come the pronouncements of Thomas Aquinas supporting the circumscribed use of solitude and the absolute authority of bishops over all religious, including hermits. These passages of the Summa Theologica were not controversial within church hierarchy, and butressed their arguments against hermits. Though not official at the time -- presented by the Dominicans as such before the end of the 13th century, however -- they were eventually presented as officially representing the Church's views.

In one section (2a,2ae, q.188, a.2) Aquinas writes tentatively of solitudes, answering the question "Whether the religious life of those who live in community is more perfect than that of those who lead a solitary life?"

Solitude, like poverty, is not the essence of perfection, but a means thereto. ...  it is not suitable to those religious orders that are directed to the works, whether corporal or spiritual, of the active life, except perhaps for a time, after the example of Christ. On the other hand, it is suitable to those religious orders that are directed to contemplation. ... Just as that which is already perfect surpasses that which is being schooled in perfection, so the life of the solitaries, if duly practiced, surpasses the community life. But if it be undertaken without the aforesaid practice [i.e., community life], it is fraught with very great danger.

So, while monastic uses of therapeutic  solitude were not considered objectionable, the solitude of hermits was to be judged by the Church as a "very great danger."

Aquinas is specific about the status of "full-time" hermits. In a section on "whether obedience belongs to religious perfection" (2a, 2ae, q.186, a.5), Aquinas writes:

The subjection of religious is chiefly in reference to bishops, who are compared to them as perfecters to perfected, as Dionysius states (Eccl. Hier. vi), where he also says that the "monastic order is subjected to the perfecting virtues of the bishops, and is taught by their godlike enlightenment." Hence neither hermits nor religious superiors are exempt from obedience to bishops; and if they be wholly or partly exempt from obedience to the bishop of the diocese, they are nevertheless bound to obey the Sovereign Pontiff, not only in matters affecting all in common, but also in those which pertain specially to religious discipline.

The exception of obedience to the local bishop was a point all subsequent modern orders (Dominican, Jesuit, etc.) sought to evade, preferring to be under direct papal authority. Hermits, lacking acceptable organization, were left like secular clergy, monks, and abbots, as subordinate to bishops. (Not to enter here the effort of monasteries and their administrators to be considered orders). Any form of eremitism as public religiosity would constitute disobedience, according to Thomas Aquinas.


With the sweeping regularization of the later 13th century, hermits began to die out on the European continent. The reluctance to tolerate hermits originating in Benedict of Nursia was extended by monastic administrators to the stricture against hermits as violators of obedience and stability. According to the standards of the era, hermits in continental Europe disappeared before the 13th century had closed.


Among specific sources for this period are Henrietta Leyser: Hermits and the New Monasticism: A Study of Religious Communities in Western Europe, 1000-1500 (New York: St, Martin's Press, 1984); selected chapters in Giles Constable: Monks, Hermits, and Crusaders in Medieval Europe. (London: Variorum, 1988); Benedikt Mertens: "The Eremitical Movement During the 11th Century" p. 13-36 and Cinzio Violante: "Western Eremitism in the 11th and 12th centuries" p. 37-50 in Franciscan Solitude, St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1995.