Hermit Historiography in the West

In the Introduction of his definitive book Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950-1200, author Tom Licence provides a useful orientation to the historiography of Western eremitism. Since historiography is the study of viewpoints and methods, it provides "metadata" -- information about information, a review of how society, scholars, and popularizers think about a subject and how the subject is framed intellectually and culturally. We can use historiography to preempt biases, but also to resolve philosophies. Historiography reveals the spirit of a given age as well as the spirit of given historians.

In the case of Western eremitism, the facts show a widespread and burgeoning eremitic movement in Italy, France, Germany, and England from the twelfth century forward through the Middle Ages. Yet because hermits virtually disappeared in modern times, hermits are often ignored as historical subjects, or deprecated in fanciful stereotypes and myths, leaving a gap in knowledge and a wider gap in understanding. As Licence puts it:

Hermits and recluses, as objects of study, cannot be separated from the societies in which they multiplied but must be viewed within their social, and antisocial, context. The reason they seldom have been is that modern historians, living in a hermitless landscape and a society which views recluses as lonely eccentrics, forget that anchorites might once have performed a valuable role.

A useful social role may not be essential to any class of people, but a perceived role provides an incentive to the historian to pursue worthwhile subjects for research. On the other hand, this "role" of historical hermits may simply escape many historians, as John Howe points out in his felicitous article (reviewed in Hermitary) "The Awesome Hermit: the Symbolic Significance of the Hermit as a Possible Research Perspective." In that article, the hermit is, as Licence puts it, a "locus of the sacred" and simply difficult for modern historians to define.

Licence continues:

Our tendency to regard them [i.e., hermits] as eccentrics is a prejudicial tendency, rooted in our literary and historical consciousness by the legacy of Edward Gibbon, who popularized the idea that anchorites were contemptible products of degenerate, irrational fanaticism.

The Enlightenment introduced the notion of utility, and Gibbon anticipated the modern historian's notion of a necessary social role by presenting hermits as socially useless and burdensome, the antithesis of the industrious, productive, and ambitious, the opposite of the aspirant to wealth, comfort, respectability, and supposed utility. Such was Gibbon's legacy of projection.

In any case, ecclesiastical historians who ought to have been interested in the eremitic phenomenon were preoccupied with institutional history, not hermits. Besides, hermits represented a chaotic element in a church eager to maintain control among its orders, clergy, religious, and laity, and so hermits figure less importantly in church history. Hermits tended to challenge both the ecclesiastical and the rationalist institutional norms of the past 500 years.

More benignly, hermits have at best been perceived by historians as what Licence calls "timeless, universal characters on the medieval stage." Their fate has been like the outcast and social minority, dependent on environment, economics, and habitat, their place in history relative to the values of the observer. Only in the 20th century did this point of view begin to change among historians.

The shift began among social historians in the latter 20th century, already interested in social groups, their rise and influence, and the factors in their emergence and growth. The social historians observed the proliferation of hermits beginning in the 11th century across Europe, and the proliferation of recluses (the enclosed anchorites) in France particularly. Naturally, social historians not only attempted to document the phenomenon but to identify the contexts in which it  transpired.

Hermits in social context

According to Licence, the first major work was Peter Brown's study of the "holy man" of late antiquity in his 1971 article "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity" (reviewed in Hermitary). Brown's seminal article referred to hermits as holy men because of their special function in 5th and 6th century Roman East Asia. Licence summarizes:

Their [the hermits'] asceticism served as a prolonged, solemn ritual of dissociation by which they severed the normal familial and economic ties which bound society together, intending to stand apart from it. This positioned them to act as mediators and counsellors in an increasingly egalitarian environment, where the dissolution of old hierarchies and great estates was ushering in an aspiring new class of independent self-respecting farmers. The asceticism of the anchorite impressed such people.

Here we see the social and material conditions that not only foster eremitism but make it respectable to the populace. The breakdown of society forces a new self-reliance among the people of the era, and they, in turn, will look more favorably on religious figures that parallel their economic and work ethos rather than on high-minded ecclesiastics whose wealth and attitude separates them from the majority.

Historian Henry Mayr-Harting applied Brown's model to the rise of hermits in 12th-century England, strengthening the hypothesis that the dissolution of social structures in post-conquest England gave rise to the special counseling or arbiting role of hermits. Such was the dominant thesis of the 1970s and later in England, though 40 years later the argument "rests on shakier foundations," notes Licence.

The dichotomy between Anglo-Saxon and Norman England has been exagerrated. (A famous example is Jean Anouilh's wonderful drama Becket but historians have no creative license for exaggerating), Evidence today shows that hermits held a special role in Anglo-Saxon times, not merely with the beginning of the Norman Conquest, and only the more difficult paucity of sources for the Anglo-Saxon era has impeded a more balanced view. The special role of hermits in Europe dating from before 1066 also dilutes the culturalist argument.

In Europe, the work of Germain Morin and Jean Leclerq points to changes in monastic thought and practice as the catalyst of proliferating eremitism predating the 11th and 12th centuries. In France, Rainald the hermit criticized the lax spirituality and daily ease of contemporary monks (early 12th century). Morin argued for the rise of eremitism within a broader context of a "crisis of cenobitism." Leclerq studied the 11th century Ritalin monk John of Fecamp, who became an abbot in Normandy. John complained of the quarrels and controversies and administrative duties that dominated monasteries, and expressed his longing to enter a hermitage. Leclerq argued that despite increased numbers of recruits to Benedictine monasteries over the period from 1050-1150, the eremitic trend is indisputable, based on spiritual concerns about the corrupting influence of material wealth. 

In turn, social historians observed that the movement of eremitism as a religious movement favoring poverty, renunciation, and withdrawal itself arose as a response to socioeconomic trends, to the new prosperity of the central Middle Ages, which saw a rise in simony, increased building activity, land acquisitions, and use of lay and subordinate laborers in monasteries. 

Historians of the 1970s had transformed the crisis of cenobitism described by Leclerq into a crisis of conscience, the latter incorporating socioeconomic conditions as factors. More recently, historians have transformed the crisis of conscience into a crisis of the individual and the growth of individual religious identity, socially "a revolt of individual against a constricting society," as one writer put it. Licence adds:

So strong were the bonds of that society, the theory holds, that empowerment could be gained only by withdrawal.

Perhaps the historiographical shift from religious to social to individual has in part represented generational evolution among historians, or the maturation of the discipline itself. The notion of hermits rebelling or pursuing a liberating ideal seems inadequate to an explanation of deeper religious motives that dominated the Middle Ages, too much a projection of modern concerns. Explaining a religious phenomenon in non-religious terms, assigning preeminence of arbiter roles to eremitic motives, is inadequate.

Some recent historians have restored the spiritual element to eremitic ideals, paying more attention to the contextual data in disparate sources such as saints' cults, ritual devotion, pastoral texts, visions, and penitential practices, as much as to traditional sources such as ecclesiastical records, sermons, letters, charters, and wills. Even Brown has modified his holy man model to reemphasize the ascetic elements as the source of popular authority. Cannot the spiritual element be (re)applied to the central medieval period? Are we not coming full circle, perhaps, in the attempt to understand the hermits' motive? As Licence concludes:

Until we explain the paradox of the anchorite -- why society revered and supported those who bypassed its conventions or renounced its ambitions -- a hole will yawn in our understanding of medieval ideals and thought.

And generalizing about the motives (spiritual, philosophical, or psychological) of solitaries East and West, a hole will yawn in our understanding of people in general.