Roger Crab, Seventeenth-century English hermit
erhaps the most famous hermit of English history was not a medieval saint but a seventeenth-century eccentric and vegetarian, Roger Crab (1621-1680). Scholars have called him a "millenarian" and "a radical egalitarian who espoused teetotalism and vegetarianism." Much that has been written about Crab is of a superficial nature. But the coincidence of ideas, experiences, and personality in Roger Crab sets the tone for a more sympathetic appreciation.
The life of Roger Crab is derived from the four pamphlets he printed in his lifetime, specifically The English Hermite (1655) and Dagons-Downfall (1657). We learn that Crab was born and grew up in Buckinghamshire, and that at the age of twenty, he made a vow of celibacy and a vow to restrict his diet to vegetables and water. His motive was religious and ethical, and unusual in the context of the political and religious foment that was to mark his middle years, though these personal choices do find streams of support among the radical personalities of his day.
Life of Roger Crab
When Oliver Cromwell, leader of the nonconformists Presbyterians or Puritans, revolted against the Catholic monarch Charles I in 1642, Roger Crab joined the rebels. He fought for seven years and may have traveled with Roundhead armies to Ireland and Scotland, where monarchists and Catholics were overthrown. In 1648, however, at the battle of Colchester, Crab received the blow on the head that was to change his fate. He was, as he puts it, "cloven to the braine."
In a great irony, the rebel army sentenced him to death for "indiscipline." Because such a sentence was rare and excessive, Crab likely was involved in something more serious than disobeying battlefield orders. He may have, after so many years of war and violence, expressed distrust of the Parliamentarian rebels. One authority suggests that Crab may have been involved with the Levelers and their radical democratic program supportive of the land reform and autonomy for the common people against authority. Since the Levelers originated within Cromwell's army, and a newspaper account describes Crab as "formerly an Agitator in the Army," and that, further, Crab's personality clearly projects a radical vision of society -- all this makes Crab's affiliation plausible.
After two years in prison, the death sentence was not carried out, and Crab was released. He settled in the village of Chesham as a small merchant, a "haberdasher of hats." His trade proved lucrative enough that a few years later he sold "a considerable Estate to give it to the Poore," stating Jeremiah 35 and Mark 10, 21 as "reasons from the Scripture" for his decision:
"One thing is wanting unto thee: go, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
At this point, Crab became a hermit.
In the Introduction to The English Hermite, Crab tells of himself that he kept a small "matter of his assets ... being a single man," and went to live at Ickham near Uxbridge "on a small Roode of ground for which he payeth fifty shillings a year and hath a mean Cottage of his own building to it."
Crab did not resent his suffering from a war wound and imprisonment by those for whom he had nearly sacrificed his life. He writes:
All these things wrought together for the best to me, and in my estimation are of more value than an office of five hundred pounds a year, for I in some measure know myselfe.
Crab's new life in Ickenham was devoted to what one writer calls Crab's "mixture of asceticism, mysticism, astrology, and physic." His reputation for simplicity and sanctity attracted people of all classes to consult him, not only as seer and prophet but as an advisor about physical maladies and diseases. It was this "mixture" of ideas that enabled him to address so many concerns. Crab himself explains in The English Hermite:
Having found out that my body was governed by the inclination of my Constitution from the starry heavens, having tryed it with many sorts of food, and with much fasting and praying according to the Scripture, which gave me light to the constitutions of others, and enabled me to administer physick to others; so that I have had a hundred or sixe score Patients at once. This gave me a great light of the evil that came by eating of flesh. If my Patients were any of them wounded or feaverish, I sayd, eating flesh, or drinking strong beere would inflame their blood, venom their wounds, and encrease their disease.
Crab's recommended diet for others was not based only on health reasons, as we have seen, but was ultimately religious and ethical. It is all of a piece for Crab. As the printer of The English Hermite states of him:
That which is most strange and most to be admired, is his strange reserved, and Hermeticall kinde of life, in refusing to eat any sort of flesh, and saith it is a sinne against his body and soul to eat flesh, or to drinke any Beer, Ale, or Wine; his dyet is onely such poore homely food as his own Rood of ground beareth, as corne, Bread, and bran, Herbs, Roots, Dock-leaves, Mallowes, and grasse, his drink is water, his aparrell is as meane also, he weares a sackcloth frock, and no band on his neck: and this he saith is out of conscience, and in obedience to that command of Christ, to the young man in the Gospell, and in imitation of the Prophets, and the Recabites in Jer. 35. Who neither planted vineyards, nor builded houses, nor drank wine, and were highly commended by the Lord for it.
Crab cites religious reasons for his abstinence from flesh: that after Noah, God gave man over to flesh because of his corruption but that it was not so from the beginning:
If naturall Adam had kept his single naturall fruits of Gods appointment, namely fruits and herbbs we had not been corrupted. Thus we see that by eating and drinking we are swallowed up in corruption; for ever since Noah came out of the Arke, the world being drowned, and no fruits nor herrbs on the earth, man was ordered to eat the flesh of the Creature which came out of the Arke ...
Crab's argument is that flesh not only makes for disease in the human body but that flesh-eating fosters gluttony, violence, and carnal pleasures. He counts three arguments, mixing religion and personal wisdom:
1) The exemplary course of the prophet Daniel, of whom the Book of Daniel states that "Kings meate defileth his body, and beseecheth that he [Daniel] might eate pulse, and drink water." The superior ethical advice of Scripture, says Crab, is to be embraced gladly.
2) Personal experience, which Crab confirmed in himself and in many others, both positive and negative. The negative is the observation that gluttony, and banqueting always accompany drunkenness, reveling, despoiling of property and people (what he calls "foolishness" and "sulttishness"). These always accompany violence among soldiers, and in the general population. It engenders scarcity, poverty and disease among the poor, and brings on the suffering of the innocent. On the positive side of his experience, however, Crab extols the health benefits he has observed in himself and others.
Of himself, Crab says that his diet is a part of his spiritual renewal, putting away a life of dissipation through ascetic practice:
Instead of strong drinks and wines, I gave the old man a cup of water; and instead of rost Mutton and Rabbets, and other dainty dishes, I gave him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran, & Turnep leaves chop't together, and grass, at which the Old Man (meaning my body) being moved, would know what he had done, that I used him so hardly; then I shewed him his transgression as aforesaid: so the wars began.
What Crab calls "the wars" was his reconciling his tastes to the totality of his values. At first he grew sick and "weak with the fluxe, like to fall to the dust," so extreme was his abrupt transition in diet -- not unobserved in modern people detoxifying themselves. Crab persisted, knowing the spiritual as well as health goals he foresaw achieving.
The wonderful love of God well pleased with the Battle, raised him up againe, and filled him full of love, peace, and content in mind, and [he] is now become more humble; for now he will eate Dock-leaves, Mallowes, or Grasse, and yeelds that he ought to give God more thanks for it, then formerly for rost flesh and wines; and certainly concludes that this must be of God, if it be done out of love, and not out of selfe-ends.
3) Ultimately, abstinence from flesh for health, expense, or ethical reasons is a prelude to Crab's third and larger observation, namely, that the practice is akin to the worse sins of the rich and powerful, and fosters their vices in the average person. This constitutes the train of thought that is his third argument for abstinence from flesh: reason.
Crab's Religious and Social Views
Crab considers the absolute innocence of Christ to be the model of human behavior, where Christ in his suffering represents innocence, humility, meekness, love, and charity. Those who persecuted him were the "Priests, Councellors, Lawyers, and the rude multitude instructed by them," all a worldly sort equivalent to Crab's contemporary authorities: "King, Bishops, Parliament, Army, Trades, Sects, Gentlemen and Farmers."
The authorities have ruined the innocent, deprived the day-laborer and journeymen and orphans and alms-men of bread that the banqueting tables may be stocked with wine and dainties. Crab enumerates the vices engendered by the poverty wrought by the rich and powerful: swearing, cursing, covetousness, disobedience to parents, the rearing of children into disobedience.
The rich have planted ale-houses, not grain, across the nation, he writes eloquently. They have indebted farmers with exorbitant rents, and do not hold back in their feasting at christenings and weddings and holidays, all of these days being pretexts for gluttony and drunkenness.
These observations are but a prelude to the troubles Roger Crab was to then suffer from authorities, both religious and secular. For while his printer indicates that Crab was not "for the Levelers, nor Quakers, nor Shakers, nor Ranters" -- the more anti-establishment dissenter groups and sects of his day -- he was arrested four times for "Sabbath breaking." Crab states in his Dagons-Downfall that he was "four times brought before the Magistracy, called by the name of Justices of the Peace." A contemporary newspaper provides the account of his first arrest in 1655:
Mr. Roger Crab (formerly an Agitator in the Army, but now one that hath betaken himself to a Hermits life) hath lately received trial before the Magistracy of the Nation; where he insisted much upon the Freedome of the Creature, and cleered himself of that particular, wherein they charged him with a reflection upon the Government, by notions of tyranny.
Crab was soon released and went on to have his The English Hermite printed in the same year. But it was the beginning of his troubles, for ultimately, as the Chambers' Book of Days records it:
He was cudgelled and put in the stocks; the wretched sackcloth frock he wore was torn from his back, and he was mercilessly whipped. He was four times arrested on suspicion of being a wizard [i.e., "Sabbath breaking"] and he was sent from prison to prison; yet still he would persist in his course of life.
With the printing of Dagons-Downfall in 1657, Crab had crossed from an apologia for Christian vegetarianism in The English Hermite to an unmitigated excoriation of church and state. He speaks of authority -- monarch or lord protector -- as "the notorious Whore-Master of this age, who hath been in open Rebellion this fifteen or sixteene years against the old Whore his Mother" and speaks of clergy thusly:
You may observe the Whores houses in every Parish where her Pimps come to vent their Traffick to the Merchants and Beast; which Merchants and Beasts made her a Market-Day of their own invention, without order from God or Christ, and perswaded the ignorant that God commanded it, for they all called it Gods Sabbeth in Word and Tongue, but never one of them keep it in practise of serving the pure God ...
Crab touches upon the illegitimacy of marriage and calls the church a "Whore House" and the clergy her "Pimps" and "Hirelings," and "Dogs." To Crab "the Whore belongs to Rome and the Pope", but every sect since the Reform has not been different. The sects have fostered a "Hellish Oppression" on the common people, popularizing holy days like Christmas (Crab calls it "Christ Mars"), days characterized by all manner of "Feasting and Wickedness that the Devil and the Whore could invent." Ecclesiastical authorities are called "Oppressor, the Tythemonger, Extortioner and Encroacher." Their dogma and ritual, says Crab, is but "another spiritual Idol which the Whore with her Prelates hath set up." One can imagine the reaction of those he against whom he rails!
Crab's alternative is the example of the simple Christ of the Gospels. Having recast the sequence of "woes" with which Jesus indicted the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospel -- echoed in Crab's polemic -- the alternative is for the reader to recognize and embrace.
Therefore I pray thee consider with thy self, enter into the second Chamber of thy heart; see if there be no Witness that will close with the Scriptures; search the Scriptures and see whether Christ and his Disciples ever hanged one another, or hanged any one at the Gallows.
Wo be unto them that throw disobedience to that pure Law of God, and are become the destroyers of their fellow creatures, and are guilty of all the blood of those that were slaughtered for Thieving; for if they did to others even as they would be done unto, and so fulfil that great command wherein all the Law and the Prophets are comprehended, which is, To love God above all, and to love thy neighbour as they self [emphasis in original], which is impossible for any man to do whilst he encroacheth to himself more land, or finer House, or better clothing or dyet then his neighbor.
But whether personality or conviction, Crab was not to be silenced by persecution or argument. He moved to Bethnal Green in London and apparently became a "Philadelphian," a mystically-oriented group founded on the teachings of the German theologian Jacob Boehme. Crab engaged in a printed dispute with the Quaker, George Salter in 1659, and printed two pamphlets that year: Gentle Correction for the High-flown Backslider and A Tender Salutation.
Twenty years of quiet followed. Roger Crab can be imagined in his cottage, pursuing his vision of a perfect and mystical Christianity, no longer a gadfly to church and state, but no doubt consulting a stream of visitors and those curious about his eremitism. Crab stands out for his hermit passion, his rejection of authority and convention, his pursuit of the logic of what it means to be a hermit and to cloth, feed, and house oneself as a hermit. Yet he does all this with a driving ethical and spiritual energy perhaps unmatched by his contemporaries.
Whether Crab was, as the Chambers' Book of Days puts it, "simply insane," or whether he was indeed Lewis Carroll's model for the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, undoubtedly Roger Crab is the predecessor of modern Western hermits in his style of life, his freely-wrought religious and spiritual ideas, and in his political thinking. He was both engaged with society and yet devoted to eremitism, living as a hermit in a village near the crowded London of his day.
Roger Crab died in 1680 at the age of 59 and was buried in Stepney Churchyard in Bethnal Green, where his grave can still be seen and the epitaph on his tombstone still be read:
Tread gently, reader, near the dust
Committed to this tomb-stone's trust:
For while 'twas flesh, it held a guest
With universal love possest:
A soul that stemmed opinion's tide,
Did over sects in triumph ride;
Yet separate from the giddy crowd,
And paths tradition had allowed.
Through good and ill reports he past,
Oft censured, yet approved at last.
Wouldst thou his religion know?
In brief 'twas this: to all to do
Just as he would be done unto.
So in kind Nature's law he stood,
A temple, undefiled with blood,
A friend to everything that 's good.
The rest angels alone can fitly tell;
Haste then to them and him; and so farewell!
In addition to scholarly and other references, this article is based on the book: The English Hermite and Dagons-Downfall, by Roger Crab, with introduction and notes by Andrew Hopton. London: Aporia Press, 1990.