ARTICLES: HOUSE OF HERMITS

Romuald of Ravenna: Medieval Hermit and "Founder"


Sources for the life of St. Romuald of Ravenna (951-1027) are few: some contemporary documents in which Romuald's name appears, and two near-contemporary writings: Bruno of Querfurt's Life of the Five Brothers, where Romuald appears briefly at the beginning and end of this narrative of monk-disciples and martyrs, and the more celebrated Life of Romuald by Peter Damian, our main source.

Peter Damian (1007-1072) wrote his Life of Romuald fifteen years after his subject's death, and though twenty years of age at the time, he never met Romuald. As a bishop, cardinal, and ecclesiastical administrator, Peter Damian gained a reputation as a reformer of clerical laxity and a champion of eremitical and ascetic discipline.

Though himself not a hermit, Peter Damian nevertheless found in the life of Romuald an ideal representative of reformist goals. Romuald belonged to no order, though he took upon himself the dominant Cluniac model, the Rule of St. Benedict, for his modest "foundings." Romuald eschewed the elaboration of ritual and formality that had emerged over time and would be the object of Cistercian reform in the subsequent centuries. At the same time, the hermit Romuald was closely associated with a public vocation of preaching, exhortation, and reform.

Romuald's life was a yearning to legitimize eremiticism as a virtue, recognized and spiritualizing. As Peter Damian puts it:

Romuald could not bear to remain sterile. He felt a deep anxiety and a longing to bear fruit for souls, and kept searching for a place where he could do so. ...

Saint Romuald's ardent desire to bear fruit was so intense that he was never satisfied with anything he did. While he was busy with one project, he was already planning the next.

And then follows Peter Damian's most celebrated passage, but in a context different from most citations:

You would think he [Romuald] was trying to turn the whole world into a hermitage and to involve the entire Church [or, perhaps, translated "people of God"] in his project of monastic reform.

The latter part of this passage is usually not quoted because it establishes the paradox (what translator Thomas Matus calls the "mystery") of Romuald: was he a hermit "turning the whole world into a hermitage" or was he a monastic reformer trying to conceive the ideal religious order? And that latter claim, that Romuald was its founder, is made by the Camaldolese (or Camaldoli), the religious order of "hermit-monks."

Or has been made historically, based on the hagiographical account that a certain Count Maldolus offered Romuald a tract of land near Vallombrosa in Tuscany for a hermitage. The land was dubbed Campus Maldoli, hence the foundation became Camaldoli. The apparent intention of the order would seem to be to replicate what Romuald had done throughout his life: found a coenobitic setting or reform an existing one, and simultaneously establish a hermitage for two or three or five to live as hermits in the style of the Desert Fathers and Eastern orders.

Oftentimes Romuald would reside in a hermitage with other hermits or alone while working with a monastery or coenobium. But unlike Eastern Christian monasteries with their sketes as transitional hermitages (for several hermits), and their provision for solitaries in hermitages, most Western monasteries had no such place for hermits. The dominant Cluniac order, based on Benedictine tradition, had virtually no hermits. But Romuald's model became a medieval and monastic ideal, even reflected in Dante's Divine Comedy, where St. Benedict himself is made to praise this arrangement:

Here [in Paradise] is Macarius, here is Romualdus,
Here are my brothers who kept steadfast hearts
And planted their feet within the cloister walls.
[Paradiso 22, 49]

Clearly Dante reflects the taming of eremiticism: Macarius the Egyptian desert father, and Romuald, his medieval Italian counterpart, are firmly "within the cloister walls."

In fact, Romuald's Campus Maldoli or Monte Amiata hermitage or eremo was established for five priests at the behest of the local bishop Tedaldo, recently appointed to the see of Arezzo, probably towards the end of Romuald's life, in 1023 or 1025. Peter Damian says nothing particular about it because it fit Romuald's pattern of founding little hermitages and staying a year or so before moving on. But not until the construction of a monastery or cenobio in 1080 did the site grow, even taking in smaller congregations of hermitages and monasteries to become the Camaldolese Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict. However, it is an institution of which, as translator Matus notes, "Saint Romuald never even dreamed."

Romuald, His Life

Peter Damian's Life of Romuald is filled with standard hagiographic devices such as miracles, battles with demons, prophetic warnings, and attempted assassinations. These are based literally on passages from Jerome, Athanasius' Life of Antony, Gregory the Great's Dialogues, Hilarion, and John Cassian's Conferences. Additionally, Peter Damian's chronology is sometimes awry but easily correctable. But the trajectory and moral force of his biography is made clear from the first sentence:

Against you, unclean world, I protest!

Here is the core desert sentiment -- not merely a dissatisfaction or a reformist attitude but a condemnation of a whole realm, exemplified to our biographer by the ancient sophists now revived as theologians and apologists for the status quo. They dissipate their talents and skills in the service of the church and courts, perpetuating the misery of the people. So Peter Damian tells us that he thus decided to take up the story of Romuald because no one else has come forth to do so and thus provide "a few words that might be useful for the many."

For me the most useful thing to do would have been to stay hidden in my hermitage, meditating on my sins, instead of telling a tale about somebody else's virtues. The right thing for me would have been to bewail the darkness of my errors instead of darkening the splendors of Romuald's holiness with these inept words.

Romuald was born into a military aristocracy and grew up with its excesses and vices. At twenty years of age, he witnessed his father defeat and kill a relative in a sword duel over land ownership. Romuald visited the monastery of St. Apollonaris of Classe to expiate his father's sin with the prescribed forty days of canonical penance. This incident demonstrates the youth's sensitivity and his proclivity towards a more virtuous life, but Peter Damian adds the apparition of St. Apollonaris to confirm Romuald's decision to stay and become a monk.

But the monks of Classe are dissolute and decadent. Young Romuald raises his voice against their vices and so incurs their wrath that they plot to kill him, in the style reminiscent of St. Benedict himself. Quitting the monastery, Romuald encounters Marino, a hermit of Venice, and places himself as his disciple, for though Marino was crude and prayed his own version of the Psalter (that is, Psalms and other readings and prayers), he clearly became Romuald's model.

Marino was endowed with great simplicity and absolute sincerity. No one had trained him in the hermit life; he had simply taken it on by himself, moved by his own good will.

Romuald then joined Peter Orsolo, who abdicated as doge of Venice, John of Gradenigo, the Abbot Gar of the Spanish monastery of St. Michael of Cuix1 (who happened to be visiting Venice), and Marino in traveling to Gari's abbey. Romuald and Marino set up a hermitage adjacent to the monastery, and

Romuald's ardent quest for God and his growth in virtue made him an example of monastic living for the brothers. Soon everyone in the hermitage took to asking Romuald's advice in all matters practical and spiritual.

Romuald shared a hut with one other brother at a time, though the hermitage as a whole clearly grew, and was to inspire Romuald's special vision of monastery and hermitage as a single foundation. Here he helped till and harvest a grain field and maintained a simple diet of bread and beans. Years later, his advice about fasting, doubtless perfected at Cuix, was to "eat every day but feel hungry every day."

Romuald also availed himself of the Cuix library to read about the desert elders and to develop a lectio divina which would become his Psalter. In due time he was ordained a priest.

By 988, Peter Orsolo had died, Marino had gone to Apulia, and John Gradenigo had become a hermit outside Monte Cassino, St. Benedict of Nursia's original foundation near Rome. Romuald left Spain to live as a hermit in Italy. He tried to build a monastery near Verghereto or Bagno but the monks drove him away in jealousy because he had collected alms for a neighboring monastery that had suffered a fire.

In 999, the Holy Roman emperor Otto III made the French abbot-scholar Gerbert of Aurillac pope and Romuald abbot of the monastery at Classe -- Gerbert perhaps having recommended Romuald based on hearsay. By this time, the monks of Classe seemed disposed to Romuald, but not for long. Their comfortable system of privilege and class rank was overthrown by their new abbot. They reacted with murmurs, gossip, and scandal-mongering, enough to discourage Romuald, who quit within a year.

Romuald was clearly not an administrator but a wanderer. He was best as a counselor, adviser, an ascetic model. His foundations were inevitably resented not only for his strict rules but perhaps more fundamentally because they included a new two-tiered system of monk and hermit, a natural system in Eastern Christian settings but resisted in the West. His ideal is exemplified by his encounter with a hermit named Venerio, who had left a monastery and subsequently lived as a hermit for six years.

Romuald: "To what authority have you submitted your  rule of life? As a hermit, whom do you obey?
Venerio: I am under no particular authority. I am free to do what seems best to me.
Romuald: If you are bearing the cross of Christ, you must not forget Christ's obedience. Now go, ask your abbot to give his consent, and then come back here, but as his humble disciple.

Was this really how Romuald felt? Or is it how Peter Damian, bishop and cardinal, thought to reconcile eremiticism and coenobiticism? The unhappy experiences of Romuald and his incessant wanderings suggest no easy reconciliation.

In this anecdote, Venerio gets his abbot's consent, residing thereafter on abbey land, high on an inaccessible cliff site, in "beloved solitude." And there

He lived alone, without the comfort of human companionship, without eating bread or cooked food. ... He gathered roots and berries to eat, and a cleft in the rock collected enough rain water during winter to provide him with water throughout the summer.

Romuald next went to Monte Cassino, then Pero near Rome, where he lived in a new hermitage. In 1001, Emperor Otto III built an adjacent coenobium, hoping to keep alive Romuald's dream of a cooperative hermitage and monastery, but again the monastery abbot refused to accept Romuald, and the project failed. Romuald then went to Porec (Parenzo, in modern Croatia) for three years.

In 1005, Romuald is invited to come to Biforco to give counsel. But his efforts  are fruitless, and he travels on to Val di Castro, where he again fails. Because he never wanted to be a superior, Romuald would refuse the abbacy and have the hermit-monks choose their own abbot, with whom Romuald would invariably quarrel about rules and administration.

What are we to make of his fiery zeal? Is it alal misdirected? Should he hhave given up and simply remained a hermit in anonymity? When Romuald heard that the latest abbot of Classe had been elected by simony, he stormed there to get rid of him but narrowly escaped assassination. Despite failing at Val di Castro, he nevertheless returned to correct its new abbot, and was once again asked to leave. Romuald was, as Peter Damian puts it, "like a cedar of Lebanon in a briar patch." Or perhaps a thorn in the flesh of monks. Peter Damian knows what his readers must think:

Now let me warn the reader not to misinterpret Romuald's movement from place to place. In his case, this was no vice but a virtue, as his intention was always to do the Lord's work. Of course, one of the reasons for his continual change of location was the fact that, wherever he lived, vast crowds of men and women would gather.

Bruno of Querfurt says of Romuald simply that he is "always a wanderer, now here, now there. ..."

Romuald may have finally found success at Sitria, where be built a coenobium to accompany the hermitage. Indeed, "the forests and hills were full of hermits, and it was impossible to live there," meaning in the small hermitage. So the hermits may have welcomed the coenobium and its discipline. In any case, Romuald wisely "had them build a monastery and elect themselves an abbot, and then without saying a word, he withdrew ..."

Conclusion

Like the Desert Fathers, Romuald earned a reputation as irascible and unyielding. Yet Peter Damian's portrait of him also shows his popularity with common people, his prophet's sense of justice and compassion, his personal piety and sensitivity. "For all his austerity of life," adds our biographer, "Romuald always had a twinkle in his eye and a ready smile on his lips."

Bruno described Romuald as nothing short of "the father of hermits, who lived according to right reason and followed the monastic Rule," a challenge that few contemporaries sought to resolve. In his narrative, Bruno has one of Romuald's friends say simply that Romuald was "the greatest hermit of our day." Undoubtedly this is true, both in terms of personality and era, both in pointing out the virtues of the eremitical life and highlighting the inherent and unresolved tensions between the hermit and the coenobite.


BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES

The Life of the Five Brothers by Bruno of Querfurt and The Life of Blessed Romual by Peter Damian, translated with commentary by Thomas Matus, in The Mystery of Romuald and the Five Brothers: Stories from the Benedictines and Camaldolese, by Thomas Matus. Trabuco Canyon, CA: Source Books and Hermitage Books, 1994.

  1. The brick walls of the ancient monastery of San Miguel de Cuix are today reassembled as the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.