Weaver, Charles P. The Hermit in English Literature from the Beginnings to 1660. Nashville, TN: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1924; reprints: Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973 and Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1977.
With the notable exception of Mary Rotha Clay's 1914 classic Hermits and Anchorites of England, no other comprehensive English language historical treatment of medieval English hermits has been attempted like Weaver's book. The work is old and modestly provides essentially a bibliography of literature without a strong critical apparatus, but it is a significant work nevertheless. Weaver's dissertation is fairly exhaustive on the subject in so far as it itemizes every occurrence of hermits in English writings up to the definitive disappearance of eremitism in England by the sixteenth century. The subject is, of course, narrow and specialized, which accounts for why the book is almost impossible to find nowadays.
Like any dissertation writer, the author was obliged first to demonstrate a thorough grasp of the literature on the subject. In this case, the book includes the standard survey introduction on the history of hermits outside of England, a survey intended to demonstrate the universality of eremitism. At the outset, then, the author rightly emphasizes the clear distinction between the hermit and the anchorite, and treats the overall topic accordingly, excluding anchoritic guides (like Aelred's and the Ancrene Wisse) from hermit literature.
Contemplation was not, for the hermit, the self-absorbed asceticism that it was for the non-mobile anchorite. In the early and central Middles Ages in England, the hermit resided in wayside cottages and huts, attentive to self-sufficiency between garden and forest gathering, taking on miscellaneous socially useful employments such as road tendering and bridge repairing, or working as hospital worker or alms-gatherer while preserving solitude.
With urbanization in the later Middle Ages came poverty, charity, beggary, and fraud. The tenuous relations of hermits to ecclesiastical and civil supervision became more defined and rigid. Ritual and regulation pursued the solitary. Licensing of urban hermits as beggars signaled that authorities had consigned the hermit to the mass of the city underclass. Writing in the fifteenth century, Malory confirms this decline in his Morte d'Arthur, reflecting on the contrast of ancient and contemporary hermit:
For in those days it was not the guise of hermits, as it is nowadays. For there were none hermits, but they had been men of worship and prowess, and those hermits held great household and refreshed people that were in distress.
Such a complex social phenomenon as the hermit, not easily codified by the church and not easily subordinated to class or social structure, was a target of government suppression in seventeenth-century England. The suppression had a profound effect on eremitism in Europe as well, for if eremitism in its most thriving form could not survive in England, it would not likely be revived or encouraged on the continent, even by the Catholic Church. In general, the hermit went underground for centuries, percolating through the romantics, the poets, the Transcendentalists, and the observers of nature, who revived the insights of the hermit but could not and did not want to revive the ecclesiastical context.
Here are the chapters of Weaver's book:
- From Earliest Times to the Romances of Chivalry
- The Hermit in the Religious Literature of the Middle English
- The Hermit in the Romances of Chivalry
- The Hermit in English Literature from 1500-1660
- The Philosophy of Solitude, or the Hermit's Contribution to Literature and Life
In the first chapter, the author notes the transformation of the hermit image during the early centuries in England, evolving from historical accounts where the hermit is an object of wonder to later accounts where the hermit is a revered literary ideal. The chief representative works are Bede's stories of St. Cuthbert and Ultan, Cynewulf's poem about Guthlac, and stories of St. Neot, contemporary of King Alfred.
With chapter two, the coverage spans 1050 to 1400. Middle English religious literature was originally based on hagiography or legends of saints, and pious tales. These genres portrayed hermits as protectors of the weak and pursued, as personal counselors, and as benign friends to animals. Instances are found in stories about Saints Beckett, Brendon, Christopher, and Blaze, and in the Alphabet of Tales, a translation of Etienne de Besancon's work. The genre of tales culminated in Pilgrimage of the Life of Man by John Lydgate.
Lydgate's work offers an epitome of the hermit. Among its stories are tales of hermits and animals: bears herding sheep under a hermit's tutelage. a bread-eating wolf made gentle by a hermit, and a destitute hermit fed by a raven. There are hermit counselors in the style of the Lives of the Fathers. And the hermits are imbued with characteristic virtues: generosity, hospitality, solicitousness for the weak and oppressed, and resistance to temptation and diabolical wiles.
One representative story in Lydgate that typifies the hermit tells of a wilderness hermit who discovers that another hermit has been long dwelling in the forest. The latter hermit is considered a wild man. The first hermit goes in search of him, but the wild man, scenting another human, flees deeper within the forest. Finally the first hermit catches up to the wild man and holds him fast. "Father, I pray thee," he tells the older hermit, "tell me a word that I may be saved by." The wild man looks at him and answers, "Flee man's fellowship and be still, and you shall be saved."
Romances of chivalry are considered in chapter three. The romances, which invariably include hermits as characters, were distinctly either religious or non-religious. Chivalry had always been a religious phenomenon. The Church had sponsored knighthood and the knight as emblematic Christian militancy against both religious and secular enemies. It successfully accomplished this control of chivalry through symbolism, ritual and approbation.
The hermit likewise fell under this status and militancy. In Henry Lovelich's History of the Holy Grail, a work that anticipates Malory's more famous portrait of Arthurian times, hermits are portrayed as possessed by and in perpetual combat (albeit spiritual) with demons, always defeating them. Hermits are portrayed as healers and counselors to knights. And in Etienne de Bourbon's tale of the infamous Robert the Devil, the renegade Robert's murder of seven hermits is treated as tantamount to the slaying of seven knights. Notable is the ambiguous status of hermits as being not quite religious but not quite secular.
A clear transition to a secular conception of the hermit appears in the secular romances and literary works such as Langland's Piers Plowman. The characters in these romances are necessarily Christian, but their lives and virtues are projections of personality and society. Secular portrayal of hermits reflects the increasing complexity of economic and social conditions in later medieval England. The hermit is presented as a dispenser of hospitality to strangers, a healer of wounded knights, and burier of the dead. In a religious capacity, the hermit is the ideal confessor to knights, a counselor who interprets dreams and visions.
The hermit is still a defender of the weak and a penitent resister of temptation in his secular mode, but his status is portrayed as free and autonomous, not in a role subordinate to or even representing the Church. The hermit's advice has a deeper psychological quality than a clergy's penance and absolution. The hermit's healing abilities are a veritable precursor to science. As expected, instances of this presentation of the hermit are found throughout Malory, and Weaver describes them in detail.
With chapter four, the author is considering the waning of the hermit in English literature during the period from 1500 to 1660. Certainly the disappearance of the strictly religious hermit has come, and the figure of the hermit in fiction, ballads, drama, masques, and poetry is a secular one. The hermit is transformed from confessor and counselor to philosopher discoursing or dispersing morals rather than religion. From protector of the weak and oppressed, the hermit is now the informal diplomat brokering peace between warring factions and feuding parties. And in poetry, the transformation is complete. The spiritual fruits of eremitism become the "hermit mood," a reflective philosophic view of life that succeeds the old religious debate of active versus contemplative -- in short, a philosophy of solitude.
New printings of older tales were presented as the genre of fiction: Robert the Devil, Knight of the Swan, Syr Degote, Guy of Warwick, all standard tales that included hermits, were now popularized with illustrations, taking advantages of the printing press. But with the passage of time, the hermit in English fiction becomes the loquacious tale-teller, culminating in the windbag scoundrel Friar Tuck of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.
The "hermit mood" occurs more clearly in poetry, ranging from Lovelace to Milton and in the prose of Izaak Walton's idyllic Compleat Angler. Weaver cites 1660 as his terminus because after this date hermits in English literature are an imitative shell of what they once were, only caricatures of a bygone era.
In chapter five, the author explores the philosophy of solitude, a conscious recovery of the "hermit mood." For later generations, any solitary place was a "hermitage" and any propensity to solitude a mark of refinement, as in John George Zimmerman's An Examination of the Advantages of Solitude, published in 1808:
[Solitude is a state of mind] in which the soul abandons itself to its own reflections. ... [It] consists in the enjoyment of actual retirement and perfect tranquility, or only in a banishment of the recollection of all surrounding objects.
In these later literary presentations, the hermit is a source for the realization of the inner life as opposed to life-style. For example, Thoreau's solitude is essentially self-examination, an opening of self to a higher order of being outside ecclesiastical paths and lifetime vocation. This is only to be expected in the post-Enlightenment period, yet here the hermit achieves the ideal spiritual unity between God and nature, unaffected by rationalist philosophy. The hermit has bequeathed a universal sentiment. But treatment of Thoreau takes the subject beyond Weaver's chronological treatment.
The author's summary rightly sets the parameters of the subject: from artful companionship of guides like Ancren Wisse to full embrace of solitude in Richard Rolle to an accommodating middle way in Milton and later secularists like Emerson, to curative solitude in the romantics such as Wordsworth.
For antiquarian interest, be it in hermits or literature in general, Weaver's book pursues all the instances of hermits in English literature for his selected period of coverage. He provides a useful outline and description with highlights. The subject is probably too esoteric for most readers, though, once it delves into detail. Nevertheless, Weaver's contribution to the history of eremitism remains a worthy chart to an obscure treasure.