The Hermit in Lore: Walter Scott's Ivanhoe

Among the many oddities, anachronisms, and contrivances of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, one of the earliest works of modern historical fiction (1819), is the character of the hermit, none other than the Friar Tuck of Robin Hood tales. Granted the obvious fiction that a Franciscan friar could not exist when Francis of Assisi himself had not yet established his order, the character called the Jolly Hermit and the Clerk of Copmanhurst reveals a great deal about what readers of Scott's fiction believed or expected from a historical entertainment - and what they believed about hermits.

The hermit is introduced in Chapter 16; the Black Knight (Richard the Lionhearted) enters a thick forest at dusk and encounters

the ruins of a very small chapel, of which the roof had partly fallen in. The building, when entire, had never been above sixteen feet long by twelve feet in breadth.

Nestled in a copse, this ruined chapel is not the evocative vision of Scott's contemporary romantics, though at first it seems so.

The whole peaceful and quiet scene lay glimmering in twilight before the eyes of the traveller, giving him good assurance of lodging for the night since it was a special duty of those hermits who dwelt in the woods to exercise hospitality towards benighted or bewildered passengers.

But the hermit (erroneously called interchangeably an "anchorite" by Scott) is nothing but a cynical joke. The hermit has his visitor believe that he leads an ascetic life living on pulses and water -- though his stout appearance belies that -- and that he tells his beads all day -- though rosaries were not common at this time of the Middle Ages. The knight discovers that his host dines on the venison he takes through skilful archery in the forest and enjoys wine, not water, the privilege of priests, however poor. By Chapter 17 the duo drinks and sings loudly. The hermit admits of a saying of an old abbot, suggesting that he was expelled from a monastery and, perhaps, defrocked. The tone is of a grand ribaldry.

In chapter 20, the anticlericalism of the common people is expressed through two characters who come upon the hermitage preceded by Robin of Lockesley, namely Wamba and Gurth. Says one,

If this be the habitation of a thief, it makes good the old proverb, 'The nearer the church the farther from God.'

A little later, they note that the Clerk of Copmanhurst

kills half the deer that are stolen in this walk. Men say that the keeper has complained to his official, and that he will be stripped of his cowl and cope altogether if he keep not better order.

Once accepted into the friar's dwelling, the hermit changes attire to the green of Lockesley's outlaws. Wamba helps him change, saying, "Is it lawful for me to aid you to transform thyself from a holy hermit into a sinful forester?" "'Never fear," said the hermit; 'I will but confess the sins of my green cloak to my gray friar's frock, and all shall be well again.'" Then, having heard their mission from Lockesley, Wamba remarks:

I trust the valour of the knight will be truer that the religion of the hermit or the honesty of the yeoman, for this Lockesley looks like a born deer-stealer and the priest like a lusty hypocrite.

Finally, as the party is accoutred and prepares to leave, Lockelsey bids the friar wash the stupor of drunkenness from himself at a basin which, being just outside the ruined entrance, may be taken for a baptismal font. The knight says: "'When didst thou drink asleep a draught of water before, Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst?' To which the riposte is: "'Ever since my wine butt leaked, and let out its liquor by an illegal vent, and so left me nothing to drink but my patron's bounty here.'" Of course, the priest's exclusive access to wine was another issue for later reformers.

As the party rides away, the friar is eager to meet the story's villains, swearing by the devil to punish them.

"Swearest thou, Holy Clerk?" said the Black Knight. "Clerk me no clerks," replied the transformed priest; "by St. George and the Dragon, I am no longer a shaveling than while my frock is on my back. When I am cased in my green cassock, I will drink, swear, and woo a lass with any blithe forester in the West Riding."

And so on.

So much for the image of the hermit in the Middle Ages. Scott extends the distrust of hermits by medieval churchmen to new heights of justification for the eventual suppression of eremiticism in England, and the suppression of the suppressors. Nor do we see much of our fraud hermit in the rest of the novel until the end of the book, when the Black Knight is revealed to all to be King Richard and the friar confesses his flippant attitude to Richard as condemnable treason.

"For what art thou cast down, mad priest?" said Richard; "art thou afraid the diocesan should learn how truly thou dost serve Our lady and St. Dunstan? Tush, man! fear it not; Richard of England betrays no secrets that pass over the flagon."

Replies the friar, "'It is not the crosier I fear, but the sceptre.'" And Richard grants him a lifetime endowment of venison and wine.

Indeed, a hermit might wisely fear not the crosier but the sceptre. It is the destruction of his soul.