For most Westerners, the image of the hermit was established by the quintessential Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote, in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (mingling his description of hermits with that of monks):
These unhappy exiles from social life were impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition. Their mutual resolution was supported by the example of millions of either sex, of every age, and of every rank; and each proselyte, who entered the gates of a monastery was persuaded that he trod the steep and thorny path of eternal happiness.
But Gibbon’s essay lacked the choice details that his generation would have liked to confirm the degenerate character of the hermits. Indeed, that Gibbon himself did not supply such details suggets that he understood they were largely hagiography. Gibbon’s real concern was cultural, the rise of Christianity representing to him barbarism.
Gibbon did not abstract any particular virtues from the eremites, based on renunciation of the world or other self-discipline, for Gibbon, like his contemporaries — and not unlike modern audiences — were not abstemious in pursuing a convivial life of social networking and indulgence.
Late classical and early medieval accounts of hermits and recluses were largely hagiographical narratives of great ascetic deeds and miracles. They often failed to convey any moral quality. The genre of literature required that audiences first be convinced of a person’s holiness, and then respond by prayer to the saint and assent to the church authorities assigned to promote the social order represented by the saint. Thus the limits of spirituality in those early centuries.
An example of such literature is the description of a certain recluse named Hospicius by 6th century bishop and chronicler Gregory of Tours:
There was at this time in the city of Nice a recluse Hospicius who was very abstemious. He wore iron chains next to his body and over these a hair shirt and ate nothing but plain bread with a few dates. And during Lent he lived on the roots of Egyptian herbs such as the hermits use, which were brought to him by traders. First he would drink the soup in which they were cooked and eat the roots next day. The Lord did not disdain to work great miracles through him.
We need not pause over the character of this archetypal description. Dates and Egyptian herbs in Nice?
But audiences insist on stereotypes if not archetypes. Hence the popular image of the hermit as an artifact in occasional modern fiction, where hermits are often eccentric players in a carnival of madness. As a random example, Julia Blackburn describes a hermit character in her historical fiction The Leper’s Companions, set in the 15th century:
The hermit was filthy. His cloak was stiff with dirt and so was his long beard and his straggling hair. His skin was cracked and broken and he had rotten teeth. He was talking to himself in a nasal, high-pitched voice while scratching and twitching and searching his body for vermin. He smelt of excrement.
A priest happens by, asking for guidance, and the hermit assures him that he has it. The hermit pulls out a withered severed hand, the hand of St. Anthony himself. He avers that he shared the saint’s cave once. The hermit then boasts about his collection of bones:
I had a basket filled with the fingers of Holy Innocents but I lost them in a storm at sea. And I had all the teeth of John the Baptist, but they went as well. At least I got Saint Anselm’s thigh bone and brought it here. …
Then there is the castaway, the involuntary solitary, alone on a deserted island. The protagonist of the novel, a leper, now lost on this same island, comes across the castaway’s hut, and a loaf of bread made from herbs. The leper spots the man in the trees.
He was naked but partly covered by the length of his hair and his beard. Once he had been seen he began to laugh a shrill nervous laugh like the warning cry of some bird.
The leper sat down with his back to the stone wall of the house and waited. Slowly the laughing man drew closer and closer, until he sat crouched in front of him, shivering and staring and only occasionally breaking out into a spasm of high-pitched laughter. “I’m the only man in the world left alive!” he announced in a language the leper could understand easily. “I’m the only man in the world left alive!” repeating the words, and with no others to follow, as if he had forgotten everything else that could be said.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Benn Gunn (from Treasure Island) comes to mind, when the young narrator of the story, exploring the deserted island, discovers someone living there:
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Ben Gunn,” he answered, and his voice sounded hoarse and awkward, like a rusty lock. “I’m poor Ben Gunn, I am; and I haven’t spoke with a Christian these three years.”
I could now see that he was a white man like myself and that his features were even pleasing. His skin, wherever it was exposed, was burnt by the sun; even his lips were black, and his fair eyes looked quite startling in so dark a face. Of all the beggar-men that I had seen or fancied, he was the chief for raggedness. He was clothed with tatters of old ship’s canvas and old sea-cloth, and this extraordinary patchwork was all held together by a system of the most various and incongruous fastenings, brass buttons, bits of stick, and loops of tarry gaskin. About his waist he wore an old brass-buckled leather belt, which was the one thing solid in his whole accoutrement.
“Three years!” I cried. “Were you shipwrecked?”
“Nay, mate,” said he; “marooned.”
Granted that Julia Blackburn’s work is not strictly historical but with a touch of impressionism, fantasy, magic realism. She is not horrified by her characters, any more than Stevenson, whose Ben Gunn is a bit more rational given the 19th century. Unlike Gibbon, we may imagine, who from the comfort of his Swiss chateau, could not countenance the vicissitudes of past era’s. For Gibbon, as for the neo-classicists of his day, everyone was either an aristocrat or an indecipherable.
A strong imagination is needed to recreate the past, and then a stronger one to extrapolate the universality of human experience into something tangible and humane. Within the maze of this history of human experience is the hermit.