Hermits and hagiography

Seen positively, hagiography is a form of stereotyping, an attempt to pattern certain behaviors and virtues in a model saint or holy person. Seen negatively, it is mythologizing and idealizing to the point of exaggerating magical elements and filtering virtues through miracles and powers, thus distorting what the individual ought to get from the story.

Yet cultures have always managed to get out of hagiographies whatever they want or need. Popular superstition has always notoriously taken stories literally and created cults around saints based on their power to heal or to combat demons. Is it possible for people with that level of consciousness to abstract the virtues in the saint’s life and live those virtues, ignoring the elements of magic and power? Or is that really a function of hagiography anyway? The teaching of virtue must be done in a careful manner appealing to logic and intuition, not left to chance with such stories, but religion around the world has always enjoyed an element of saint-mongering.

An example of the lengths to which hagiography goes with regard to eremitism is seen in the two famous Old English poems about Guthlac (673-714), the English saint and hermit. The two poems hardly mention the circumstances of his eremitism. We know from other sources that Guthlac became a monk and in his last fifteen years was a hermit in a desolate sector of Croyland, Lincolnshire. But we know knothing about his life as a hermit, not only because his biographers may not have appreciated it but also because the audience for such biographies would not.

Guthlac A only mentions that while the good pursue virtue and alms, “some dwell in deserts” and become “lone-dwellers.” Guthlac was led to a “spot hidden from men” and “raised a sacred abode” where he “dwelt alone in the secret place.” This desolate place, “the secret spot, empty and desert, uninhabited,” was the former abode of demons, who spend the rest of Guthric’s life tormenting him. Should it occur to the writer or his audience that this secret place might be Guthlac’s mind or spirit or soul? Perhaps the audience subconsciously comes to gather as much, but it won’t tell us. That would make Guthlac the true “Everyman” but even as it is, hagiography is fulfilling that purpose.

The bulk of the poem is about these stylized torments of demons, reminiscent, though much less artful, of the stories of the early Christian desert hermits.

The second poem, Guthlac B, doesn’t even mention that he was a hermit.

This nonchalance about eremitism and the role it might place in the holiness of its subject taxes the writer’s knowledge of psychology. Guthlac and other hermits are folded into the profile of saints typical in medieval hagiography. Perhaps eremitism was not likely to raise the writer’s brow or be seen as a spiritual factor, only as a good setting for a stereotypical battle against demons.

Hermits were and are not the only ones plagued by demons. Hagiography does not even make the hermit the only one privileged to battle demons like a solitary champion in the field of humanity. Many of these stereotypes have lingered in the popular mind, but the hermits did not always enjoy a status far above their spiritual earning. This consciousness of hermits comes later in the Middle Ages, transmuted into anchoritism, mysticism, and spirituality. But the crude hagiographic period retains its naive appeal, even if it remains ignorant of the true nature of eremitism.