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Ch. 8: The Hermits of Europe

Most readers will recollect what an important part in the old ballads and romances is played by the hermit.

He stands in strongest contrast to the knight. He fills up, as it were, by his gentleness and self-sacrifice, what is wanting in the manhood of the knight, the slave too often of his own fierceness and self-assertion. The hermit rebukes him when he sins, heals him when he is wounded, stays his hand in some mad murderous duel, such as was too common in days when any two armed horsemen meeting on road or lawn ran blindly at each other in the mere lust of fighting, as boars or stags might run. Sometimes he interferes to protect the oppressed serf; sometimes to rescue the hunted deer which has taken sanctuary at his feet. Sometimes, again, his influence is that of intellectual superiority; of worldly experience; of the travelled man who has seen many lands and many nations. Sometimes, again, that of sympathy; for he has been a knight himself, and fought and sinned, and drank of the cup of vanity and vexation of spirit, like the fierce warrior who kneels at his feet.

All who have read (and all ought to have read) Spenser's Fairy Queen, must recollect his charming description of the hermit with whom Prince Arthur leaves Serena and the squire after they have been wounded by "the blatant beast" of Slander; when--

"Toward night they came unto a plain By which a little hermitage there lay Far from all neighbourhood, the which annoy it may.

"And nigh thereto a little chapel stood, Which being all with ivy overspread Decked all the roof, and shadowing the rood, Seemed like a grove fair branched overhead; Therein the hermit which his here led In straight observance of religious vow, Was wont his hours and holy things to bed; And therein he likewise was praying now, When as these knights arrived, they wist not where nor how.

"They stayed not there, but straightway in did pass: Who when the hermit present saw in place, From his devotions straight he troubled was; Which breaking off, he toward them did pace With staid steps and grave beseeming grace: For well it seemed that whilom he had been Some goodly person, and of gentle race, That could his good to all, and well did ween How each to entertain with courtesy beseen.


"He thence them led into his hermitage, Letting their steeds to graze upon the green: Small was his house, and like a little cage, For his own term, yet inly neat and clean, Decked with green boughs, and flowers gay beseen Therein he them full fair did entertain, Not with such forged shews, as fitter been For courting fools that courtesies would feign, But with entire affection and appearance plain.


How be that careful hermit did his best With many kinds of medicines meet to tame The poisonous humour that did most infest Their reakling wounds, and every day them duly dressed.

"For he right well in leech's craft was seen; And through the long experience of his days, Which had in many fortunes tossed been, And passed through many perilous assays: He knew the divers want of mortal ways, And in the minds of men had great insight; Which with sage counsel, when they went astray, He could inform and them reduce aright; And all the passions heal which wound the weaker sprite.

"For whilome he had been a doughty knight, As any one that lived in his days, And proved oft in many a perilous fight, In which he grace and glory won always, And in all battles bore away the bays: But being now attached with timely age, And weary of this world's unquiet ways, He took himself unto this hermitage, In which he lived alone like careless bird in cage."

This picture is not poetry alone: it is history. Such men actually lived, and such work they actually did, from the southernmost point of Italy to the northernmost point of Scotland, during centuries in which there was no one else to do the work. The regular clergy could not have done it. Bishops and priests were entangled in the affairs of this world, striving to be statesmen, striving to be landowners, striving to pass Church lands on from father to son, and to establish themselves as an hereditary caste of priests. The chaplain or house-priest who was to be found in every nobleman's, almost every knight's castle, was apt to become a mere upper servant, who said mass every morning in return for the good cheer which he got every evening, and fetched and carried at the bidding of his master and mistress. But the hermit who dwelt alone in the forest glen, occupied, like an old Hebrew prophet, a superior and an independent position. He needed nought from any man save the scrap of land which the lord was only too glad to allow him in return for his counsels and his prayers. And to him, as to a mysterious and supernatural personage, the lord went privately for advice in his quarrels with the neighbouring barons, or with his own kin. To him the lady took her children when they were sick, to be healed, as she fancied, by his prayers and blessings; or poured into his ears a hundred secret sorrows and anxieties which she dare not tell to her fierce lord, who hunted and fought the livelong day, and drank too much liquor every night.

This class of men sprang up rapidly, by natural causes, and yet by a Divine necessity, as soon as the Western Empire was conquered by the German tribes; and those two young officers whom we saw turning monks at Treves, in the time of St. Augustine, may, if they lived to be old men, have given sage counsel again and again to fierce German knights and kinglets, who had dispossessed the rich and effeminate landowners of their estates, and sold them, their wives, and children, in gangs by the side of their own slaves. Only the Roman who had turned monk would probably escape that fearful ruin; and he would remain behind, while the rest of his race was enslaved or swept away, as a seed of Christianity and of civilization, destined to grow and spread, and bring the wild conquerors in due time into the kingdom of God.

For the first century or two after the invasion of the barbarians, the names of the hermits and saints are almost exclusively Latin. Their biographies represent them in almost every case as born of noble Roman parents. As time goes on, German names appear, and at last entirely supersede the Latin ones; showing that the conquering race had learned from the conquered to become hermits and monks like them.

Charles Kingsley