Article "Hermits" in A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, edited by William Smith and Samuel Cheetham. Hartford, CT: J.B. Burr, 1880.
From the time of Edward Gibbon and through the standard academic treatments of Western Christian hermits into the 19th and early 20th century, the point of view was a narrow impressionistic presentation of eremitism with little or no attention given to distinctions of hagiography and fact, nor to sayings of the hermits that would provide some clue to their motives. These shortcomings are reflected in an important standard resource such as Smith's.
Bibliogrpahical references within the text and Greek characters and terms are here largely omitted, and punctuation simplified for clarity.
Some medieval writers on monasticism define hermits (eremitae) as solitaries in cells, and anchorites (anachoretae) as solitaries without any fixed dwelling place. More correctly, anchorites are solitaries who have passed a time of probation as coenobites, and hermits those who enter into the solitary life without this preparation. Generally the word eremite includes all solitary ascetics of one sort or another. Other designations of them in early ecclesiastical writers are [in Latin] viri Dei, renunciantes, continentes, cellulani, inclusi, reclusi, monachi, etc. and, later, religiosi. The [Greek] word monachos was soon transfered from the hermit in his solitary cell to the coenobite in his community.
The asceticism of the desert was among Christians the first step towards the asceticism of the cloister. It was prompted by a passionate longing to fly from the world to escape not merely the fury of the Decian or Diocletian persecutions but the contaminations of surrounding heathenism. It commended itself to devout Christians by reasons which, however specious, really contradict and cancel each other. For it seemed at once a refuge from spiritual dangers, and a bolder challenge to the powers of darkness to do their worst; at once a safer, quieter life than the perilous conflict day by day with an evil world, and, in another aspect, a life of sterner self-denial. In the pages of its panegyrists the solitary life presents itself now in one and now in the other of these irreconcileable phases, according to the mood or temperament of the writer. It may be replied that, far from being either more heroic or more free from danger, it is neither.
Until about the middle of the 3rd century the more austere Christians were only distinguished by epithets, without withdrawing from the society of their fellows. About that time, Antony and Ammon in Egypt, and Paul in the Thebaid, led the way to the desert, and their example soon found a crowd of imitators. In Syria Hilarion, in Armenia Eustathius, bishop of Sebaste, in Cappadocia Basil urged on the movement. It spread quickly through Pontus, Illyricum, and Thrace westwards, and the personal prestige of Athanasius, an exile from his see, helped to make it popular in Italy at Rome. But the solitary life never found so many votaries in Europe as in Egypt and in the East, partly because of the comparative inclemency of the climate, and the proportionate need of more appliances to support life, partly of the more practical character of the West.
The institution of lauras was the connecting link between the hermitage and the monastery, in the later and more ordinary use of that word.
Pachomius at Tabenna in Upper Egypt had already begun to organise a community of hermits by arranging that three should occupy one cell, and that all who were near enough should meet together for the dailv meal. The monks of Mons Nitriu, too, near the Lake Mareotis, though many of them in separate cells, had refectories for common use, chapels in their midst for common worship on Saturdays, Sundays and holy days, certain presbyters appointed to officiate in these, and certain lay officers (oeconomi) elected by the older hermits to provide for their temporal wants, such as they were, and to transmit their scanty alms (diaconia) derived chiefly from the sale of the rush mats which they wove. In the Thebaid a hermit named Joannes presided over a large number of hermits. One of the first "lauras," or irregular clusters of hermits dwelling close together, was at Pharan near the Dead Sea in the 4th century. Another was founded near Jerusalem in the next century by Sabas, a hermit from Cappadocia, under the patronage of Euthymius.
The early ecclesiastical histories teem with the almost suicidal austerities of the more celebrated hermits. Not content with imposing on themselves the burden hard to be borne of a lifelong loneliness — for even without any vow of continuance it was very rarely that a hermit returned to the companionship of his fellows — and of a silence not to be broken even by prayer, they vied with one another in devising self-tortures: wandering about, almost naked, like wild beasts; barely supporting life by a little bread and water, or a few herbs; only allowing their macerated frames three or four hours sleep in the twenty-four, and those on the bare rock or in some narrow cell where it was impossible to straighten the limbs; counting cleanliness a luxury and a sin; maiming themselves, sometimes with their own hands, to escape being made bishops by force; and shunning a moment's intercourse even with those naturally dearest. It was only in the decline of this enthusiasm that hermits began to take up their abode near cities. The "father of hermits" used to compare a hermit near a town to a fish out of water.
Usually the hermit's abode was in a cave, or in a small hut which his own hands had rudely put together, but some, like the "possessed with evil spirits" in Gadara mentioned in the New Testament, had their dwellings in tombs. Others roved about incessantly to avoid the visits of the curious, like the "gyrovagi" in having no fixed abode, but unlike them in keeping always alone, and in feeding only on the wild herbs which they gathered. Others, the "Stylitae," aspiring to yet more utter isolation, planted themselves on the summit of solitary columns. Of these the most famous were the Simeon, who in Syria during the 5th century is said to have lived forty-one years on a tall pillar the top of which was bairely three feet in diameter, his namesake who followed his example in the 6th century, and a Daniel, who chose for the scene of his austerities a less dreary neighbourhood, a suburb of Constantinople. Other "stylitae" are mentioned by Joannes Moschus. This peculiar form of eremitism was very unusual in Europe. A monk near Treves in the 6th century tried the experiment on the top of a column rising from the summit of a cliff, but by order of the bishop soon relinquished the attempt on account of the rigour of the climate.
The reverence with which hermits were popularly regarded led to their aid being frequently invoked when controversies were raging. Thus in the close of the 4th century Antony -- who is also said to have more than once broken the spell of his seclusion in order to go and plead the cause of some poor client at Alexandria -- being appealed to in the Arian conflict, not only addressed a letter to the emperor, but made a visit in person to Alexandria on behalf of Athanasius. The hermit Aphrastes boldly confronted the emperor Valens, as did Daniel (the later of the two pillar-hermits of that name) the emperor Basiliscus. The great Theodosius consulted the hermit Joannes. The hermits near Antioch interceded with good effect when the magistrates of that city were about to execute the cruel orders of the exasperated emperor. But not rarely the unreasoning zeal of the hermits provoked great tumults. Sometimes in a misguided impulse of indiscriminating pity they endeavoured by force to liberate criminals condemned by the law. Nor were their sympathies always on the side of the orthodox. When Theophilus of Alexandria denounced the error of the Anthropomorphitae, almost all the Saitic monks were fiercely incensed against him as an atheist "in their simplicity" as Cassian adds.
On the comparative excellency of the eremitic or of the coenobitic life there has been much difference of opinion among writers who extol asceticism; the same writer inclining now to the solitary life, and now to the life in a community, as he views the question from one side or another. Sozomen calls the eremitic life the "peak of philosophy." Chrysostom and Basil speak to the same effect. But Basil, in the rule for monks ascribed to him, commends the coenobitic life as more truly unselfish, more rich in opportunities both for helping and for being helped; and so speaks his friend, Gregory of Nazianza. Jerome, with all his love of austerity, cautions his friend and pupil against the dangers of solitude. Augustine praises hermits, and yet allows that coenobites have a more unquestionable title to veneration. Cassian often speaks of hermits as having climbed to the summit of excellence; at other times he deprecates the solitary life as not good for all, and as beyond the reach of many; he relates how a devout monk gave up the attempt in despair, and returned to his brother monks.
It was from the first very earnestly enjoined by the leaders of asceticism that none should venture on so great an enterprise as the solitary life without undergoing probation as a coenobite. Benedict compares the hermit to a champion advancing in front of the army for single combat with the foe, and therefore insists on his proving himself and his armour beforehand. Councils repeatedly enforce this probationary discipline. The permission of the abbot was required, sometimes also the consent of the brethren and, sometimes, of the bishop. The length of this period of probation varied. Even those who most admired the hermit-life fenced it round with prohibitions as a risk not lightly to be encountered.
The civil authorities were naturally jealous of this subtraction of so many citizens from the duties of public life. Theodosius ordered all those who evaded their public responsibilities on pretence of asceticism to be deprived of their civil rights unless they returned to claim them; and it was forbidden for slaves to be admitted into a monastery without their masters' leave. In Western Europe Charles the Great decreed that all hermits infesting towns and cities for alms should either return to their hermitages or be shut up in monasteries. By the law of the Eastern Church, a bishop who became a hermit was ipso facto deprived of his office.
It was not unusual, particularly in the monasteries of Provence and Languedoc, for one of the brethren most advanced in asceticism to be immured in a separate cell, sometimes underground, always within the precincts, as an intercessor for the monastery. After a solemn religious ceremony the devotee, thus buried alive by his own consent, was left -- with no other apparel than what he was wearing -- to end his days alone. The doorway was walled up, or the door nailed to and sealed with the bishop's ring, whose consent, as well as that of the abbot and chapter, was requisite. Only a little aperture was left, not such as to allow the inmate to see or be seen, for letting down provisions to him. These "inclusi" are not to be confounded with the aged or sickly monks, allowed separate cells because of their infirmities. The rule "for solitaries" of Grimlaicus, probably a monk in or near Metz about the end of the 9th century, seems intended not for a separate order, but for these "inclusi" generally. It is a characteristic difference between Asiatic and European asceticism, that the eremites, or desert monks of the east find their western counterpart in solitaries within the precincts of the community.
As might be expected for obvious reasons there have been few female hermits. Gregory of Tours, mentions a nun of the convent of Ste. Croix, Poitiers, who retired to a hermitage by permission of the abbess Radegunda. Usually these female solitaries had their cells in close contiguity to the wall of a church or of a monastery.