Who are medieval hermits, and why did they agree to be walled up alive
Who are medieval hermits, and why did they agree to be walled up alive

In the Middle Ages, some women and men agreed to be walled up alive, which today raises many questions and bewilderment, but at that time it was commonplace. What was the main reason for this decision and why the hermits were walled up alive of their own free will - further in the article.

Paul I the Confessor, Archbishop of Constantinople. \ Photo: johnsanidopoulos.com

The life of hermits dates back to the early Christian East. Hermits and hermits were men or women who decided to leave the secular world in order to lead an ascetic life dedicated to prayer and the Eucharist. They lived as hermits and vowed to stay in one place, often living in a cell attached to the church.

The word monk comes from the ancient Greek ἀναχωρητής, derived from ἀναχωρεῖν, meaning to shoot. The hermit lifestyle is one of the earliest forms of monasticism in the Christian tradition.

Meeting of St. Anthony and St. Paul, master of Osservanets, approx. 1430-35 \ Photo: wordpress.com

The first reports of the experience came from Christian communities in ancient Egypt. About 300 A.D. NS. several people left their lives, villages and families to live as hermits in the desert. Anthony the Great was the most famous representative of the Desert Fathers, early Christian communities in the Middle East. He made a significant contribution to the spread of monasticism in both the Middle East and Western Europe. Just as Christ asked his disciples to leave everything behind in order to follow him, the hermits did the same, devoting their lives to prayer. Christianity encouraged them to follow the scriptures. Asceticism (a modest lifestyle), poverty and chastity were highly prized. As this lifestyle attracted an increasing number of believers, communities of anchorites were created and they built cells that isolated their inhabitants. This early form of Eastern Christian monasticism spread to the Western world in the second half of the 4th century. Western monasticism reached its peak in the Middle Ages. Countless monasteries and abbeys have been built in cities and more in secluded places. Several religious orders were also born during the Middle Ages, such as the Benedictine, Cartesian and Cistercian order. These orders attempted to incorporate hermits into their communities by absorbing them in the form of Kenobite monasticism. Since then, only a few people have continued to practice their faith, living as hermits, instead of joining a religious community.

Sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter, walled up like a hermit, illustration from the Pamplona Bible, 1197. \ Photo: initiale.irht.cnrs.fr

During the reign of Benedict of Nursia (Saint Benedict 516 AD), the hermitage was the highest form of monasticism. More experienced monks could risk the life of a hermit by fighting the devil and resisting temptation. Hermit life flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries. Following the example of the saints, thousands of medieval women and men joined this stream and embraced this difficult lifestyle. They left everything behind and began to preach repentance and imitation of the apostles. Physical labor, poverty and prayer were the main pillars of their lives. The historical context influenced this trend. It was a time of population growth and global changes in society.

Saint Benedict of Nursia. \ Photo: google.com

The cities expanded and a new division of powers was created. During this social upheaval, many people were left behind, too poor to fit in. The reclusive life attracted many of these lost souls. The church was not against the hermits, but they knew they needed to be watched over. Hermits were more prone to excess and heresy than monks living in communities.Therefore, along with the creation of religious communities, the Church encouraged the settledness of hermits by creating solitary confinement cells in which prisoners were kept. Thus, medieval women and men were cared for instead of leading a hermitic life in the woods or on the roads.

Stronghold of the late Middle Ages in the Church of All Saints. \ Photo: charmedfinishingschool.com

Hermits and, more often than not, hermits chose this way of life, and some were not only locked up in the monastery - they were walled up alive. The act of the ascension of the hermit symbolized his death to the whole world. The texts described the hermits as belonging to the "Order of the Dead". Their commitment was irreversible. The only way forward was to Heaven.

However, the anchorites were not left to die in their cells. They could still communicate with the outside world through a small hole in the wall with bars and curtains. The hermits needed the help of priests and devotees to bring them food and medicine and dispose of their waste. They were completely dependent on public charity. If the population forgot about them, they died.

A hermit cell in the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, Essex, England. \ Photo: essexviews.uk

Sacred places, as a rule, regulated the construction of hermit cells. The 12th century text reports that the cage was about eight square feet. Together with the hole through which they received food and communicated with the outside world. The mountings adjacent to the church walls also had a hagioscope or squint - a hole in the church wall for subsequent services.

The interior layout was sparse. Several documents mention a hole dug in the ground. The hermit stood in this pit when he was walled up, and it became his grave after his death. A table, stool, and several iconic items complemented his property. Some of the cells were larger, with two or three rooms on two floors, but most were small and poorly furnished. Inveterate hermits lived in an unheated cell, but excavations revealed that most of them had built-in chimneys.

The enclosure of the hermit by the bishop, illumination from the Papal, p. 200, c. 1400-1410 \ Photo: parker.stanford.edu

Hermits were a part of everyday life in Medieval Europe. They were integral members of society. Their victim set an example. They reminded the local community of the importance of their actions in the mortal world. Their cameras were located at key points in a village or city. Many of them were built close to the church walls. Cells adjacent to churches were often attached to the northern wall, the coldest part, next to the choir stalls. In England, such an extension was usually located inside the church, next to private chapels. Some of them could be found along the defensive walls of cities, usually near the gates. In this case, the hermit served as the spiritual mentor of the enemies of the city. Even if they could not act directly in the event of an invasion, they were sometimes capable of miracles.

The chronicle of the 15th century tells of a hermit from Bave, a city in northern France. She saved the local church from being burned by ferocious captains, begging them to stop in the name of Christ and inviting them to pray for their souls every day. Such annex supports could also be found on bridges, near hospitals and a leper colony, or among cemetery graves.

Perceval meets his aunt, a recluse, illuminated by Tristan's prose, c. 1450-1460 \ Photo: pop.culture.gouv.fr

Local authorities and monasteries took care of the hermits. Sometimes they were chosen after moral research and became the property of a city or monastery. The authorities paid for their food, clothing, medicine and funeral expenses. Even kings took hermits under their protection. Charles V, King of France in the second half of the 14th century, requested the presence of an anchorite from La Rochelle. The king forced her to come to Paris and put her in a nice cell because of her holy reputation. In England, records of royal accounts show that some kings provided pensions to several hermits.

Who was betrayed or crazy enough to take this huge leap of faith? Today, choosing a monastic life is a vocation. Most hermits or hermits were lay people, often poor and without education. There were also exceptions. Several wealthy men chose the life of a hermit. They spent their money building their cells and even hired a servant to look after them.

A Cloaked Nun, illustration from The Dark Tales of Austria, p. 272, Moritz Bermann, 1868. \ Photo: books.google.ch

Most of them were medieval women.The desire to lead a hermitic life often stemmed from a desire to repent. Some of them were former prostitutes. The church, as well as monasteries, encouraged the imprisonment of dissolute virgins in order to save them from a lustful life. Some became hermits due to their lack of prospects. Medieval women who did not have a dowry could not get married or even join a religious community. Others were wives of priests who joined the hermitic life after the Second Lateran Council of 1139 introduced celibacy for priests. Others were widows or abandoned wives.

Yvette of Guy, a Belgian girl of the late 12th century, became a hermit for a different reason. As a child, Yvette wanted to become a nun, but her father, a wealthy tax collector, forced her to get married at thirteen. Yvette so fiercely despised marriage duty that she wished her husband's death. Her wish was granted five years later when she was widowed. She refused to remarry and began to care for the poor and lepers. Yvette spent almost her entire fortune on this, although her family tried to convince her by taking the children away from her. Instead, Yvette left everything to live in a cell among the lepers. The saint became famous thanks to her devotion and the wise advice she gave. Devotees gathered around her cell and made large donations, allowing her to lead the construction of the hospital. In the end, she even managed to convert her father, who entered the abbey.

An anchorage at the Cemetery of the Innocent Saints in Paris, comic strip from Le Cimetiere des Innocents, 2017. \ Photo: seenthis.net

The chamber was clearly designed to make its occupant suffer. The hermit, who became irrevocably dead to the world, had to suffer, just like in the Passion of Christ. The ideal hermit overcame suffering and temptation to ascend to holiness. His prison became the gateway to Paradise. But reality was often far from that.

Some hermits led their sinful lives by pretending to pray when passers-by passed by, or gossiping with them. As incredible as it may sound, being walled up alive has become an enviable position. Hermits were fed and cared for, while during these difficult times many people starved to death. Their sacrifice inspired respect and gratitude in their community.

Other hermits who could not get used to this extreme lifestyle met a terrible fate. The texts report that some of them went mad and committed suicide, although suicide was forbidden by the Church. A poem from the early 14th century tells of the hermit of Rouen in northwestern France. The text says that she lost her mind and managed to escape from her cell through a small window to throw herself into the burning oven of a nearby bakery.

Gregory of Tours, engraving by François Jacques Decevovillera, after drawing by Louis Boulanger, 19th century. \ Photo: fineartamerica.com

In the 6th century, Gregory of Tours, bishop and renowned historian, reported several stories of hermits in his History of the Franks. One of them, young Anatole, walled up alive at the age of twelve, lived in a cell so small that a person could hardly stand inside. Eight years later, Anatol lost his mind and was taken to the grave of Saint Martin in Tours in the hope of a miracle.

Anchorites were an integral part of society throughout the Middle Ages, but they began to disappear at the end of the 15th century, during the Renaissance. Times of Troubles and wars undoubtedly contributed to the destruction of several cells. The Church has always viewed the life of hermits as potentially dangerous, temptation and heretical abuse were risky. However, these were probably not the only reasons for their gradual disappearance. At the end of the 15th century, seclusion became a form of punishment. The Inquisition imprisoned heretics for life. One of the last hermits of the cemetery of the Innocent Saints in Paris was locked in a cell because she had killed her husband.

King Conversations with Hermit, Rothschild Chants, Yale Beinecke. \ Photo: sourcebook.stanford.edu

Many fairy tales and legends tell about the stories of medieval women and men who decided to spend the rest of their lives walled up in small cells for their faith. As strange as it may seem, anchorites were indeed an integral part of medieval society.

And in the next article, read about no less strange customs and rituals practiced by the Druids of Roman Britain.

Popular by topic