Charles Kingsley’s “The Hermits”

“The Victorian writer and popular historian Charles Kingsley published “The Hermits” in 1868, a sweeping overview of Christian hermits from the desert fathers to the Celtic hermits of Britain. The book is a recapitulation of biography and hagiography in the grand style of the nineteenth century.”
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The text of Charles Kingsley’s “The Hermits” [First printed in parts 1868. Reprinted in 1 Volume, Crown 8vo. 1871, 1875, 1880, 1885, 1890, 1891] is available on-line at and and

From the Introduction:

“Accordingly it was discovered, about the end of the fourth century, that the mountains and deserts of Egypt were full of Christian men who had fled out of the dying world, in the hope of attaining everlasting life. Wonderful things were told of their courage, their abstinence, their miracles: and of their virtues also; of their purity, their humility, their helpfulness, and charity to each other and to all. They called each other, it was said, brothers; and they lived up to that sacred name, forgotten, if ever known, by the rest of the Roman Empire. Like the Apostolic Christians in the first fervour of their conversion, they had all things in common; they lived at peace with each other, under a mild and charitable rule; and kept literally those commands of Christ which all the rest of the world explained away to nothing.
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The news spread. It chimed in with all that was best, as well as with much that was questionable, in the public mind. That men could be brothers; that they could live without the tawdry luxury, the tasteless and often brutal amusements, the low sensuality, the base intrigue, the bloody warfare, which was the accepted lot of the many; that they could find time to look stedfastly at heaven and hell as awful realities, which must be faced some day, which had best be faced at once; this, just as much as curiosity about their alleged miracles, and the selfish longing to rival them in superhuman powers, led many of the most virtuous and the most learned men of the time to visit them, and ascertain the truth. Jerome, Ruffinus, Evagrius, Sulpicius Severus, went to see them, undergoing on the way the severest toils and dangers, and brought back reports of mingled truth and falsehood, specimens of which will be seen in these pages. Travelling in those days was a labour, if not of necessity, then surely of love. Palladius, for instance, found it impossible to visit the Upper Thebaid, and Syene, and that “infinite multitude of monks, whose fashions of life no one would believe, for they surpass human life; who to this day raise the dead, and walk upon the waters, like Peter; and whatsoever the Saviour did by the holy Apostles, He does now by them. But because it would be very dangerous if we went beyond Lyco” (Lycopolis?), on account of the inroad of robbers, he “could not see those saints.”

The holy men and women of whom he wrote, he says, he did not see without extreme toil; and seven times he and his companions were nearly lost. Once they walked through the desert five days and nights, and were almost worn out by hunger and thirst. Again, they fell on rough marshes, where the sedge pierced their feet, and caused intolerable pain, while they were almost killed with the cold. Another time, they stuck in the mud up to their waists, and cried with David, “I am come into deep mire, where no ground is.” Another time, they waded for four days through the flood of the Nile by paths almost swept away. Another time they met robbers on the seashore, coming to Diolcos, and were chased by them for ten miles. Another time they were all but upset and drowned in crossing the Nile. Another time, in the marshes of Mareotis, “where paper grows,” they were cast on a little desert island, and remained three days and nights in the open air, amid great cold and showers, for it was the season of Epiphany. The eighth peril, he says, is hardly worth mentioning—but once, when they went to Nitria, they came on a great hollow, in which many crocodiles had remained, when the waters retired from the fields. Three of them lay along the bank; and the monks went up to them, thinking them dead, whereon the crocodiles rushed at them. But when they called loudly on the Lord, “the monsters, as if turned away by an angel,” shot themselves into the water; while they ran on to Nitria, meditating on the words of Job, “Seven times shall He deliver thee from trouble; and in the eighth there shall no evil touch thee.””
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Ch. 1: St. Antony
Ch. 2: Saint Paul
Ch. 3: Hilarion
Ch. 4: Arsenius
Ch. 5: The Hermits of Asia
Ch. 6: Basil
Ch. 7: Simeon Stylites
Ch. 8: The Hermits of Europe
Ch. 9: St. Severinus
Ch. 10: The Celtic Hermits
Ch. 11: St. Malo
Ch. 12: St. Columba
Ch. 13: St. Guthlac
Ch. 14: St. Godric of Finchale
Ch. 15: Anchorites
Charles Kingsley (12 June 1819 – 23 January 1875) was a priest of the Church of England, a university professor, historian and novelist. He is particularly associated with the West Country and northeast Hampshire. He was a friend and correspondent with Charles Darwin. Perhaps his best known work was “The Water Babies” (1863). See and,_Charles_%28DNB00%29


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