Hermits – When Knights Were Bold

From “When Knights Were Bold” by Eva March Tappan (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1911)
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“ [175] WHEN a hermit appears in a romance, he is generally described as an old man with picturesque gray beard and hair, and either a long gray cloak or a scanty robe of sackcloth. He has had wild adventures in his youth, has perhaps done some deeds of violence to which he occasionally refers darkly; but now he keeps lonely vigils, he flogs himself with briers and wears a hair shirt by way of atoning for his sins. He omits most of his meals, and when he does deign to eat, his food consists of a dry crust, a handful of cress, and a cup of water. Much of his time he spends in counting his beads. He cares nothing for money and despises comforts. His bed is the damp stone of his cave. His clothes he wears until they are ready to drop from him in pieces. His cell is always conveniently near the spot where some one has just been attacked by thieves and left on the ground as dead. He lifts the insensible sufferer to his shoulder, bears him to the cave, bathes his forehead with cool water from the spring, and then ap- [176] plies a wonder-working ointment, given him perhaps in his youth by some heathen Saracen; and, presto, in a day or two the man who had fallen among thieves is completely cured and either goes his way or else himself becomes a dweller in a cave of stone with a menu of cresses and water.
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Such is the hermit of the romances; but the hermit of the Middle Ages was quite a different person. Sometimes, it is true, he made for himself a tiny abode deep in the forest or in the midst of some lonely desert, and sometimes he dug for himself a den in the side of a hill [177] or hewed out a rough cave in a cliff. Sometimes his abode was merely a hut of wattle-work or a sort of booth covered with branches; but often he dwelt in a comfortable little cottage of wood or stone on a highway. Occasionally several hermits grouped themselves together, each having his own cell, or rather cottage, and using one chapel. The hermit dressed much like the monks, usually in a robe of black or gray; though there is at least one old picture of a hermit wearing a cheery little red cap. He was generally drawn with a book, a bell to ring for mass and to drive away evil spirits, and a staff.

As to what the hermits did with themselves all day long, one must remember that there were almost as many kinds of hermits as there are of people. There are stories of hermits who became so absorbed in prayer that the hours passed like minutes; of one who was able to wear the same cloak for many years, because while he was praying, his friends quietly slipped it off, mended it, and laid it upon his shoulders again, without his discovering its absence. There were hermits who made themselves useful by taking up their abode near some dangerous fording place and carrying pilgrims on their shoulders across the stream. Such is the hero of the [178] legend of Saint Christopher, to whom a little child one day appealed to be borne over the river. The strong man took the child upon his shoulders and waded into the stream. But the burden grew heavier and heavier, [179] and he could hardly make his way across and stagger up the opposite bank. “Child,” he said, “thou hast put me in great peril. I could bear no heavier burden.” The child answered, “Marvel not, for to-day thou hast borne on thy shoulders the whole world and the weight of its sins.”
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A hermit of a sociable turn of mind sometimes built himself a hut beside a bridge. Bridges were troublesome comforts in those days. They were supposed to be cared for by the landowners within whose boundaries they stood; and the lords often collected toll for their use; but the one that was left entirely to their care would have been rather dangerous. No one could deny that bridges were useful, but to build a needed bridge or keep one in repair was everybody’s business, and therefore it was nobody’s business. So it came to pass that building a bridge or caring for one was looked upon as being as much of a religious act as going to church. People sometimes built a bridge by way of doing penance for their sins; or in their wills they left money for one for the same reason. Some of the gilds took certain roads and bridges under their charge as a religious duty. On the larger bridges chapels were sometimes built. It did not seem at all out of place, then, [180] for a hermit to establish himself beside a bridge and claim farthing gifts from travelers on the ground that he was caring for it. If they got safely over, it mattered little to them whether he spent all the money in repairs or not. They rode away with the comfortable feeling that they had done their duty and it had not cost much; and the hermit was reasonably sure of farthings enough for his needs.

But begging at bridges was not the hermit’s only means of gaining a livelihood. The mere fact that a man lived in a certain place and depended upon charity for his food was sufficient to induce people to make him gifts, and to leave him money in their wills. Occasionally a wealthy man built a hermitage and endowed it just as one to-day might endow a hospital or a library.
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One might, then, put on a hermit’s garb with a sincere wish to withdraw from the temptations of the world and pass the time in prayer and meditation; or he might adopt the name of hermit as an easy, comfortable way of making a living without working for it. There were so many of these pretenders that in the laws they were often classed with beggars and vagabonds. They make themselves hermits “their ease to have,” says the old poem of Piers Plowman. In England in the fourteenth [181] century it was forbidden for a man to call himself a hermit unless he had been formally pronounced one by his bishop; and there was a regular service for blessing a man and setting him apart to the solitary life. Some bishops went so far as to refuse to give a man the title of hermit unless provision had already been made for his maintenance.”
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Full text of the book available at https://archive.org/details/whenknightswereb00tapprich and http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=tappan&book=bold&story=_contents
“Eva March Tappan (December 26, 1854 – January 29, 1930) was a teacher and American author born in Blackstone, Massachusetts, the only child of Reverend Edmund March Tappan and Lucretia Logée. Eva graduated from Vassar College in 1875. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and an editor of the Vassar Miscellany. After leaving Vassar she began teaching at Wheaton College where she taught Latin and German from 1875 until 1880. From 1884–94 she was the Associate Principal at the Raymond Academy in Camden, New Jersey. She received graduate degrees in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. Tappan was the head of the English department at the English High School at Worcester, Massachusetts. She began her literary career writing about famous characters in history and developed an interest in writing children books. Tappan never married.”

“Eva March Tappan was born at Blackstone, Massachusetts in 1854 and died in 1930. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College in 1875, she taught at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, and at several private schools. After earning both Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Tappan became head of the English department at the English High School at Worcester, Massachusetts. During the Great War, she was asked to become an assistant editor for the United States Food Administration. Miss Tappan dedicated the last half of her life to writing over 50 books for younger readers, then deeded her estate to form a Vassar College scholarship fund for young women. An extensive knowledge of literature had given her a talent for making simple and absorbing stories that filled the imagination with fascinating facts. Her well-written, interesting, and thorough work was recognized by schools, where her books were often used as textbooks.”
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“The Medieval Hermit – Withdrawal From the World

Hermits sought to live completely alone, away from the influence of society, in order to live a life of poverty and devotion to prayer and fasting. But they, like everyone else, needed food and drink, clothes and a place to live. This placed them in the position of having to depend, however reluctantly, on the goodwill of others to carry out their way of life.
Hermits were often well known in their local area, and no doubt provided with gifts and help from local people, but their fame could travel surprisingly far in medieval times.
They were often accused of stirring up trouble, harbouring vagabonds and criminals and could be viewed with hostility by local people. On the other hand, they were often trusted to heal, carry out miracles and dispense wise words. Either way, life as a solitary was often impossible even for the most zealous hermit.”
See “Eremitism versus Monasticism in Medieval Europe“ at http://www.hermitary.com/articles/eremitism_europe.html


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