Grimlaicus’ Rule for Solitaries

“The Regula solitariorum or Rule for Solitaries by the Carolingian prelate Grimlaicus is an important documention of the concept of the hermit and eremitism in continental Latin and Germanic Europe during the early Middle Ages. The Rule was composed in the early 900’s in Metz at the behest of an abbot or bishop.

Grimlaicus’ Rule expresses the spirit and strictures of the Rule of St. Benedict and its contemporary application in the Benedictine monastic order. As Grimalicus himself states, the Rule does not address “anchorites, that is, hermits who dwell all by themselves, but cenobitic solitaries, that is, those who dwell in the midst of a cenobium but who live in quarters sealed off from most physical contact with others.”

By placing the solitary under the supervision of an abbot in proximity of a community, the rules of both Benedict and Grimlaicus intended to curb the excesses of hermits described by Gregory of Tours and proscribed by the early Council of Vannes. Grimlaicus draws upon patristic sources and John Cassian to filter the excesses of the desert solitaries and promote what translator Andrew Thornton calls the “Benedictine fondness for moderation.”

The first 28 chapters of Grimlaicus’ Rule are the most original of the total 69 chapters (St. Benedict’s Rule consists of 73 chapters).

Of all Christians, begins Grimlaicus, monks and solitaries must transcend general precepts. They must be perfect, following the gospel admonition to renounce the world and follow Jesus, that is, imitate him. It is not enough to renounce the world like the Cynic philosophers, Grimlaicus insists, but to go the next step in actively following Jesus. He quotes St. Jerome: “It is easier to dispose of a moneybag than to dispose of self-will and pleasure.”

For Grimlaicus, ‘Once solitaries have completely renounced the world, they should be dead to the world that they delight in living for God alone. The more they withdraw from the desire to possess the world, the more they will contemplate with inner attention the presence of God and his saints.”
The only English translation of Grimlaicus is “Grimlaicus: Rule for Solitaries” translated with introduction and notes by Andrew Thornton. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2011.

“The monk Grimlaicus (ca. 900) wrote a rule for those who, like himself, pursued the solitary life within a monastic community. Never leaving their cell yet participating in the liturgical life of the monastery through a window into the church, these “enclosed” sought to serve God alone. Beyond the details of horarium, reception of newcomers, diet, and clothing, Grimlaicus details practical measures for maintaining spiritual, psychological, and physical health, and for giving counsel to others. Scripture, the Rule of St. Benedict, and the teachings of early ecclesial and monastic writers form the kernel of Grimlaicus’s wise and balanced rule, presented here for the first time in English translation.”

From The Rule:

“Chapter 1: The Kinds of Solitaries

We must first indicate why someone is called a “monk” or “solitary,” and then, with God’s gracious help, proceed to explain other matters. The word monk [monachus] comes from Greek and means that a person is single [singularis]. Monas is Greek for the Latin singleness [singularitas]. Hence “solitary” gives the meaning of the word “monk.” That is why, whether one says “monk” or “solitary,” it is one and the same thing. But let us see how many kinds of solitaries there are. There are two kinds of solitaries: one is anachorites, that is, hermits; the other is cenobites, that is, those who live in monasteries. Neither of these kinds should be instituted in the first fervor of conversion, but they should first be given a prolonged testing in the observance of the monastery, so that, once they have been tested, they may have the
strength to rise, by the Lord’s mercy, up to the summit of perfection.

Further, “many people have wondered who was the very first monk who began to live in the desert. Some people go back very far and say that it began with the blessed Elijah and John [the Baptist]. Others maintain that blessed Anthony was the first to conceive this intention. But Macarius, the disciple of blessed Anthony, attests that,” in New Testament times, “a certain Paul of Thebes was the first person to adopt this mode of life.”
paul of thebes
Saint Paul The first Hermit (Anba Boula) (Ava Pavly) , commonly known as Saint Paul the First Hermit or St Paul the Anchorite (d. c. 341) is regarded as the first Christian hermit.

And that is true. It should be known, however, that it was from the time of blessed Anthony that there began to be cenobitic solitaries, that is, recluses.
Anthony 2
Anthony the Great or Antony the Great (ca. 251–356), also known as Saint Anthony, or ‘Anthony of Egypt’, Anthony the Abbot, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Anchorite, Anthony of Thebes, Abba Antonius (Ἀββᾶς Ἀντώνιος), and Father of All Monks.

But it is difficult to ascertain who was the first recluse, since recluses used to live not only in cenobia but also in the very desert itself. In fact, in ancient times, those who had first been recluses in monasteries and who had learned through many trials to fight against the devil and who had been well taught and tested like gold in the furnace, would go out from the battle line of their brothers to single combat; safe now without the support of another, with only their hand or arm, they would go out to struggle, with God’s help, against the vices of the flesh or the thoughts.
Saint Arnulf of Metz (c. 582 – 640), Frankish Bishop of Metz and advisor to the Merovingian court of Austrasia, who retired to the Abbey of Remiremont: engraving circa 1600 by Raphael Sadeler I (1560 Antwerp – 1632 Munich) from the series of engravings of Hermits “Oraculum Anachoreticum” after drawings by Marten de Vos.

The blessed bishop Arnulf followed the example of these monks. According to the Lord’s precept, he sold all he had and distributed it to the poor. And he not only left behind all his earthly possessions, but he even gave up the episcopacy which the Lord had bestowed on him and which he had taken up after he had lost every temporal possession. Thereafter he sought out a cell in which to be a recluse. There for many days he surrendered himself to
the Lord to exert himself in the worship of God. Finally, after many years had run their course, he took on wings like a dove, that is, spiritual virtues, and flew away to the desert [see Ps 54:7]. There he hoped in our Lord Jesus Christ, that he would save him from timidity of spirit and from the tempest. The Lord came and not only saved him but transported him to the heavens to crown him.

I wanted to include here the example of such a great man, so that solitaries might learn from him to despise all perishable things and to long for heavenly things with all their strength.”

Further selections from The Rule are found at

“Most western Europeans of the later Roman Empire did not encounter the great ascetics of Egypt and Syria face to face. Like the imperial agents in Trier who converted to a life of religion in 381 after reading Evagrius’ Latin translation of the Life of Anthony, they relied primarily on projected images of the character of Christian asceticism rather than firsthand engagement with its practitioners. These images of monastic expression–in the form of letters from aspiring ascetics like Jerome, collections of sayings uttered by holy men and women, rules of conduct written for their burgeoning koinonia, and the earliest examples of Christian hagiography–distilled the unruly religious landscape of the eastern Mediterranean into a simple principle: monks should live together in communities in obedience to a rule and an abbot. By the sixth century, only a handful of ascetic virtuosos who “[had] been trained by a lengthy period of probation in the monastery with the support of many others and [had] learned to fight against the devil” practiced the art of living alone in western Europe. Fraught with temptations of the body and the mind, the vocation of the anchorite or hermit was not for the light-hearted or ill-prepared, but the rewards of this calling were commensurate with its risks. In the words of Abbot Peter the Venerable, writing to a Cluniac recluse in the 1120s, the narrow confines of the hermit’s cell earned for him “the width of Heaven.” In reality, early medieval ascetic practice was much broader and far more complicated than the simple dichotomy between cloistered monks and uncloistered recluses. In the Rule of Solitaries (regula solitariorum), a self-styled inclusus (literally, “one closed off”) named Grimlaicus provides a model for ascetic retreat within the confines of a monastery that weds the principles of the Rule of Benedict (hereafter RB) to the ideals of the abandonment of one’s community that traditionally characterized the hermit’s vocation. The volume under review presents the first English translation of this text accompanied by notes, appendices, and a short introduction.

Little is known about Grimlaicus and his historical context, but scholars going back to Mabillon have made the most of very little evidence to situate him around the year 900 in the diocese of Metz with possible connections to the abbey of Gorze. This is plausible and not worth contesting without the discovery of new information. His Rule for Solitaries is less an original composition and more a work of compilation that draws very heavily from the sixth-century RB and, to a lesser degree, from Defensor of Ligugé’s “Book of Sparks” (Liber scintillarum), a popular collection of sayings from the Bible and the Church Fathers compiled in the seventh or eighth century. The goal of Grimlaicus’ work is to present a handbook for those who desire to live in isolation within the walls of a monastic enclosure. This was no light undertaking: “Those in the contemplative life have already given up their possessions for the use of the poor and go on to divest themselves of the world and with all their strength withdraw themselves to heaven”.(45) After a probationary period lasting two years and with the sanction of a bishop or an abbot, the solitary–who may or may not have already been a monk of the community–withdrew to a special cell within the monastic precinct. The description of this cell recommends that it have a small oratory adjoining the church, if the recluse is a priest, and a garden that will allow him to plant and harvest vegetables and get some fresh air. It is expected that the recluse will have disciples to look after his needs. They should live in little dwellings contiguous with his cell. It seems more common than not to have multiple solitaries living in several adjacent cells in the same monastic community. Grimlaicus presents a picture of intense scrutiny and competition between them: “We are all bound, therefore, to examine and scrutinize each other’s deeds every day to see who of us is more eager to perform the work of God, who is more fervent in prayer, more careful in reading, purer in chastity, more profuse in shedding tears, more decorous in body, more sincere in heart; who is kinder in anger, more modest in gentleness, less ready with laughter, more fervent in compunction, more steadfast in seriousness, more joyful in charity. In this way, let us daily render an account to one another of our way of living” (76-7). In addition to the cultivation of virtue, solitaries should be well versed in scripture in order to offer spiritual advice to those who visit them at the window of their cells. They should also be learned in doctrine so that they can offer rebuttal to the false arguments of heretics and Jews, which threaten to lead Christians astray. As was often the case with Christian hermits, true isolation was very difficult to achieve, even when individuals followed strict rules of enclosure. Nonetheless, despite the many visitors who came to converse with them, it was seldom that anyone entered the cells of the solitaries except for their disciples. According to Grimlaicus, they could only receive individuals in their cells when they were sick, but “as soon as they begin to recover from their illness, the door to the cell should be sealed in the customary manner, and they should dwell alone once more” (133). In most other aspects of their enclosed lives, however, these solitaries lived very much like cloistered monks, a fact underscored by Grimlaicus’ indebtedness to the text of the RB in almost every chapter of his rule.”

From a review by Scott G. Bruce (University of Colorado at Boulder) from “The Medieval Review” 11.11.20:


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