Man does not exist alone and the hermit who chooses to leave the society of men encounters so many obstacles to contemplative solitude that he always finds, dead or alive, a society of men; because if his dream of loneliness had fully come true no one would have remembered him. Only perhaps the anonymous hermitages whose documents bear the trace, on the borders of the village lands or in the clearings, testify to men or women who succeeded in their departure by disappearing without escort, without name and without memory.

St. Antony the Great

Within Christian societies, obligatory journeys have created a stereotype of the hermit, whose paragon is Saint Antony and which is regularly updated, throughout the medieval period, both within hagiographic accounts and literary texts — between reality, imagination and folklore. A woman or more often a man goes in search of the desert; in the West, the ideal desert is a forest, preferably on rugged terrain, strewn with boulders and caves, as illustrated by the iconography of the Thebaids in the XIV and XV centuries. The hermit lives by gathering, concertedly and often in collaboration with animals. From time to time they would receive visits from Christians, who descended upon them unexpectedly seeking the hermits out in order to assist them, feed them, ask for their blessing or entrusting them with unspeakable secrets. The devil is often involved, frequently with an outward form of seductive creatures; yet the valiant and lionhearted hermit tends to withstand (but not always). They would also gather with their adherents or their disciples.

The Thebaid showing the activities in the lives of the saints by Blessed Frá Giovanni Angelico (Guido di Pietro) ca. 1420

The articles that follow and the research cited within the bibliography show that the stereotype —as suspected— does not take into account the multiple iconic figures of eremitism, such as in the Middle Ages when confronted with human communities, ecclesiastical institutions and the political realities of the era. Let us try to present the paths opened within this article and in the related historiography.


To become a hermit one must leave the place where they have lived and grown up and renounce all familial and friendly relationship: hermitism is indeed synonymous with journeying, wandering and pilgrimage. And if a hermit at some point finds their place, the hermitage is first and foremost only an insecure shelter: a cave taken as a loan from the mountains and barely fitted out or a hut made of branches, crude, makeshift and quite easy to demolish, a shelter that the hermit can easily turn their back on without any regrets.

The scale of remoteness varies and matters little, because any place, dominated by a will, can become a place of solitude, a cella providing the means for divine contemplation. The recluse sometimes crosses less than 100 or 200 metres from their home to the reclusory; Saint Chelidonia  (†1152) left her country, made the pilgrimage to Rome and chose her mountain, Morra Ferogna all around Abruzzo and Lazio. The hermit Saint Franco of Assergi († c. 1275) a former benedictine monk of the abbey of Saint John the Baptist in Lucoli, ascends ever higher upon the Gran Sasso d’Italia in the Apennine Mountains, he eventually moved into a cave where a mother bear and three cubs lived, and found that he was finally left alone by the locals. Saint Galgano Guidotti (†1181), was born in the small town of Chiusdino in 1148, he is said to have been an arrogant thug as a young man who as a Knight trained in the art of war and lead a hard-hearted and bloodthirsty life without remorse, until guided by the Archangel Michael, showing him a way toward salvation; Galgano only wanders 5.8 kilometres from his native Chiusdino to the Montesiepi hills, he too had made the trip to Rome. Covering far larger territories, the itinerant preacher Robert d’Arbrissel  (†1116) migrated from Retiers in Brittany to the former Duchy of Anjou and died at Orsan Priory which he founded in the XII century in the Loire Valley, in Maisonnais, Saint Bruno of Cologne the founder of the combined eremitic and cenobitic monastic order of the Carthusians, leaving Cologne around the year 1030 or an ecclesiastical education at Rheims in the French department of Marne,  he returns to Cologne in 1055 and was ordained a priest. In 1056 Bishop Gervais recalled him to Rheims. Around 1080 Bruno place himself and his companions under the direction of an eminent solitary, Robert of Molesme, who had settled at Sèche-Fontaine, near Molesme after sojourning in the desert of Champagne, reached the Chartreuse desert in 1084  located in the heart of the Alps and finally ended his land journey at Torre, the “toe” of the “boot” of Italy in Reggio Calabria in 1091. The hermit Saint William of Maleval (†1157)— who took up residence in the marshland hermitage of Maremma, in Castiglione della Pescaia, province of Grosseto — may have come from Aquitaine and had made pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Jerusalem and Rome. Anastasius of Cluny (†1085) a monk at Mont-St-Michel, follows other great Christian routes from the Adriatic to the Atlantic and the Pyrenees: the examples are numerous and could be multiplied.

There are poles of attraction for hermits who have passed the time of pilgrimages: places marked by an ancient sacredness like the rock of Morra Ferogna or by the memory of an exemplary saint like Benedict in the vicinity of Subiaco. The vicinity of the monasteries also have a tendency to attract the hermit, as the established religious can provide both sacramental or simply physical support, which is essential for the solitary, such as Laurence the Solitary for example who, by locking himself in his cuirass and haircloth bound with iron around his waist and arms, had literally made life impossible for himself. To the hermits’, the desert always has meaning, a place of stopover close to a road, bordering on either side of two provinces, then from the 13th century onwards becoming a place of transition between the bustling city filled with human activities and the space outside of the city walls where the men disperse. The romanticism of forest and mountain “deserts” is only an a posteriori perception.

The contrary choice of solitude

Hermit in the Desert by Alessandro Magnasco

The departure is a refusal and as such it is not very well accepted by the surrounding society. A refusal of the bonds of human solidarity, a refusal of the marks and distractions of worldly life, a refusal of all comforts, demands a personal redefinition of self before God, in contemplation, and created nature, in penitence. The man or woman who builds such a program and adheres to it  faithfully, inevitably prove to be in possession of an outstanding personality. From that moment forward they tend to attract and it becomes extremely difficult for them to remain solitary, totally alone with God. A particular group of disciple and faithful will look for advice and graces from them and provide people with succour. 

For solitude is dangerous. In the mountains, a bear can certainly lead to sources of honey or a deer point out poisonous plants, but the wolves are likely to attack the hermit and the ice can encompass and confine. Divine and human intervention is therefore never futile. A solitary person will also be confronted with their own nature and the effects that an unbalanced, “Wild” selection of nourishment can have on them; especially when consuming raw plants to the exclusion of other foods which may result in a melancholic temperament, which can lead to depression and or violence; it may bring forth sexual yearnings, cruelty or homicidal impulses. It’s easy for demons to attack a person who may be unbalanced by their solitude, face to face or hand to hand, to break the penitential redemption; we are all well aware of the temptations that Saint Antony the ‘Father of All Monks’ faced in the desert. 

Saint Antony the Great by Albrecht Dürer 1519

The Church in her wisdom therefore strove to people the solitude of the hermits, to bring the solitaries back into the community, so that often eremitism intervenes as an instant in a holy life rather than affirming itself as an absolute vocation. The great founders of the religious orders bear witness to this: Saint Benedict had experienced solitude before he ratified his cenobitic Rule which was imposed throughout the West; Saint Bruno the Carthusian always exerted himself to reach a compromise in order to give genuine meaning and purpose to the Rule of the Carthusians; Robert of Arbrissel and Francis of Assisi never denied their original “fuga mundi” or “flight from the world.” Until the XV century the Camaldolese were able to revive the almost forgotten echo’s of the eremitic vocation of Saint Romuald [d’Onesti] (†1027), their founder had been a major figure in XI century “Renaissance of eremitical asceticism.” Romuald spent almost 3 decades journeying across the length and breadth of Italy, founding monasteries and reforming them and the hermitages.

Saint Galgano and the Sword in the Stone

The re-unification of the hermit may occur either before or after death. At the very end of the twelfth century, Messer Galgano had most likely sought contact with the “eremitic network” of the Williamites who happen to have been geographically close to him, looking to the Maremma from Grosseto. Sometime after his death, the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine and three of the communities around Siena joined in a loose association, which had increased to thirteen by 1261, put together his Vitae: Legenda beati Galgani, while the Cistercian monastery, established at the foot of the hill where he had retired, adopt his name and begin to disseminate his faith community towards Siena. His memory therefore serves two religious apparatuses and, through the Cistercians, it blessed the Sienese citizens with an expansion into the Maremma marshes. 

I mentioned the Augustinians, because they are far better known to us and for this very reason are almost in absentia in this article. The Rule of Saint Augustine was accepted as one of the approved rules of the church imposed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The merger of the many hermit communities into one Order began in 1243 when representatives of the various hermit communities of Tuscany were summoned to Rome by Pope Innocent IV [Sinibaldo Fieschi] (†1254) in order to form a single fraternity. The bull Incumbit Nobis, issued by Pope Innocent in 1243, addressed to “all the hermits living in Tuscany, except for the brothers of Saint William.” summoning the Tuscan hermits to Rome. The same pope promulgated their merger into the Order of the Tuscan Hermits of St. Augustine in 1244.

This was one of the early attempts to picture the Grand Union, about which very few historical details are known

By 1256 the Holy See decided to unite other hermit groups living in northern and central Italy with the Tuscan Hermits into one new single religious Order. Among the reasons for the union were the similarity of name and rule of life and the fact that all except the Williamites and a few others were already following St. Augustine’s Rule. Representatives were called to Rome by the Pope to hold a chapter (meeting) to vote on their adopting the papal aspirations for them to follow a structured community life, to elect for themselves a single Prior General and to codify their traditions into a set of Constitutions. The bull Licet Ecclesiae Catholicae, issued by Pope Alexander IV in 1256, confirmed the proceedings and, in effect, created the new Order, the Hermits of St. Augustine. With the unification of the Order, the nature of the Order changed inasmuch as it now took on the characteristics of a mendicant order and began to open new foundations in urban areas.

Santa Maria degli Angeli

The Augustinian rule imposed in 1256 by Pope Alexander IV on all “autonomous” hermitages interestingly resolved the dilemma between hermitic solitude and service to the Christian community. The hermitages remained in their traditional solitary places, each populated by less than a dozen brothers; but within towns and cities new convents were being created, which were no more isolated, out of the world, than Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. The brothers moved from one place to another, between the forests and the city. 

Allow me to briefly bring to mind the journey of the Sicilian Blessed Agostino Novello [born Matteo da Termini] (†1309), known above all through the effigy that Simone Martini depicted of him on a triptych, accompanied by illustration of his many miracles. Lawyer, loyal to King Manfred of Sicily, survivor of the battle of Benevento in 1266, in which King Manfred was killed and his army routed, Agostino was wounded and thought to be dead, and was left on the battlefield with the corpses of other soldiers. Regaining consciousness, Agostino was able to reach his home in Termini Imerese near Palermo; however, having become disenchanted by the world and fleeting earthly glory, he determined from that moment onwards to forsake all worldly honours and dignities. He hid in a hermitage of the Augustinian Order. On the advice of the brothers he departed for Tuscany and was successively received and lived in several hermitages in the region of Siena. In one of them, the augustinian convent of Rosia, he was recognized by a former fellow student lawyer Giacomo Pallares from Bologna and from then on his life became a ceaseless flutter between the contemplative solitude he so desired in the Tuscan forests, and the places of ecclesiastical action: the convent of Sant’Agostino in Siena and the pontifical court in Rome. When Clement of Osimo  OSA (†1291) Prior General of the Order, heard that Agostino had such a wealth of learning, he compelled Agostino, under obedience, because he had refused, to receive Holy Orders, and then summoned him to Rome. In Rome, Agostino reformed the Constitutions of the Augustinian Order, Pope Nicholas IV [Girolamo Masci] (†1292) appointed Agostino as his personal confessor and Apostolic Penitentiary, a position which he reluctantly accepted under obedience which he discharged for almost 10 years under 2 other successive Popes. 

Bl. Agostino Novello

In 1298, to his dismay, Agostino was elected Prior General of the Order. Despite his attempts to refuse refuse his election he was ordered by the pope to accept. In 1300 he resigned from his office and spent the remaining ten years of his life at the hermitage of San Leonardo al Lago near Lecceto in the forest of Siena, “resting in the shadow of divine contemplation;” dedicated to prayer and works of charity were succeeded in ending his days, in 1309. His body was then taken to the Augustinian church of Siena, honoured by an altarpiece triptych painted by artist Simone Martini, offered up for veneration by the faithful of the city. This journey between retirement and service to the Christian community is reminiscent of that of Anastasius of Cluny, elsewhere ands at other times. On the fringes of the general solutions which always tended towards cenobitic regrouping and —during the time of the mendicant orders— at the service of the Christian community above all through preaching, individuals succeeded in realising, at least occasionally, their ideal of penitential and contemplative solitude. Within the Camaldolese Order, which had clearly become cenobitic in form as a “life in common,” the reminder of Camaldolese and the term “hermitage”  refer mainly to the ‘strict observance’ of the Rule of their founder.

Concilium Tridentinum 1545 & 1563

The success of the Church at the level of worship is somewhat less widespread. If the deceased Franco, were to ultimately return to the village of Assergi which he frequented during his lifetime, Galgano and Augustine Novello were to be assimilated into the pantheon of the Patron Saints of Siena, quite the opposite, for more than four centuries the hierarchy failed to bring down the Benedictine solitary St. Chelidonia, alive or dead, from her mountain cave in Marra Ferogna into the monastery; whilst at the same time an ancient agrarian pagan fertility cult which —in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages— still operated in the area and prolonged their hostile resistance toward the blessed woman as she was nestled away in her mountain cave hermitage. Only in the XVI century did the enormous Tridentine apparatus launched against popular cults succeed in having the body of St. Chelidonia exhumed, and finally give her the formal and canonically authorised honours —deemed necessary by the ecclesiastical hierarchy— in Subiaco, and to be re-interred within the Abbey of Saint Scholastica.

Nature and Culture 

Nature & Culture

If the mythological hermit is considered practically a wild man, the Church hermit is deemed to be a civiliser. Whilst the most humble of hermits, undoubtedly cleared a small section of wild untamed land in order to feed themselves better; the Augustinian hermitage’s had their fields and herds of cattle, pigs and peep of chickens. Within the Sienese territory, the layout of the hermitages on the routes of expansion towards southern Maremma Marshes leaves little doubt about their positioning into the political project of the local municipality. You have to resign yourself to it: in reality, the medieval hermit is no more a savage than a forest can be considered a desert. 

Hermitage of Sant’Antonio in Val d’aspra, Casale di Pari di Civitella Paganico (GR)

Nature is tamed: Pius II, going to the XII century thermal baths of Petriolo in June 1460, October 1462 and in May 1464, describes the place of the Hermitage of St. Antony in Val d’Aspra of the Ardengheschi family. 

“… in a wooded valley, closed to the North winds, open to the South and to the West. Mount Amiata prevents you from seeing the sea. The woods are full of cork oaks, chestnut trees and oaks, whose acorns, in season, feed the wild boars whose herds have their lair in the lower valley. The ancients, who had found a perennial spring in the valley, cut the wood all around and built a sanctuary in freestone dedicated to Saint Anthony, whose antiquity deserves respect. Nearby they built cells for the monks, planted vines, cultivated gardens and grafted fruit trees. In this place live brothers of the order of the Hermits, but not more than four or six, because it is necessary to go far to ask for alms. There are sent exemplary men, lovers of solitude. They themselves prepare the wine from their vineyard and the vegetables from their garden. They go to look for the chestnuts in the forest. They may also occasionally obtain meat by hunting. The rest is provided to them by the begging brother. It is very rare that a human host arrives there. Often, on the contrary, a wolf or a wild boar appears and it is difficult to defend the vine against them. It is not safe to walk alone in the forest. This one, however, offers delicious shade under the evergreen trees.” [1]

In the XV century, this peaceful vision of the nature surrounding the hermitage relativized the paradox of the urban “hermitage” of the Angels. The forest has receded away, the “hermits” are busy in their garden. In the period of humanism, nature is no longer the mechanism of penance and penance is no longer the ideal of hermits. Solitude remains, which resolves itself in the libraries or in the scriptoria of the Camaldolese and the Augustinians, face to face with the texts and with the pages to be read, penned and magnificently illuminated.

[1] Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Papa Pio II, I commentarii, X-21, éd. et trad. ital. L. Totaro, 2 vol., Milan, 1984, 2, pp. 1952-1955.