Knights and Hermits

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The spectacular Grail scene at Corbenic is a culminating experience, the apotheosis

of an imagined spiritual quest. Lay assertion of independence from clerical

authority appears much more regularly in the prominence of hermits in all

chivalric literature, particularly in the romances. Hermits are clearly the chivalric

cleric of choice. In the forests which are the setting for adventure, hermits

seem to have established their dwellings at convenient intervals of one day’s

ride in order to accommodate knights errant who lodge with them regularly.

They are figures of wisdom as well as keepers of plain hostelries for the

Knights and Piety 57

61 For the consecration of Josephus, see Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 25–8; Sommer, ed.,

Vulgate Version I, 30–6. Here, Josephus is termed ‘sovereign bishop’ over his sheep, is dressed in

all the ‘things a bishop should have’, is attended by angels, and is anointed and consecrated by God

‘in the way a bishop should be’. He wears a mitre, holds a crozier, has a ring on his hand. He performs

the first mass. Later he ordains priests and bishops. Chase, ibid., 49; Sommer, ibid., 78.

62 Clerical ideas of reform are discussed in Chapter 4, further discussion of the The Quest

appears in Chapter 12.

chivalrous; a knight can find an explanation for his recent adventures or his

troublesome dreams and a sure guide for his future conduct, as well as a bed,

and at least barley bread and water.

Hermits are ubiquitous in chivalric literature. A hermit starts Yvain on his

road to recovery after madness in Chrétien’s Yvain;63 another speaks the key

advice to Perceval on Good Friday in his Perceval.64 Scores of hermits nourish

and direct the knights throughout The Quest of the Holy Grail. In fact, hermits

will play a key religious role in romance for the next several centuries.65 And not

only in romance. The spoken advice that becomes Llull’s important manual on

chivalry, we must remember, likewise comes from an old hermit who is instructing

a candidate for knighthood. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis pictures a hermit

foreseeing the future at the request of Queen Matilda, consort of William the

Conqueror. His elaborate vision could come from the pages of The Quest.66

To realize why this knightly preference for hermits is significant to the lay

piety of chivalry we need to understand the kind of figure hermits represent.

Two key facts seem to stand at the heart of an answer. First, both as we find

them in medieval society and as they were represented in chivalric literature,

hermits were closely integrated with the world around them; they were part of

lay society. In England hermits were sometimes expected to take on such mundane

functions as hospitality, chapel tending, work on roads and bridges, as

well as the spiritual counselling and advice to laypeople we might expect.67 In

literature they appear as especially attuned and sympathetic to knighthood, and

often have come from the same social milieu as knights, indeed have often been

knights themselves until age and waning capacity closed a chivalric career.

A second characteristic is of equal importance. Hermits were, in Angus

Kennedy’s words, ‘not opposed to but rather on the outskirts of the ecclesiastical

hierarchy proper’.68 The combination is perfect for making them ideal

purveyors of religion to the practitioners of chivalry. With thoughts of lay

independence and suspicions of clerical aggrandizement in their heads,

knights could readily appreciate the somewhat marginal position of pious

hermits within the ranks of the clergy.69

63 Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 2831–90.

64 Bryant, tr., Perceval, 67–70; Roach, ed., Perceval, ll. 6217–517. The didactic role plays on

unabated through the continuations to this latter romance.

65 Angus Kennedy provides an especially helpful overview: ‘The Hermit’s Role’. Cf. Frappier,

‘Le Graal’.

66 Chibnall ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, III, 104–9.

67 Ann Warren, ‘Self-Exclusion and Outsidership in Medieval Society: The English Medieval

Hermit’, paper read at the University of Rochester, 1991.

68 Angus Kennedy, ‘The Hermit’s Role’, 83.

69 If Henrietta Leyser is correct, the hermits in the world at the time chivalric romances were

being written were already forming institutions and had moved some distance from the more solitary

life pictured in these texts: see Hermits and the New Monasticism.

Benedictine monks and some clerics understandably took offence at the hermits’

claims and their criticisms of older monastic forms; they sometimes

directed sarcastic attacks at what they considered anarchic, orderless, headless

(i.e. leaderless) hermits.70 Their scorn and criticism, of course, make the same

point as the knightly endorsement, from an opposing direction: these men are

outsiders, not fully citizens of the world of clergie. Not all hermits were, in fact,

priests, and even those who were priests seemed more engaged in the life of

the laity and less entrenched in clergie than their fellows in monastery, parish

church, or episcopal court. As Jean Becquet wrote, if Western eremiticism was

clearly clerical, it was also lay, finding its recruits among laymen as well as

monastics, and combining them in ‘a perfect symbiosis’. He notes that the

master of one of the prominent eremitical orders in mid-twelfth-century

France, the order of Grandmont, was Pierre Bernard, a former knight who had

only recently become a priest.71 Some scholars are not sure that all hermits had

even received the licence from the bishop theoretically necessary for entering

the eremitical life.72

In fact, there is always a faint scent of the protest movement lingering about

hermits. Jean Leclercq notes that in the eleventh and twelfth century they represented

something of a movement or reaction, especially against contemporary

monasticism; Angus Kennedy argues that by the fourteenth century

hermits in literary works took on the role of critics of the Church of their day.73

In short, hermits combined a maximum of recognized piety and involvement

in the life of the laity with a minimal possession or exercise of ecclesiastical

authority; to this potent brew they added a dash of criticism of the church


Their undoubted piety was buttressed by the asceticism that always registered

as authentic piety in medieval consciousness. This very asceticism

showed the heroic character of the hermits, a quality which, of course, struck

a responsive chord in knights; each group undertook its characteristic adventures

and put the body in peril for a higher goal. Knightly recognition and

approval of this asceticism appears regularly in chivalric literature. A hermit in

the Perlesvaus, we learn, has not stepped outside his hermitage for forty years.74

Llull’s hermit patently shows his holy life in his worn clothing, worn body,

Knights and Piety 59

70 See the examples in Leclercq, ‘Le poème de Payen Bolotin’; this article discusses and prints

a twelfth-century satire directed against hermits. See also Flori, L’Essor de chevalerie, 262–3, citing

Geroh of Reichersberg.

71 Becquet, ‘L’Érémitisme’.

72 G. G. Meersseman, commenting on Becquet’s paper in L’Eremitismo in Occidente, 207;

Becquet’s agreement appears at ibid., 209.

73 Ibid., 210, 594; Angus Kennedy, ‘The Hermit’s Role’, 76–82.

74 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 75; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 112.

many tears. In the ‘first Continuation’ of the Perceval, a hermit keeps a vow of

silence through each night, visited by a helpful angel.75 Ascetic discipline wins

for the hermits particularly clear and direct channels to God and his angels.

Through this efficient access to divine power hermits can foretell the future,

explain the past, heal the injured.76 The Mort Artu even explains Gawain’s mysterious

increase of prowess at noon by the fact of his baptism by a holy hermit

at that hour.77 In the Perlesvaus, Lancelot receives from a hermit the tempting

offer to take upon himself Lancelot’s sin with the queen. The gesture is noble,

but Lancelot declines, confident that God will understand.78

Such powers are all the more attractive to knights when the hermits have

actually known the chivalric life and come from the proper social class. The

continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval by Gerbert shows us a band of twelve hermits

led by a hermit king, all former knights.79 Lancelot and Yvain stop at a

hermitage in the Lancelot and find ‘two good men, one who was a priest and

another who had been a knight and was the uncle of the two knights’ guide’.80

The hermit who gives Lancelot useful information early in the Lancelot ‘was

very old and had been a knight, one of the handsomest in the world. He had

turned to religion in his prime, when he had lost within one year all twelve of

his sons.’81 A hermit in the Perlesvaus had been a knight in King Uther’s household

for forty years and then a hermit for another thirty years.82 Time and

again romance authors show us hermits who have long been knights and who

can thus speak to other knights on a level plane of social equality and shared

vocation.83 A hermit whom Yvain meets (in the Lancelot) had been a knight

errant even before Arthur was crowned: ‘And I’d have been a member of the

Round Table, but I refused to join because of a knight member for whom I

bore a mortal hatred, and whose arms I later cut off. So after he was crowned,

King Arthur disinherited me.’84

One hermit after another is presented as a former knight. In the Lancelot do

Lac, to pick an example almost at random, we meet a hermit who had in his

previous profession been one of the finest knights in the world.85 The hermits

75 ‘first Continuation’ in Bryant, Perceval, 152.

76 Many examples in Angus Kennedy, ‘Portrayal of the Hermit-Saint’.

77 Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 181; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 173. Cf. the highly effective

prayers of Perceval’s hermit uncle in Roach, ed., Didot Perceval, 180.

78 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 110–11; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 168.

79 Bryant, Perceval, 239–43; Williams and Oswald, eds, Gerbert de Montreuil, I, ll. 8906–10153.

80 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 301; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 110.

81 Rosenberg, Lancelot Part III, 86; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 163.

82 Bryant, Perlesvaus, 41; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, I, 60–1.

83 Many examples in Angus Kennedy, ‘Portrayal of the Hermit-Saint’.

84 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 174; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 248.

85 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 139; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, 209.

who are so thick on the ground in The Quest of the Holy Grail likewise prove

often to have been knights; the hermit who hears Lancelot’s confession in this

text at least has a brother who is a knight and who can be called upon for the

essential horse and armour Lancelot has lost.86 In the Perlesvaus a hermit does

one better and keeps a stable of warhorses ready for use by worthy knights in

need; this is the sort of cleric a chivalrous audience could really appreciate.87

Some of the hermits never quite block out the trumpet calls of their former

calling. One who keeps arms to fight against robbers and villains appears in the

Perlesvaus and later in that romance hermits enthusiastically join with Perceval

in battle.88 It is more common, of course, for hermits to consider that warfare

continues in their new lives but takes a different form; in singing their masses,

they are often said to wear ‘the armor of Our Lord’.89

The link becomes even stronger when we note how many heroes themselves

end their lives as hermits. Perceval becomes a hermit at the end of The Quest of

the Holy Grail; Lancelot, Bleoberis, Girflet, Hector (as well as the Archbishop

of Canterbury) are all hermits in the closing pages of the Mort Artu and, again,

in Malory’s great book.90 William of Orange, who has retired from knighthood

to become a rather unhappy monk in William in the Monastery, hears the

voice of God telling him in a dream to leave that community and become a


Some hermits even reverse the usual pattern and turn to the greatest knights

for advice or even spiritual intercession. In the Perlesvaus, for example, a hermit

takes counsel of Perceval because of his good life, and another asks Galahad (in

The Quest of the Holy Grail) to intercede with God for him.92 The projection of

knightly lay independence in chivalric literature could scarcely be clearer.

Did this portrayal of hermits and the elaboration of mythology and learning

really mean anything to a knight setting out on a countryside campaign or

Knights and Piety 61

86 Knights become hermits, see Matarasso, tr., Quest, 138, 209; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version,

VI, 86, 142; the hermit’s brother and Lancelot’s equipment, see Matarasso, ibid., 94; Sommer,

ibid., 51.

87 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 236; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, I, 367. The Post-Vulgate Quest

for the Holy Grail notes that in the good old days the kingdom was full of hermits, many of them

former knights. The custom was to bear arms for thirty or forty years and then go off into mountainous

solitude where they ‘performed pennance for their sins and sensuality’: Asher, tr., Quest,

177; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 302.

88 Bryant, Perlesvaus, 108, 168–71; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, I, 164–5, 262–8.

89 e.g. Matarasso, Quest, 86, 103; Sommer, Vulgate Version, VI, 45, 59.

90 Matarasso, Quest, 284; Sommer, Vulgate Version, 198–9; Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur,

226, 231–2; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 227, 232–5; Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 722.

91 Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d’Orange, 304–5; Cloetta, ed., Deux redactions, laisse 30.

92 Bryant, Perlesvaus, 264; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, I, 407 ; Matarasso, Quest, 256;

Sommer, Vulgate Version, VI, 176. A priest asks Bors for his prayers when the knight comes before

the Holy Grail and an abbot also asks for his prayers. Matarasso, ibid., 180, 199; Sommer, ibid.,

120, 134.

even on a crusade? Would any particular knight care about an some imagined

hermit’s advice, about Joseph of Arimathea, the shield of Lancelot, or the miracles

of Galahad?

Knights need not have been primarily men of ideals to have ideals that mattered

to them. If chivalric literature presents critiques and hopes for the reform

of chivalry, it also reveals a good deal of the basic religious attitudes commonly

held by knights. Their piety may have been thoroughly formal and from a

modern, ideal perspective may look distressingly devoid of deep spirituality;

but it need not have been less real for all that, nor less a guide to their conduct.

These attitudes constitute a form of lay piety that was eminently practical. The

knights wanted to be pious, orthodox Christians; they also insisted on a valorization

of their profession of arms which would link them, finally, with

divine order. Ideas that carried such weight mattered to them.