Persons who have retired into solitude to lead the religious life. The term is derived through Old French and Latin from the Greek ἐρεμίτης. Although there were probably Christian solitaries before his time, an Egyptian named Paul was the first to popularize the eremitic life. From the beginning of the 4th century, this life was one
of the standard ways, especially in the East, in which Christian asceticism expressed itself. In the East, after a first period of dramatic and often excessive austerity among hermits, ecclesiastical authority (Chalcedon, 451, and the Novellae of Justinian) brought the eremitic life under control and provided that hermits should live adjacent to monasteries and under the control of superiors, as they still do at Mt. Athos and other places in the East. In the West, the 6th-century Rule of St. Benedict (ch. 1) provided for the exceptional case of the ascetic who might be permitted to become a solitary, a provision modeled on the precepts of St. Basil. In the West the cenobitic life has tended to obscure the eremitic life more completely than it has in the East, but several periods of spiritual revival have sent a comparatively large number into the desert places of western Europe; this occurred especially in the 11th century, and again with the mystical movements of the 13th and 14th centuries. From the eremitic impulse of the 11th century sprang the two congregations that have preserved a canonical form of semi-eremitic life into the modern world, the Carthusians and the Camaldolese. In a spiritual climate in which the eremitic life enjoys little popularity, these two groups provide the only institutional possibilities for its practice by Christians of the West. The Augustinian Hermits, formed in the mid-13th century from several Italian societies of hermits, became friars almost immediately upon foundation.
See Also: anchorites.
Bibliography: h. leclercq, f. cabrol, and h. i. marrou, eds., Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie (Paris 1907–53) 5.1:384–386. For additional bibliog. see anchorites.