Midweek Mysticism: The Big Society in action
Until the time of Henry VIII, many of the public carriageways and river crossings in England were built and maintained by religious solitaries who lived nearby and collected alms from the local populace for the purpose.
It seems to have been a satisfactory arrangement for all concerned, not least for the hermit, who maintained himself as well as the road.
In pre-Reformation times, hermits were not as isolated as many suppose. They were in part a kind of municipal service in the days before municipalities. Their unofficial duties also included giving advice on all topics spiritual as well as a wide range of mundane matters.
In Christianity, a hermit was generally given the blessing of authority through consecration by a bishop, and often lived under direction. He was, to some extent, free to move around, and even to work for his living.
Hermits were the first lighthouse keepers and watchmen on the coasts and estuaries. The present-day Trinity House, which has overall responsibility for British waters, evolved from the Fraternity of the Blessed Trinity, a religious guild formed in Deptford in 1514 as an aid to mariners.
Seamen often showed their gratitude for these services by visiting the hermitage/lighthouse when ashore and doubtless a discreet and pious offering was made towards the upkeep of the service.
In 1470, Sir Thomas Malory, writing about hermits in the Age of Chivalry, thought that in King Arthur’s day, “the hermits held great household, and refreshed people that were in distress”. No doubt some were fine Gentlemen, like Sir Perceval, in pursuit of the Holy Grail.
According to Rotha Mary Clay: “During the Middle Ages … ministering hermits, often of the peasant class, were found throughout the country, dwelling beside the highways, bridges and fords. Their duties were those of host, guide, light-bearer, labourer, alms-gather, turnpike man, or bridge-warden.”
Manual labour had replaced the knightly crafts. The Big Society pre-dated the gleam in David Cameron’s eye.
Plainly, the life of a hermit in pre-Reformation England was not one of total seclusion. Almost all long-term jobs in a fixed location were undertaken by “recluses” of varying hue. Apart from a fairly reliable guarantee of honesty and industry, they were probably the only type of person who would put up with the isolation and impoverishment, except forced prison labour, which had no choice in the matter.
Far from complaining about the conditions, the hermit almost certainly welcomed the arduous toil, meagrely rewarded, as a way of serving God, the people and his calling.
He (and it was always a he beyond church boundaries) was also a source of religious learning and spiritual direction for many folk in the district, including the less cynical clergy.
Some solitaries nonetheless, are known to have succumbed to temptation when holding funds for the maintenance of a bridge or the King’s highway. William Langland, the poet and social reformer, in his Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman (1360s), wrote of hermits who took the habit to avoid earning their living by ordinary work and to collect alms instead.
A certain William Blakeney (quoted by Clay) “was brought into the Guildhall … for that, whereas he was able to work for his food and raiment, he … went about there, barefooted and with long hair, under the guise of sanctity, and pretended to be a hermit, saying that he was such … and under colour of falsehood he had received many good things from divers people.” Since many a causeway was kept open from the nearby hermitage, it can only be assumed that these reprobates were few in number.
Judging by the results of the hermit of Highgate, most performed well: “Where now the school stands was a hermitage, and the hermit caused to be made the road between Highgate and Islington, and the gravel was had from the top of Highgate Hill, where there is now a pond of water.” Modern environmentalists would be proud of him.
Whichever way you look at it, the hermits offered a better service than modern local authorities. And “council tax” was voluntary. How’s that for the Big Society?
Could Dave be missing a trick?
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
Coming up: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com.