One of the most interesting phenomena to mark the transition in Europe from the ancient world of Rome to the Middle Ages is the rise of prominent holy men in society. As ascetics, these men practiced self-denial and the renunciation of the world, and became increasingly important in community life as the political environment changed.
In the Eastern Roman and early Byzantine lands, many of these holy men were stylites, living atop pillars to symbolise their distance from worldly concerns, although others lived in caves–like those in Cappadocia–in order to emulate Jesus’ journey into the desert. Because of their own personal tribulations, which many believed brought them closer to God, these holy men not only distributed religious advice, but even advocated on behalf of their local community when traditional figures of authority found their power waning.
Far to the west, in the British isles, there was no tradition of stylites, but many saints. For them, a similar symbol of renunciation was exile to a smaller, usually deserted island, where they could dedicate themselves to discomfort and prayer in peace. St Illtud, St Cadog, and St Gildas all spent time on islands, although the archetype of this kind of religious foundation is the Abbey of Iona, in Scotland.
There are indications however, that even these saints didn’t sacrifice all of their creature comforts. The biographer of St Gildas, who wrote several centuries after his death, couldn’t help but imagine that this well-known saint and historian would be accompanied even in his withdrawal from the world. Thus, he writes:
“While St Gildas was thus persevering, devoting himself to fasting and prayers, pirates came from the islands of Orcades [Orkneys] who harassed him snatching off his servants from him when at their duties…”
Although the idea of saints and servants might seem incompatible for us today, possessing a retinue was an important mark of status. Those men who aspired to come closer to God through the ascetic ideal might try to leave this status behind, but their importance as social intercessors and sources of inspiration meant that true solitude was always difficult to achieve.
Peter Brown, `The rise and function of the holy man in late antiquity’, in his Society and the holy in late antiquity (also published in Journal of Roman Studies 61(1971), 80-101
is the touchstone text for this topic. Also see:
The Life of St Gildas, Caradoc of Llancarfan, in Hugh Williams (trans.), Two Lives of Gildas by a monk of Rhuys and Caradoc of Llancarfan, (1899).