Challenge Accepted: 6 Months as a Medieval Hermit in Russia
In our crowded modern cities, there are some who wish that they could live by themselves in a remote wilderness area sometime in the past. They yearn for a time when life was, at least supposedly, simpler. Few, on the other hand, have actually tried to live this life. In 2013, however, as part of a historical re-enactment project, a 24-year-old Russian man spent 6 months living in a homestead which was constructed like those built in the Middle Ages. The purpose of this experiment was to give a glimpse of what it might have been like to live as a hermit in 9th-10th century Russia.
The First Hermits
The original reason that people in Europe became hermits wasn’t just to escape the crowded cities, but to find a life of deeper spiritual connection by fleeing the rest of the world. The first hermits appeared during the late 3rd century AD.
A hermit praying. (Public Domain)
One of the first to do this was Saint Antony, who began living as a hermit around 285 AD in the deserts of Egypt. In the 4th century, after Christianity began to be increasingly associated with the Roman Empire, many Christians felt that the co-opting of their faith by the Roman state would lead to the decline of genuine Christianity. In response, many left the cities for the desert to live as anchorite monks, that is monks who lived by themselves. They were essentially hermits.
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Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Thebaid), 1420. (Public Domain)
These early hermits would live near each other in huts and small houses forming a village of otherwise solitary monks. They each lived by themselves within their huts and only came together to worship once or twice a week, usually on Saturdays and Sundays. Although most of their time was spent in solitude, in prayer and other religious activities, they had a common life consisting of daily morning and evening prayer as well as occasional common meals. They also shared work.
Two hermits in a cave. (Public Domain)
Christian monasticism had been brought to the Slavic lands near modern-day Russia by the 10th century. Coenobitic monasticism, where monks live together in monasteries, however, appears to have been more common at the time than the solitary monasticism of early Christianity. One monk from that region who was a hermit at first was Anthony of the Kiev Far Caves (983-1073). According to tradition, he lived in a series of caves in the vicinity of Kiev for several years before he began to attract disciples and founded a monastery. He is celebrated as one of the founders of Russian monasticism.
The life of a hermit in the Egyptian desert would have been hard enough, but life in Russia would have been made especially hard because of the harsh winter. This has led some enthusiasts of historical re-enactment to try to recreate the experience of a Russian hermit living in the vicinity of Moscow.
The Torment of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo (Public Domain)
Bringing Early Medieval Monasticism to Life in the 10th Century
In 2013, a historical re-enactment group took interest in reconstructing the life of a Russian hermit. They wanted to see if a man could survive the Russian winter alone in the early Middle Ages. For this, they built a homestead constructed according to the specifications of experts to ensure that it resembled a real early Medieval homestead as much as possible. After this, they chose a volunteer to live in the homestead for six months without any technology or gadgets post-dating the 9th-10th centuries.
The man who volunteered was a 24-year-old medical student turned historical re-enactment professional named Pavel Sapozhnikov. During his six months as a Medieval hermit, medical professionals would check on him once a month to make sure that he was healthy.
The ‘Russian hermit’ Pavel Sapozhnikov. Source: Homestead Basics
Life at the Homestead
During the six months that Pavel lived at the homestead, he subsisted only on grains that were available in Russia during the early Middle Ages. He also had goats for milk and chickens as a source of eggs. The homestead itself consisted of three rooms. One, containing a traditional stove and a bed, was his living quarters. Another room was a storage area where he kept his grain. A third room was used as barn for the animals.
During the experiment, Pavel said that one of his most important tools was an axe. An axe, he said, could be used to do almost anything, and anything that could not be done with an axe could be done with a tool that could be made with the help of an axe. Pavel also discovered that, although he did not have the pressures of modern life, he was quite busy. Every morning, he would have to feed the chickens and feed and milk the goats. After that, he would heat up the stove and grind grain. This gave him enough work to last until lunch time.
Pavel Sapozhnikov said his axe was his most important tool. (Homestead Basics)
In addition to having to work every day to survive, he also ran into problems. Once his goats and chickens began regularly eating natural food that had not been modified with hormones and anti-biotics, the goats produced less milk and the chickens produced lower quantities of eggs. He also caught a fever which did not easily go away. He also injured himself while using his axe when he cut his finger straight to the bone. After he finished the project, a documentary, Alone in the Past, was made detailing his adventure through time via experimental archaeology.
The Experiment and Historical Reality
Pavel was able to survive six months living in early Medieval conditions, demonstrating that it was possible for a man of that era to brave the Russian winter living on his own. Historical records, however, show that this was probably rare. Most monks by that time did not live as solitary monks, but in monasteries. A group of men living together would have lightened the workload, allowing more time for prayer and religious worship. Historical records show that it was typical at the time to not work during the 12 days of Christmas. This would not have been possible for one man working every day just to keep himself alive.
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Useful Experimental Archaeology
Experimental archaeology is useful because it can show whether or not a particular archaeological theory is plausible. It should be noted, however, that it doesn’t necessarily mean that things happened the way they are shown in an experiment.
The results of this experiment show that if a man wanted to live as a hermit in 9th-10th century Russia, he could have, and there were individuals who did. Despite this, it probably wasn’t the norm for ascetics. Nonetheless, this experiment is useful in shedding light on what it might have been like to live in the early Middle Ages, at least for some people.
The ‘Russian Hermit’ collecting well water. (Citydesert)
Top Image: A pilgrim in the snow (captblack76 / Adobe Stock)
By Caleb Strom
Aghiorgoussis, Maximos. N.D. Monasticism in the Orthodox Church. Available at: https://www.goarch.org/en/-/monasticism-in-the-orthodox-church
Mauro, J. 2019. Millennial man survives a medieval winter as a hermit. Available at: https://aleteia.org/2019/02/05/millennial-man-survives-a-medieval-winter-as-a-hermit/
Orthodox Church in America. N.D. Venerable Anthony of the Kiev Far Caves, Founder of Monasticism in Russia. Available at: https://oca.org/saints/lives/2008/07/10/101994-venerable-anthony-of-the-kiev-far-caves-founder-of-monasticism-i
Sputnik. 2013. 6 Months in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Moscow Winter. Available at: https://sputniknews.com/analysis/20130923183672406-Six-Months-in-the-Middle-Ages-Surviving-the-Moscow-Winter/