great Saint Alexander Akimetes’s wicked rationalizing

According to a story that Goscelin of Saint-Bertin heard in the middle of the eleventh century, the anchorite Alexander was highly virtuous. Humble persons understand the risk of temptations and pray not to be led into them. The devil shrewdly seeks great persons like the anchorite Alexander, who became Saint Alexander Akimetes.

monk who had sex with an anchoress and killed a man becomes hairy anchorite in solitude and penance

After stealing a squalling baby girl from her cradle, the devil disguised as a monk brought her to the anchorite Alexander. The devil-monk said:

This baby girl is my sister’s daughter, deprived of both her parents. In pity I took her because she was facing death. From this I have anguish in my soul. It is unlawful to keep her in the cloister under my abbot and entirely impious to abandon her. You with your fraternal holiness and famous solitude are her sole refuge. With mercy as a foster-father you should thus take her and nourish her until she has strength to provide for herself.

{ Hanc sororis mee natam, utroque parente orbatam, collegi miseratus perituram. Hinc angor animi, quia et in cenobio sub abbate meo hanc tenere est inordinatum, et abicere prorsus impium. Tua fraterna sanctitas et famosa solitudo unicum est refugium, ut hanc misercordie alumnus suscipias, et, dum sibi preuidere valeat, enutrias. }[1]

No solitary monk with Christian love could reject a needy baby girl. Alexander the anchorite accepted her and raised her into a beautiful young woman. Then he had sex with her. She became pregnant.

nun shows hairy anchorite their baby

The devil disguised as a monk re-appeared to Alexander and asked about the girl. The hermit, “groaning deeply from the suffering of his conscience {conscientie dolore altius ingemiscens},” confessed his sin. The devil then urged him to commit a terrible crime with elaborate rationalizing:

He was famous for sanctity and advanced in age. Nothing is worse than an elderly apostate. If from the former odor of sanctity were to burst among the people such fetid disgrace, immediately everything would be mixed with uproar and scandal. The whole world, not so much against him as against all holy men, would be armed with hatreds, slanders, curses, mockeries, and reproaches. Everything holy would be cursed by all. He would be more guilty of the ruin of many than of his own crime. There remained for him one remedy, such that by one evil he might extinguish so many evils. Let him slit the throat of the unfortunate woman and bury her along with that crime in the earth, away from the sight of Heaven and all human notice. He could thus more easily be penitent and satisfy divine mercy rather than human madness.

{ illum esse preclarum sanctimonia, prouectum etate, nil turpius sene apostato, si in populum eruperit de priori odore tam feda infamia; protinus omnia turbis et scandalis misceri, totum mundum, non tam in eum quam in omnes sanctos uiros, odiis, detractionibus, maledictis, subsannationibus, conuitiis armari, omne sacrum ab omnibus execrari, illum perditionis multorum magis quam proprii criminis esse reum, unum sibi, ut uno malo tam multa mala extingueret, restare remedium, infelicem mulierem iugularet, et a conspectu celi omnique humana notitia cum scelere terra obrueret, eum facilius penitere et satisfacere posse apud diuinam clementiam, quam apud humanam uesaniam. }

The hermit Alexander, “relying on that good master of perdition {bono magistro perditionis fretus},” killed his “spouse {coniunx}” and buried her body.

The devil then appeared to Alexander and sought to claim him. Doing evil puts one in league with the devil. So the devil said to Alexander:

Ah, most evil of men, now you have become entirely mine. No one has obeyed my suggestions more cruelly than you. Well, lost one, was it not sufficient for you to have debauched without also staining your brothel with blood?

{ Eia, sceleratissime hominum, iam totus meus effectus es; nemo credulius meis suggestionibus paruit. Hem, perdite, non satis erat constuprasse, nisi et lupanar maculasses sanguine? }

In despair Alexander called on Christ. The devil fled in terror. God can overcome any demon. Moreover, Christian tradition offers much compassion toward holy harlots. Shouldn’t men truly sorrowful for their evil acts be offered mercy?

hairy anchorite with chain around his neck led to punishment

Alexander wasn’t redeemed instantaneously. He suffered a long, punishing Ovidian transformation:

Casting himself on the ground, he for three days continuously overflowed with such tears that blood flowed out from his weeping. At last standing up, he had before his eyes an open oak-tree, shining from within as if from golden metal. He approached and attempted to examine it. When he put both hands into it, the tree closed itself and detained the sinner against God. So that I don’t linger too much, there for fifteen years he is said to have stood, content with no other food than falling nuts and leaves, and no other drink than that which the dew and rain gave.

{ Hic triduo continuo affusus humi tantis lacrimis inundauit, ut cruor a fletibus excurrerit. Tandem erectus, quercum patentem, et quasi fuluo metallo deintus relucentem, pre oculis habuit. Accesssit experiendi studio, utque utrasque manus iniecit, arbor se occlusit et Dei preuaricatorem alligatum tenuit. Ibi, ne multum morer, quindecim annos stetisse perhibetur, cibo uel potu non alio contentus quam glandes et folium cadens, quam ros et pluuia dabat. }[2]

Alexander stood with the wood of the tree for fifteen austere years. Christ didn’t offer him cheap mercy.

One day King Gundofor was hunting in the woods. He came upon an old man encased in the tree. That old man was Alexander, who explained his crime and pointed to the woman’s grave nearby. Given the dates and circumstances, the King realized that the girl had been his own baby daughter. When he dug up her grave, he found her body uncorrupted and shining as if she were alive. She had received the bodily honor of a holy martyr. The murderer Alexander sought forgiveness from this holy martyr. Forgiveness involved the specific ritual of her foregoing capability to punish him:

Praying, the father placed the rod of forgiveness into the uncorrupted fingers of his daughter. Having taken it, she cast it from her in the manner of indulgence. At that same moment, the oak-tree, parting, set the captive free. Released from guilt and from long being bound, Saint Alexander sprang forth at liberty.

{ Pater orans festucam remissoriam incorruptis digitis nate imponit, illa susceptam more indulgentis proicit. Eodem momento quercus dehyscens captiuum relaxat, solutusque reatu et diutino nexu sanctus Alexander liber emicat. }[3]

As a martyr, the woman could bless Alexander from Heaven. At her grave site, King Gundofor built a huge monastery, lavished upon it royal wealth, and distinguished it by establishing within it a college of three hundred monks. The King then gave up his throne and himself became a monk there. Penance and forgiveness produced abundant holy fruits.

The monk Goscelin of Saint-Bertin recorded this story of illicit marriage and vicious murder within a long, ardent letter to his beloved nun Eve. She was about twenty years younger than he. Some today would say that’s creepy.[4] It was not so for loved-filled medieval women and men. Goscelin told this story to Eve to show the supernatural goodness and marvelous mercy of God. Medieval Christians believed that “from our evil God remakes his goods {de malis nostris sua bona reformat}.” Even those of us who aren’t medieval Christians might hope that to be true!

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[1] Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Comforting Book {Liber confortatorius}, Latin text from Talbot (1955) pp. 104-5, English translation (modified) from Barnes & Hayward (2004) pp. 191-2. All subsequent quotes are similarly sourced from this story of Alexander in Liber confortatorius.

This story of Alexander is “a previously unnoticed example of the ‘hairy anchorite’ story.” Barnes & Hayward (2004) p. 190, ft. 49. On the “hairy anchorite” story type, Williams (1935) and Matheson (2019) pp. 218-24.

This story seems to be more specifically about Saint Alexander Akimetes (died 430 GC). He spent time in solitude in the desert near Antioch. He was also associated with founding of monasteries of Acoemetae {ἀκοίμηται} monks, including a monastery in the Byzantine capital Constantinople. Acoemetae monks celebrated the divine service perpetually through relays of monks. The practice of perpetual adoration continues that tradition.

[2] Ovid tells of Daphne being assimilated into a laurel tree and Myrrha transformed into a myrrh tree. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.525-52 (Daphne) and 10.431-502 (Myrrha). Lucian’s True History tells of men having their bodies joined inseparably to grape trees.

[3] Cf. 1 Corinthians 4:21, Luke 5:17-26. A “festuca {rod}” is possibly a “praetor’s rod (vindicta) laid upon the slave’s head in manumission (Plaut. Mil. Glor. iv. 1, 15; Pers.v. 175).” Peck (1898) via Perseus or Logeion. Using a “rod of forgiveness {festuca remissoria}” isn’t a well-attested medieval practice of forgiveness. On the origins of the idea of forgiveness, Konstan (2010). Jesus associated forgiveness with bodily self-mutilation.

[4] O’Brien O’Keeffe offered an intellectually elaborate interpretation of Goscelin as creepy through the story of Alexander:

I am arguing that the fantasy of Alexander {the devil’s depiction of spiritual disaster should Alexander’s crime be known} shows us that Goscelin’s desire for Eve, here as an obscene filling, requires her death. It is a death he has imagined before in the LC {Liber confortatorius} by ventriloquizing her burial in her cell. Such a death fends off the wicked eye and sly finger and, in ensuring her silence, guarantees Goscelin’s continuing desire for Eve.

O’Brien O’Keeffe (2012) p. 237. That interpretation seems to me to reflect the anti-meninism now pervasive in medieval literary scholarship. Goscelin profoundly loved Eve and surely did want her to have her throat slit. The story of Alexander occurs in Liber confortatorius, Book IV, as part of Goscelin’s extensive exhortation to humility and his descriptions of reversal of fortune and the world turned upside down in Christ.

Hayward and Hollis offered a much more provisional biographic interpretation of Goscelin’s story about Alexander:

If we wish to argue that there is an element of sexual anxiety in Goscelin’s admission of sin in his appeals for the intercession of Eve in Book I, here {the story of Alexander}, if at all, is the narrative reflex of a guilty conscience.

Hayward & Hollis (2004) p. 397. Medieval Christians understood all persons, even women, to be guilty of sin. Men commonly feel sexual desire toward young, beautiful, warmly receptive women. Goscelin may have felt sexual desire toward Eve. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he indulged in lust in his heart or other activities that medieval Christian authorities would regard as sinful. It also doesn’t mean that he felt sexual anxiety or had a guilty conscience. He may have felt instead that he was a healthy heterosexual man.

[images] (1) Hairy anchorite enters seclusion. The devil enticed a monk to have sex with a nun. The monk then killed a miller who witnessed the monk and nun embracing. Feeling guilty, the monk confessed to a bishop. He then became a hairy anchorite and entered seclusion. Illumination in an instance of the Decretals of Gregory IX, edited by Raymund of Penyafort (or Peñafort), with the glossa ordinaria of Bernard of Parma in the margin. This manuscript, commonly known as the Smithfield Decretals, was made between about 1300 and 1340. Detail from folio 117v of British Library, MS Royal 10 E IV. The story of this monk / hermit is painted on the lower margins of folios 113v-118v. (2) Nun shows hairy anchorite their baby. Similarly a detail from folio 133r of the Smithfield Decretals. This image is from the story of a hairy anchorite who had a sexual affair with a nun. It plays across the bottom margins of folios 125v-136v. (3) A hairy anchorite with a chain around his neck is led away to punishment. Similarly a detail from folio 134r of the Smithfield Decretals. The official apparently is holding a rod indicating punishment. Men continue to suffer harsh punishment from unplanned parenthood.


Barnes, W. R. and Rebecca Hayward, trans. 2004. “Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius.” Part 2 (pp. 97-216) in Hollis (2004).

Hayward, Rebecca, and Stephanie Hollis. 2004. “The Female Reader in the Liber confortatorius.” Pp. 385-399 in Hollis (2004).

Hollis, Stephanie, ed. 2004. Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius. Turnhout: Brepols.

Konstan, David. 2010. Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matheson, Anna. 2019. “New Developments in the Study of the Wild Man in Medieval Irish Literature.” Pp. 203-226 in Bouget, Hélène, and Magali Coumert, eds. Quel Moyen Âge?: La recherche en question. Histoires Des Bretagnes. Brest: Éditions du CRBC, Université de Bretagne occidentale.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. 2012. Stealing Obedience: Narratives of Agency and Identity in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Peck, Harry Thurston. 1898. Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

Talbot, C. H, ed. 1955. “The Liber Confortatorius of Goscelin of Saint Bertin.” Pp. 1-117 in M. M. Lebreton, J. Leclercq, C. H. Talbot, eds. Analecta Monastica: Textes et études sur la vie des moines au moyen age. 3rd series. Studia Anselmiana, 37. Rome: Herder.

Williams, Charles Allyn. 1935. The German Legends of the Hairy Anchorite: with two old French texts of La vie de Saint Jean Paulus. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

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