Brocard, the Unknown Carmelite

How does one write a biography of someone whose known data consists of no more than his initial? The “Brother B” to whom the Carmelite Rule is directed remains shrouded in the mystery of the ages, even though some fanciful stories developed about him, especially during the 14th century. Even his name “Brocard” depends on a tradition which cannot be entirely supported. Other legends describe him as being a native of Jerusalem, who performed miraculous healings, and dealt with important Muslim leaders. He is also said to have been buried on Carmel, which seems more likely than the other details. Within Carmelite circles, his feast was added to the liturgical calendar in 1564, but then suppressed in 1584 as the reforms of Trent took hold. So what can we know about Brocard?

Fortunately, we do know quite a lot about the hermits and eremitical life during the medieval period, and that may help to flesh out the details of the actual historical figure. Today when we speak of someone as being a “hermit” we often mean an individual who cannot or will not adapt to social norms or the accepted society. He or she may have severe emotional or mental problems which impede normal dealings with other people. It is important to not confuse this image with the hermits of the 12th or 13th centuries.

The men and women of that era had much in common with the first wave of holy hermits from the 4th century onward, who reacted to the growing corruption and secularization within the Constantinian church. The eremitical rebirth of the Middle Ages grew out of a growing sense of anger at the wealth and luxury of the hierarchy and the overly rigid, legalistic life of many of the most important monasteries. The hermits of the Holy Land (who were the ancestors of the original Carmelite of the Wadi ‘Ain es-Siah) had many counterparts in all parts of Europe. They were primarily lay preachers, who distanced themselves from what they considered sources of decay in the Church, but not at all from the people of God. A typical hermit would find a quiet place, often physically beautiful and inspiring, where study of Scripture and silent prayer were possible. Their food, clothing, and possessions were of the poorest type, in testimony to the simplicity of Jesus and his disciples. Hermits would often engage in a simple and informal ministry of some sort, since charity was seen as the finest of the virtues. Indeed they were quiet people, but often very vigorous and well respected.

In the Holy Land, the mild climate allowed an easy life in the most basic shelters. Caves were ideal wherever they could be found. Elsewhere, a tent or simple lean-to shelter of branches or leaves could supply enough shade from the sun for most of the year. Rain was seasonal and predictable, cold weather was rare, except for chilly nights. The hermits wore clothing similar to the local people, woolen robes and cloaks with hoods. Simple stripes were the only concession to variety in dress. Food was easy to find or grow wherever there was a water source. The warm sun and gentle change of seasons allowed a variety of nutritious crops. Grain for simple bread was usually barley or wheat. Grapes, olives, citrus fruit, and figs were easy to find growing wild, or to plant and tend wherever they were wanted. Meat was not usually desired by ascetics, but the local people could provide lamb or chicken whenever sick or infirm people needed extra protein.

The hermits who followed the Crusaders to Palestine had the added characteristic of a unique hardiness. They survived the perils of travel and privation to live in a land where their local support was less certain. They tended to gravitate to holy sites associated with Biblical events. “Walking in the footsteps of Jesus” was a primary goal in the individual’s spiritual journey, especially in such places as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. Other favorite spots for hermits would be the Jordan valley, the Judean desert, Mount Tabor, the Sea of Galilee, or the slopes of Carmel. Such holy sites were well populated by men and women of prayer and reflection as long as the western armies help the door open for them.

But after the disastrous battle of Hattin (1187), the integrity of the Christian Kingdom collapsed like a punctured balloon, and many of those solitaries found themselves vulnerable to bands of violent enemies. Nearly all of them had to run for their lives toward the few remaining enclaves along the sea coast. Many of them did not make it. We have reason to believe that there was a centuries-long tradition of hermits living on or near the Carmel valleys, but the military disaster probably meant that many more came there. Their numbers were swelled with refugees from elsewhere, thanks largely to the protection of the seaward side of the mountain barrier. It seems very likely that the need for a written formula of life may have been seen as a way to organize this overcrowded population, and settle disputes over details of their spiritual practice.

Brocard may very well have been the peacemaker who rose to this challenge by seeking out a significant prelate to settle the questions of ascetical discipline. The simple fact that he is the one whom Albert of Jerusalem addresses indicates that he could speak for the others, probably because of a consensus on his leadership. He may also have had to contend with ethnic differences among hermits from many different places. Despite the contention that Brocard came from Jerusalem, it is much more likely that his roots were French or Italian. The Crusaders came from a broad spectrum of European states, but the military leadership was generally in the hands of the Normans. There were Norman nobles from France, England, and Sicily, all acknowledged to be the best fighters. The lion’s share of the crusading knights came from parts of France, with healthy contingents of Italians, Germans, English and Belgians. There were relatively few Spanish or Portuguese knights, principally because they had their own crusade at home, as they fought to expel the Moors from Iberia. More than likely, the first community in the Wadi reflected this ethnic mix. Most other religious communities began with members from one specific location. Brocard’s position as leader may have reflected his skill at mediating the small disputes which arise among strong-minded people.

Archeologists working in the 20th century have discovered two graves in front of the door of the old chapel. One of them was a primary burial of a man, laid to rest with great respect. Is it Brocard? There is no way to confirm or deny the theory. But knowing what we do about the hermits of his day, we can assume that someone of extraordinary leadership was honored with this symbolic act. Someone who helped pave the way for everything that followed.

Leopold Glueckert O. Carm.
Leopold Glueckert, a native of the Chicago area, is a Carmelite friar. A lifelong teacher, he has taught at Mount Carmel High School (Chicago) and Crespi High School (Encino, CA), where he also served as president. He has also taught History at Loyola, DePaul, Loyola-Marymount, and Lewis Universities. He has been on the faculty of the Washington Theological Union since 2007. His primary interest is in modern Europe, with concentration in Italy and the Mediterranean. Much of his research has focused on the last days of the Papal States and the pontificate of Pius IX. He has a special interest in Church-State issues and topics concerning the encounter between world cultures.
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