On Hermits and Hermitages

Moritz von Schwind [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Moritz von Schwind [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In his recently published book, “The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome,” Gordon Campbell traces the strange and unbelievable history of the oft-fantasized hermit. The Boston Globe recently wrote a bit about Campbell’s new book and the history and origins of our modern take on the hermit lifestyle. Below are some amazing snippets of the Globe article, which are rich with lore and fact.

…For several decades beginning at the middle of the century, live hermits were the height of fashion for the British gentry. New trends in garden design—away from formal, geometric grounds and towards artificial Edens—created a new kind of cultural habitat, which some people filled with an actual occupant. Provided with a hut or grotto to call his own and a few simple meals a day, a garden hermit might live for years on a picturesque corner of the property. Wandering guests would marvel at this living, breathing symbol of rural withdrawal.

The hermit, Campbell argues in his book, was a public symbol of an emotion that we have since learned to bury: melancholy. Sadness was something one cultivated, a state that suggested emotional sensitivity and a kind of native intelligence. To employ a garden hermit—cloaked in rags, performing solitude—was to assert a fine sensibility, one keen to the spiritual benefits of privacy, peace, and mild woe.

And from Campbell’s interview:

The term is often seven years, the hermits are not allowed to wash their hair or cut their nails, which sounds horrendous. They had to live austerely, and when their term was up, they’d receive 4 or 5 or 600 pounds, enough to never work again. Landowners had enormous power. They could also say to one of their tenants, “I want you to be my ornamental hermit. Here is your druid costume.”



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