Ever wonder why anyone thought it made sense to have a weird little ceramic homunculus taking up real estate in your front yard? Who came up with that, anyway? Garden gnomes are a fun part of homeownership for some, and they surface in popular culture in unexpected places with some frequency, such as the globe-trotting gnome in Amélie or (my favorite) the Gnome Chomsky garden gnome.
The trope of the hermit, on the other hand, seems a bit more distant from our concerns. I recently finished a brief trip to the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean, and while I was there I had the opportunity to visit a hermitage on an extended hike (I opted to do something else). Right this minute I’m in the Austrian countryside, and I can hike for less than an hour up into the woods and encounter a hermitage there as well. The man who is currently occupying the position of local hermit is (somewhat paradoxically) quite welcoming to visitors.
One appearance of a hermit in popular culture that I can think of was courtesy of Monty Python, who inserted a sketch about gossipy hermits into episode 8 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, right before a certain unforgettable two-hander about a dead parrot. Anyone who has seen Tom Stoppard’s outstanding play Arcadia will surely recall the salience of “the hermit of Sidley Park” to that narrative.
Americans don’t really have hermits—we have crackpots, cranks and crazed loners—but there is a phantom relationship between the hermit and the garden gnome. Because the garden gnome really started out as a hermit—a hermit who was encouraged to live on an individual’s private estate. The term for the such a person was “garden hermit” or “ornamental hermit,” and their heyday was Europe and England of the 18th century.
One of the earliest hermits of this type, according to Wikipedia, was St. Francis of Paola, who lived in a cave on his own father’s estate in the Italy of the early 15th century. It’s a little unclear how this phenomenon went big, but sometime around 1700 some tipping point of excess wealth among the gentry led to the popularization of ornamental hermits, who were hired on to spend years at a time in hermitages, grottoes, or rockeries on the estates of wealthy landowners.
Abby Norman found a wonderful example of a want ad for an ornamental hermit that dates from the early 1700s that was placed by Charles Hamilton, 6th Earl of Haddington, who was renowned for his innovations in park layout and topiary and suchlike. Hamilton’s hermit would…
be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant.
An ostensible reason for bringing a hermit onto one’s estate would be to forge some connection to nature, representing a return to authenticity that today’s enthusiasts of artisanal macaroons might also understand. But that explanation is somewhat undermined by the fact that some of the ornamental hermits were replaced by, um, robots. As Karl Shaw writes in Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Extraordinary Exploits of the British and European Aristocracy:
In the 1830 a Lord Hill installed a human hermit in the grounds of his home at Hawkstone in Shropshire. The bare-footed “Father Francis” was required to sit in a cave with an hourglass in his hand and exchange bon mots with passing visitors. He was eventually replaced by an automaton that would nod its head whenever someone came by, but according to regulars, the effect was disappointing.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Noam Chomsky garden gnome