18th Century British Estates Used Professional Hermits As Lawn Ornaments

If you're like us, then there are days when you just get so fed up with people that you're ready to pack it all in and go live as a hermit in the wilderness. Wouldn't that be the life? Communing with nature, meditating on life's mysteries, and occasionally putting up with your boss's questions about nature and the mysteries of life. Yeah, you'd still have a boss — at least, you would if, like most 18th century hermits, you got a job as a professional lawn ornament.

John Bigg, the Dinton Hermit

From Alone In The Garden To A Gnome In The Garden

It sounds truly bizarre, but for a while in the 17th and 18th centuries, hiring a dude to be spiritual and mysterious on your property was all the rage for wealthy English landowners. This hermit fit right in with the English-style gardens of the time, which celebrated a more naturalistic look than the heavily stylized, highly ordered gardens that were popular in France. Somewhere on the property, you'd find a humble little abode where the master of the house could retreat to be alone with his thoughts. But if the owner was stylish enough (and wealthy enough), he might just hire a man to dress as a druid, live in the house, and philosophize on the merits of solitude.

To be clear, this hermit didn't have to actually feel a spiritual calling — his job was almost entirely ornamental. So if you were enjoying tea in the garden of your wealthy cousin, you might spy a shadowy figure peeping out from the trees. This was the hermit hard at work completing the garden's mystical vibe. Or he might be commissioned to take a more active role, in which case the man clothed in rags and scraps of leather would actually approach any visitors to offer them a selection of his finest pieces of hermetic wisdom.

Those who couldn't afford to employ an actual hermit could still find ways to create a hermit-y ambiance. One strategy was to stock the hermit-house with accouterments that implied visitors had just missed him: a pair of reading glasses on a table, or a pile of books. Or they might just go ahead and place a mannequin in the window of the house, so guests could see the silhouette and rest assured that the garden was being properly contemplated. According to Gordon Campbell's The Hermit In The Garden, this practice of using dummy hermits may have led directly to a lawn ornament we still see today: the garden gnome.

Hermits In The Modern World

Professional hermiting may be a dying practice, but it isn't dead yet. In 2016, a retired police officer named Michael Dunn became the latest hermit in the Swiss town of Solothurn. His duties include caring for a nearby chapel and dispensing wisdom to any curious travelers, and the position pays $24,000 per year, plus room and board. A few months later, in Austria, a former artillery officer named Stan Vanuytrecht landed what he describes as his "dream job": praying, chatting with visitors, and enjoying the view from a 350-year-old cliffside house. It's certainly not a career for everyone, but if it sounds like it's up your alley, now's a good time to start putting your alone time on your resumé.

The Secret History Of Hermits

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 29, 2017

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