Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

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Ditch the Garden Gnome and Get a Hermit

Too bizarre, but, according to Atlas Obscura , very true. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we now refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history.  You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that many of these were not strictly ornamental. Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England. During the 18th century, it was the fashion among the elite to hire men to live in their gardens, pretending to be a rustic part of the landscape. Rather than write about what he’s discovered, I’ll allow Professor Campbell speak for himself in this video .

As Campbell  explains, whether this method of earning one’s living was irksome or ideal would depend upon the candidate’s own particular outlook on life. “Recruiting a hermit wasn’t always easy. Sometimes they were agricultural workers, and they were dressed in a costume, often in a druid’s costume. There was no agreement on how druids dressed, but in some cases they wore what we would call a dunce’s cap. It’s a most peculiar phenomenon, and understanding it is one of the reasons why I have written this book.” An employment ad referenced in Sir William Gell’s A Tour in the Lakes Made in 1797  states that “the hermit is never to leave the place, or hold conversation with anyone for seven years during which he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails both on hands and feet, grow as long as nature will permit them.” Often symbolic props such as a skull, a book, and an hourglass were used to help convey to the visitor the image of melancholy, a state of mind much admired by the upper class.

The garden hermit fad began way back in ancient Rome and extended to the end of the 1700’s. It’s speculated that the custom of religious persons shutting themselves up for meditation and prayer devolved into a sort of paid profession.

 

article-image(via Wellcome Library)

The garden hermit custom began way back in ancient Rome and extended to the end of the 1700’s. It’s speculated that the custom of religious persons shutting themselves up for meditation and prayer devolved into a sort of paid profession. While the custom died out around 1800, the roots of the plastic garden gnome, which is alive and well today, may very well spring from those of the hermit himself.

article-image
An 18th century hermitage that survives in Manor Gardens Eastbourne, East Essex (photograph by Kevin Gordon)

Folklore in My Garden: the Daisy

Every June, our gardens come alive with the flowers and herbs we’ve planted, and also with hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers – wild daisies. This humble flower has long been associated with innocence, freshness, and love. Perhaps the best-known daisy custom is the plucking of its petals while chanting, “Loves me, loves me not.” This harmless superstition was popularized in the early 1800’s by Goethe’s play, in which the naive Marguerite tries to determine the devil-assisted Faust’s feelings for her. Perhaps that is why the daisy is sometimes also known as marguerite. Similarly, saying “This year, next year, sometime, never,” predicted when marriage would occur.


In magical circles, daisies are associated with the planet Venus, their element is water, and they are considered feminine. They are sacred to St John, and are an important part of the decorations for Midsummer’s Night festivities. In keeping with its love motif, it was once said that whoever picked the first daisy of the season was filled with romantic desire. It was also believed you increased the chances of a wayward lover’s return if you slept with a daisy root under your pillow.
But the daisy has powers in other realms too. In Celtic legend, the white blooms spring from the spirits of children who died at birth. Dreaming of daisies is supposed to bring good luck in spring, but bad in winter. In Victorian times, it was said that if you stepped on seven daisies at one time, you knew that summer had arrived. Making daisy chains used to be a common past-time, and it was believed that wearing such a chain would protect children from abduction by fairies. This little flower was also thought to have the power to ward off lightening.

The daisy has a host of other nicknames, including Bruisewort, Goldens, Balder’s brow, Dutch morgan, Dog blow, Priest’s collar, Bachelor’s Buttons, Bull’s-eye Daisy, Butter Daisy, Dutch-curse, Dutch-cuss, Herb Margaret, Horse Daisy, Maudlin Daisy, Maudlinwort, Moonflower, Moon-penny, Poverty-weed, Rhode Island Clover, Sheriff-pink, and Whiteman’s-weed, for example. I just call them daisies.

In the Rape of Lucerne, Shakespeare writes, “Without the bed her other faire hand was/ On the green coverlet; whose perfect white/ Showed like an April daisy in the grass. . .”

And Chaucer:

“Of all the flowers in the meadow,
I love these red and white flowers the most,
Such as men call daisies in our town,
For them, I have great affection,
When May comes, Before dawn,
I am up and walking in the meadow,
To see this flower again
That blissful sight chases away all my sorrow.”