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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

Now I must search out the perfect gnome for my own garden.

Great Nonfiction: Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Garry Wills

4.0 out of 5 stars Dispelling old myths

There are times in every nation’s history that serve as turning points, and the 1863 dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery is one of America’s, largely due to the influence of Abraham Lincoln’s 256 word speech. Garry Wills puts paid to the notion that Lincoln dashed something off on the train ride to Gettysburg, painstakingly tracing the cultural, literary, historic, and philosophical underpinnings to one of the world’s oratory masterpieces. Wills also analyzes the surviving five drafts of the speech that were written in the President’s own hand, concluding that the one given to Alexander Bliss is most likely the one from which Lincoln spoke. He also attempts to pinpoint the location of the dais within the cemetery, which was not, as the Park Service contended, at the site of the Soldiers’ Monument.

Readers searching for information about Lincoln’s activities on that fateful day will find little of interest in this slim volume, but for those interested in the best known address in American history, Lincoln at Gettysburg fills the bill.

Christmas Traditions: Wassailing

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Here we come a-what? Wassailing is the practice of going door-to-door singing Christmas carols until paid to go away and leave the occupants in peace. (The term also refers to the practice of singing to trees in apple orchards in cider-producing regions of England.) The word derives from the Anglo Saxon, pre-1066 toast, wæs þu hæl, “be thou hale” — i.e., “be in good health”, though it was not associated with Christianity at that time.
The practice as we know it has its roots in the middle ages, as an exchange between the lord of the manor and his peasants as a form of recipient initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from This point is made in the song Here We Come A-Wassailing, when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that “we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before.” The Lord would then give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, singing, “Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year”.

Wassail bowls, generally in the shape of goblets, have been preserved. The Worshipful Company of Grocers made very elaborate one in the seventeenth century, decorated with silver. It is so large that is must have passed around as a “loving cup” so that many members of the guild could drink from it. Then they wondered why everyone caught colds! Anyway, the drink was either punch, mulled wine or spicy ale. The larger, elaborate bowl below is from Wales.

 

If you’d like to whip up a batch of wassail for your own celebrations, Old Farmer’s Almanac has a good recipe here .

Happy New Year! Waes pu hael!

 

revised 12/30/14

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)

Nonfiction Worth Reading: For Adam’s Sake, by Allegra di Bonaventura

Adam Jackson, for whom this book was titled, was a black slave who spent his life working in 17th-early 18th century New London, CT. But Adam’s own story does not begin until the book’s second half. The title’s second part, A Family Saga, is a more apt description of what this book is all about, though the word saga suggests much more drama than can be found here. Allegra Di Bonaventura, a scholar with a legal background, wrote a doctoral dissertation based upon the 47 year long Diary of Joshua Hempstead, an almanac-like account of his daily life in 17th/18th century Connecticut. For more than 30 of those years,Hempstead was Adam’s owner.

As a scholarly study, For Adam’s Sake is outstanding. The research is impeccable, much of it painstakingly extracted and interpreted from New London County Court records. There is a wealth of detail about the families whose activities shaped town development during its first century, with detailed information about the Rogerenes, a religious sect that engendered sharp conflict in the region, the Winthrops, of the ruling class, the Jackson family, part free and part slave, and of course, the Hempsteads. It is the chronicle of the way these factions interacted that forms the focus of most of the narrative. When Adam steps onto the scene midway through, most of the evidence concerning his own experiences is conjectural, based largely upon some 50 or so terse diary entries. Throughout the book, the narrative voice is dispassionate, as befits a study of this sort. Readers in search of a “saga” will not find it here; although there are some rather dry sections, there are also many interesting stories to be found within its pages.

Sheep in Folktales: Mary Had a Little Lamb

Perhaps the most famous four line rhyme in the English language, Mary Had a Little Lamb is based upon and incident in the life of one Mary Sawyer, who grew up in Sterling, MA. But that is about all authorities can agree upon when attributing authorship to the verse.

Two New England towns claim bragging rights to the children’s poem . Years ago, the town of Sterling, Mass. erected a statue of a lamb to celebrate the birthplace of Mary Sawyer. In 1815, young Mary was followed to Sterling’s schoolhouse by her pet lamb. Her classmate, John Roulston, wrote the poem. In other versions, Roulston is described as a visiting Harvard student. It is said by some that Mary knitted some of her lamb’s wool into mittens and stockings that she sold to benefit Civil War soldiers, or alternately, to help save the Old South Meeting House in Boston.

Newport, New Hampshire, claims that the poem was actually written by their local poet Sarah Josepha Hale, and that she invented the lamb at school incident herself. Hale is honored in Newport with a simple plaque. In fact, Sarah Hale was the first to publish the poem in a book called Poems for Our Children, in 1830. Sterling maintains that the first three stanzas of Roulston’s poem were incorporated by Hale into her own verse.

There is a different theory, that the rhyme was written by an anonymous. Harvard student. Still others, (probably not haling from either Massachusetts or New Hampshire), contend that the rhyme predates Mary Sawyer, and originated in old England as a sort of religious parable. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a little lamb (Jesus, of course) whose fleece was snow white (Jesus was without sin). The Jesus -Lamb is sure to go with his believers wherever they go.

As for the Sterling schoolhouse, it was purchased by Henry Ford and moved to The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass; it’s authenticity as the very schoolhouse immortalized in the poem may be wishful thinking, however, as by that time it had been much modified and was serving as a barn. Mary Sawyer became Mrs. Tyler, worked as a schoolteacher and as a matron in a retreat for the insane, and died in 1889. She is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. The house where she was born still stands in Sterling (as of 2003).