December 20, 2013
Ornamental Hermits – An 18th Century Garden Gnome Upgrade
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
This Christmas, a researcher from the University of Leicester in the UK has suggested giving the ultimate upgrade to the average garden gnome: an ‘ornamental’ hermit.The idea is straight out of 18th century England, when affluent landowners would cultivate a hermitage on their landscape, housing a real or imagined occupant.
According to Gordon Campbell, author of “The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome,” it was fashionable for wealthy individuals living in 18th century England to hold the notion of a melancholic existence so highly – they would construct a small cottage, excavate a cave or build a contemplative gazebo for their “hermit.”
“One needed an estate and a taste for restrained ostentation, and one could certainly show off one's hermit to visitors,” Campbell explained. “Hermits were often hired for seven years, required to refrain from cutting their hair or washing and had to live austerely. They could receive up to £600 in return, enough to never work again.”
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Campbell said ornamental hermits appeared to live a fairly comfortable life.
“There are a few hermits that appear to have had small cottages, but only in summertime,” he said. “There was one who lived in a cave; he had a bell that he could ring for cave service. A pot of tea or something would be brought, though he couldn’t talk to the servants. There’s no suggestion of cruelty—besides the fact of being basically owned, of course.”
Campbell said the purpose of the hermitage was almost that of a totem or talisman that represented Zen-like ideals.
“It meant that the busy CEO could outsource his melancholy, contemplative side, embodying it in a hermit for hire,” Campbell said. “The ideal of living frugally did not therefore inhibit the good life. It's a bit like bankers carving turkeys for the homeless on Christmas Day.”
Despite being an obvious excess of the extremely wealthy, Campbell said that the idea behind hiring a hermit represents a lost admiration for so-called “pleasing melancholy.”
“In the eighteenth century, melancholy became highly desirable but the cult of pleasing melancholy has since disappeared,” Campbell explained. “We now refer to the mental state as depression, and that is a clinical condition that is anything but pleasing.“
“This idea that melancholy could be profound was not new in the eighteenth century,” he continued. “Hamlet's preference for dressing entirely in black is not meant to be a fashion statement, but rather than indication of his melancholy, and the implication of that state of mind was emotional depth.”
For those with modern sensibilities who may be curious enough to embrace the notion of a pleasing melancholy, Campbell suggested constructing a simple, symbolic hermitage.
“Many hermits were imagined, so the hermitage would be stocked with some eyeglasses and some reading material for the use of a hermit who had perpetually stepped out for a moment,” he said. “In the same spirit, we leave out sherry and biscuits for Santa, and some carrots for his reindeer.”