Before garden gnomes came about, Germans had garden hermits. But what are they, and why were they very popular in the 18th century?
Garden hermits were people paid to dress up as druids and dwell in caverns and grottoes of wealthy people’s estates as adornment. Room and board are the usual forms of payment for these hermits.
A hermit, also known as an eremite, is a person who withdraws from society for different reasons, but most of them are due to religious beliefs. The earliest Christian hermits occurred around the end of the third century in Egypt, where fleeing the persecution of the Roman emperor Decius led to a life of prayer and penance. Paul of Thebes, a recluse who fled to the desert around 250 BC, was the first hermit recorded. (Source: Britannica)
In the 1800s, Saint Francis of Paola was credited with becoming the world’s first garden hermit. Saint Francis adhered to the holy hermit lifestyle, foregoing material possessions to cultivate a stronger relationship with God. The hermit became a close confidant of King Charles VIII as a result of his knowledge.
The King constructed a tiny structure for the hermit to live in on one of his estates. Nobles in the French monarchy quickly desired a similar direction and began erecting modest chapels and other structures in their gardens to accommodate knowledgeable religious hermits.
How Did Garden Hermits Get Popular?
Over time, visiting British aristocrats developed an association between magnificent gardens and elderly hermits. They popularized the trend in England, where it became fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Source: Medium)
Genuine hermits were scarce, and wealthy landowners had to get inventive. Some placed advertisements in newspapers offering food, accommodation, and a stipend to anyone wanting to live in solitary. The Honorable Charles Hamilton placed one such ad. (Source: Mental Floss)
Hermits were expected to look the part and hence were not permitted to cut their hair, nails, or beard. Specific households even prohibited their hermits from cleaning themselves since a filthy body added authenticity to a hermit’s rejection of civilization.
The hermits, dressed in druidic-style garments, resided in little garden grottos. Their caverns were furnished with the necessary props for a wise man, an hourglass, bible, spectacles, and a theatrical skull.
Certain houses needed a certain amount of showmanship from their ornamental hermits. When guests arrived, they were expected to tell stories, read poetry, and serve wine. Other masters desired their hermits to be more statue-like, directing them in all circumstances not to communicate with the guests. (Source: Medium)
These conditions were imposed on top of the hermit’s prohibition from leaving their employer’s garden until the contract period ended. This period might span months, if not years, and failure to comply results in payment forfeiture.
Hermits continue to arouse attention nowadays. Stan Vanuytrecht moved into a hermitage in Saalfelden, Austria, high in the Alps, at the end of April 2017. Although there was no access to the internet, running water, or heat, fifty people applied for this occupation.
The hermitage, which has been continuously inhabited for 350 years, invites visitors to come and engage in spiritual dialogue with the resident hermit and anticipates many visitors. (Source: Mental Floss)
Other Unusual Occupations in the 1800s
The garden hermit, which is now replaced by ceramic gnomes, is not the only unusual occupation in its time. Here are a few other unique yet interesting occupations one may encounter in the 1800s.
The human alarm knocked on the door or a window as scheduled. This allowed working people to report to work on time. They had to scribble the time they desired to awaken on a slate slab. For workers to begin their working day, knockers arrived and hammered on the door or a window.
The job of the resurrectionist is to exhume recently diseased cadavers upon the request of doctors. Though the job was illegal, it did help the medical field in learning more about human anatomy.
Britons thought that a dead person might be cleansed of sins if a sin eater consumed the food from the deceased’s chest. There were only a few sin-eaters. Most of them were beggars. (Source: Anglotopia)