When Garden Gnomes Were Real People

By Nolan Moore on Thursday, June 5, 2014
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“There are hermit souls that live withdrawn / In the place of their self-content; / There are souls like stars that dwell apart, / In a fellowless firmament.” —Sam Walter Foss, House by the Side of the Road

In A Nutshell

Are you an 18th-century peasant short on cash? Then you might want to look into becoming an ornamental hermit. In the 1700s, aristocrats with too much money hired ordinary people to pose as monks or druids and live in their gardens for years. (And you thought Nicolas Cage bought weird stuff.)

The Whole Bushel

The 18th century was a great time to be rich. Okay, sure, it’s always great to be rich, but the 1700s were a time of monumental excess and incredible debauchery. We’re talking about the era of the Hellfire Club, the Marquis de Sade, and Marie Antoinette. Of course, wealth and power didn’t always take such outlandish forms. In Gregorian England, rich nobles flaunted their wealth in a completely different—and much stranger—way. Instead of throwing elaborate parties or wild orgies, these people hired hermits to camp out on their lawns.

In 18th-century England, gardens were all the rage, but instead of simply planting a few flowers or sculpting a few topiary elephants, the British elite wanted paradises of Miltonian proportions. And what better way to capture all the elegance of Eden than hiring your own personal hermit? Looking for that ultimate garden ornament, aristocrats would hire random people to dress up as monks or druids and live in tiny houses or sometimes caves. Their contracts usually lasted for seven years, and during that time, the “hermits” couldn’t cut their hair, take a bath, or talk to anyone. Oftentimes, they were paid to walk around barefoot and were only allowed the simplest of belongings like a mat, an hourglass, and a Bible.

This absolutely bizarre practice dates all the way back to the days of Rome. According to historian Gordon Campbell, Emperor Hadrian built himself a little hermitage for his own personal use. A few centuries later, Pope Pius IV followed suit, creating his own getaway for meditation and reflection. And somehow, over the years, this idea morphed into the weirdest decorating scheme in history. Of course, assuming you weren’t some lowly tenant forced to perform for your master, “hermiting” could be a lucrative profession. People were often paid 400 to 600 pounds a year, and back in the 1700s, that was big money. For that kind of cash, they gladly let their nails and hair grow long. They even occasionally served wine at picnics in the garden.

But what would drive anyone to hire a hermit? The practice was oddly popular throughout the British Isles and even a few aristocrats on the continent got in on the craze. Why did so many people want smelly, unwashed men living in their backyards? Well, it all had to do with a bizarre obsession with the idea of “melancholia.” Evidently, 18th-century folks put a lot of stock in somberness, and nothing symbolized spiritual reflection and personal sacrifice better than a hermit. And naturally, if you owned one of these introspective actors, that you meant you were a pretty melancholy person yourself.

Of course, this bizarre custom didn’t last long, and as the 1800s rolled around, professional hermits found themselves out of a job. However, their legacy lives on to this very day. Next time you walk past your neighbor’s garden, take a quick look and see if you can spot the little red-capped man hiding in the flowerbed. That’s right. The ornamental hermit didn’t truly disappear . . . he just evolved into the modern-day garden gnome.

Show Me The Proof

Atlas Obscura: Before the Garden Gnome, the Ornamental Hermit
Boston Globe: Garden hermit needed. Apply within.
Things You Never Knew You Needed: An Ornamental Hermit