“Ornamental Eremitism”

What hermits were and how they lived, once quite familiar, now became shrouded in the kind of mist that fostered romantic images that persist to this day. Peter France, in his book Hermits: The Insights of Solitude, noted a practice, which sprang up in England in the early 1700s and lasted almost until the 1900s, of wealthy families establishing a hermit in their formal gardens as an ornamental fixture for the edification and entertainment of guests. He quotes from an architectural guide published in 1767 which featured detailed suggestions for housing these hermits appropriately, ranging from the simple hut “ten feet, nine inches square made of trees and lined with moss” right up to the top of the line, the “Gothic Grotto, made of six rooms lined with shells.” A Miss Cynthia Aldburgham remembered that as a child, visitors to her family home could tour the grounds and “be shown a hermit who sat in a cave fondling a skull.” Presumably, he was given advance warning when his presence at the cave entrance would be required!

A Mr. Powys of March advertised for a hermit to live in an underground grotto for seven years. The apartments provided were commodious including a cold bath, a chamber organ (!), and as many books as the hermit desired. If he needed any convenience beyond the food provided daily from Mr. Powys’ own table, he was to ring a bell and his needs would be met. Ideal as this might sound, no one lasted more than four years. The most long-lasting of these ornamental hermits appears to have been one who “for fourteen years was Hermit to Lord Hill’s father; and sat in a cave in that worthy baronet’s grounds with an hourglass in one hand and wearing a beard once belonging to an old goat from sunrise to sunset.” The romantic image of the melancholy hermit appeared to have little to do with spiritual motivation, even if provided with an organ, presumably to play religious music to enhance the atmosphere!

~Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life by Paul A. Fredette and Karen Karper Fredette

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