How did the tradition of garden gnomes begin? Who came up with the idea of decorating the green area of the home with figurines, some even polychromatic, of these fantastic creatures? We will never know, but if the original idea has been so successful, to the point of becoming a recurring joke that we will always remember from a scene in the movie Full Monty, the truth is that it pales in comparison to the extravagant trend that spread between the 18th and 19th centuries in the estates of the wealthy: instead of gnomes, they put hermits, with the unusual feature that they were real, flesh and blood hermits.

Few have probably heard of Saint Francis of Paola. He was a mendicant friar, born in the town of Paola, located near Cosenza in the Calabria peninsula, with an interesting past: his parents had been trying to have a child for years and only succeeded in 1416, after entrusting themselves to Saint Francis of Assisi, who also miraculously intervened to save his vision when he was a baby by curing his sick eye.

For this reason, they promised to dress the child in a habit for a year, which they carried out when he turned thirteen, at the convent of Our Lady of the Angels. At the end of that period, he accompanied his parents on a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome, where he was scandalized by the luxury of the high ecclesiastical hierarchy.

St. Francis of Paola in an eighteenth-century engraving/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

So much so that upon returning, he settled in a small cave on the family estate, where he lived as a hermit for a while before moving to another one further away. He spent more than five years this way and in 1435, two companions joined him, and in this improvised way, they founded a new monastic order called the Minims, whose motto was, as can be deduced from the name, extreme humility.

It was approved in 1470, and in the following decades, both French monarchs Louis XI and Charles VIII, as well as German Maximilian I and the Catholic Monarchs, expressed interest in creating Minim monasteries in their countries. Pope Alexander VI approved the first rule of the order in 1493, and Pope Leo X canonized Francis in 1519, twelve years after his death.

Now, what interests us here is the hermit aspect of Saint Francis of Paola, as some authors consider him the origin of that trend we mentioned at the beginning of having hermits in private estates. Because after his stay at the French court, to which he went in 1480 to provide spiritual assistance to a Louis XI who saw his death as imminent – as it was – he had to fulfill the last wish of the sovereign to be the tutor of the heir and, while a cenobium was being built for him and his followers, he settled in a tiny chapel in the wooded surroundings of the Château de Gaillon, the Renaissance castle that was the summer residence of Georges d’Amboise, Archbishop of Rouen.

Château de Gaillon in 1658/Imagen: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

And so a precedent was set, which two centuries later was revived by Louis XIV when he had a garden made a few kilometers north of Versailles where a hermit named Marly could settle. Although slowly, the trend was taking hold, which exploded in the following century in a doubly paradoxical way: first because it was the Age of Enlightenment, so that the desire for Reason and Science would coexist with the snobbish desire to have one’s own hermit, and second because the country where the thing really received impetus was England.

It is not known how this unprecedented episode developed, although some point to the Weld family, a dynasty that claimed to trace its origins back to the 11th century and the person of Eadric the Wild, the Anglo-Saxon chieftain who led the resistance against the Norman invaders.

The Welds happened to be fervent Catholics and had been recused for remaining loyal to the Pope, according to the Act of Supremacy of 1558, the law that obliged attending the religious services of the Anglican Church under various penalties that included fines, expropriations, prison and sometimes even execution. The fact is that this recalcitrant clan would have erected a hermitage on their lands of Lulworth (Dorset) to accommodate a hermit.

Sleeping anchorite (Joseph-Marie Vien)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the Weld estate would not be the only one. Places specifically designed as Painshill Park, a landscaped park in Cobham (Surrey) created between 1738 and 1773 by MP Charles Hamilton, and Hawkstone Park, a hundred acres also made to taste of the time and located in Market Drayton (Shropshire, West Midlands), had their respective hermits as if they were just another decorative element, in the first case in a tiny hermitage and in the second in a grotto that pierced a hill. That’s why they were also called ornamental hermits in English.

The great moment arrived in the first quarter of the 19th century when Romanticism became the main cultural and artistic movement. Reacting against the geometric and rational serenity of Neoclassicism that had characterized the previous decades, the new style left behind the Enlightenment and the imitation of classical Antiquity to exalt freedom and feeling, replacing the horizontal layout that characterized Greek and Roman temples with the ribbed verticality of medieval cathedrals, and the amiable courtly or didactic literature with tales of terror, adventure, legends, and impossible loves.

In that new stylistic order, the Middle Ages became the reference point and in the popular imagination, religion was closely linked to it. And, of course, there was nothing more romantic, more extreme, than abandoning everything to retire and live in poverty in the middle of nature. That said, one thing was to practice it in person and another was to have someone who did it and gave a special, eccentric, and chic touch to the estate. It’s curious that sometimes, even when there was no volunteer at hand, a corner was set up as if there really was someone there: a cave with a table and a chair at the entrance, perhaps enriched with decorations like a book, glasses, and a candlestick.

Painshill Park Hermitage/Image: Rick Norton and David Allen on Wikimedia Commons

Later on, that wasn’t enough and extras were hired ad hoc and incorporated into the set, with a deliberately unkempt appearance: long hair, beard, and nails, lack of hygiene, tattered clothing… Some believe that the intention was to evoke the typical image of druids, in the revival of folklore brought about by Romanticism. Often, they were actually peasants working on the property, who were assigned the extra role of acting as hermits during parties with guests, with whom they could even interact by debating philosophy or religion and offering advice as if they were wise sages.

As strange as it may seem, contracts were not lacking in this regard, as evidenced by the writer Edith Sitwell in her book English Eccentrics, in which she speaks of contractual periods of seven years during which the fake hermits had to exhibit themselves to visitors, received one meal a day as payment, and could perform other functions such as waiters or working the land. The famous sailor Charles Hamilton, who fought under Admiral Hood against the French navy at the end of the 18th century and whom we mentioned earlier as the driving force behind Painshill Park, had an anchorite on his estate and the agreed conditions with him are preserved in a document, which included a payment of seven hundred pounds (which he did not receive because he escaped to a pub three weeks later and was fired):

He will be given a Bible, optical glasses, a foot mat, a cushion as a pillow, a water clock to tell time, water to drink, and food for the house. He must wear a camel-colored tunic and never, under any circumstances, cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s property, or exchange a single word with the servants.

Two hermits in a cave (nineteenth century anonymous)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In other cases, the opposite happened and advertisements were published in the press by people offering their services as hermits. There are also documents about this, such as a clipping from the Courier newspaper dated January 11, 1810, which reads as follows:

A young man who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit in some convenient place in England is willing to engage with any nobleman or gentleman who may wish to have one. Any letter addressed to S. Laurence (postpaid), to be left at No. 6 Coleman Lane, Plymouth, of Mr. Otton, mentioning what gratuity will be given and all other particulars, will be duly attended to‘.

In short, the fashion for ornamental hermits persisted until it began to decline after the first quarter of the 19th century due to new landscaping concepts for parks. By the mid-1800s, it disappeared because a new fashion imported from Germany became popular. Can you guess which one? Indeed, garden gnomes.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 10, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando se puso de moda en Inglaterra tener un ermitaño viviendo en el jardín


English eccentrics and eccentricities (John Timbs)/The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (Gordon Campbell)/Excéntricos ingleses (Edith Sitwell)/Wikipedia

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