The Strange, Short-Lived British Trend of Hiring Ornamental Hermits

An 1830s print of visitors arriving at a hermitage.
An 1830s print of visitors arriving at a hermitage.
Flickr // Public Domain

If you were a grand gentlemen of the Georgian era, having a huge country house with lavishly landscaped grounds wasn’t enough to impress your visitors. No, you needed a little something extra. You needed an ornamental hermit.

True hermits, those who shun society and live in isolation to pursue higher spiritual enlightenment, had been a part of the religious landscape of Britain for centuries. The trend of adding hermits to estate grounds for aesthetic purposes arose in the 18th century out of a naturalistic influence in British gardens. Famed landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1715-1783) was a leading proponent of this naturalistic approach, which shunned the French-style formal gardens of old (think neatly trimmed lawns, elaborately shaped box hedges, and geometric gravel paths) in favor of serpentine paths that meandered past romantic-looking lakes, rustic clumps of trees, and artfully crumbling follies. This new style of garden frequently also featured a picturesque hermitage constructed of brick or stone, or even gnarled tree roots and branches. Many were decorated inside with shells or bones to create a suitably atmospheric retreat.

The hermitage at Waterstown, County Westmeath, Ireland.
The hermitage at Waterstown, County Westmeath, Ireland.

The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell, Oxford University Press, reprinted with permission.

With the new fashion for building hermitages in country estates, the next logical step was to populate them with an actual hermit. It’s not clear who first started the trend, but at some point in the early 18th century, having a resident hermit quietly contemplating existence—and occasionally sharing some golden nugget of wisdom with visitors—came to be seen as a must-have accessory for the perfect garden idyll.

Real hermits were hard to find, so wealthy landowners had to get creative. Some put advertisements in the press, offering food, lodging, and a stipend for those willing to adopt a life of solitude. The Honorable Charles Hamilton placed one such ad after buying Painshill Park (an estate in Cobham, Surrey) and extensively remodeling the grounds. Hamilton created a lake, grottoes, Chinese bridge, temple, and a hermitage on his estate, then placed an ad for a hermit to live there for seven years in exchange for £700 (roughly $900, or $77,000 in today’s money). The hermit was not allowed to speak to anyone, cut their hair, or leave the estate. Unfortunately, the successful applicant was discovered in the local pub just three weeks after being appointed. He was relieved of his role and not replaced, perhaps demonstrating the difficulty of attracting a serious hermit.

One of the more famous Georgian hermits was Father Francis, who lived at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire in a summer hermitage made with stone walls, a heather-thatched roof, and a stable door. Inside, he would sit at a table strewn with symbolic items, such as a skull, an hourglass, and a globe, while conversing with visitors, offering spiritual guidance and ponderings on the nature of solitude. So popular was the attraction of a meeting with a real-life hermit that the Hill family, who owned the park, were obliged to build their own pub, The Hawkstone Arms, to cater to all the guests.

A 1787 etching of "eccentric hermit" John Bigg.
A 1787 etching of "eccentric hermit" John Bigg.

But while some estate owners struggled to find a good hermit, taking on the role did have some appeal, as evidenced by this 1810 ad in the Courier:

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

Sadly, it is not known whether or not the would-be hermit received any replies.

When a nobleman was unable to attract a real hermit to reside in his hermitage, a number of novel solutions were employed. In 1763, the botanist Gilbert White managed to persuade his brother, the Reverend Henry White, to temporarily put aside his cassock in order to pose as a wizened sage at Gilbert’s Selborne estate for the amusement of his guests. Miss Catharine Battie was one such guest, who later wrote in her diary (with a frustrating lack of punctuation) that “in the middle of tea we had a visit from the old Hermit his appearance made me start he sat some with us & then went away after tea we went in to the Woods return’d to the Hermitage to see it by Lamp light it look’d sweetly indeed. Never shall I forget the happiness of this day ...”

If an obliging brother was not available to pose as a hermit, garden owners instead might furnish the hermitage with traditional hermit accessories, such as an hourglass, book, and glasses, so that visitors might presume the resident hermit had just popped out for a moment. Some took this to even greater extremes, putting a dummy or automaton in the hermit’s place. One such example was found at the Wodehouse in Wombourne, Staffordshire, England [PDF], where in the mid-18th century Samuel Hellier added a mechanical hermit that was said to move and give a lifelike impression.

Another mechanical hermit was apparently used at Hawkstone Park to replace Father Francis after his death, although it received a critical review from one 18th-century tourist: “The face is natural enough, the figure stiff and not well managed. The effect would be infinitely better if the door were placed at the angle of the wall and not opposite you. The passenger would then come upon St. [sic] Francis by surprise, whereas the ringing of the bell and door opening into a building quite dark within renders the effect less natural.”

The fashion for employing an ornamental hermit was fairly fleeting, perhaps due to the trouble of recruiting a reliable one. However, the phenomenon does provide some insight into the growth of tourism in the Georgian period—the leisured classes were beginning to explore country estates, and a hermit was seen as another attraction alongside the temples, fountains, and sweeping vistas provided in the newly landscaped grounds.

Today, the fascination with hermits still exists. At the end of April 2017, a new hermit, 58-year-old Stan Vanuytrecht, moved into a hermitage in Saalfelden, Austria, high up in the mountains. Fifty people applied for his position, despite the lack of internet, running water, or heating. The hermitage, which has been continuously inhabited for the last 350 years, welcomes visitors to come and enjoy spiritual conversation with their resident hermit, and expects plenty of guests.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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