Fashionable Hermits

In 18th-century England, it was fashionable for wealthy estate owners to hire people to dress as druids, never wash themselves, grow their hair and nails as long as possible, and live in their gardens as ‘ornamental hermits.’

 

Another off-the-beaten-path fact that caught my curiosity. Upon further research to verify if this was even true (who knows with ye olde internet), I found that the only person to have done any substantial research on this topic was Gordon Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, and who published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome .

True to the title, the first records of fashionable hermits living on nobles’ lands dates back to Roman emperor Hadrian, whose villa at Tivoli included a lake and house built for one. Pope Pius IV then built one for himself in the 16th century, prompting a decent amount of isolated one-man houses for the religious.

It wasn’t until the turn of the 18th century, however, that having a hermit live on your land became a real fashion statement. As Campbell states,

“Recruiting a hermit wasn’t always easy. Sometimes they were agricultural workers, and they were dressed in a costume, often in a druid’s costume. There was no agreement on how druids dressed, but in some cases they wore what we would call a dunce’s cap.”

Advertisements for willing candidates were made, with stipulations such that the hermit couldn’t leave the house, couldn’t talk to anyone for seven years, never wash, and let his hair and nails grow as long as possible.

As a 1784 guide for keeping a resident hermit states: “The hermit is generally in a sitting posture, with a table before him, on which is a skull, the emblem of mortality, an hour-glass, a book and a pair of spectacles.”

But why this macabre show? This representation of somberness and introspection perfectly captured the highly enviable spirit of melancholy that high Georgian society revolved around. It was so fashionable to embody this feeling that some estates took to duping their friends by putting a sad looking mannequin in a shack. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that this fashion petered out.

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Shaving

 

Shaving: The ungodly habit that likens man to a woman. For those curious, you can read the pamphlet here.

If that doesn’t work, this is the PDF of the writing.

It’s a quick read, and offers both amusing and both interesting statements. For instance:

“It is impossible to calculate the number of suicides, homicides, and murders perpetrated within the last thirty years (which are an average lifetime) by means of the disgraceful practice of shaving, and the common use of the razor.” Hmmm…

But it also includes an interesting history of the beard, and its use as a status symbol, i.e, when the Franks took over France, the slaves were forced to shave. Only nobles and kings were allowed to have beards.  Turks considered it more heinous an act to cut one’s beard off than to be flogged or branded. As read in many ancient epics, the most respected were often referred to as being bearded.

As read here and elsewhere, the first man to notably shave his beard was Alexander the Great, who then encouraged his army to do so as well to prevent the enemy from using them as handles. This then caught on because his face, beardless, was circulated widely on coins.

Rome then caught on at about 434, when P. Ticinus brought back a group of captive barbars from Sicily. (barbars, as in barbarians, those who shaved. I never made the connection, but I wonder if this is where we get the word barber from.)

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