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.