What do millionaires do to show off their wealth? Some buy exotic pets, big houses, or fancy cars. But 300 years ago, a fad erupted among wealthy Brits to buy people—not to make them servants (they already had those), but to have them simply wander around the yard.
HERMITAGE, SWEET HERMITAGE
By the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. A by-product of this new technology: the Romantic Era, in which English writers, painters, and the well-to-do railed against modernization. Poets like John Milton and William Wordsworth wrote about the virtues of solitude and anti-materialism. The “humble hermit living off the land” became a symbol of the Romantic ideal (though few were willing to try it themselves). At the same time, a trend was growing among the rich in England: They constructed “architectural follies” on their grounds—elaborate buildings that were primarily decorative, such as Roman temples and Egyptian pyramids, towers, grottos…and hermit houses, or hermitages.
What was a hermitage like? They were pretty small. The one at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire was a closet-sized stone cave covered with roots, moss, and foliage. A Milton poem was hung on the wall, just in case visitors didn’t understand the connection. Many hermitages also included macabre decor, such as floors made of knuckle bones. Marston House in Surrey was surrounded by a bone fence topped with real horse heads. And no hermitage was complete without a decorative human skull for contemplation.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Soon, simple caves and grottoes just weren’t enough to make the nobleman stand out from his peers; he needed his own actual hermit (preferably a filthy, bearded old man) to live in the hermitage. However, finding an old man who was living a truly non-materialistic life in the woods was difficult, even back then. And convincing him to move to a huge estate was nearly impossible. (There was a reason they lived in the woods.) The next best thing: Hire a peasant from the village to fill the role. Ironically, only the wealthy could afford to maintain a garden hermit, who was supposed to symbolize the landowner’s interest in non-material pursuits.
Most of the time, a rich person would simply put an ad in the newspaper looking for a hermit. But in a few cases, folks who were down on their luck offered themselves up for the job, as evidenced by this London Courier newspaper ad from 1810:
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.
It’s unknown if that man ever became a hermit, but those who were hired were usually contracted to live in the hermitage for seven years. For example, an English…
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