Bad Hermits

Somehow I never connected the words hermit and hermitage until yesterday, when I read an article in the New York Times about a new book by Gordon Campbell entitled The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (Oxford University Press), which traces “the origins of Snow White’s cuddly dwarf friends and their suburban-lawn counterparts to the 18th-century outbuildings where real people lived merely to provide ambiance.” The article leads off with a photograph of an eighteenth-century  Scottish hermitage (one of only perhaps 200 such structures that survive in Europe) that made the metaphorical light bulb turn on in my head. It also included a charming story taken from the book, about an English nobleman who hired a hermit to live in the quaint hermitage in his garden, for a period of seven years. Apparently the solitude was oppressive, and “subsequent versions of the story have the hermit being caught in the local tavern after three weeks and dismissed, and more recent elaborations include improper relations with a dairymaid” according to Mr. Campbell.


The Surviving Scottish Hermitage/ Photograph by Gordon Campbell, New York Times.

These stories also caught by attention, as they reminded me of the wayward hermit in a magnificent (and amusing) medieval manuscript commonly known as the “Smithfield Decretals”, produced in southern France around 1300 with additional illuminations added in London later on. Its formal title is the Decretals of [Pope] Gregory IX, British Library Royal MS 10 E.iv and it fills 310 folios of text and accompanying gloss–you can read a great post about it here. The images are varied and whimsical:  there are anthropomorphic animals, grotesques, crimes and misdemeanors, amorous encounters, and a very bad hermit, who, enticed by the devil, leaves his hermitage for the tavern, and becomes (in succession) a drunkard, fornicator, murderer, and wild man (surely an occupational hazard for any hermit), before he is ultimately redeemed in the end.

Hermit and Devil BL

Hermit Drinking

Hermit and Woman BL

Hermit clubbing miller

Hermit as wild man

Hermit Confessing

The Hermit and the Devil, followed by the Hermit drinking outside a tavern, in delicto flagrante, clubbing a miller to death, as a wild man  with only animals for company, and confessing his many sins, British Library MS Royal 10 E. iv, early 14th century.

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