Green Man


Green Man
   Readers will seek in vain for any mention of 'The Green Man' in pre-war folklore collections and studies, for the present-day use of the phrase to designate a *foliate head was only invented in 1939 (see below), and the various authentic uses of the term in English folklore were obscure, and of little interest to folklorists at that time.
   The first and most important relates to civic pageants in Tudor and Stuart times, which were preceded by 'whifflers', whose role was to drive back the crowds, and so make space for the main procession to pass. These were costumed as what Elizabethans called Savage Men or *Wild Men, covered in shaggy hair, or in leaves. The latter type were commonly called Green Men. Thus, at Chester in 1610, a St George's Day pageant had: 'ii men in greene leaves set with work upon their other habet [garments] with black heare & black beards very owgly to behould, and garlands upon their heads with great clubs in their hands with fireworks to scatter abroad to maintaine way for the rest of the show'. Later in the same pageant, 'two Disguised, called Greene-men, their habit Embroydered and Stitch'd on with Ivie-leaves . . . [with] huge black shaggie Hayre, Savage-like, with Ivie Garlands upon their heads, bearing Herculian clubs in their hands' fought 'an artificiall Dragon, very lively to behold' (Harleian MS 2150 fo. 356, quoted by Centerwall, 1997). At the Lord Mayor's Show of 1686 there were 'twenty Savages or Green Men, with Squibs and Fire-works, to sweep the Streets, and keep off the Crowd' (Matthew Taubman, London's Yearly Jubilee, 1686: 12-13; quoted by Centerwall, 1997: 26).
   Tudor court masques and entertainments sometimes included performers dressed in moss and ivy; the sources call them 'Wild' Men, but from the descriptions they could equally well be called 'Green' (see quotations at *Wild Man, Woman).
   Also in the 17th century, the Distillers' Company had as its heraldic arms the 'Green Man and Still', in which the supporters were naked, club-bearing, shaggy figures. An undated quotation attributed to John Bagford (1650-1716) says: 'They are called woudmen, or wildmen, thou' at thes day we in ye signe [trade] call them Green Men, couered with grene boues ... a fit emblem for those that use that intosticating licker which berefts them of their sennes' (quoted by Centerwall, 1997: 27). Aubrey too mentions 'The Wild Man' and 'The Green Man' interchangeably as 'not uncommon' names for London inns, with signs showing 'a kind of Hercules with a green club and green leaves about his pudenda and head' (Aubrey, 1686/1880: 134-5, 177). The design was still used on 18th-century pubs, but by the 19th century its meaning was seemingly forgotten, and it had been almost invariably replaced by the more popular figure of Robin Hood or a forester dressed in green (Larwood and Hotton, 1866: 221-2). Nowadays, thanks to the influence of the books discussed below, several 'Green Man' pubs have repainted their signs yet again to show either a head peering through leaves, or a *Jack-in-the-Green.
   In 1939, however, in an article in Folk-Lore, Lady Raglan invented a new use for the phrase, applying it to the type of ornamental church carving previously always called a * foliate head - a face with leaves growing from it, or leafy twigs emerging from its mouth. She explained how a vicar had shown her one and had suggested that: 'it was intended to symbolise the spirit of inspiration, but it seemed to me certain that it was a man and not a spirit, and moreover that it was a "Green Man". So I named it, and the evidence that I have collected to support this title is the reason for this paper.'
   This was pure speculation, unbacked by evidence, and it is by no means clear what she meant by the term, or why she put it in quotation marks and gave it capitals (she was unaware of the Tudor and Stuart references to leaf-clad masqueraders in pageants). She further asserts this to be identical with '. . . Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of the May, and the [Castleton] Garland . . . the central figure in the May-Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe'. In accordance with Frazerian theory, she goes on to speculate that because the *Castleton Garland is drawn up the church tower on a rope, the man wearing it (and consequently all 'Green Men') would have once been hanged as a spring sacrifice. Thus items with widely different functions and histories were conflated on the basis of a single visual trait, leafiness.
   Despite the fragility of Lady Raglan's argument, her term was adopted for foliate heads in several books on church art by M. D. Anderson in the 1940s and 1950s, in the authoritative series of Buildings of England guides by Nikolaus Pevsner, and finally as the title for a scholarly and influential study of foliate heads by Kathleen Basford (1978), which in turn served as a starting-point for many subsequent writers and an inspiration to artists. Brandon Centerwall has recently argued that the term is correct after all, and that the leafy whifflers of pageantry were meant to represent the foliate heads in churches. The aura of mystery in the name and its harmony with current ecological concerns have endeared it to many, and 'the Green Man' will probably prove to be an unshakable element in the popular concept of 'folklore'.
   ■ Lady Raglan, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 45-57; Basford, 1978/ 1996; Roy Judge, in Colour and Appearance in Folklore, ed. John Hutchings and Juliette Wood (1991), 51-5; Brandon S. Centerwall, Folklore 108 (1997), 25-34.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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