Ballad of the Green Man
Richard Hayman traces the changing significance of the Green Man, a term coined in the 1930s for a medieval image of a face sprouting foliage, the meaning of which has transformed itself across the centuries.
The Green Man appeared in churches from the 11th century as part of the Christian visual iconography and declined after the Reformation when the visual culture of medieval Christianity collapsed. He enjoyed a fresh lease of life in the 19th century as part of the Gothic Revival and the appetite for all things medieval. He has attracted little attention per se from professional historians in recent decades but formed the focus of a respectable pedigree in scholarly work of the mid-20th century before developing a life of his own in the counter-cultural movement of the late 20th century. Since then the figure has proved a simple medium through which to explore human relations with the forces of nature and has been taken up by poets including Charles Causley and Andrew Motion. The subtitles of popular books give a fair clue as to what the Green Man has come to mean in recent years: William Anderson’s The Green Man (1990) describes him as ‘the archetype of our oneness with the Earth’, while John Matthews’ The Green Man Tree Oracle (2008) promises ‘ancient wisdom from the spirit of nature’. It is also a simple image attractive to the branding mentality of consumer culture: there is even a music festival named after the Green Man.
The modern study of the Green Man started in the 1930s with the folklorist Julia Somerset, Lady Raglan (1901-71), when her attention was drawn to heads disgorging foliage on the chancel arch on the 14th century church at Llangwm Uchaf near her home in Monmouthshire. This led her to search out other Green Man carvings, in which she was helped by an ongoing survey of medieval roof bosses by C.J.P. Cave. Lady Raglan argued that the Green Man was the central figure of traditional May Day celebrations, known as Jack-in-the-Green, the May King or the Green Man. She supposed that, like all folk customs, May Day festivities were a last vestige of ancient religious rites and, in this case, of pagan tree worship and spring sacrifice. In this she owed a debt to Sir James Frazer’s multivolume study of primal religion, The Golden Bough (1890-1915), in which tree worship is placed as the origin of all religious practice, and even to Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), which argued that Christianity and paganism had thrived side-by-side in the Middle Ages, with a core of believers unwilling to give up the ‘old religion’. Throughout the 1950s the idea of the Green Man as a motif of pagan survival was uncontroversial. The literary critic John Speirs interpreted the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in similar terms. The Green Knight was a ‘recrudescence in poetry of the Green Man’ of ecclesiastical carvings who in turn was the ‘descendant of the Vegetation or Nature God of … almost universal and immemorial tradition’ (1949). Art historians such as M.D.Anderson, the author of Drama and Imagery in English Medieval Churches (1963), also thought that the medieval Green Man was a descendant of pagan tree worshippers, vestige of an older religion that lived on in customs such as maypole dancing, the Castleton Garland, Queensferry Burry Man and other similar folk festivals.
Knowledge of pre-Christian religion, folklore, medieval Christianity and church architecture has grown enormously in recent decades and the assumptions made about green men in the 1950s are no longer convincing. Studies of pre-Christian religion in Britain have failed to find green men and they were not deities in the classical pantheon. Folklore is no longer regarded as a treasure chest of timeless beliefs and customs, but is a record of changing popular culture. There is plenty of evidence, notably in the work of Eamon Duffy, to show that the medieval populace was devoutly Christian, not defiantly pagan, and that their churches reflected the tastes of their God-fearing patrons rather than subversive pagan craftsmen. Green men in Britain therefore belong to Christian rather than pagan iconography.
Why are there so many faces in ecclesiastical art that disgorge foliage? What did this familiar figure signify? These are difficult questions to answer. Most images in medieval iconography can be interpreted by reference to the Bible or the Bestiary, the medieval book of beasts that explains the moral attributes of real and imaginary animals. There is no comparable explanation of green men. Antecedents in classical art exist but are unhelpful since meanings changed from pagan to Christian societies. Instead we have to consider the context of these images – both in books and in churches – by reference to faces, types of foliage and the place in which they are found. And we have to take account of the way in which the medieval world viewed nature.
An ambivalent attitude to nature emerges in Genesis, in the description of two trees at the centre of the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil with its forbidden fruit. In Christianity every living thing was a moral entity, so that the virtues and sins of the world were embodied in plants and animals. Some animals represented aspects of true Christianity – like the pious pelican or the lily, symbol of the Virgin Mary – while others represented the devil, usually the ugly ones like hyenas, foxes and wild boars. Likewise, wild landscapes could be represented as a second paradise, or as a threatening place of snares and unseen dangers, much like the biblical desert. This is how Bartholomaeus Anglicus, the 14th-century Minorite friar, characterised forests; a ‘place of hiding and of lurking’ where ‘thieves are hid, and often in their awaits and deceits [sic] passing men come and are spoiled and robbed and often slain’. Confused and tricked by false signs, the forest was where the devil enticed the faithful from the true path. In medieval literature, such as in the tales of Chrétien de Troyes, Chaucer or Thomas Malory, the forest was a locus of the supernatural where danger and adventure tested a knight’s physical and moral strength.
In art, if not in life, nature was usually on the side of the devil. An influential ninth-century theologian, Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz, described leaves as representing lust and the sins of the flesh. The medieval personification of untamed nature was the wild man (also known as Wodewose or Wodehouse), incapable of reason and ruled by animal instinct. Different from the Green Man, this is another example of how nature and greenery usually had negative connotations in medieval art.
Green men are not green and only a proportion of them are men. The others are masks, demons and feline heads. They first appear in medieval art among the marginal flourishes of book illustrations in the tenth century and increasingly in the 11th and 12th centuries. During this period there was a significant growth in the number of monasteries and hence also in the need for books and the training of scribes capable of producing them. These books included Bibles, psalters, homilies and the works of the Four Doctors, of which Gregory’s Magna Moralia, a commentary on the Old Testament Book of Job written in the late sixth century and exploring moral questions, was especially popular. In book illustrations, green men sprout profuse tangled branches that betray their origin in the interlace ornament of Saxon and Celtic art. They share an obvious practical stylistic trait terminating decorative foliage trails in the same manner that serpents bite their own or other serpent’s tails in art of the same period. Tanglewood was a metaphor for the human condition, since what trapped men physically also impeded them spiritually. Green men on the margins also betray a typical medieval delight in the absurd.
Images in books were an important source of inspiration for the patrons of churches and it seems that these were the direct source from which green men first appeared in buildings. Ecclesiastical green men, therefore, derived from an artistic culture rather than from popular custom. Two mid-12th-century examples of elite patronage, the churches of Kilpeck in Herefordshire and Northampton St Peter, demonstrate how Green-Man carvings emerged in British churches. Northampton St Peter was built in the 1140s by Simon de St Lys in the precinct of his castle and was probably a private chapel rather than a parish church. The ambitious original church copied the Roman basilica form and is distinguished by its lavish decoration, demonstrating the wealth and sophistication of its patron. The capitals feature many designs of stylised foliage and several of them incorporate foliage emerging from the mouths of masks. Sources for the many motifs inside and outside the church have been traced to English manuscript illuminations, in particular to English psalters of the mid-12th century and a copy of Gregory’s Moralia.
Kilpeck Church was built by Hugh of Kilpeck in the same period and stands next to his motte and bailey castle, twin symbols of spiritual and secular power. The church has a vaulted semi-circular apse that copies the tomb of St Peter at Rome. It is one of the first churches in England to feature architectural sculpture, in the form of the superimposed apostles on the chancel arch, the inspiration for which came from Romanesque churches in western France and Spain. At least one contemporary Herefordshire baron, Oliver de Merlimond, could have learned of such sculpture while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It is possible that Hugh of Kilpeck made the same pilgrimage, or travelled on the Via Emilia to Ferrara Cathedral and Rome. Kilpeck has significant artistic similarities with all of these famous pilgrimage churches. Kilpeck is also one of the earliest English churches to feature representations of bestiary creatures in its architectural carvings, suggesting that its patron either owned or had seen one of these valuable books. Finally, there are Green-Man carvings. Two are on the capitals of the west window, another on a capital of the south doorway. This shows a mask sprouting foliage and is one of a complex series of images illustrating the struggle between good and evil. One shaft depicts superimposed figures of knights tangled up in branches. In the tympanum – the semicircular panel above the doorway – is the Tree of Life.
Several examples in Norman churches point to an association between the Green Man and the devil. At Elkstone in Gloucestershire the tympanum bears a representation of the Day of Judgement in which the Green Man is on the side of the damned. Green men often appear on fonts, a place where all manner of evil creatures are portrayed, where evil is driven out. Bridekirk (Cumbria) has a 12th-century font, the carvings on all four sides of which link virtue and sin with greenery. One shows two swordsmen fighting over a woman who appears to be tied to a tree. On the other sides, a Greek cross springs flowers; a double-headed monster sprouts foliage from one of its mouths while its tail turns into a stem with leaves; monsters bite the leaves of a plant above a leafy trail that issues from the mask of a demon and terminates with a man biting the fruit. The sequence concludes with the baptism of Christ, with a tree to the side.
Green men appear in Romanesque churches at important symbolic thresholds, such as doorways, chancel arches and fonts. In Gothic architecture they are more commonly found on the capitals of arches and on roof bosses, more marginal places. This shift marks a gradual diminution of its moral context in the Gothic period. A similar fate befell depictions of dragons and wyverns which, as the Middle Ages wore on, appeared more often in a decorative as opposed to moral (i.e. bestiary), context. Green men are commonly portrayed in cathedral churches but tend to colonise the minor spaces. At Norwich, Worcester and Canterbury cathedrals green-man roof bosses were carved for the cloisters rather than the main body of the church, where the bosses depict more important religious themes. And at Southwell Minster the green men are carved in the chapter house and are not featured in the sumptuous contemporary carvings of the pulpitum or chancel.
Green men are also well represented on misericords, the hinged wooden seats in the choir stalls that allowed the clergy to rest while singing the required round of daily offices. The underside of misericords reveal irreverence on the margins of Christian culture, light-hearted depictions of domestic brawls, scatological humour, satire and the world turned upside down. Green men belong here with the rogues’ gallery of face-pullers and sundry demons, but only rarely are they specifically related to the devil. In two carvings on misericords at Whalley in Lancashire and at Cartmel Priory in Cumbria foliage issues from the mouths of a tricephalos, or three-headed devil, evil counterpart of the Holy Trinity.
Gothic green men follow the current of fashion. There are benign naturalistic heads and foliage in the 14th century – of which the interior of Southwell Minster is a tour de force – and ugly masks in the 15th and 16th centuries which are often death heads which remind us that flesh is mortal. The foliage-sprouting cadavers that populate the wooden roofs of Devon are the medieval equivalent of dead men pushing up daisies. At the end of the Middle Ages, continuing into the Reformation, green men were a popular subject for carvings on bench ends in parish churches. Their transformation from medieval demons to Renaissance decorations can be followed in several Somerset churches from the 1530s onwards. Pew ends and sometimes tombs are among the few places where Green-Man carvings outlived the Reformation and the decline of medieval iconography.
In the 19th century, when a renewed interest in Gothic architecture sprung from a solid foundation of scholarly research into medieval buildings, green men enjoyed something of a revival. However, they now figured not as images with a moral message but as badges of ‘authentic’ medieval style. Victorian architecture delights in ornamentation and abounds in grotesques and gargoyles on the exteriors of buildings, where green men also appeared. By the early 19th century the nation’s stock of medieval churches was in poor condition which resulted in a wave of restoration and improvement. Many surviving architectural green men are not the handiwork of nameless medieval craftsmen but the product of 19th-century architectled restoration.
Victorian Green-Man carvings have an unmistakable vitality. Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) incorporated green men into many of his buildings, the best example of which are the choir stalls at Lancing College chapel, designed with Walter Tower. The green-man bench ends at Northington in Hampshire, by Sir T.G. Jackson (1835-1924), recall those of 16th-century Somerset. Jackson had been a pupil of Scott, one of whose sons, George Gilbert Scott junior (1839-97), designed green-man misericords for Bakewell in Derbyshire.
By the time Lady Raglan was searching out examples of green men in the churches and cathedrals of England they had long ceased to be part of the repertoire of church ornament. The artist John Piper had also discovered these forgotten images and enjoyed the quirkiness of faces that took his mind away from the impersonal and bleak modernism of his own day. Lady Raglan described them in a nostalgic tone as a last vestige of rural Britain before the ‘fall’ of the Industrial Revolution. A similar nostalgic yearning informs the recent transformation of the Green Man from an image firmly rooted in medieval Christianity to one that stands for humanity’s relationship with nature.
We should not be surprised by their reinvention. Green men are part of a process of cultural change that reveals the importance of the past in the present. Images have often transferred across cultures but their meanings do not necessarily stay the same. The swastika is the best-known modern example. The owl is another – in the Middle Ages it stood not for wisdom but for ignorance, specifically as a Christian symbol for the Jews who preferred to live in darkness, rejecting the light of Christianity. Many images used in medieval art were taken from the Bestiary, which in turn drew on earlier works like the Physiologus, a compendium of scientific knowledge written in Alexandria in the second century AD, deriving material from a variety of sources including Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. Pliny praised the elephant for its honesty, common sense and justice and claimed that it produced offspring only once every ten years. In the Bestiary much the same information is recorded but also that elephants mate only once and that they copulate back-to-back, thereby having no knowledge of carnal sin. Pliny and the Bestiary both describe the basilisk, a mythical reptile, as capable of killing by its fiery breath whose nemesis is the weasel. ‘Thus does Nature determine that nothing is without its match,’ according to Pliny. The Bestiary adds a new dimension: ‘the creator has made nothing for which there is not an antidote’, leading to an important moral lesson: ‘the basilisk signifies the devil, who openly kills the heedless sinner by its venom; he himself is conquered, like all other harmful creatures, by the soldier of Christ who puts all his hope in the lord.’
The Perindens tree had appeared in the Physiologus and its mythical associations probably originated in India. It offered shelter to doves in their flight from dragons, who could not attack the birds because they feared the shade cast by the tree. In Christian iconography the tree was reinterpreted as God, the shade as his son and the dragons as sinners. It reminded viewers of the Tree of Life but it was not a precise analogue, since it can be identified in medieval art as a tree with dragons rearing up on either side of it. The Green Man, whatever he had signified in classical art, occupies the same moral compass as every other kind of Christian image. Where there is a context that allows us to interpret the images, it is invariably as an image of sin and often of the mortality of the flesh.
The reinvention of the Green Man as an ecological icon has been made possible by the need to censure a society for being anti-Nature, an entirely modern and not a medieval idea. It relies on the powerful notion that history gives credibility and authority, and feeds on an enduring myth that the past was different, more just than the present. The minor status of the image and the difficulty of interpreting it precisely have also helped alternative ideas to flourish. It is a perfect example in our modern world of how the past is reinterpreted to suit the needs of the present.Richard Hayman is the author of Trees, Woodlands and Western Civilization (Hambledon Continuum, 2003) and A Concise Guide to the Parish Church (Tempus, 2007). His latest book The Green Man will be published by Shire in June 2010.
- Kathleen Basford, The Green Man (D.S. Brewer, 1978)
- Fran and Geoff Doel, The Green Man in Britain (Tempus, 2001)
- Mercia MacDermott, Explore Green Men (Explore Books, 2006)
- For further articles on this subject, visit: www.historytoday.com/medieval
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology