The Green Man, a character from traditional folk culture, has captured the imaginations of many in the modern world. Books, articles, and websites on the Green Man abound, each of them looking at the figure from its own perspective. Those who have commented on or employed the image of the Green Man range from historians to neopagan worshippers, from festival organizers to novelists, and from folklorists to participants in Renaissance fairs.
Recently, though, some scholars have been asserting that the Green Man is not really a figure from older folk culture at all, but a modern invention. In a 2010 article in History Today entitled “Ballad of the Green Man,“ architectural historian Richard Hayman begins his exploration by stating that the phrase “Green Man” was “coined in the 1930s for a medieval image of a face sprouting foliage.” In June 2019, classicist and fantasy author Emily Tesh, in an article titled “Inventing Folklore,” made an even stronger claim:
Where does the Green Man mythos come from?
I’m so glad you asked. It comes from Lady Raglan’s article The Green Man in Church Architecture in the 1939 edition of “Folklore”, making this timeless figure out of pagan memory exactly eighty years old this year.
Tesh goes further, trying to find a significance in the particular date of the Green Man’s emergence:
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that our Green Man was born in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. As Europe hurtled for the second time towards the nightmarish meat-grinder of industrialised warfare, it’s not surprising that Lady Raglan’s discovery—Lady Raglan’s creation—struck a chord.
This might be an interesting interpretation of the Green Man, but it has significant problems: Lady Raglan did not create the Green Man or his mythos; the Green Man was not “born” in 1939, nor did his mythos begin in that year; and the term “Green Man” was not coined in the 1930s. References to the Green Man, using that name, go back much earlier.
To be clear, it may be true that Lady Raglan first applied the name “Green Man” to the architectural motif of a head surrounded by leaves or disgorging them, a motif otherwise known as the “foliate head.” This figure is seen on churches and other buildings throughout Europe and beyond. Lady Raglan published her article “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture” in the journal Folklore in 1939, but according to the article she began to call the face in her local church of Llangwm “Green Man” eight years previously. This is corroborated by a letter to Folklore published in 1932, entitled “The Dragon and the Vine,” in which a Miss Durham writes of the same foliate heads described by Lady Raglan:
There is also a couple of corbels carved with a face—in the mouth is a sprig of foliage on each side, moustache-like. It is thought to be a “green man.”
Possibly, Miss Durham had spoken to Lady Raglan. Perhaps she had heard the name from the local clergyman, Reverend J. Griffith, whom Lady Raglan described as “a folklorist.” In any case, Miss Durham’s letter shows that the foliate head in Llangwm was locally known as a “Green Man” by 1932 at the latest.
More important than the exact date of Lady Raglan’s insight, however, is the fact that she did not coin the term “Green Man” at all. In fact, it had existed for hundreds of years by 1932, and in 1939 she explained exactly where she had found the term. Her article describes a May Day ceremony, observed in 1901 by Sidney Oldall Addy and described in the paper at this link. In the ceremony, a man was placed in a frame covered with leaves and flowers, and then put his face through a gap in the vegetation.
After stating that she believed the foliate head motif on churches was a literal illustration of this ritual, Lady Raglan continued:
I should like to remind you that there is an extraordinary number of “Green Man” inns all over the country. I have noticed them particularly in East Anglia. My belief is that they take their title from this ceremony.
In other words, believing that “Green Man” inn or pub signs commemorated the same May Day ceremonial role that was depicted in the medieval carvings, she applied the traditional pub name “The Green Man” to the foliate head. Clearly, she did not coin the term, but adopted it from popular culture, because she believed the pub sign Green Man and the foliate head to depict the same figure from folk tradition. As we’ll see, her application of the name to the foliate head was only one incident in the long history of the “Green Man” idea.
In her essay, Lady Raglan drew on James George Frazer’s influential work of comparative myth and ritual The Golden Bough, equating the Green Man with a wide variety of European customs, including the Bavarian pfingistl, the French loup vert, and the British Jack o’Lent. She postulated the ultimate origin of those customs, as well as of the Green Man, in pan-European, pre-Christian fertility rituals, believing the ceremony that had inspired both the Green Man pubs and the foliate head to be a distant descendant of such a ritual. In so doing, she invokes several other names for what she believes to be ultimately the same figure:
The figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May, and the Garland, who is the central figure in the May-day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe. In England and Scotland the most popular name for this figure, at any rate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was Robin Hood. […] We do not know when his cult became established in this country, but by the fifteenth century it formed an important part of the religious life of the people.
The inclusion of the “Green Man,” in this complex of myth, presumably, is what Tesh means by the “Green Man mythos,” which she claims was also created by Lady Raglan in 1939. However, Lady Raglan was not the first scholar to discuss the Green Man mythos in these terms. For example, the great literary critic E.K. Chambers detailed the Green Man mythos in his 1903 book The Mediaeval Stage. In a chapter entitled “The Sword Dance,” which covers festive calendar customs that influenced literature and drama, he outlines many of the same traditions described earlier by Frazer and later by Lady Raglan. He then opines:
It is interesting to note that the green man of the peasantry, who dies and lives again, reappears as the Green Knight in one of the most famous divisions of Arthurian romance.
The suggestion that these rituals common among the peasantry involve a character called “the green man,” and the insight that the Green Knight of the great Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight could be a manifestation of this character from folk culture, is surely an aspect of the “Green Man mythos” mentioned by Tesh, yet it is older than Tesh claims that mythos to be.
Hayman and Tesh both seem frustrated with the popularity of Lady Raglan’s article, and its grounding in Frazer’s work; Tesh’s article even begins: “James George Frazer has a lot to answer for.” Meanwhile, Hayman attacks the idea of pagan origins for the Green Man:
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. […] Antecedents in classical art exist but are unhelpful since meanings changed from pagan to Christian societies.
Hayman also denies that the Green Man had seasonal associations before Lady Raglan’s work, stating that the character is a recent addition to the celebration of seasonal holidays:
The Green Man is the latest accretion to the long cast of characters that have featured in annual May celebrations, like Robin Hood, Jack-in-the-Green, May Queens and Lords of Misrule.
In many ways, Hayman and Tesh’s frustration is understandable. Neither Raglan nor Frazer actually demonstrates that the modern rituals they describe are surviving pagan practices. Frazer and some of his predecessors (principally Wilhelm Mannhardt) simply drew intuitive connections among practices that seemed similar. Some were described in or extrapolated from classical pagan sources, others observed among European Christians. The practices of Christians were ascribed a pagan origin due to their resemblance to the older descriptions. Such connections are interesting to consider, but the evidence of direct lines of descent from pagan to Christian traditions is scarce.
Hayman may be right that a strong form of Lady Raglan’s theory is not warranted by the evidence. However, I believe that Hayman and Tesh both misunderstand Lady Raglan’s theory and therefore underestimate its plausibility. At the same time, a strong form of Hayman’s theory is also untenable: no one would deny that meanings change over time, but the principle that older meanings are “unhelpful” in understanding more recent ones would surprise any scholar who works with meaning over time, whether in history, linguistics, or literature.
Surely, then, there is middle ground to be explored between Lady Raglan and her detractors. In separate posts I’ll look at the evidence that people associated the Foliate Heads carved on churches with other meanings of the term “Green Man” long before Lady Raglan made the connection; the development from the late Middle Ages of the “Green Man Mythos” linking various figures such as the Green Man, Robin Hood, and Jack-in-the-Green; the evidence for considering the Green Man to be an element of seasonal custom; and finally, the importance of vernacular religion to understanding the Green Man and Lady Raglan’s theories about him. But first, since both sides in this argument tend to skip over the step of carefully presenting evidence, I intend to spend my next post examining the evidence as to what the term “Green Man” traditionally meant. I will show that the phrase was certainly not coined in 1939, but rather goes back in English at least to the 16th century. Stay tuned!