This is my second post about the Green Man, a figure from traditional folk culture. To find all the posts about the Green Man, visit this link
In the first Green Man post, I took issue with several other scholars who claimed that the phrase “Green Man” was coined in the 1930s by amateur folklore scholar Lady Raglan. I pointed out that the name “Green Man” goes back to the 16th century at least. I disagreed with the same scholars’ claims that the idea of a mythos around the Green Man involving death and resurrection was likewise created by Lady Raglan, and showed an earlier instance of the mythos in English scholarship: a 1903 passage by E.K. Chambers.
The problem with the analyses I mention is that Lady Raglan did not invent the term “Green Man”; she applied the existing term “Green Man” to the leaf-covered face carved on her local church. Lady Raglan borrowed the name “Green Man” from a similar figure from traditional art and drama, and this figure was already associated with calendar customs, and already the subject of a death and resurrection mythos, when she borrowed his name. Thus, when the architectural historian Richard Hayman claims that the association of the Green Man with calendar customs is a recent phenomenon, or when the classicist and fantasy author Emily Tesh claims that the mythos around the Green Man only dates to 1939, they’re not telling the whole story. They can only make these claims by limiting their understanding of “Green Man” to the faces carved on churches, even though they are aware of the older meanings of the term.
In this post, we’ll find out what the term “Green Man” referred to before Lady Raglan borrowed it, and how it came down to modern times, to Lady Raglan’s day and beyond. To do this, we can rely partly on a crucial but rarely cited article, Brandon Centerwall’s “The Name of the Green Man.” We will also rely on a source that is even more seldom consulted on the matter (which is curious indeed): the Oxford English Dictionary. Both provide a wealth of quotations from early sources that elucidate what a Green Man was. Finally, we’ll rely on my own historical and lexicographical research, which has turned up a number of references unknown to Centerwall or the editors of the OED, and which goes beyond those sources to show that this understanding of the Green Man persisted to Lady Raglan’s day.
It is clear from this historical evidence that by the sixteenth century, the term “Green Man” signified a man covered in leaves, who was part of a parade, pageant, or other ritual enactment. Often the Green Man was a “whiffler,” employed to clear crowds out of a space so that a play could be performed or a parade or procession could pass. To aid in this task, he often carried a club, sometimes with fireworks embedded in it.
The first clear reference to these figures that uses the name “Green Man” comes from 1578, in George Whetstone’s play, The Second Parte of the Famous Historie of Promos and Cassandra:
Actus. I. Scena. 6. Phallax, Two men, apparrelled, lyke greene men at the Mayors feast, with clubbes of fyre worke.
Phal. This geare fadgeth now, that these fellowes peare,
Friendes where weight you?
First. In Jesus Street to keepe a passadge cleare,
That the King and his trayne, may passe with ease.
From this brief scene, we learn that Green Men were already well-established figures in the local pageantry of the time, so much so that one can simply state in a stage direction that characters should be “dressed like Green Men at the Mayor’s feast.” Unfortunately, this also leaves the playwright at liberty not to describe the Green Men very well, since everyone apparently knew what they looked like. Still, it suggests the figure was not new, but common knowledge at least in the theatrical profession by 1578.
The fact that Green Men carried fireworks is important to the second known reference to them, from 1594, when Raph Cobler, the main character in the play The Cobler’s Prophecy by Robert Wilson, prudently promises to give the Green Men a wide berth so as to avoid his clothes catching fire:
Comes there a Pageant by, Ile stand out of the greene mens way for burning my vestment…
The fiery element is also stressed in an account book of 1617, discovered and published by John Heath in an appendix to Some account of the Worshipful company of grocers of the city of London (1829); the book records a gratuity payment for the Green Man at a pageant, under the heading “The Foist and other Fire Works”:
Payde and given in benevolence to the fierman or greeneman over and about his agreement the some of 0 11 0” [i.e. the sum of eleven shillings]. (p.329)
Sadly, these references, too, are unhelpful in determining just what manner of creature the Green Man was.
In 1600, the phrase “green men” was used by Thomas Nashe in his play Summer’s Last Will and Testament. It’s used by the character of Will Summer, an omniscient narrator who speaks directly to the audience about not only the action of the play, but the actors and their abilities. Immediately after a train of “satyrs and wood-nymphs” leaves the stage singing, Will says to the audience:
A couple of pretty boys, if they would wash their faces, and were well breech’d in an hour or two. The rest of the green men have reasonable voices, good to sing catches or the great Jowben by the fire’s side in a winter’s evening.
He appears to be speaking of the satyrs and nymphs who have just left the stage. We can assume that the satyrs are the ones who would be pretty if they washed and put on breeches, since dirty faces and hairy legs would be a natural part of a satyr’s costume. He thus appears to be calling the nymphs “the rest of the green men.” This makes sense if we assume that, as was usual on the Elizabethan stage, women’s parts were played by young men. “Green men,” in that case, are male actors wearing the costumes of wood nymphs.
Later in the play, the character of Vertumnus comes on stage, also attended by a train of young singing actors, who were probably the same ones portraying the satyrs and nymphs. This time, they are described as wearing “suits of green moss, representing short grass.” Since Will Summer is an omniscient narrator with knowledge of the actors and the production as well as the play itself, he might have been calling the actors “green men” in reference to this later appearance. In this play, then, “green men” seems to refer to men in leafy, mossy, or grassy costumes–but those costumes are not described in much detail.
Luckily, a fairly thorough seventeenth-century description of Green Men survives in two accounts of a Royal Entertainment staged at Chester for the visit of Prince Henry, the heir apparent to James I, on April 23, 1610. According to British Popular Customs, Present and Past (1900) by Thomas Firminger Thiselton Dyer, this event was the first of what became an annual St. George’s Day observance for the city, but was staged by a private individual, Robert Amorye (an ironmonger and former sheriff of Chester), rather than by the Mayor or the town. The Green Men were described, without being called “Green Men,” in a preview of the event prepared by Amorye ahead of time:
ii men in greene leaves set with work upon their other habet 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 (Harl. MS. No. 2150, fol. 356; quoted by Centerwall)
They were described again in Amorye’s account of the event after the fact, this time specifically called “Greene-men”:
Two disguised, called Greene-men, their habit Embroydred and Stitch’d on with Ivie-leaves with blacke-side, having hanging to their shoulders, a huge black shaggie Hayre, Savage-like, with Ivie Garlands upon their heads, bearing Herculian Clubbes in their hands…” (Chester’s Triumph in honor of her prince As it was performed vpon S. Georges Day 1610. in the foresaid citie.)
Taken together, these two descriptions give a good sense of what the Green Man was and what he looked like. They also drive home the fact that while sometimes people used the phrase “Green Man” to describe these characters, at other times the same people called them something else. Given this tendency, I should note that several scholars including Robert Withington, in English Pageantry: An Historical Outline (1918), have noted that the first description we have of a London Mayor’s Feast, that of 1553, includes figures that exactly resemble the Green Man as described in 1610, using the word wodyn, a Middle English name for wild men, savages, or wodewoses:
ij grett wodyn, [armed] with ij grett clubes all in grene, and with skwybes borning, with gret berds and syd here, and ij targets a-pon ther bake
These descriptions together reveal what Green Men were like: savages or wodyn, dressed in green and particularly in leaves, with shaggy hair and beards, leaf garlands on their heads, big clubs in their hands, and burning squibs or firecrackers, with which they scattered crowds and maintained the “way,” i.e. the open path, for the rest of the procession. (They also had a feature described in one place as “blacke-side” and another as “syd-here.” Some scholars take this to be a description what were later called “side-whiskers,” but which now on a bearded man would be considered part of the beard.)
The Green Men so described were obviously familiar figures in England from the second of half of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth. Withington notes the appearance of the phrase “Green Men” in contemporary descriptions of pageants from 1602, 1629, 1635, 1686, and 1687, in addition to the references above, from 1553, 1578, 1594, and 1610. And those do not exhaust the seventeenth-century evidence. In 1638, John Kirke mentions Green Men in The Seven Champions of Christendom, a play that contributed to many of the Christmas mummers’ plays performed in Britain and Ireland:
Have you any squibs in your Country? any Green-men in your shows, and whizzers upon lines, jack-pudding upon rope, or sis in fire works?”
In 1652, in a play by James Shirley called Honoria and Mammon, the character of Maslin refers to the Green Men at the London Mayor’s pageant in these words:
I am not afear’d of your green Robin Hoods that fright with fiery club your pitiful spectators…
Several seventeenth-century references are instructive in showing that “Green Men,” “wild men,” and “savages” were understood interchangeably at the time. Matthew Taubman in his Lord Mayor’s Pageant, London’s Yearly Jubilee (1686), wrote:
In the front of all before these, twenty Savages or Green Men, with Squibs and Fire-works, to sweep the Streets, and keep off the Crowd.
Remember that one of Amorye’s descriptions of Green Men called them simply “savage-like,” and the 1553 reference, while not calling them “Green Men,” describes exactly the same figures and calls them wodyn. It’s also interesting that in much of Europe, the figure often known as “the wild man” is depicted as either covered in leaves or simply green in color–see the images immediately above and below. This may explain why the figure was called “Green Man” in Britain.
The connection of Green Men and savages was also made by others in the seventeenth century, particularly those discussing inn or tavern signs, on which the same figure that was earlier known as the Green Man was coming to be known as the Wild Man by the later part of the century. John Aubrey, in Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, 1686-87, includes a description of “The Signe of the Wild Man” in which he describes one wild man as “a kind of Hercules with a green club and green leaves about his pudenda and head, as we use to paint the signe of the greene man.”
An undated quotation by John Bagford (1651-1716), quoted by Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten in The History of Signboards (1866), makes the same point, that at the turn of the eighteenth century the sign of the Green Man was coming to be known as the sign of the Wild Man instead, and that only professional sign-makers still used the older term “Green Man”:
“They are called woudmen, or wildmen, thou’ at thes day we in ye signe [trade] call them Green Men, couered with grene boues: and are used for singes by stiflers of strong watters … and a fit emblem for those that use that intosticating licker which berefts them of their sennes.”
The Bagford quotation demonstrates something else as well: the “Green Man” developed an important new meaning during the latter part of the seventeenth century. Bagford suggests that, because the wildness of the Green Man’s antics suggested intoxication, the Green Man came to be a symbol for both distillers and pubs. Thus, according to Larwood and Hotten, two signs emerged: the “The Green Man and Still,” which was based on elements of the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Distillers, with a Native American Indian replaced by a Green Man; and “The Green Man,” which evolved over time from a Wild Man to a forester dressed in green.
The pub name “The Green Man,” then, seems to have originated in the 17th century and to have referred in its earliest forms to the leaf-covered Green Man common in 16th century pageantry. As we’ve seen, Lady Raglan was drawing on this tradition when she named the foliate head “Green Man.”
References to the Green Man did not stop in the seventeenth century. A 1728 poem by Jonathan Smedley called “The Forester and the Wood” involves a forester and a company of “greenmen” that he maintains, though they are not described in detail. In his 1810 book Glig-gamena angel-deod, or, The sports and pastimes of the people of England, Joseph Strutt discusses the Green Men and their role in the Mayor’s pageant in London, and even provides an engraving of one, from an original of 1652.
In the early 19th century, we also find two references to the Jack-in-the-Green as a “Green Man.” The Jack-in-the-Green was a participant in English May Day pageants. He was described well by Joseph Strutt:
This piece of pageantry consists of a hollow frame of wood, or wicker-work, made in the form of a sugar loaf, but open at the bottom, and sufficiently large and high to receive a man. The frame is covered with green leaves and bunches of flowers interwoven with each other, so that the man within may be completely concealed, who dances with his companions, and the populace are mightily pleased with the oddity of the moving pyramid.
On May 4, 1820, the poet Robert Southey wrote a letter to his daughter describing the London Jack-in-the-Green, which he idiosyncratically called a “Jack in the Bush.” He refers to the character as “a green man”:
They have generally a green man in company who is also called Jack in the Bush because he is in the middle of a green bush which covers him all over head and all so that you can see nothing but his feet and he goes dancing with the rest.
In 1832, William Henry Harrison published an engraving of a Jack-in-the-Green in his book The Humorist. The engraving bears the caption “The Green Man.”
These references to the Jack-in-the-Green as a Green Man are particularly interesting, because the May Day custom which inspired Lady Raglan to name the foliate head “The Green Man” was clearly a version of this same custom, although the wicker framework was called “The Garland” rather than “Jack in the Green.”
In the hundred years leading up to Raglan’s work on foliate heads, we find numerous references making it clear that “Green Man” still meant principally a savage wild man, and that many English people would have understood the reference. The Green Man’s connections to sixteenth-century pageants, to strong drink, and to tavern-signs were not forgotten; an anonymous 1838 essay in the magazine The Mirror on “Manners and Customs: Fireworks” states:
These men fantastically habited were called “Green Men.” […] These green men attended the pageants to clear the way; they were disguised with droll masks having large staves or clubs headed with cases of crackers. Do we not recognise the strange fellows in “the Green Man” tavern signs of our day—as “the Green Man and Still,” in Oxford street?”
“Green Man” was also used for artistic representations of this character, including carvings. In a November, 1833, description of Grove House, Woodford, Essex, in the Gentleman’s Magazine (pg. 394), Mr. A.J.K. [presumably Alfred John Kempe, a prominent antiquarian] stated:
On the pediments with which the balusters of the staircase were connected stood two representations of those giant green men or hombres salvagios which either in pasteboard or wood were the marshalmen of every pageant…. The maces of the mimic giants of Grove house were of formidable proportion compared with the figures, and furnished with gnarled knobs; when similar forms were animated in pageants by concealed living actors, their maces, we learn, were sometimes stuffed with fireworks, which exploding at intervals during their processional march, the weapons of these mighty whifflers kept the admiring crowd at a respectful distance.
A drawing of one of the “giant green men” was provided as well.
Kempe made the connection between the carved Green Men of Grove House and the living pageant characters even more explicit in 1834, in a review of The History of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of London by William Herbert, Librarian to the Corporation of London:
Of the sylvan giants or savage green men…we have the following corresponding notice by Mr. Herbert: The most curious part of the land procession at the Lord Mayor’s show near this time was the sort of character called fire-men or green men, and in the coronation pageant of Anna Boleyn ‘monstrous and horrible wild men.’ These were fellows habited like savages, in having dresses partly covered with green leaves, who marched before the procession flourishing large clubs to keep off the mob, and who were assisted by others, whimsically attired, and disguised with droll masks, having large staves or clubs headed with cases of crackers.
(The folklorist George Laurence Gomme was also interested in the Grove House carvings, and wrote in a preface to volume 15 of The Gentleman’s Magazine Library in 1893: “I am inclined to consider the carved figures of giant green men at Grove House, Woodford, Essex, to be a contribution to folklore, and it would be interesting to know what has become of these figures.”)
In The History of Signboards:from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1866), Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten give a rather complete explanation of the Green Man, including many of the sixteenth and seventeenth century quotations above. They add:
Besides wielding sticks with crackers in pageants, these green men sometimes fought with each other, attacked castles and dragons, and were altogether a very favourite popular character with the public. One of their duties seems to have been to clear the way for processions.
Llewellyn Jewitt, writing in The Reliquary in 1869, refers to “the green, wild or wood men of the shows and pageants.”
Charles Hindley, in Tavern Anecdotes and Sayings (1881), writes:
The Green Man, as he was termed, was at one period of our history an indispensable object in the civic pageantries; the Orson of our day, bearing, like Hercules, a huge club.
An anonymous letter-writer to Hampshire Notes and Queries wrote in 1883:
The Green Man…is not derived from a gamekeeper turned publican but from the men who, fantastically dressed in green with masks and wreaths of green leaves on their heads, always formed part of the pageants in which our ancestors delighted, and preceded the procession to clear the way.
It may be remembered that green men—that is men with their faces arms and hands stained that hue and their bodies covered with skins—were frequently to be found amongst the processions and pageants of the sight-loving Middle Ages, such a get up being intended to represent a savage, and constant mention of them was made in the old writings and plays.
These references show that the antiquarians, editors, and folklorists of the nineteenth century, including some of the leading figures in each category, were well aware of the meaning of the term “Green Man,” and comfortable using the term to describe a wild man bedecked with leaves.
The Green Man was also defined in exactly this way in many nineteenth and early twentieth century dictionaries, including the following:
- A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, from the Fourteenth Century (1850)
- The Encyclopaedic Dictionary: A New Original Work of Reference to All the Words in the English Language, with a Full Account of Their Origin, Meaning, Pronunciation, and Use (1884)
- The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1897)
- A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles: Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by the Philological Society (1900)
- A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames: with Special American Instances (1901)
- The Reader’s Handbook of Famous Names in Fiction, Allusions, References, Proverbs, Plots, Stories, and Poems (1902)
- Anglo-American Encyclopedia and Dictionary (1904)
- The Oxford English Dictionary (1928)
A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles was published beginning in 1884, first in unbound fascicles and then volume by volume; in 1900 its definition of “Green Man” was published. In 1928 the full dictionary was republished as The Oxford English Dictionary, retaining its definition of “Green Man.” It was apparently in 1931, only three years after the Oxford English Dictionary republished this definition, that Lady Raglan first began using the phrase “Green Man” to describe the foliate head in her local church. As the above references demonstrate, the phrase at that time still meant “wild man dressed in leaves” in English, and had meant that for three hundred fifty years and probably longer.
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, authors of The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, claim in their article on the Green Man (one of the better and more balanced pieces to be written on the figure in recent times) claim that Lady Raglan was “unaware of the Tudor and Stuart references to leaf-clad masqueraders in pageants.” This is possible; she does not specifically refer to those references. But it’s much more plausible that she knew about them, from the Oxford English Dictionary or one of its predecessors, or from previous folklore research, and didn’t mention them. Her article is very short and does not make a comprehensive argument; she herself apologized for its “scrappiness.” It wouldn’t be surprising if she failed to note previous knowledge of the sixteenth and seventeenth century references. Given that her husband was a well known folklorist with an extensive library, and a president of the Folklore Society, it’s hard to imagine she wasn’t at least aware of dictionary definitions of “Green Man,” which would have pointed her back to those references. Either way, she was definitely aware of contemporary manifestations of the same venerable figure on inn or pub signs, so her use of the phrase “Green Man” is directly connected to the tradition of the leaf-covered wild man.
Simpson and Roud also state that Raglan’s theory conflated “items with widely different functions and histories…on the basis of a single visual trait, leafiness.” It may seem a rather obvious thing to point out, but in fact, the Green Man and the foliate head were equated because of at least two shared traits, more thematic than visual: greenness or leafiness (hence, green) and human form (hence, man). One might, in fact, consider crediting Raglan with noticing four traits her church’s foliate head had in common with previous ideas of the Green Man: leafiness, human form, maleness, and adulthood. (The fact that the Green Man is an adult male is increasingly important in modern interpretations of the figure, which often consider him an archetype of the adult male.) Given this, Simpson and Roud could be charged with trivializing Lady Raglan’s insight by ignoring three of the four things her “Green Man” shared with the existing Green Man idea.
Of course, this doesn’t prove or even support any of Raglan’s theories regarding the Green Man being a figure from pre-Christian worship transformed into a folk saint and a Christian symbol of death and rebirth. But it does clarify the thematic relationship seen by her and others between the foliate head and the earlier figures known as “Green Man”: it is the combination of greenness or vegetation (which is associated with wildness, wilderness, or nature) and humanity (which is associated with society, culture, and intellect) that seems to define her overall idea of the Green Man, allowing it to encompass both the leaf-covered wild man of pub signs and the foliate head of church architecture.
We may usefully debate whether Lady Raglan’s application of the term “Green Man” to the foliate head was apt or appropriate. But we should not make the mistake of thinking it was random or meaningless. It was, as Roy Judge points out in his book Jack in the Green, a valuable poetic insight. But it also reflected a reasonable theory based on the recognition of real similarities between two figures from traditional art.
The fact that this connection had been made before Lady Raglan will be explored in my next posting.