This is my third post about the Green Man, a figure from traditional folk culture. To find all the posts about the Green Man, visit this link!
As we saw in the first post in this series, when folklorist and antiquarian Lady Raglan applied the name “Green Man” to a carving in her church, she proceeded from her own intuition that church carvings of faces surrounded by or disgorging leaves, such as the one at the top of this post, were intended to represent a man performing a ritual in which he enacted a figure from the folklife of the carvers who created them:
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. There are reasons for thinking that Robin Hood is really Robin of the Wood. Skeat suggests that “wood ” originally meant a twig, and then amass of twigs or bush, so that Robin Hood would be Robin of the twigs or bush, and this would very well describe the headdress worn by the Green Man to this day. 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.
This drawing of connections among such well known folklore figures as the Green Man (that is, the pageant figures described in the previous Green Man post), the Jack-in-the-green, the Garland, the King of May, and Robin Hood, has been called the “Green Man mythos.”
Because she believes the person who first introduced the idea of the “Green Man” to this complex of figures was Lady Raglan, fantasy author and historian Emily Tesh wrote:
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.
Historian Richard Hayman goes even further, claiming the phrase “Green Man” was coined in the 1930s to describe Foliate Head carvings. Our last Green Man post traced the long history of the the phrase “Green Man” back to the 16th century, when it described a man covered in leaves who was part of a pageant or procession. As I’ve suggested, the Green Man mythos, too, really existed long before Lady Raglan. The mythos existed in the form of connections drawn by artists among all these individual figures, going back to the Middle Ages, and still exists in the form of scholarly and popular speculation about them, both predating Lady Raglan and down to the present day. Let’s take a look at some of these individual connections, starting with the oldest, which is that between the pageant Green Man and the figure we’ve been calling the Foliate Head–that is, the face that is made of leaves, covered with leaves, and sometimes disgorging leaves.
The Pageant Green Man and the Foliate Head
As we have seen in our previous two posts, the idea of a man covered with leaves, as well as the name for that man, “Green Man,” existed for a long time, in the same cultural milieux as the carved foliate faces on churches. Scholars like E.K. Chambers and Lady Raglan in the early twentieth century followed James Frazer in suggesting the Wild Man figure, known as a “Green Man” in England, was connected to folk practices going back to pre-Christian times. And indeed, the Wild Man was an image and tradition going back to pre-Christian antiquity, with examples in the writings of Herodotus describing Libya and those of Megasthenes describing India, among others. In the Middle Ages, the Wild Man became a fixture of art and literature, especially in the Germanic world. As part of this, the Wild Man was absorbed into the English pageant tradition, and in this context was given the name “Green Man” by the late 15th Century.
Carvings of heads or faces surrounded by leaves, too, go back to pre-Christian antiquity, and also survived into the repertoire of Christian artists through the Middle Ages. These carvings were typically known as “têtes feuillés” in French, and for that reason Lady Raglan’s friend, the meteorologist and architectural historian C.J.P. Cave, referred to them as “Foliate Heads.”
It’s common to suggest that it was Lady Raglan who first made the connection between the image of the man covered with leaves and that of the face covered in leaves–that is, what had until then been known as the “Green Man” and the “Foliate Head.” This is not in fact the case; we know that other people had already made this connection, long before Raglan was born. In his article “The Name of the Green Man,” published in the journal Folklore, Brandon S. Centerwall showed three examples of this connection dating to the Middle Ages. I will recap those briefly, and add several more examples.
The first of Centerwall’s examples comes from the spandrel of a choir stall in Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire. See it at the top of this section. According to Centerwall, it was carved by William Lyngwode in 1308. It shows a figure with a sword in one hand and small shield in the other, whose head is a classic foliate face disgorging leaves. Centerwall argues that in this carving, the ‘Green Man’ of church architecture and what he calls the “combatant Green Man” (i.e. the club-bearing, leaf-wearing wild man of the pageants) are a single figure. He goes on to note the principal weakness of this example, however: “Unlike the later representations, this one is dressed in conventional clothing and carries a sword and buckler.” In other words, it is more a man-at-arms than anything resembling the Green Man of the sixteenth century.
Fortunately, his two other examples are stronger. One comes from Germany, which had a tradition similar to the English Green Man, that is, a Wild Man covered in leaves or green in color. Centerwall’s example is a mid-fifteenth century engraving by the Master of the Nuremberg Passion, showing a leaf-clad wild man defending his woman and child from a lion, using a club and a shield. The shield is fashioned in the shape of a foliate head. Here, then, we have both types of Green Man closely juxtaposed.
Furthermore, Centerwall was apparently unaware that this engraving, now in the collections of the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, was a design drawing for a carver to use in creating a relief carving. A three-dimensional artifact which used the engraving has also survived: a richly-carved wooden “love box” or minnekästchen in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The box is covered in carvings depicting the lives of wild men and women, and the scene involving the foliate head is on one end. Publicly available images of the box, such as the one below, do not show that side clearly, but it can be seen in Timothy Husband’s book The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism. (It can also be seen, but not very clearly, in the third photo of the box on the Kunsthistorisches Museum website.) The fact that the Master of the Nuremberg Passion’s foliate head was intended as a carving connects it all the more deeply with the tradition of foliate heads carved into churches.
Centerwall’s third example is a bench-end from the Church of the Holy Ghost in Crowcombe, Somerset, which was carved in 1534. It shows two wild man figures, brandishing clubs, emerging from what look like seed-pods, which in turn emerge from the ears of a foliate head. The leaves encircling the wild men’s waists are clearly the same type of leaves that cover the top of the foliate head from which they spring.
It is interesting to compare these figures with the first description of the Green Men of the London Mayor’s Pageant, which dates to just a few years later:
“ij grett wodyn, [armed] with ij grett clubes all in grene, and with skwybes borning, with gret berds and syd here, and ij targets….”
“Two great wild men, [armed] with two great clubs, all in green, and with burning squibs, with great beards and side-whiskers, and two small round shields”
Although the Crowcombe figures do not have burning squibs, they are otherwise close representations of the Lord Mayor’s “wodyn,” which were also called “Green Men” in sixteenth century descriptions. The fact that they emerge directly from the foliate head in this carving, at almost the same time that the name “Green Man” begins to be applied to them, is very suggestive, and to Centerwall is the clinching evidence that the Foliate Head and Green Man are one and the same. We may be more cautious with Centerwall’s evidence, and note only that people in the sixteenth century, fifteenth century, and possibly the thirteenth century, clearly associated the Green Man with the Foliate Head.
The fourth example of a direct association between the Foliate Head of church architecture and the wild man or pageant Green Man occurs in a misericorde originally from Whalley Abbey, which is now in St. Mary’s Church, Whalley, Lancashire. The carving bears a motto in the form of a proverb: “Penses molt et p[ar]les pou (think much and speak little),” although there is seemingly little connection between this proverb and the scene illustrated in the carving. The scene was carved between 1418 and 1434, and shows a club-bearing Wild Man hovering over a lady’s shoulder. From the corners of the scene grow two vines, which terminate in Foliate Heads. The points on the leaves of the Foliate Heads are carved to closely resemble the spikes of the wild man’s beard and hair, creating an obvious resemblance between the Wild Man’s face and the Foliate Heads.
The fifth example of an association between the foliate head and the wild man/green man comes from the title page of the only known original edition of The Cobler’s Prophesie (1594), which contains the second known occurrence of the term “Green Man” in English. The page is marked by two interesting decorations. At the top of the page is a pair of wild men, facing away from one another and surrounded by leaves and flowers. From the mouth of each wild man issues a vine, which grows to bear a puffy leaf. From the hairy legs of each wild man grows another vine, which curls around and bears leaves and flowers. These figures are wild men that disgorge vines and sprout leaves and flowers—in other words, a creature halfway between the wild man and the foliate head. In the center of the page is a figure clearly derived from the disgorging foliate head, but which seems to sprout not only leaves, but also architectural elements. Taken together, the two images combine the wild man, the foliate head, and architecture, in a sixteenth-century book that also refers to the Green Man by name. Once again, this is very suggestive of a conscious link between the figure then known as “Green Man” and the foliate head in architecture.
As with any body of evidence that covers a wide sweep of history and geography, these occasions on which the pageant Green Man/Wild Man was pictured alongside the Foliate Head could be dismissed as individual associations of the two characters with no historical connection to one another. Centerwall takes the opposite tack, and concludes that the Green Man/Wild Man and the Foliate Head were considered to be one and the same figure.
I think both positions are a bit extreme given the evidence. Like the individual figures themselves, the connection between the Wild Man and the Foliate Head may remain somewhat obscure. Nevertheless, this association between the Foliate Head and the Wild Man or pageant Green Man is traditional and goes back to the Middle Ages. The connection does not necessarily prove that the Foliate Head and the Wild Man or Green Man were seen as the same figure, or that they were associated in all times and places, but it shows that the association did not begin with Lady Raglan or with any other modern scholar; the connection between the pageant Green Man and the Foliate Head was a genuinely medieval idea.
I commented in the second Green Man post that Lady Raglan’s equation of the Green Man with the Foliate Head “reflected a reasonable theory based on the recognition of real similarities between two figures from traditional art.” Now we see that the similarities had been noticed before. It’s easy to see how this idea might have come to occur to different thinkers at different times: one of the similarities between the figures was a combination of greenness or leafiness with humanity, a combination which imbues both the pageant Green Man and the Foliate Head with a similar range of traditional meanings. This would naturally tend to make people associate the two figures, as each of the artists in question did in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and as Raglan did in modern times.
What Emily Tesh called the “Green Man mythos” involves connections of the Foliate Head with other figures besides the Wild Man/ Green Man of English pageantry. It connects both these figures with several other traditional characters: the Garland, Robin Hood, and especially the Jack-in-the-Green. In a future post, we’ll look at those figures and their connections to the Green Man mythos.