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The Green Man at an English harvest festival called "October Plenty." The photo is by Flickr user Sasastro, and was shared with a Creative Commons License.

The Green Man and Calendar Customs

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This is my fifth post about the Green Man, a figure from traditional folk culture. To find all the posts about the Green Man, visit this link!

Among the traditional meanings shared by the figures of the Foliate Head and the Wild Man or Green Man seems to have been that humanity, like vegetation, must follow and adapt to the changing seasons. This traditional meaning could well have given rise to a connection between the Green Man and calendar customs, which goes back to some of the earliest appearances of the figure.

In his 2010 article in History Today entitled “Ballad of the Green Man,” architectural historian Richard Hayman claimed the association between the Green Man and seasonal celebrations is a recent idea:

“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.”

Hayman ascribes this allegedly newfangled idea to Lady Raglan:

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.

As we have seen in previous posts, it is true that when Lady Raglan applied the name Green Man to the Foliate Head of church architecture, she did so based on a conviction that the carvings represented a seasonal custom of May involving a figure like the Castleton Garland or the Jack-in-the-Green, both of which she specifically mentioned in her article. As we have also seen, her friend and correspondent C.J.P. Cave had made the same connection, apparently independently, in his 1935 article in the Times, and her husband Lord Raglan also published the idea in The Hero (1936), before Lady Raglan’s work was published.

May Day celebrations in a village square; a man tending to two horses at right in front of a building lettered on sign 'Mr J. Armstrong / Smith & Farrier.'; villagers dancing at left around a Jack-in-the-green, accompanied by a drummer, entertaining onlookers, gathered in front of an inn with sign of a swan; in an oval, mounted impression, pasted onto embossed backing card, cut to oval.
“May Day” is an anonymous print by LeBlond & Co., circa 1854. It shows a village celebration in England including a Jack-in-the-Green. Find the archival scan here or at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.13914

However, the Raglans and Cave, as we also saw, were drawing on a long tradition of connections among folkloric characters called “Green Man,” “Wild Man,” and “Jack-in-the-Green,” which were associated with May. In 1911, when Raglan was 10 years old, all these characters–including The Green Man–were included by the leading turn-of-the century folklorists in a reconstructed May Day ceremony intended to represent the reign of Henry VIII. All of this shows that the Green Man was a part of this cluster of May characters well before Lady Raglan’s time.

In fact, contrary to Hayman’s assertion, the Green Man was far from a late addition to this group of characters; he is one of the oldest. To see this we need only consider the pageant held for the visit of Prince Henry to Chester in 1610, described in our second post about the Green Man. As a pair of contemporary descriptions by the producer, Robert Amorye (aka Amerie) revealed, the type of English wodyn or wild men known as “Green Men” were present at the event. The post-event description calls them Green 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.)

This pageant occurred on St. George’s Day, 1610. According to Simpson and Roud (p. 308), St. George’s Day, April 23, had been a major holiday in England since 1222. The observance in 1610 was not only to celebrate the royal visit but also to observe the holiday; this is clear in contemporary references to it, which often mention St. George’s Day, as well as by the fact that, 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, even when there was no Royal visit.

The connection of the festivities to the tradition of St. George’s Day was also made explicit in the show itself, specifically in the part the Green Men played. In addition to clearing the way, the Green Men, also called “savages” in contemporary descriptions, served as the victims of the traditional St. George’s Day dragon:

“An artificiall Dragon, very lively to behold, pursuing the Savages entring their Denne, casting Fire from his mouth, which afterwards was slaine, to the great pleasure of the spectators, bleeding, fainting, and staggering, as though hee endured a feeling paine, even at the last gaspe, and farewell.” (Quoted in John Nichols’s The progresses, processions, and magnificent festivities, of King James the First, his royal consort, family, and court, Volume 2 [1828])

In his article “The Name of the Green Man,” Brandon Centerwall states that it is “tempting” to see this dragon-combat as a ritual battle between summer and winter, but that the fact that it is mentioned in Amorye’s post-event description but not his pre-event description “makes clear that [the Green Men’s] original function was to do the usual whiffler work, until Amerie had the last-minute inspiration to make use of them in a crowd-pleasing skit.”

Close up of a stone carving of a Foliate Head.
This Green Man in the Musée de Cluny in Paris has been there since the building was a collegium church. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2022.

In fact, Centerwall’s conclusion seems unlikely given the evidence; in the first place, the pre-event description, which Centerwall believes to be “the actual preparatory notes for the Chester triumph,” does not appear to have been a set of preparatory notes at all. Centerwall seems only to have read the part of the manuscript quoted by Larwood and Hotten, but in its full form (as quoted in T.F. Thistelton Dyer’s British Popular Customs, Present and Past) the manuscript does not much resemble “preparatory notes.” It begins:

The manner of the showe, that is, if God spare life and health, shall be seene by all the behoulders upon St. George’s Day next, being the 23rd April, 1610, and the same with more addytions to continue, being for the kyng s crowne and dignitie, and the homage to the Kyng and Prynce, with that noble victor St. George, to be continued for ever. —God save the Kyng.

It ends:

“When all is done, then judge what you have seen, and so speak on your mynd, as you fynd the Actor for the presente Robert Amorye.

“Amor is love, and Amorye is his name
That did begin this pomp and princelye game;
The charge is great to him that all begun,
Who now is satisfied to see all so well done.”

A beginning and ending like this hardly seem necessary if the document is a set of preparatory notes; evidently it was published, and for the benefit of the very people who were expected to attend the event: they are invited to tell Amorye whether the event lived up to the description. It therefore appears to be an advertisement, perhaps intended to be cried aloud at a previous civic event.

This tapestry from Germany circa 1440 shows Wild Men battling a lion, a unicorn, and a dragon. Battles between Wild Men and dragons were commonly depicted in medieval art. This tapestry is in the the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which believes the image to be in the public domain.

Moreover, the document makes clear in two places that it is not describing everything that will happen: the “more addytions to continue” quoted above, and, toward the end of the document when the horse racing and general merriment are described:

“Gent shall be runne for by thirr horses, for the two bells on a double staffe and the cup to be runne for at the rynge in some place by Gent and with a greater mater of the showe by armes, and shott, and with more than 1 can recite” (emphasis mine).”

In other words, this document admits that it describes only some of the things that would happen, not all of them.

Given this, it seems likely that the Green Men’s battle with the dragon was neither a “last minute” addition, nor merely a “crowd-pleasing skit.” Dragon effigies had been part of English St. George’s Day processions since at least 1408 (Simpson and Roud 331), and one was recorded at Chester as early as 1564 (Simpson and Roud 98). By 1610, a fight with a dragon would for many people be a defining feature of St. George’s Day festivities. It had also been traditional to depict Wild Men in combat with both real and mythical beasts, including lions, unicorns, and dragons, for hundreds of years–see the tapestry above for a single example. There is no reason to suppose that the dragon at Chester in 1610, including his fight with the Green Men, wasn’t always part of the plan, just a part that went unmentioned in the advertisement.

Whether planned from the beginning or added along the way, however, it’s clear that the dragon-combat scene was the element of the procession most strongly associated with St. George’s Day in particular. This makes the Green Men in this scene absolutely an element in the seasonal part of the day’s program. According to Simpson and Roud (p. 308), St. George’s Day was an important springtime festival celebrated with parades, horse-races, jousting, and effigy dragons. When it ceased to be much celebrated in Britain, “popular customs were…transferred to warmer dates such as May Day….”

A reenactment of St George and the Dragon, Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, England, 2009. Photo by Spencer Means. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

In countries other than England, St. George’s Day is an important springtime holiday serving many of the functions of English May Day. As the Estonian folklorist Mall Hiiemäe has noted, “the Greek form Georgius means a ploughman, a cultivator of land. And when trying to divine the ancient predecessor of the holiday, one should better consider such tradition that is connected with spring-time vegetation.” Hiiemäe also notes “such Russian proverbs as George will bring spring and There is no spring without George.” Moreover, in countries where St. George’s Day is still celebrated, in those years when it falls too close to Easter, the celebration is typically postponed until after Easter, and often thus falls on or about May 1.

What all this shows is that the Green Men in Chester in 1610 were participating in an annual seasonal festivity of the springtime, a festival related to May Day, with many of May Day’s meanings, which occurred a week before May Day. With that in mind, the association of Green Men with May Day seems older than modern times.

This feeling is strengthened by a further seventeenth-century reference. In Shirley’s Honoria and Mammon (1652), allusion is clearly made to the whifflers of the London Mayor’s Feast, who, as we have seen, were known as “Green Men” from at least 1578 to 1687. [1]  But this time, Shirley refers to them as “Green Robin Hoods.” Robin Hood was famously associated with May celebrations during the period in question, so this again shows a connection in people’s minds between the Green Man and characters associated with Maytime in the seventeenth century.

This connection continued into the following century. The famous Jack-in-the-Green celebrations in London and elsewhere, for example, occurred at May time. As we have seen, the Jack-in-the-Green was referred to by Robert Southey and William Harrison,  as a “Green Man” within a few years of its first appearance in the historical record, and it continued to be called a “Green Man” by many observers right down to the present day. There’s no reason to suppose this May Day figure wasn’t always considered a “Green Man.”

This anonymous 19th century engraving shows Miles Standish and his men preparing to attack Thomas Morton’s settlement of Mount Wollaston or Merry Mount. This illustration was published in the nineteenth century and is in the Public Domain.

We also find a single interesting reference from America: in 1837, in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” a short story concerning Massachusetts Bay colonists observing seasonal May Day rituals in the seventeenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne has the priest intone: “Up with your nimble spirits, ye morrice-dancers, green men and glee-maidens….” This corroborates the evidence from Harrison and Southey: in the early 19th Century, people associated the Green Man with May Day.

A further seasonal facet of the Green Man is his connection with the annual Mayor’s Pageants in sixteenth-century London. The very first reference to the character by the name “Green Man” comes from 1578, and specifically calls them “greene men at the mayor’s feast.”  Although this celebration did not occur in May, it nevertheless occurred at the same time every year, a time generally marked by seasonal celebrations: October 29th, or two days before Halloween. If one were tempted to suggest a Frazerian meaning for the Green Man, his being associated with both the transition from April to May and from October to November, Saint George’s or May Day and All Hallows, could not be more apt; the battles between seasons described by Frazer and others typically occur six months apart at important feast days such as these.

More to the point, it is generally accepted that the Lord Mayor’s shows were originally adapted from two basic sources, one of which was summertime pageantry. As Withington notes, “in the middle of the sixteenth century, the pageants which had been connected with the Midsummer Show were absorbed into the civic procession [of the Lord Mayor’s Show].” It is at just this time, (1553) that the leafy, club-bearing Green Men first appear in the records of the Lord Mayor’s Show. Given that Shirley associates the Green Men with Robin Hood in 1652, and that elsewhere they are associated with St. George’s Day, it makes good sense to speculate that they, like many other elements, were imported to the Mayor’s Pageant from summertime festivities.

Painting showing a village scene that includes a man with long hair and beard, his body completely covered with green leaves, wearing a leafy garland or crown, and carrying a large club.
This painting by Pieter Bruegel the elder (1525–1569), known as “The Wild Man,” shows a wild man covered in green leaves with shaggy hair and beard, wearing a leafy head garland and carrying a club, exactly like the wodyn and Green Men of the English pageants during Bruegel’s lifetime. The image is in the public domain. Breugel painted this scene more than once, including in the upper left of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, which can be seen at this link.

Finally, characters and activities associated with one seasonal holiday are frequently associated with more than one: St. George and Robin Hood, both associated as we have seen with the period around May Day, have also come to be important characters in many Christmas mumming plays; mumming plays themselves occur often at Christmas, but the same play, with many of the same characters, happens in some towns at Easter; and caroling door to door occurs at Christmas, May Day and All Soul’s Day. Given that in the preponderance of his appearances he is associated with either Maytime or Halloween, it seems very likely that the pageant Green Man had just such a general association with seasonal festivity.

If we allow related traditions from the Continent to be discussed, we find other seasonal associations for the Green Man, or at least for a character who exactly resembles him. In particular, a detail of a painting by Bruegel the Elder, and a subsequent woodcut, dated to the mid-sixteenth century, show a leaf-clad, green-colored wild man with a big black beard and a club in a seasonal play at Carnival time (Mardi Gras season or Shrovetide).

This also throws new light of the observations of E.K. Chambers, which I’ve mentioned in several of the previous posts. As Chambers pointed out, one of the earliest English literary figures who resembles the Green Man is the Green Knight of the 14th century English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. That poem occurs during two successive Christmas celebrations, and involves the Green Knight in repeated ritualized combat on New Year’s day. The resonances with these other seasonal appearances of green wild men are strong.

Man covered in holly, ivy, and evergreens.
A Green Man who was part of a Twelfth Night (Christmas) celebration in London, England in 2009. The photo is by Sarah Louise Hathaway and was shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

The Green Man is still (or again) a major figure at seasonal celebrations today. He appears widely at May celebrations, from the Hastings Traditional Jack in the Green festival in England to the May Day Faerie Festival in Maryland and on to the English Ale in Mylor, South Australia. And, just as in the past, Green Men have a presence at seasonal celebrations throughout the year. You can see representations of the Green Man at Christmastime (see the photo above) and harvest as well as in the Spring and Summer. 

Clearly, there are many associations of May Day in particular, and seasonal observances in general, with the Green Man. They date back to the emergence of the phrase “Green Man” and to the first descriptions of the club-bearing, leaf-covered wild man that the phrase originally referred to, in the middle of the sixteenth century. They extend to the present, and most likely into the future. Though this is more speculative, they may even be as old as the late fourteenth century, when an anonymous poet wrote about the Green Knight. Evidently, the Green Man is no recent addition to such calendar customs, but a longstanding participant in seasonal celebrations, especially those of Springtime.

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