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2. The Jack-in-the-Green 


In dealing with the Jack-in-the-Green, Hutton relies on a book by Roy Judge The Jack in the Green (1979), which Hutton praises as showing “how much could be learned from a systematic investigation of historical evidence”, and he describes it as “one of the first triumphs” of the “determination of some folklorists to reintroduce a scholarly rigour to their field”. He claims that Judge “discovered that the origins of the custom lay in the mid-seventeenth century, when London milkmaids began to dance in the streets upon May Day with their pails and heads crowned with flowers” (Hutton 1996, 242, 265).


Unfortunately this is nothing like what Judge actually says. He does mention the milkmaids. But he says that the only satisfactory answer to the question of the origins of the Jack is that he appears as an entity between 1775 and 1795 and in the shape and structure suggested in Sports and Pastimes of the People of England by Joseph Strutt (1801). Judge observes that George Phillips, writing in Folk-Lore (1951), deduced that the Jack developed from the Garland associated with the milkmaids. However Judge states that the resemblance between the Jack and the Garland is superficial, and he describes Phillips’ theory as “a theory that runs counter to all other available evidence”. He also refers to Phillips’ “bold and ill-founded assertion” (Judge 1979, 19-23).  Clearly Judge did not believe there was good evidence to link the 17th century milkmaids with the Jack.


Perhaps Professor Hutton noticed the error he had made about the milkmaids, because in Pagan Britain (2013) he provides a different explanation. He states that Judge proved that the Jack evolved out of a London chimney sweeps’ dance in the late eighteenth century (Hutton 2013, 348). Actually this was a return to an explanation he had expressed forcefully in 1991.[1] However this account is also wrong. What Judge actually says is that there is no evidence for any earlier history of the Jack than its appearance in the late eighteenth century in a context of May Day begging (Judge 1979, 77). He says of a picture of that period that contains a Jack “It is tempting to see its humble place in the grouping as indicative of a recent innovation, but this may be going beyond the evidence”. He also says of the Jack in times before the late 18th century “Of course this does not mean that he did not exist. He may have done so, unmentioned and undescribed, although this seems perhaps unlikely in the case of so odd a phenomenon”. So Hutton has turned lack of evidence, with a suggestion that the Jack had not yet come into existence, into proof of non-existence before the late 18th. century.


The attribution of the earliest recorded instances of the custom to the sweeps alone also seems to be absent from Judge’s book. He refers to early evidence of Mayday festivities that involved bunters and cinder-sifters, as well as sweeps and milkmaids, though it contains the “clear implication” that the Jack-in-the-Green “was a different thing (or group) again” . He states that "May-day called forth a diversity of activity which changed its associations and relationships in kaleidoscopic fashion" (Judge 1979, 15, 18-20). There was a strong association of chimney sweeps with the Jack and Mayday through the 19th. century, but this is a different matter. The error about the sweeps has had a wider currency. For instance, Bob Trubshaw writes “His [Judge’s] detailed study reveals that their origins are in the Mayday revelries of sweeps” (Trubshaw 1996).[2]


An associated error, which appears in several of Hutton’s books, is that he cites Judge as authority for the notion that it is now known that the Jack-in-the-Green and the foliate heads have no connection with each other, or he says that Judge proved there was no connection (Hutton 1991, 315-6; 1999b, 128; 2013, 348).[3] In fact Judge never claims to prove this. He denies that Lady Raglan succeeded in showing that the green man had been taken from the kind of figure represented by the Jack (Raglan 1939, 45-57), and “the suggestion is made that these connections go beyond the available evidence and should be viewed with scepticism” (Judge 1979, introduction). He approves the “open-ended” approach of Kathleen Basford, in a letter, to the history of the foliate heads (Judge 1979, 73). Mrs. Basford also deals with this in her book The Green Man (1978), where she states that “very little is known about the early history of the Jack in the Green” (Basford 1978, 19). Again, a matter suggested by Judge has been turned by Hutton into a proven fact. Others have followed Hutton in making this mistake. Mercia Macdermott writes: “Unfortunately this seemingly plausible theory was disproved by….Roy Judge. He showed that the custom, which is peculiar to chimney sweeps, went no farther back than the late eighteenth century” (Macdermott 2006, 15).


Incidentally, Hutton takes no account of material Frazer produced on this subject. Frazer points out that figures similar to the Jack-in-the-Green appear in customary practices in France, Switzerland and Germany (Frazer 1890, 1: 88-89; 1911b, 2:83 et seq.).[4] For instance “In some parts of Thüringen also they have a May King at Whitsun…A frame of wood is made in which a man can stand; it is completely covered with birch boughs and is surmounted by a crown of birch and flowers”. Frazer also gives examples from elsewhere, eg “in some parts of Russia on St. George’s Day…a youth is dressed up, like our Jack-in-the-Green, with leaves and flowers. The Slovenes call him the Green George”. There are also traditions of the Green George in Carinthia, Transylvania and Rumania (Frazer 1911b, 2: 75-6, 79 et seq). Similar figures are recognized among Whitsuntide mummers elsewhere (Frazer 1911a, 211). For Frazer, this leaf-clad person “represents the beneficent spirit of vegetation”. The activities of 17th century London milkmaids, whatever they were, cannot account for this widespread type of traditional practice. Judge states that Frazer’s Jack as a representative of the spirit of vegetation was “not to be supported within the English evidence” (Judge 1979, 70). But a possibility that might be considered here is that the Jack came to England from the continent in fairly recent centuries, in which case its true roots might be much older.


However the basic position on the origins of the Jack is that we can’t be sure what they were. They might have been in fairly recent centuries or they might be far older. In continental Europe older origins of the traditions seem more likely because of their widespread distribution. Further, it cannot be ruled out that there was some truth in Lady Raglan’s theory. [5] This was that the style of green man that appeared from the thirteenth century onwards had been influenced by the Jack or a similar figure. This, so suggested Judge, went beyond the available evidence. He did not claim to disprove it. Also, the influence could have been in continental Europe, which Judge was not dealing with. I would add that we also don’t know that the spiritual significance that might be accorded the Jack by present-day pagans was not present in the minds of the Jack’s original inventors.


The assumption of origins at the time of the earliest records of a tradition represents a pattern that has often been repeated with similar traditions.  For instance, Hutton states that the mummers’ play and the sword dance “proved to have developed in the eighteenth century” (Hutton 2013, 371).[6] This assumption about origins is a dubious practice, because the possibility of older origins of the custom in question has not actually been proved to be wrong. For instance, how could the possibility of subsequent discovery of earlier records be excluded? Note that, whilst Judge acknowledges that this practice cannot provide proof, Hutton does not.[7] He writes scornfully of Violet Alford, though her theory pushing back the history of hobby horses to much older practices relating to animal disguises and fertility customs is not obviously wrong (Alford 1978, 18-25, 155-8).[8]


[1] Hutton stated “Lady Raglan’s original comparison with the foliage-covered figure who danced in May Day processions was shattered in 1979 by Roy Judge, who proved that this folk ritual had itself only appeared in the late eighteenth century" (Hutton 1991, 315-6). Hutton also produced a third theory “The late medieval foliate heads carved in churches are now known to have nothing to do with the foliage-covered figure dancing in May Day processions, who appeared in the nineteenth century” (my underlining) (1999a, 30). The three theories, incompatible though they are with each other, are all presented as the clear truth by Hutton.

[2] Others put the matter in slightly less absolute terms, though more firmly than Judge, eg Larrington 2015: “The Jack-in-the-Green….originated, it’s fairly clear, in money-making performances got up by chimney sweeps in the late eighteenth century, as Roy Judge has shown”. Caroline Larrington’s view may have been closer to Judge’s, in that she was commenting after the publication of the 2nd. edition of Judge’s book in 2000. Although Judge did not change his conclusions about the Jack in any major way, he was ruder about Lady Raglan, describing her evidence as “history-as-wished-for”. However I note that, despite Hutton's praises of Judge in his 1993 and 1996 books, Judge appears not to mention Hutton.

[3] See also Anderson 1990 at 149: “If it was – as seems certain from the evidence – a custom that rose up only during the period of the Industrial Revolution,..”. See also Hutton 1999a, 30.


[4] Frazer relied on various sources, including Mannhardt 1875, Kapitel IV passim.

[5] Others had preceded Lady Raglan in expressing the idea that the Jack might have had ancient origins. See eg W.Y.Evans-Wentz: “And in many parts of modern England, the Jack-in-the-Green may be another example of a very ancient tree (or else agricultural) cult of Celtic origin” (Evans-Wentz 2002, 435). The notion of an ancient Jack-in-the-Green is certainly not impossible. Gary Varner refers to "a large amount of historical references" that "document long-established traditions around the world featuring similar Jack figures and festivals. It is unlikely that a regional bit of entertainment would have been so widely dispersed at that time in the world without some ancient causation" (Varner 2006, 107-8).

[6] However his statement, at least as regards the sword dance, is contradicted by his comments on these subjects at Hutton 1996, 75-6.

[7] Neither does folklorist Bob Trubshaw, see Trubshaw 2002, 40-1 and his article “Paganism in British Folk Customs” in At the Edge. On the morris dance, he refers to “the evidence long since garnered that the origins lay with sixteenth century courtly dances (Trubshaw 2002, 40-1). Actually there are records of the morris dance from the fifteenth century, but even with these it is not clear that it was then that the practice originated.

[8] Hutton states that “the traditional hobby horse dance…apparently begun as a professional entertainment in the Middle Ages” (Hutton 2013, 371). Again he assumes that the earliest record represents the time when the tradition began. Because we don't know when May Day traditions such as the hobby horse, the Jack-in-the-green and the maypole began, there can be no proof that the original motivations behind them were mundane and based on entertainment, rather than magical and based, say, on the promotion of fertility.





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