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3. The Green Man


In dealing with the foliate heads, Professor Hutton relies on the researches in Mrs. Basford’s book, the “first (and only) proper study” of the carved faces. He asserts that she proved that virtually all the carved faces dated from the period 1300-1500.[1] In refuting Lady Raglan’s linking of the green man to paganism he argues that it is most unlikely that pagan gods would be more openly venerated in the later Middle Ages than in the earlier, implying that the faces can have nothing to do with pagan gods. Although I do not see that Lady Raglan wrote that the green man was a pagan god, she did compare him with Odin and Attis and she did refer to him as part of an unofficial paganism that subsisted side by side with Christianity (Raglan 1939, 54, 56). Hutton also asserts that Mrs. Basford proved that the faces “usually appeared anguished or menacing, demonic faces of evil”. which “had nothing to do with celebrations of springtime, summer and rebirth” (Hutton 1996, 243).


However Hutton’s report of the contents of Mrs. Basford’s book, like his report of Mr Judge’s, is woefully inaccurate. Mrs Basford states that the motif of the Green Man is pagan in origin (Basford 1978, 19). She reports a number of examples of foliate heads dating from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, and she states that the motif was used in temples serving many different deities. She reports the figures not only from the Roman Empire but also from the Lebanon, Mesopotamia and the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul (Basford 1978, 9-10 and photographs).[2] She says also that “The history and development of the Green Man in the Church can……be followed continuously from the 4th or 5th century” (Basford 1978, 9, 19). Her book contains numerous photographs of foliate heads, and many of them (I counted 87) date from periods before 1300. The book demonstrates the pre-Christian origins of the heads, as well as the continuation of the tradition through the earlier, as well as the later, Middle Ages. Following a change of style noted by Lady Raglan Mrs. Basford treats the era of the green man proper (as distinct from the foliate head or leaf mask) as beginning in the 13th. century, rather than in pre-Christian times. Other researchers (eg Varner 2006) treat foliate heads and leaf masks of all periods as green men. However, even if we regard the earlier examples as not in a strict sense green men, the existence of the many earlier foliate heads destroys Hutton’s case about the earlier middle ages.


As to the meaning of the heads intended by the carvers, it would not be surprising if their intentions over such a long period varied. However some general trends may be identifiable.[3] For the church to have been honouring pagan deities would be surprising, though this seems to have happened in one case, at the Abbey of St. Denis, where there are a series of heads, each one representing a Roman deity.[4] One of them is a leaf mask and the named deity is Silvan (Basford 1978, 14-15). If elsewhere honouring deities was not the intention, the Church must have been using the pagan symbol for different reasons. Mrs Basford says she thinks it “very unlikely that he was revered as a symbol of the renewal of life in springtime”. She states that some green men are demons; some probably represent lost souls or sinners, and she mentions that from the tenth to the twelfth centuries the leaf mask is represented mainly as a demon. She gives various examples of “the dark side of the Green Man’s character” from subsequent centuries.


However, at least during most historical periods, this type of negative interpretation seems difficult in the light of the following factors. Green men sometimes appear in depictions of saints and Jesus in carvings and codices, placed around or above those figures. This is true even of the tenth to the twelfth centuries. And, as Mrs Basford reports, green men were used on the tombs of saints and senior churchmen. They are also found on other gravestones. It would also be odd for the heads of demons, especially, to be placed inside churches and cathedrals, and numerous green men appear there, sometimes in prominent positions.[5] Sometimes they are placed above the entrances to churches, so the worshipper passes beneath them. Some foliate heads do not seem at all demonic to look at, eg the one at Sampford Courtenay in Devon, with its flowing locks, looks like Christ. The green man at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, has a crown and has the Virgin beside him. And surely there are more obvious ways of representing evil than creating an abundance of foliage. Mrs Basford also makes the point that some of the figures look the worse for drink, but many others in my view do not. In fact a notable feature of some of the heads is the wide-open, seemingly watchful, eyes (Basford 1978, 12, 20, 21, and photographs).


Despite Mrs Basford’s disbelief in it, the idea of resurrection or rebirth seems a more promising possibility than demons, lost souls or drunkards, and relevant both as to Christian theology and in relation to the natural cycle in the renewal of life in the spring. As to the former, besides the resurrection of Christ and the rising of the souls of the dead on the day of judgment, there is “Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (gospel of John 3:3). As to the latter, it may be that the green man represents a spirit of fertility within vegetation, descending from ancient deities, and reborn every spring. This interpretation would also suit much better the type of foliate head that appears outside the church context, eg the green men on the Mercat Cross in Aberdeen and in the garden gates at Hampton Court palace.[6]


[1] This account differs from one he gave earlier, that “a prototype for them exists in masks sprouting vegetation which come from Roman sites in the Rhineland and Rome itself” (Hutton 1991, 314).


[2] There are reportedly green men from ancient contexts across the world. According to Varner 2006, 116 “older varieties are found in Iraq, Bulgaria, Belgium, Cyprus, Turkey, France, Scotland, India, Indonesia, Norway, Italy, Sicily, the Middle East and Africa”. He also states that the Green Man image “predates Christianity by a thousand years”. The oldest European example is said to be the "Pillar of St. Goar" from Pfalzfeld, Germany of the 5th. Century BC.


[3] Besides differences of beliefs behind the tradition, there have also been stylistic differences over the centuries, eg many of the earlier foliate heads do not have vegetation coming from the mouth. Besides referring to the change in style early in the 13th century Mrs. Basford says that the 13th century roof bosses at Noyon (see her photo of these) are “among the first to look like teasing Jack in the Greens”. So Mrs. Basford evidently saw some of the green men of the later Middle Ages as having a resemblance to the Jack-in-the-Green. She says that the resemblance between the two figures “could be quite fortuitous”. So, unlike Hutton, she didn’t regard it as an established fact that there was no connection between the two figures (Basford 1978, 14, 17, 19). Also contrary to Mrs Basford's view, there is now a school of thought that says that the disgorging Romanesque, and earlier non-disgorging, foliate heads are completely separate phenomena. In fact the distinction is not so clear-cut. Mrs Basford’s book shows photographs of disgorging earlier green men from the 4th or 5th, and also from the 9th and the 10th. centuries. The font (of about 1100 AD) at Brecon Cathedral has disgorging Green Men carved around it. See also a disgorging example from an Anglo-Saxon psalter at Macdermott 2006, 167. She also mentions two 8th century Norwegian disgorging faces. Mrs. Basford's photographs also show some non-disgorging green men from the 12th and later centuries. These factors show that, despite changes of style, there was a continuous tradition.


[4] Hutton himself refers to “twelfth century Christian intellectuals based in the schools of   Chartres and Tours…who reintegrated ancient pagan images into their view of the universe” (Hutton 2003), despite the fact that he also says of the green man “None of these images could have been a beloved pagan deity” (Hutton 1991, 316).

[5] Prudence Gibson states that “there are thousands of churches across Europe where the Green Man outnumbers images of Christ” (Gibson 2016/2017). Mike Harding comments on his website that "One day in Exeter Cathedral I worked out that images of the Green Man outnumbered those of Christ by about five to one". Bearing in mind the large numbers of the green men, as well as the prominence of magical thinking in the medieval church and the great importance of ensuring good harvests, it seems to me very credible that magical purposes were involved. The purpose of these would have been the assistance of agriculture. It is interesting that "many of the earlier images incorporate the horn of plenty as part of the carving" (Varner 2006, 87-8). I can't agree with the line of thinking that sees green men merely as a form of decoration, as in Macdermott 2003. Why should they go to all this trouble merely for that? Also, green men and other traditional carvings were sometimes placed in churches and cathedrals where no-one could see them. How could that aid the purposes of decoration?

[6] Secular green men seem to pop up unnoticed in many places, eg in Hamburg Town Hall.  Varner 2006 deals extensively with secular green men in the American context. A further issue that might be researched is what relation might the foliate heads or the jack-in-the-green have to old green man pubs and their pub signs. These often seem more reminiscent of the jack, in that they tend to be full figures clad in green rather than just heads. Lady Raglan referred to "the extraordinary number of Green Man inns all over the country" (Raglan 1939, 53). She believed that they took their title from May Day ceremony. The use of the term "Green man" outside the context of the foliate heads goes back at least to the 17th. century (also Varner 2006).

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