Most people with a passing interest in history have heard of the Green Man, a face from the Middle Ages that, thanks to its recent reincarnation, is now more recognisable than the saints or even the devil. 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. At Clun in Shropshire you can witness a ritual tussle between the Green Man and the Frost Queen, with a rather obvious interpretation. The corresponding ritual at Pilton in Devon sees the Green Man face up to the medieval Prior of Pilton and force the church to accept this 'pagan' figure within its walls. Both rituals follow a well-established tradition of a local community coming together to celebrate an identity rooted in a shared environment and its past. Or so it seems.
The Green Man appeared in churches from the 11th century as part of the Christian visual iconography and declined after the Reformation when the visual culture of medieval Christianity collapsed. He enjoyed a flesh lease of life in the 19th century as part of the Gothic Revival and the appetite for all things medieval. He has attracted little attention per se from professional historians in recent decades but formed the focus of a respectable pedigree in scholarly work of the mid-20th century before developing a life of his own in the counter-cultural movement of the late 20th century. Since then the figure has proved a simple medium through which to explore human relations with the forces of nature and has been taken up by poets including Charles Causley and Andrew Motion. The subtitles of popular books give a fair clue as to what the Green Man has come to mean in recent years: William Anderson's The Green Man (1990) describes him as 'the archetype of our oneness with the Earth; while John Matthews' The Green Man Tree Oracle (2008) promises 'ancient wisdom from the spirit of nature'. It is also a simple image attractive to the branding mentality of consumer culture: there is even a music festival named after the Green Man.
The modern study of the Green Man started in the 1930s with the folklorist Julia Somerset, Lady Raglan (1901-71), when her attention was drawn to heads disgorging foliage on the chancel arch on the 14th-century church at Llangwm Uchaf near her home in Monmouthshire. This led her to search out other Green Man carvings, in which she was helped by an ongoing survey of medieval roof bosses by C.J.P. Cave. 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. She supposed that, like all folk customs, May Day festivities were a last vestige of ancient religious rites and, in this case, of pagan tree worship and spring sacrifice. In this she owed a debt to Sir James Frazer's multivolume study of primal religion, The Golden Bough (1890-1915), in which tree worship is placed as the origin of all religious practice, and even to Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), which argued that Christianity and paganism had thrived side-by-side in the Middle Ages, with a core of believers unwilling to give up the 'old religion'. Throughout the 1950s the idea of the Green Man as a motif of pagan survival was uncontroversial. The literary critic John Speirs interpreted the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in similar terms. The Green Knight was a 'recrudescence in poetry of the Green Man' of ecclesiastical carvings who in turn was the 'descendant of the Vegetation or Nature God of ... almost universal and immemorial tradition' (1949). Art historians such as M.D. Anderson, the author of Drama and Imagery in English Medieval Churches (1963), also thought that the medieval Green Man was a descendant of pagan tree worshippers, vestige of an older religion that lived on in customs such as maypole dancing, the Castleton Garland, Queensferry Burry Man and other similar folk festivals. …