The Name of the Green Man

By Centerwall, Brandon S. | Folklore, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

The Name of the Green Man

Centerwall, Brandon S., Folklore

What was the name of the green man? In her seminal article in Folklore, Lady Raglan first drew general attention to the ubiquitous renderings of foliate heads in medieval church architecture, usually done in oak leaves but often ivy, an iconic motif she felicitously termed the "Green Man" (Raglan 1939).(1) The term caught on and has since been the standard descriptor for a phenomenon which spans Europe and extends back to the Romans (Basford 1978; Anderson 1990). But by what name did people refer to this entity back then? When we call it the "Green Man," do we impose a set of images and connotations which are ours rather than theirs?

Lady Raglan herself described the naming of the "Green Man" as an intuitive leap:

It is now about eight years ago since my attention was first drawn by the Revd. J. Griffith, then vicar of Llangwm, in Monmouthshire, and himself a folklorist, to a curious carving. It is a man's face, with oak leaves growing from the mouth and ears, and completely encircling the head. Mr. Griffith suggested that it was intended to symbolise the spirit of inspiration, but it seemed to me certain that it was a man and not a spirit, and moreover that it was a "Green Man." So l named it, and the evidence that I have collected to support this title is the reason for this paper (Raglan 1939, 45).

However, as is generally true of intuitions, she did not conjure the name out of thin air. Rather, she was drawing upon her knowledge of folk life:

This figure, I am convinced, is neither a figment of the imagination nor a symbol, but is taken from real life, and the question is whether there was any figure in real life from which it could have been taken. The answer, I think, is that there is only one of sufficient importance, 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 Mayday celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe [...] I should like to remind you that there is an extraordinary number of "Green Man" inns all over the country [sic]. I have noticed them particularly in East Anglia (ibid., 50 and 53).

And that is all she has to say. Lady Raglan's allusions to Robin Hood, the King of May, and so on, display what was then a fashionably Frazerian catholicity (or, as we would say today, lack of discrimination), but they do not address the question of the name itself. Still, she cast her net wide enough to include Central Europe, which was strategic, for it is only in parts of Germany that the leafy May figures are referred to as der Grune Mann (Weber-Kellerman 1958).

The problem with this line of reasoning is that any leaf-covered figure is bound to be called the "Green Man" sooner or later. A case in point is the Jack-in-the-Green. Unfortunately for Lady Raglan's thesis, Roy Judge has demonstrated that the Jack-in-the-Green was essentially a popular May Day money-making scheme developed by chimney sweeps in the late-eighteenth century (Judge 1979). Nevertheless, the Jack-in-the-Green has been occasionally referred to as the Green Man "for a punning or humorous effect" (Judge 1991, 52) or as a purely idiosyncratic usage (Judge 1979, 100).

As for the Green Man inns, the Green Man apparently did not exist as an innkeeper's sign prior to the seventeenth century (Lilywhite 1972, 247-50). Furthermore, no Green Man establishment at the time of Lady Raglan's investigations is documented to have used the foliate head as its iconic emblem, this Green Man being variously represented by a forester or gamekeeper (Judge 1979, 76).

Under the circumstances, Lady Raglan's intuitive leap begins to look more imaginative than we would like. In his Green Man, William Anderson nicely summarises the attractions and dangers:

Much of what has been said about the connexion of the Green Man as he appears in ecclesiastical and secular buildings with folklore is presumption - a presumption based on a desire I certainly share and have to be warned against. …

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