Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Green Man

Near to Beauport Bay is a local carving of a "Green Man". Contrary to the impression given by the Peddles in "Pagan Channel Islands", it is of very recent origin. I was passing there the other day, and decided to put together a few notes about these carved heads, often found in churches along with gargoyles, as I think it is a mistaken assumption to make to classify them as "pagan survivals".

The term generally often in scholarly studies of carvings is "Medieval foliate heads", because it doesn't prejudge the issue of what the head represents, and because they are seldom green. Kathleen Basford - who studied it extensively - said: "No one, I think, ever called a foliate head a 'Green Man' before Lady Raglan; now we all do, even though we may not accept her hypothesis" (Basford 1991, 238). As Basford noted, a major problem with a pagan derivation (such as Raglans) is that they only appear from the Later Middle Ages, and have no clear seasonal connections. The kind of statement often made - "The Green Man is the pagan symbol of Spring with the leaves indicating the new birth." - has no historical foundation; it is a modern myth, although a powerful one. It might just as well be that it was intended as a Christian symbol, as one Church site puts in: "We use the image of the Green Man here as an image of the life of the natural world - and the fact that this life has a place within the church.".

But "man" may not be the right word anyway. In "Medieval Foliate Heads: A Photographic Study of Green Men and Green Beasts in Britain.", Tina Negus notes that "A survey of foliate heads in medieval churches shows that many so-called Green Men do not have human faces at all. Many, especially in the earlier Romanesque buildings, are decidedly animal-like in appearance. These I have dubbed 'Green Beasts.' Most of them resemble cats, lionesses or lions; others are not obviously derived from any specific animal. The human faces have rounded ears, situated at the sides of the head; the beast-heads usually have pointed ears placed at the top of the head. "

No one knows precisely what these images represent. They appear in churches and cathedrals in the later Middle Ages but not before, and any ideas about them have to fit in with that (but see below on the "green umbrella").

Were they purely decorative? Remember the Victorians enjoyed to decorate wood within the house (e.g. piano legs) and metalwork outside with ornamentation - trefoilled railings and arches for mainly aesthetic reasons? We should not underestimate the desire to simply decorate for its own sake. Or did they tell of the connection of man and creation? Or did they have some other function, now forgotten?

In "The Roots of Environmental Consciousness: Popular Tradition and Personal Experience." (2000) by Stephen Hussey and Paul Thompson, they note that: "the green man tradition seems to have been transmitted in the middle ages almost entirely through visual images. They were transmitted, moreover, right across Western Europe. The masons who carved them left no words to help us understand them. But in their professional culture communicating with images rather than with words was scarcely remarkable. By the late middle ages leading stonemasons and woodcarvers could be people of considerable local importance, mayors of their cities; and a few of them certainly worked internationally. By then they were also taking images direct from printed books such as the Biblia Pauperum."

We know that wall paintings were often used to depict both scenes from the bible (and post-biblical folklore, such as emerges in Dante), and they were also used to present leading families of the locality; it is possible that, as with gargoyles, these may have drawn upon people in the locality, perhaps the carvers themselves? This seems certainly the case in Durham. Or in the case of "green beasts" with stories told? Remember this was very much an illiterate society, dependent upon visual imagery, festivals, church ales, miracle plays, story telling, and one in which fun was poked at religious images as well (as we see in Chaucer).

Because the name "green man" was used, all other "green" figures were collected by some folklorists under the "green umbrella", so we have Robin of Sherwood (the Green Wood, in Lincoln Green!), the Oak King, the Holly King. The Wild Man, Herne the Hunter, and even the venerated Winter King, and Roman "Green Man" ornamentation, and the Cathedral Images all mixed in together, with no real justification.

But against this what I think needs to be also looked at is the total context in which the Church images were found. A pre-Reformation cathedral, for instance, would have gothic arches, trefoils in windows, decorative spandrels, blue, green, silver and gold colours used widely on woodwork,
gargoyles, stained glass windows, wall paintings, - and our friend the green man (or beast), and one in which sacred and profane was mixed and mingled together (as in Chaucer!). All of this reflected the culture of the time, one very firmly rooted in seasons and soil, sunset and sunrise, to an extent that we find it difficult to imagine and enter today. Here the Green Man is both green with foliage because this was a rural society, at times grotesque or scary, sometimes comic as a visual joke. Gargoyles and grotesques have always given carvers and sculptors a chance to delight in their creativity and to explore the possibilities in the dance between stone and imagination.

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