Thoughts on the Green Man 2: What Was the Green Man?


Part 2: What Was the Green Man?

This is the second of several blog posts about the Green Man.
[Find the first here] [Find the second here] [Find the third here] [Find the fourth here]

So what DID the term “Green Man” refer to before 1930, and how did the term come down to modern times, to Lady Raglan’s day and beyond? To answer this, we can rely partly on Brandon Centerwall’s “The Name of the Green Man,” a crucial article that is almost never cited by writers such as Hayman, who wish to downplay the deep history of the Green Man. We will also rely on a source that is even more seldom consulted on the matter (which is curious indeed): the Oxford English Dictionary. Both provide a wealth of quotations from early sources that elucidate what a Green Man was. Finally, we’ll rely on my own historical and lexicographical research, which has turned up a number of references unknown to Centerwall or the editors of the OED, and which goes beyond those sources to show that this understanding of the Green Man persisted to Lady Raglan’s day.

It is clear from historical evidence that by the sixteenth century, the term “Green Man” signified a man covered in leaves, who was part of a parade, pageant, or other ritual enactment. Often the Green Man was a whiffler, who carried a club made of fireworks in order to clear crowds out of a space so that a play could be performed or a parade or procession could pass.

The first clear reference to these figures that uses the name “Green Man” comes from 1578, in George Whetstone's play, The Second Parte of the Famous Historie of Promos and Cassandra:

Actus. I. Scena. 6. Phallax, Two men, apparrelled, lyke greene men at the Mayors feast, with clubbes of fyre worke.

Phal. This geare fadgeth now, that these fellowes peare,
Friendes where weight you?

First. In Jesus Street to keepe a passadge cleare,
That the King and his trayne, may passe with ease.

From this brief scene, we learn that Green Men were already well-established figures in the local pageantry of the time, so much so that one can simply state in a stage direction that characters should be “dressed like Green Men at the Mayor’s feast.” (Unfortunately, this also leaves the playwright at liberty not to describe the Green Men very well, since everyone apparently knew what they looked like!)

The fact that Green Men carried fireworks is important to the second known reference to them, from 1594, when  Raph Cobler, the main character in the play The Cobler’s Prophecy by Robert Wilson, prudently promises to give the Green Men a wide berth so as to avoid his clothes catching fire: “Comes there a Pageant by, Ile stand out of the greene mens way for burning my vestment…" The fiery element is also stressed in an account book of 1617, discovered and published by John Heath in an appendix to Some account of the Worshipful company of grocers of the city of London (1829); the book records a gratuity payment for the Green Man at a pageant, under the heading “The Foist and other Fire Work”: “Payde and given in benevolence to the fierman or greeneman over and about his agreement the some of 0 11 0” [i.e. the sum of eleven shillings]. (p.329) Sadly, these references, too, are unhelpful in determining just what manner of creature the Green Man was.

Luckily, a fairly thorough seventeenth-century description of Green Men survives in two accounts of a Royal Entertainment staged at Chester for the visit of Prince Henry, the heir apparent to James I, on April 23, 1610. According to British Popular Customs, Present and Past (1900) by Thomas Firminger Thiselton Dyer, this event was the first of what became an annual St. George’s Day observance for the city, but was staged by a private individual, Robert Amorye (an ironmonger and former sheriff of Chester), rather than by the Mayor or the town. The Green Men were described, without being called “Green Men,” in a preview of the event prepared by Amorye ahead of time:

“ii men in greene leaves set with work upon their other habet with black heare & black beards very owgly to behould, and garlands upon their heads with great clubs in their hands with fireworks to scatter abroad to maintaine way for the rest of the show (Harl. MS. No. 2150, fol. 356; quoted by Centerwall)

They were described again in Amorye’s account of the event after the fact, this time specifically called “Greene-men”:

“Two disguised, called Greene-men, their habit Embroydred and Stitch'd on with Ivie-leaves with blacke-side, having hanging to their shoulders, a huge black shaggie Hayre, Savage-like, with Ivie Garlands upon their heads, bearing Herculian Clubbes in their hands…” (Quoted in Centerwall.)

Taken together, these two descriptions give a good sense of what the Green Man was and what he looked like. They also drive home the fact that while sometimes people used the phrase “Green Man” to describe these characters, at other times the same people called them something else. Given this tendency, several scholars including Robert Withington, in English Pageantry: An Historical Outline (1918), have noted that an earlier description from a London Mayor’s Feast exactly resembles the Green Man as described in 1610: “ij grett wodyn, [armed] with ij grett clubes all in grene, and with skwybes borning, with gret berds and syd here, and ij targets a-pon ther bake,” who appeared at the 1553 Mayor’s Pageant in London. These descriptions together reveal what Green Men were like: savages or wodyn, dressed in green and particularly in leaves, with shaggy hair and beards, ivy-garlands on their heads, big clubs in their hands, and squibs or firecrackers, with which they scattered crowds and maintained the “way,” i.e. the open path, for the rest of the procession. (They also had a feature described in one place as “black-side” and another as “side here,” which some scholars take to be a description what were later called “side-whiskers,” but which now on a bearded man would be considered part of the beard.)

The Green Men so described were obviously familiar figures in England throughout the seventeenth century. Withington notes the appearance of the phrase "Green Men" in contemporary descriptions of pageants from 1602, 1629, 1635, 1686, and 1687, in addition to the references above, from 1553, 1578, 1594, and 1610. And those do not exhaust the seventeenth-century evidence. In 1638, John Kirke mentions Green Men in The Seven Champions of Christendom, a play that contributed significantly to many of the Christmas mummers’ plays performed in Britain and Ireland: "Have you any squibs in your Country? any Green-men in your shows ...?" (Kirke 1638, sig. H2). In 1652, in a play by James Shirley called “Honoria and Mammon,” the character of Maslin refers to the Green Men at the London Mayor’s pageant in these words: “I am not afear’d of your green Robin Hoods that fright with fiery club your pitiful spectators…” (This is the earliest example I have found of an association being made between the Green Man and Robin Hood.)

Several seventeenth-century references are instructive in showing that “Green Men,” “wild men,” and “savages” were understood interchangeably at the time. Matthew Taubman in his Lord Mayor's Pageant, London's Yearly Jubilee, wrote: "In the front of all before these, twenty Savages or Green Men, with Squibs and Fire-works, to sweep the Streets, and keep off the Crowd" (Taubman 1686, 12- 13; quoted in Centerwall). One of Amorye’s descriptions of Green Men called them simply “savage-like,” and the 1553 reference, while not calling them “Green Men,” describes exactly the same figures and calls them wodyn, a Middle English name for wild men or savages.

The connection of Green Men and savages was also made by others in the seventeenth century, particularly those discussing inn or tavern signs, on which the same figure that was earlier known as the Green Man was coming to be known as the Wild Man by the later part of the century. John Aubrey, in Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, 1686-87, includes a description of “The Signe of the Wild Man” in which they describe one wild man as “a kind of Hercules with a green club and green leaves about his pudenda and head, as we use to paint the signe of the greene man.” An undated quotation by John Bagford (1651-1716) makes the same point, that the sign of the Green Man was coming to be known as the sign of the wild man instead, and that only professional sign-makers still used the older term “Green Man”: “They are called woudmen, or wildmen, thou' at thes day we in ye signe [trade] call them Green Men, couered with grene boues: and are used for singes by stiflers of strong watters ... and a fit emblem for those that use that intosticating licker which berefts them of their sennes (Quoted by Larwood and Hotten in The History of Signboards,1866, 367)."

The Bagford quotation demonstrates something else as well: the “Green Man” developed an important new meaning during the latter part of the seventeenth century. Because the wildness of the Green Man’s antics suggested intoxication, the Green Man came to be a symbol for both distillers and pubs. Hence the sign of the “Green Man and Still,” and the many pubs called “The Green Man.” This is key, because it was the very existence of pubs called “The Green Man” that gave Lady Raglan the idea to name the foliate head a “Green Man.” In other words, the term she used came directly from this tradition of leaf-covered wild men.

References to the Green Man did not stop in the seventeenth century. Indeed, in the hundred years leading up to Raglan’s work on foliate heads, we find numerous references making it clear that “Green Man” still meant principally a savage wild man, and that many English people would have understood the reference. The Green Man's connections to sixteenth-century pageants, to strong drink, and to tavern-signs were not forgotten; an anonymous 1838 essay on “Manners and Customs: Fireworks” states: “These men fantastically habited were called Green Men. …These green men attended the pageants to clear the way; they were disguised with droll masks having large staves or clubs headed with cases of crackers. Do we not recognise the strange fellows in “the Green Man” tavern signs of our day—as “the Green Man and Still,” in Oxford street?”

“Green Man” was also used for artistic representations of this character, including carvings. A November, 1833, description of Grove House, Woodford, Essex, by Mr. A.J.K. [1] in the Gentleman’s Magazine (pg. 394) stated: “On the pediments with which the balusters of the staircase were connected stood two representations of those giant green men or hombres salvagios which either in pasteboard or wood were the marshalmen of every pageant….” A drawing of one of the “giant green men” was provided as well.

Kempe made the connection between the carved Green Men of Grove House and the living pageant characters even more explicit in 1834, in a review of The History of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of London by William Herbert, Librarian to the Corporation of London: “Of the sylvan giants or savage green men...we have the following corresponding notice by Mr. Herbert: The most curious part of the land procession at the Lord Mayor's show near this time was the sort of character called fire-men or green men, and in the coronation pageant of Anna Boleyn ‘monstrous and horrible wild men.’ These were fellows habited like savages, in having dresses partly covered with green leaves, who marched before the procession flourishing large clubs to keep off the mob, and who were assisted by others, whimsically attired, and disguised with droll masks, having large staves or clubs headed with cases of crackers.”

(The folklorist George Laurence Gomme was also interested in the Grove House carvings, and wrote in a preface to volume 15 of The Gentleman’s Magazine Library in 1893: “I am inclined to consider the carved figures of giant green men at Grove House, Woodford, Essex, to be a contribution to folklore, and it would be interesting to know what has become of these figures.” )

Llewellyn Jewitt, writing in The Reliquary in 1869, refers to “the green, wild or wood men of the shows and pageants.” Charles Hindley, in Tavern Anecdotes and Sayings (1881), writes: “The Green Man, as he was termed, was at one period of our history an indispensable object in the civic pageantries; the Orson of our day, bearing, like Hercules, a huge club.”  An anonymous letter-writer to Hampshire Notes and Queries wrote in 1883: “The Green Man…is not derived from a gamekeeper turned publican but from the men who, fantastically dressed in green with masks and wreaths of green leaves on their heads, always formed part of the pageants in which our ancestors delighted, and preceded the procession to clear the way." James John Hissey wrote in Over Fen and Wold (1898): “It may be remembered that green men—that is men with their faces arms and hands stained that hue and their bodies covered with skins—were frequently to be found amongst the processions and pageants of the sight-loving Middle Ages, such a get up being intended to represent a savage, and constant mention of them was made in the old writings and plays.”

These references show that the antiquarians, editors, and folklorists of the nineteenth century, including some of the leading figures in each category, were well aware of the meaning of the term “Green Man,” and comfortable using the term to describe a wild man bedecked with leaves.

The Green Man was also defined in exactly this way in many nineteenth and early twentieth century dictionaries, including A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, from the Fourteenth Century (1850), The Encyclopaedic Dictionary: A New Original Work of Reference to All the Words in the English Language, with a Full Account of Their Origin, Meaning, Pronunciation, and Use (1884), The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1897), A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames: with Special American Instances (1901), The Reader's Handbook of Famous Names in Fiction, Allusions, References, Proverbs, Plots, Stories, and Poems (1902), Anglo-American Encyclopedia and Dictionary (1904), and, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary (1928).

It was apparently in 1931, only three years after the Oxford English Dictionary published its definition of “Green Man,” that Lady Raglan first began using the phrase “Green Man” to describe the foliate head in her local church. As the above references demonstrate, the phrase at that time still meant “wild man dressed in leaves” in English, and had meant that for three hundred fifty years and probably longer.

Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, authors of The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, claim in their article on the Green Man (one of the better and more balanced pieces to be written on the figure in recent times) that Raglan was “unaware of the Tudor and Stuart references to leaf-clad masqueraders in pageants.” This may be; she does not specifically refer to those references. But in referring to the common inn or pub signs, she was showing that she was still aware of contemporary manifestations of the same venerable figure.

Simpson and Roud also state that Raglan’s theory conflated “items with widely different functions and histories…on the basis of a single visual trait, leafiness.” It may seem a rather obvious thing to point out, but in fact, the Green Man and the foliate head were equated because of at least TWO shared traits, more thematic than visual: greenness or leafiness (hence, green) and humanity (hence, man). While this does not prove any of Raglan’s theories regarding pre-Christian worship, it does clarify the thematic relationship seen by her and others between the foliate head and the earlier figures known as “The Green Man”: it is the combination of greenness or vegetation (which is associated with wildness, wilderness, or nature) and humanity (which is associated with society, culture, and intellect) that seems to define the idea of the Green Man [2]. Thus, while we may usefully debate whether Raglan’s application of the term “Green Man” to the foliate head was appropriate, whether it was “a good idea,” we should not make the mistake of thinking it was random, meaningless, or ill-thought-out. It was, as Roy Judge points out, a valuable poetic insight, but it was also defensible as a reasonable analogy between similar figures from traditional art. The fact that this connection had been made before Raglan will be explored in my next posting. Further questions, such as whether the Green Man can really be said to be connected to seasonal customs or pagan deities, will be discussed in future articles in this series.


[1] Presumably A.J.K. was Alfred John Kempe, a prominent antiquarian who frequently wrote for The Gentleman's Magazine.

[2] One might, in fact, consider crediting Raglan with noticing four traits her church’s foliate head had in common with the previous idea of the Green Man: leafiness, humanity, maleness, and adulthood. The fact that the Green Man is an adult male is increasingly important in modern interpretations of the figure, which often consider him an archetype of the adult male. Given this, Simpson and Roud could be accused of trivializing Lady Raglan’s insight by ignoring three of the four things her “Green Man” shared with the existing Green Man idea.


The references are in the text above in the form of links to the relevant books and articles in their online homes.



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