Thoughts on the Green Man 4: The Green Man and Calendar Customs


The Green Man and Calendar Customs

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

From his earliest appearances among the characters of pageants, shows, and St. George’s Day observances, the Green Man has been associated with calendar customs, especially those of springtime. Yet, one of Richard Hayman’s specific claims in "The Ballad of the Green Man" is that 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.” He thus makes the suggestion that such connections are quite new, “invented traditions,” rather than genuinely old ones. It is therefore worthwhile to examine the evidence for a connection between the Green Man and calendar customs of the springtime, including May Day.  In doing so, we quickly find that they extend back in time much further than Hayman suggests.

We may begin by considering the pageant held for the visit of Prince Henry to Chester in 1610, described in part 2 of this post. We know there were Green Men present; but what are we to make of the date? April 23 is St. George’s Day.  According to Simpson and Roud (p. 308) this was a major holiday in England since 1222. The observance of the day in 1610 was not only to celebrate the royal visit but also to observe the holiday; this is clear in contemporary references to it, which often mention St. George’s Day, as well as by the fact that it became an annual observance even when there was no royal visit.

Interestingly, the connection of the festivities to the tradition of St. George’s Day was also made explicit in the show itself, specifically in the part the Green Men played. In addition to clearing the way, they served as the victims of the traditional St. George’s Day dragon: “an artificiall Dragon, very lively to behold, pursuing the Savages entring their Denne, casting Fire from his mouth, which afterwards was slaine, to the great pleasure of the spectators, bleeding, fainting, and staggering, as though hee endured a feeling paine, even at the last gaspe, and farewell.” (Quoted in John Nichols's The progresses, processions, and magnificent festivities, of King James the First, his royal consort, family, and court, Volume 2 [1828])

Centerwall states that it is tempting to see this dragon-combat as a ritual battle between summer and winter, but that the fact that it is mentioned in Amorye’s post-event description but not his pre-event description “makes clear that [the Green Men’s] original function was to do the usual whiffler work, until Amerie had the last-minute inspiration to make use of them in a crowd-pleasing skit.” This conclusion seems unlikely given the evidence; in the first place, the pre-event description, which Centerwall calls “the actual preparatory notes for the Chester triumph,” does not appear to have been a set of preparatory notes at all. Centerwall seems only to have read the part of the manuscript quoted by Larwood and Hotten, but in its full form (as quoted in T.F. Thistelton Dyer’s British Popular Customs, Present and Past) the manuscript does not much resemble “preparatory notes.” It begins:

The manner of the showe, that is, if God spare life and health, shall be seene by all the behoulders upon St. George's Day next, being the 23rd April, 1610, and the same with more addytions to continue, being for the kyng s crowne and dignitie, and the homage to the Kyng and Prynce, with that noble victor St. George, to be continued for ever. —God save the Kyng.

It ends:

When all is done, then judge what you have seen, and so speak on your mynd, as you fynd the—
     "Actor for the presente
     " Robert Amorye."

   "Amor is love, and Amorye is his name
   That did begin this pomp and princelye game;
   The charge is great to him that all begun,
   Who now is satisfied to see all so well done."

A beginning and ending like this hardly seem necessary if the document is a set of preparatory notes; obviously, it was published, and for the benefit of the very people who were expected to attend the event: they are invited to tell Amorye whether the event lived up to the description. It therefore appears to be an advertisement, perhaps intended to be read aloud at a previous civic event.

Moreover, the document makes clear in two places that it is not describing everything that will happen: the “more addytions to continue” quoted above, and, toward the end of the document when the horse racing and general merriment are described, “gent shall be runne for by thirr horses, for the two bells on a double staffe and the cup to be runne for at the rynge in some place by Gent and with a greater mater of the showe by armes, and shott, and with more than 1 can recite” (emphasis mine). In other words, this document was meant to describe only some of the things that would happen, not all of them.

Given this, it seems likely that Centerwall overreaches when he claims the dragon-combat is a “last minute” addition, or merely a “crowd-pleasing skit.” A fight with a dragon was for many people a defining feature of St. George’s Day festivities. Dragon effigies had been part of English St. George’s Day processions since at least 1408 (Simpson and Roud 331), and one was recorded at Chester as early as 1564 (Simpson and Roud 98). There is no reason to suppose that the dragon at Chester in 1610, including his fight with the Green Men, wasn’t always part of the plan, just a part that went unmentioned in the advertisement. It even seems possible that, as a particularly spectacular part of the show, it was left out of the advertisement on purpose, to increase the element of surprise. The Green Men being included in the dragon-combat scene, the element of the procession most strongly associated with St. George's Day in particular, makes them absolutely an element in the seasonal part of the day’s program.

The seasonal importance of the Green Men’s appearance at St. George’s Day provides a spectacular example of the way scholars with different approaches to the Green Man talk past one another. Centerwall, as we have seen, dismisses the notion of a seasonal significance to the Green Men’s activities. He notes that the date of the 1610 event is St. George’s Day, but completely fails to note that this date has any seasonal significance! On the other side of this gulf stands Gary Varner, who has written an article about the connections between St. George and the Green Man, which appeared in his book The Mythic Forest, the Green Man and the Spirit of Nature, and subsequently online. Varner correctly portrays St. George’s Day as an important springtime holiday with many seasonal elements. Curiously, however, despite his great interest in the precise topic of the Green Man and St. George’s Day, he does not mention the Green Men’s appearance at St. George’s Day in Chester in 1610! (More precisely, although Varner quotes from Centerwall one of Robert Amorye’s descriptions of the event, he seems unaware that it occurred on St. George's Day.) It is as though Varner leaps past evidence that would have supported his case, to get to the profound meaning more quickly, while Centerwall feels safer picking at the minutiae of evidence without giving its meaning much consideration. As a result, neither of them makes this important connection: the Green Man is associated with springtime calendar customs as early as 1610.

Although not much celebrated in England since the seventeenth century, according to Simpson and Roud (p. 308), St. George’s Day was an important springtime festival celebrated with parades, horse-races, jousting, and effigy dragons. When it ceased to be much celebrated in Britain, “popular customs were…transferred to warmer dates such as May Day….” Indeed, St. George’s Day falls just a week before May Day. Just as some of the same traditions are shared among Halloween, All Saint’s Day, All Soul’s Day, and Guy Fawkes Day, so St. George’s Day and May Day have traditionally borrowed customs back and forth.

In countries other than England, St. George’s Day is an important springtime holiday serving many of the functions of English May Day. As the Estonian folklorist Mall Hiiemäe has noted, “the Greek form Georgius means a ploughman, a cultivator of land. And when trying to divine the ancient predecessor of the holiday, one should better consider such tradition that is connected with spring-time vegetation.” Hiiemäe also notes “such Russian proverbs as George will bring spring and There is no spring without George.” Moreover, in countries where St. George’s Day is still celebrated, in those years when it falls too close to Easter, the celebration is typically postponed until May 1 or May 2.

What all this shows is that the Green Men in Chester in 1610 were participating in an annual seasonal festivity of the springtime, a festival related to May Day, with many of May Day’s meanings, and only a week before May Day. With that in mind, the association of Green Men with May Day begins to seem older than modern times.

This feeling is strengthened by a further seventeenth-century reference. In Shirley’s Honoria and Mammon (1652), allusion is clearly made to the whifflers of the London Mayor’s Feast, who, as we have seen, were known as “Green Men” from at least 1578 to 1687. [1]  But this time, Shirley refers to them as “Green Robin Hoods.” Robin Hood was famously associated with May celebrations during the period in question, so this again shows a connection in people’s minds between the Green Man and characters associated with Maytime in the seventeenth century.

This seems to have continued into the following century. The famous Jack-in-the-Green celebrations in London and elsewhere, for example, occurred at May time. For many years, it was common knowledge that the Jack-in-the-Green was an aspect of the pageant Green Man. More recently, folklorist Roy Judge has dismissed that idea, stating that the similarity of the two traditions has value as a poetic insight, but that we cannot claim a historical connection, since there is no evidence showing a link between the Green Man and the Jack-in-the-Green until very recent times. He points out that the Jack-in-the-Green tradition seems to have been started by chimney-sweeps in the late eighteenth century, and claims that “E.K. Chambers seems to have been responsible for adding [the Green Man] to the range of interpretations [of the Jack-in-the-Green],” citing Chambers’s book of 1903.

In fact, however, there are two fairly clear pieces of evidence that people saw and understood the connection between these traditions in the early 19th century. Since the phrase “Jack-in-the-Green,” and the peculiar character it refers to do not show up in historical sources until 1795, this means that we find a connection between the two traditions expressed almost as soon as the Jack-in-the-Green tradition emerges, by people who were alive when it did emerge. Unfortunately, Judge dismisses one piece of evidence on dubious grounds, and ignores the other.

The first piece of evidence is an engraving of the Jack-in-the-Green, published in 1832 in William Henry Harrison’s book The Humorist. The engraving bears the caption “The Green Man.” This Judge dismisses, on the grounds that many of the same book’s other captions are bad puns rather than real descriptions. So, for example, a walking-stick that appears to be falling over is labeled “Falstaff,” and a woman whose body is elongated is captioned “Missi-Longhi.”

However, Judge misses the fact that some captions in the book aren’t puns. So, for example, the book contains the narrative poem “The Two Adjutants” in which a young lady has both a suitor who is an Adjutant in the army and an adjutant bird, a situation which leads to amusing misunderstandings. As an illustration of the story, there is a picture of the woman, her soldier, and her bird, captioned “The Two Adjutants.” A picture of three soldiers in Napoleonic-era uniforms, apparently in their cups, is captioned “Waterloo Veterans.” A picture of a skinny knight approaching a windmill that appears to him to be dressed like a giant is labeled “Don Quixote.” These all appear to be “straight” captions describing what is pictured in the illustrations, not puns or jokes of any kind.

Given that the book has some captions that are obvious bad puns and others that are merely descriptions of the pictures, one would have to explain how the caption “The Green Man” is a bad pun to put it in the former category. Judge correctly states that the Jack-in-the-Green illustration is associated with a poem called “The Balloon of the Famed Mr. Green”; this, however, does not make it a pun. Furthermore, the lines of that poem that immediately precede the illustration are the following:

Twas served up in a tent or pavilion as gay
As Jack-in-the-green upon chimney sweep's day

The illustration seems merely to be a straight “explanation” of those lines for anyone who might not have seen a Jack-in-the-green. In other words, it is a straight caption, in which the editor is equating the Jack-in-the-green with the Green Man.

The other piece of evidence on this point, which Judge ignores, is earlier still: Robert Southey’s letter to his daughter of May 4, 1820, in which he described the Jack-in-the-green custom. Southey wrote: “They have generally a green man in company who is also called Jack in the Bush because he is in the middle of a green bush which covers him all over head and all so that you can see nothing but his feet and he goes dancing with the rest.” Although Judge knows of this letter, and correctly points out that Southey is idiosyncratic in calling the figure “Jack in the Bush” rather than “Jack in the green,” he ignores the fact that Southey tells his daughter the figure is “a green man.”

It seems from this that Southey saw a connection between “the green man” and “Jack in the green” in 1820, and that Harrison did so in 1832. To claim that this connection dates from E.K. Chambers is therefore erroneous; people contemporary with the emergence of the Jack-in-the-green custom (Southey was born in 1774, Harrison in about 1795) perceived that the Jack was a form of Green Man, and expressed this perception clearly. Judge’s central point, that the Jack-in-the-green cannot be assumed to be a survival of pre-Christian tree worship, is of course still valid, but its connection to earlier forms of pageantry seems more likely than Judge is willing to allow.

Taken together, these two facts (that a character called “Green Man” was associated with Maytime festivals 150 years previous to the emergence of the similar Maytime character Jack-in-the-green, and that some people contemporary with the invention of the Jack-in-the-green called it a “Green Man”) strongly suggest that there was still cultural knowledge of the Green Man tradition available to ordinary English people, and that the Jack-in-the-green was modeled to some degree on that tradition. Thus, the decision of the chimney-sweeps to celebrate May by dressing in green leaves does not appear to be random, but rather appears to be based on the tradition of the Green Man.

We also find a single interesting reference from America, though from a strictly Anglo-American perspective. In 1837, in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” a short story concerning Massachusetts Bay colonists observing seasonal May Day rituals in the seventeenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne has the priest intone: “Up with your nimble spirits, ye morrice-dancers, green men and glee-maidens….” Hawthorne mentions as his source for the description of the May Day festivities “Strutt's Book of English Sports and Pastimes,” but that book does not in fact associate the Green Man with May Day; Hawthorne must have gotten the association elsewhere. This corroborates the evidence from Harrison and Southey: in the early 19th Century, people apparently associated the Green Man with May Day.

Another interesting facet of the Green Man is his connection with the annual Mayor’s Pageants in sixteenth-century London. The very first reference to the character comes from 1578, and specifically calls them "greene men at the mayor's feast."  Although this celebration did not occur in May, it nevertheless occurred at a time of year generally marked by seasonal celebrations: October 29th, or two days before Halloween. If one were tempted to suggest a Frazerian meaning for the Green Man, his being associated with both the transition from April to May and from October to November, Saint George’s and All Hallows, could not be more apt; the battles between seasons described by Frazer and others typically occur six months apart at important feast days such as these.

More to the point, it is generally accepted that the Lord Mayor’s shows were originally adapted from two basic sources, one of which was midsummer pageantry. As Withington notes, “in the middle of the sixteenth century, the pageants which had been connected with the Midsummer Show were absorbed into the civic procession [of the Lord Mayor’s Show].” It is at just this time, (1553) that the leafy, club-bearing Green Men first appear in the records of the Lord Mayor’s Show. Given that Shirley associates the Green Men with Robin Hood in 1652, and that elsewhere they are associated with St. George’s Day, it makes good sense to speculate that they, like many other elements, were imported to the Mayor’s Pageant from midsummer festivities.

Finally, characters and activities associated with one seasonal holiday are frequently associated with more than one: St. George and Robin Hood, both associated as we have seen with the period around May Day, have also come to be important characters in many Christmas mumming plays; caroling door to door occurs at Christmas, May Day and All Soul’s Day; wren-hunting occurs at Christmastime or the Winter Solstice in Britain and Ireland, but six months away at St. John the Baptist’s Day, or the Summer Solstice, in France. Given that in the preponderance of his appearances he is associated with either Maytime or Halloween, it seems very likely that the Green Man had just such a general association with seasonal festivity. (If we allow related traditions from the Continent to be discussed, we find other seasonal associations for the Green Man, or at least for a character who exactly resembles him. In particular, a detail of a painting by Brueghel the Elder, and a subsequent woodcut by the same artist, show what is very clearly a leaf-clad, green-colored wild man with a big black beard and a club in a seasonal play at Carnival time, dated to the mid-sixteenth century.)

Clearly, there are many associations of May Day in particular, and seasonal observances in general, with the Green Man. They date back to the emergence of the phrase “Green Man” and to the first descriptions of the club-bearing, leaf-covered wild man that the phrase originally referred to, in the middle of the sixteenth century. Given this, it’s clear that the Green Man is no recent addition to such calendar customs, but a longstanding participant in seasonal celebrations, especially those of Springtime. Hayman, in claiming that the Green Man is a recent accretion to this tradition, may mean the phrase “Green Man” in the limited sense of “foliate head,” although he is unclear on this point. In any case, since by the fifteenth century the web of associations around the Green Man also included the foliate head [See Part ii of this post], it seems that his statement about the Green Man being the “latest accretion” to Maytime customs may be off by several centuries at least.


[1] We know these are the characters being referred to for three reasons: the date is given as “the next day after Simon and Jude,” which is the date of the Mayor’s pageant; the location is given as Westminster, one of the pageant’s locations; and the description is given as men with fiery clubs—in other words, what are described as “Green Men” in 1578, 1594, 1602, 1610, etc.


Note: Many of the references are in the text above in the form of links to the relevant books and articles in their online homes. The references below are to those items that cannot be found online without a subscription.

Judge, Roy (1979). The Jack in the Green, a May Day Custom. D S Brewer.
Simpson, Jacquline, and Steve Roud (2000) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore.  Oxford University Press.