The medieval carvings known as the ‘Green Man’ – a face from whose mouth grow leaves and branches – are as a much a story of the twentieth century as they are of the fourteenth or fifteenth. This is because they were invented in 1939. The woman who invented them, by giving them the name, was Julia Somerset, who, under her official title of Lady Raglan wrote the first article on the subject. This is the starting point for our understanding of an image that has since become almost impossible to interpret or even define.
Raglan’s timing was perfect. Only a few years later a post-war surge of interest in historic buildings led to the publication of numerous guides and books. One of the most enduring of these began in Cornwall in 1951: Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series, still updated and published today. Pevsner used Raglan’s term throughout the series, and although he wasn’t the only one to do so (the photographer Charles Cave, who published work on medieval roof bosses, was another), his use of the term no doubt helped it to enter popular culture.
Raglan’s article was published in the Folklore journal, and this point of origin had a dramatic effect. What it did was sever the connection between the image and its medieval context and place it firmly within the realm of English folk tradition. In the second half of the twentieth century the Green Man became a figurehead for folk customs and revivals, in particular the neo-pagan movement in which it represented humanity’s connection with nature. Today, it is often easier to find the Green Man in occult bookshops than it is medieval churches.
Above: A 15th-century Green Man in the south aisle at Holy Cross, Crediton, Devon (Photo: Mark Ware).
That this idea took hold was also due in part to the prevailing opinion, during the middle decades of the twentieth century, of the medieval period as largely pagan. According to this understanding the bulk of the people had remained true to their pagan roots, despite centuries of Christianity, the church allowing their imagery into its buildings as a means to pacify and ultimately convert them. Such an understanding was dismantled in the 1970s and 80s as detailed historical surveys were undertaken and published, which revealed medieval Christianity to be far more complex and nuanced than had previously been understood. But nonetheless, the idea of the Green Man as a pagan totem persisted and is by far the most popular interpretation today.
What the image might have meant to its medieval audiences, however, remains elusive. It’s a subject I’ll return to in future blog posts.