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Green Men

8 December 2016

Again, from Northern Earth 147 (December 2016), Eric Fitch recalls he was innocently listening to a classics CD featuring the music of Purcell, specifically the Fairy Queen, when he noticed a reference to a 'Dance for the Green Men' – and green men with tangles of wild plants and vines as hair around faces little more than a pair of eyes and a mouth seem to invoke a fair bit of controversy. Green men faces in churches have a connection with nature – and fecundity. It was a symbol used to illustrate renewal – as in the Resurrection. As such it does not have a specific pagan connotation in spite of many words spilt to the contrary. On the other hand a vestige of pagan belief may also be discerned as the faces are not always resplendent with the good things in nature, such as rose hips and bullaces, as they can depict the wild side of nature – growing in a tangled mess. Ivy seems to epitomise this side of nature, clambering over other plants and shrubs and climbing up the trunks of trees in an unsightly fashion. It is also evergreen. However, it also provides a useful food resource for birds so everything about ivy is far from negative and one can assume this was recognised – at least in the medieval world. One can read into green men all kinds of lurid fantasies but the image would not have been allowed to reside in churches if the connotations were as clear cut as some people seem to think. Indeed, in the medieval period when our cathedrals were built, and stone churches replaced wooden ones, pagan religions were extinct. The older meaning of green men was defunct.

Purcell's music made use of Shakespeare's comedy 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' – Titania and Puck and that kind of thing. The setting of the play is magical, according to Fitch, with fairies, sprites, nymphs and love potions to name a few of the participants in the plot. The scenario is based around the seasons, nature and associated imagery. We have to bear in mind here that in the medieval period most people lived in a rural landscape – not in towns. Nature was not necessarily all around them as the land was heavily farmed – but pockets of wild nature would have existed, if only on steep hillsides and in dells. It is in such a wild area that the play depicts as the colour green in a European context usually signifies raw nature – especially spring. It therefore also had a specific link to the spring theme of resurrection at Easter. Now. the article at this point gets interesting as we can see the process of dilution take place between then and now – and we may wonder how much dilution had taken place between the pagan era and the medieval world beforehand. Green men (or wild men of the woods) were associated with lighting fireworks in the 17th century (and fireworks have a visual similarity with fireballs or transient shooting stars) – for example, at the Lord Mayor of London's pageant. Green men also cleared the way through a melee of people that came out to witness the pageant. No orderly lines of spectators apparently – and no queues either. They had the role of making a way for the procession through the crowds. Green men were also known as 'whifflers' in London pageants – described as equipped with squibs and fireworks, to sweep aside the crowds on the streets and scuttle them out of the way unceremoniously. In this context it is worth remembering London streets in those days were narrow. At a later stage of development they became Men at Arms – carrying weapons to control the crowds (threat rather than fact). The idea was to protect what had become the London elite. In the middle of the 19th century they became what were called 'young freemen' or the 'bachelor whifflers' and they carried the flags and symbols of the various guilds of London that took part in the procession. Much later they became baton twirlers (and here a connection exists with the US) or drum majors (as in the modern processions). An evolving role.

In Mummers Plays, recognised as a relic of folk tradition, the figure of St George plays a prominent role (very often just George without a specific link to the saint and pronounced something like jarge). On occasion George is depicted as a wild man based on Green Jack. On the continent he is sometimes Green George. Now, one could argue that St George actually replaced a pagan deity that was caught up in a battle with a dragon – Beowulf for example. One could also extend that to the Anglo Saxon god Woden (or Scandinavian Odin) and a connection with the wild side of nature and the crash of tree top branches as the Wild Hunt passed by in the sky overhead. This brings us full circle. Was Shakespeare (and Purcell) tuned into an older tradition, one that was diluted and survived as fairy tale into the 16th century. It is a fascinating idea as the period also witnessed, or had shortly witnessed, a religious revolution, that of the Puritans, where religion was in the process of rationalisation and being shorn of it's dubious associations with relics and images. These had been necessary, it is thought, as the underclass was illiterate and the painted church walls and images provided a visual picture of deity and the passion – but clearly something odd was hiding in the undergrowth (recognised or otherwise defined as superstition or devilish). The Puritans tried to sweep clean many of the practises of the Church that had a bad reputation – such as monks over eating in monasteries whilst the lower orders went hungry, or the common practise of fleecing pilgrims to shrines such as St Albans or Glastonbury. Just as people in the modern world who get too close to charities are able to witness first hand the less charitable side, the salubrious raking in of cash on a grand scale taking precedence, so too would erstwhile pilgrims in the Middle Ages have come to realise they were being manipulated and the shrines were all about funding the monasteries and keeping the abbot in the style he was accustomed to – and the relics were just a collection of fake objects. One  can see how the minds of Protestants worked in the 15th and 16th centuries – and even earlier, in the days of the Lollards, the Robin Hood stories with fat friar Tuck epitomise a similar sentiment. The elite of course desire to keep the gravy train running as smoothly as possible – hence the strong antagonism towards religious revolution (and counter revolution). For years they opposed translating the Bible into English or Welsh as the congregation had to be kept in the dark or they might get ideas in their heads out of their station. Technology and the printing press put paid to that obscuration and in the modern world it is the internet that is playing a similar role – bypassing the media outlets owned by the wealthy. We might end by contemplating if Mummers Plays were residual pre-Christian stories suitably watered down to be acceptable to the Church – in so far as they were prepared to gloss over some minor issues. In other words, when it comes to green men (wild men of the wild woods canopy) is this another example of Mankind in Amnesia – retaining an inkling of some past catastrophic event from the pre-Christian era? After all, Robin Hood has been compared to Woden/ Odin on many occasions, a story combining a residue of myth set out in a contemporary medieval tale of outlaws and misfits finding a hidey hole in the wild wood (presumably an area of manorial waste on the boundaries of estates or parishes). The haunt of Robin Hood was both outside the domain of the sheriff of Nottingham yet within his overall control. One can visualise it as marginal territory, a refuge of people outside normal society, such as the disabled, mentally challenged, gypsies and tinkers, criminals and the banished (peasants driven out of their homes by rent arrears, changes to farming practises etc) and so on. Manorial waste served a purpose – it kept the undesirables (or deplorables in recent parlance) out of the way of parish charity as by allowing them to live at the boundaries between two parishes, or estates, meant neither of them were obligated to provide warmth and nourishment – letting the parish church off the hook as much as the civic dignitaries. Trying to identify Robin Hood as a flesh and blood person is a pointless exercise. Same goes for green men in the medieval period – a vestigial survival locked in the unconscious mind of the unlettered masses.

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