Naming the Green Man of the Medieval Church
Zoom lecture by Janet Dowling
Walk into a medieval church in England and you are likely to find a strange figure of a man with leaves coming out of its mouth. These were given the name of “Green Man” in 1939 and there has been a mystery why this seemingly pagan character is so prominent in the medieval churches. This paper aims to give the identity of the Green Man in medieval churches and to show the relationship between the Green Man heads and the Holy Cross.
From the fourth century onwards the Christian church was looking to confer the Holy Cross with an irrefutable back story that linked the Old and New Testaments – highlighting both the painful price of the original sins of man, and the hope of redemption. The component parts were drawn from old Jewish tales of the first century BC, aflutter with Roman imagery that held the same high values, carefully woven with an apocryphal tale, spliced into the 11th century Catholic liturgy, mixed with a splash of ambiguous Latin and disseminated through out the Christian world to inspire paintings, poems, and sculptures as well as the heads we now know as the Green Man. In short – a hotch potch of folklore to create a medieval fantasy! But having unravelled this fantasy, we can now offer the Green Man a new name which is not so different from the old name!
In 2011 the original version of this essay won the Folklore Society Robert Dowell’s award for an essay on folklore by a non-academic (i.e. by someone who was not part of an academic folklore department).