Green Men

A succession of green men for St. Patrick’s Day, beginning with several of the most celebrated medieval “foliate heads” in Britain from the parish churches of Sutton Benger, Wiltshire and Winchelsea, East Sussex.  As you can see, these grotesques are not green in color but they are definitely green in spirit:  representing nature, fertility, the life cycle, and memory.  A very common motif of medieval architecture across Europe, I have always felt that the presence of the Green Man in sacred spaces also represents the assimilation of Christianity and pre-Christian cultures.

Green Men from Wiltshire and Sussex, from a comprehensive gallery of images at “The Enigma of the Green Man” site.

The omnipresent Green Man has a few cousins in medieval culture, including the “wild man” or “wild woodman”, sometimes referred to as the “wodewose” as in this great scene from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques d’Angleterre, titled the “Dance of the Wodewoses”.  In the seventeenth century, the wild/green man appears playing with fireworks in John Bate’s Mysteries of Art and Nature (1635), which is a bit menacing, given that this is the century of the Gunpowder Plot.  And after that, he evolves into “Jack in the Green”, the central focus of May Day festivities across Britain. Below are some May Day, or Jack-in-the-Green Day celebrants in Bristol and from one of my very favorite blogs, terrain.  I wish we had this custom in the United States.

British Library MS Harley 4380, folio 1, 15th Century


There has to be a connection between the Green Man and the other famous green man of medieval English heritage, Robin Hood, but I’m not sure what it is (besides the pub sign below).  There are both outside of civilization, in the woods, but still moral guides.  And then of course there is the green knight of Sir Gawain fame:  how does he relate?  This is not my field; I can only speculate.  He’s beyond the realm of outlawry and in the realm of otherworldly–like the Green Man.

Robin Hood illustrations from the Robert Copland edition of 1550 and the Louis Rhead edition of 1912; the headless Green Knight in F.J.H. Darton’s Wonder Book of Old Romances (1912) and a Ken Orvidas illustration in the New York Times.

I am well into this post and I haven’t even mentioned the man whose day it is:  St. Patrick.  This is defensible because St. Patrick is not really a “green man”; he’s the antithesis of the green man really.  Before the early modern era, he is never depicted in green because that would make him too wild, I think.  He is a conqueror of the wild (the non-Christian) rather than a wearer of the green.  Green might be nearby (in the form of shamrocks or the snakes he supposedly drove out) but he is not green.

P. Gally print of St. Patrick the Apostle of the Irish, 1806, British Museum.


The only exception that I could find is this much earlier image of Patrick below, from John Mandeville’s Voyage d’outre mer (1451):  he is standing on a patch of green surrounded by devils and souls in purgatory, and underneath his bishop’s robe he is clearly wearing a green tunic.  Green has become Christian, it seems, and perhaps a little bit of early Irish nationalism.

British Library Royal MS 17B XLIII, folio 132v, Fifteenth Century.

Once you get into the modern era, there are a lot of directions in which to follow the green man.  The medieval motif gets revived in late nineteenth-century urban architecture, so that occasionally you will see him among the surface embellishment of neo-Romanesque multistory buildings:  modern skyscrapers.  There’s a whole book about The Green Man in New York City by Asher Derman. I tried to find some green men in Salem, but there are none:  perhaps in Boston where the Richardson Romanesque is more prevalent.  And then you can go into the popular culture fantasy direction, where there are the little green men of science fiction and the super-heroic Green Hornet and Green Lantern. Green men are everywhere, even telling us when to cross the street.

I think I’ll finish up close to where I began, with the woodsy green man. The work below, Hidden Green Men by Bryony Drew, is one of the entries in this year’s Victoria & Albert Illustration Awards.  There are supposedly eight green men in this picture (a mix of illustration, photography and photoshop), but I have yet to find them all. Green men are ever-elusive.



10 responses to “Green Men

  • thepossibleself

    lá Fhéile Padraig shona dhuit …Happy St Patrick’s Day to you tooooooooo
    Love the images……….

  • Templar Forum

    Reblogged this on Knights Templar Forum and commented:
    It seems appropriate on Saint Patrick’s Day to have a blog on the curious medieval phenomenon – especially notable in England – of the Green Man. The rather strange looking head with leaves growing out of his mouth. There are numerous theories as to what exactly the Green Man is – so don’t take one view as the last word. To me, he seems clearly pagan and pre-Christian but co-opted, as with so much imagery, in to the church. But I’ve read Christians arguing that he is an ‘allegory’ for certain Christian values – good luck convincing anybody of that.

  • ceciliag

    great selection and once again full of info. I have always found it fascinating how so much of christianity is steeped in pagan. How the old ones were able to metaphorically poke their pagan tongues at the new regime using art as a medium! c

  • jenyjenny

    Thanks for the fascinating and very different St Patrick’s Day lore! Great start to a beautiful day.

  • livingwellwithfibromyalgia

    As usual, a superb post with wonderful illustrations and thoughtfully prepared text. I posted a link on facebook, so you may have lots of new visitors.

  • Bernadette

    Great post, again! Very informative, great illustrations.

  • markd60

    I always love your pictures and your posts. I am fascinated by the old books.

    Speaking of Green Men, did you know that EVERYONE who has a beard an no mustache is a leprechaun? everyone, 100% of the time. There are no exceptions to this rule. Of course they’ll deny it, but it is always true.

  • Sarah Waldock

    Here in East Anglia we have variants of the Green Man in vernacular carvings, usually in churches, called Wood Woses, nature spirits whom I suspect are expressions of Cernunnos. They cavort in joyful pagan profusion alongside monopods and hytersprites in our carven folklore. I’m a bit more familiar with Sir Gawaine’s Green Knight than perhaps I would be had not my son written an MA essay on the fellow challenging some of the frequently promulgated conclusions drawn, guess who got asked to use her history of textile knowledge to help…
    Green was always a magical colour because the only way of making a clear rich green like the brightest greens of nature was by overdying – woad with weld for a cheaper version, or for the richest, most expensive green, Lincoln Green, the colour of the livery of verderers [and Robin Hood's merry men] which was woad overdyed with saffron. All other greens are muddy. In the symbolism of Medieval art, Green signifies Hope, joy, youth and spirit – but there’s an underlying note of evil, or rather the Church’s fear of the pagan, as snakes were traditionally depicted as green, and the Devil was sometimes shown dressed in green. There is too the Green Man, Jack-in-the-green, in the mummeries of Moorish [Morris] dances. By the way, St Nicholas who became Santa Claus was originally also a green clad figure until Coca Cola usurped the image and gave us red and white Santa of today…
    Sorry, I’ve gone on a bit here! Thanks for this post, delightful!

  • History Carnival #108-April, 2012

    [...] of Salem offered an amusing selection of Green Men, medieval to modern, in honor of St. Patricks [...]

  • alastairsavage

    Great image of the woodwose at the feast! I love the Green Man too, and you often find him hiding in the stone shrubbery of our English churches. He also pops up a lot in pub signs …

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