term ‘Green Man’ today evokes the leafy face which is the subject
of our survey. It was coined by Lady Raglan in 1939, in an article
she published in Folklore, and before her time, few people took
much interest in the motif. If it had a name it was the unromantic
‘foliate head’. Fascinated by an example she saw at a church in
Monmouthshire, however, Lady Raglan named it the Green Man and decided
that it was ‘the central figure in the May-Day celebrations throughout
Northern and Central Europe’ - essentially the same as the Jack
in the Green, Robin Hood, the May King and others. For some years
afterwards, the Green Man was widely interpreted as a figure uniting
a wealth of traditions in one ancient, pagan spirit of nature.
Few authorities today accept
so wide a generalization. Nonetheless, the traditions below all
in their different ways evoke the romance of the greenwood and a
revitalizing closeness to nature. If Lady Raglan has come into criticism
as a scholar, no-one could doubt her genius as a publicist; before
long people were noticing Green Men everywhere.
in the Green
Jack-in-the-Green furnished the title for an album by Oxfordshire
folk band, Magpie Lane. You can play the title track here.
Celebrating springtime rebirth, the song is a modern one written
in traditional style by Martin Graebe. The tune which follows is
‘Jack’s Alive’ from a dance collection of 1816. The album cover
is a painting of the 1830s, depicting the ‘Jack’ in London chimney
sweeps’ parade. The ‘Jack’ is a man inside a mound of foliage now
much associated with morris celebrations of May Day. Morris dancing
certainly dates back to the Middle Ages - there are written references
from 1458 - and it was once assumed that the ‘Jack’ was always part
of the scene.
Patient research has revealed a different story.
Roy Judge, in his 1979 study The Jack in the Green, a May Day Custom,
discovered that there was no traceable evidence of the dancing ‘Jack’
before 1775 at the earliest. He seems to have been invented by London
chimney sweeps during the industrial revolution, as a feature of
their street parades. From London the custom spread during the early
19th century to chimney sweeps in the South and Midlands of England.
In the city of Oxford, a Jack in the Green was
first reported in 1828, and performances went on from time to time
until May Day, 1871, when an event was stopped by police on the
grounds that it constituted begging. For many years no further
reports appeared in the newspapers. When the city’s Hathaway family
of sweeps decided to go out and about with a Jack in the Green on
May Day 1886 it was written of as 'a very old custom which has not
been seen in Oxford for many years'.
Henry W. Taunt recorded the appearance of the 'Jack'. On May Day
morning he had the party pose for a picture in front of Balliol
College, across the road from his shop on Broad Street. When the
photo was reproduced in the Oxford Mail on May Day 1969, a reader
was able to identify many of the participants. (Bob Potter, a legendary
Oxfordshire fiddler, is at the left).
Henry W Taunt wrote of how the Hathaway family
had taken great pains to build their Jack and dress their performers
in traditional fashion. The Jack was made of wicker work covered
with leaves and laurel with flowers in between and ‘reeled round
one way and the performers danced round it in reverse, clanging
their poker and shovel and pot and ladle as they swung past, while
the violin squeaked out a merry old English dance...’
For information on the ‘Jack’ in Oxfordshire
we are indebted to Keith Chandler whose series of essays on Musicians
in 19th Century Southern England includes studies of fiddler Bob
Potter, and of the Jack in the Green party of 1886. See www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/potter.htm.