Reprinted from Newsletter 121, dated 2006 December

Green men decoded

Adrian Pearse

A talk by Richard Raynsford

A man with short hair and beard looks at the camera and smiles kindly. He wears a grey jacket and a dark shirt which is open at the collar. In the background is an old stone building, some of which is covered in vegetation.

Richard Raynsford, who took early retirement as a Mendip planning officer.

Richard Raynsford recently attended a course at Sheffield University where Dr David Borthwick contended that representations of the “green man” were not fertility symbols related to local customs and developed from the “wild man of the woods”, evolving from pre-Christian pagan beliefs — contrary to general opinion, which stems largely from the opinions of Lady Raglan in the late 19th century.

At our meeting on October 20, Richard presented a considerable arsenal of slides from his peregrinations the length and breadth of the country to illustrate that there was a clear pattern of development in the representation of green men as essentially related to Christian symbolism.

A carving set into a wooden archway.

At Pilton church, this carving on the spandrels of the 15th-century roof is a green man with a protruding tongue and foliage emerging from his mouth. (Photo by Richard Raynsford, on the Pilton website.)

Green men are not seen in Saxon carvings, even though heads can be portrayed among foliage, as at Codford St Peter. They begin in Norman churches as “beak heads”, thought to represent evil spirits — Lincoln Cathedral possesses numerous examples. Beak heads, often also possessing horns, evolved to the familiar form of green men, with branches and leaves emerging from the mouth and occasionally ears or eyes; they are considered to represent a head speaking evil, the leaves representing the evil, and their purpose being as an admonition not to do evil. Examples with protruding tongues are thought to portray stupidity.

Consequently, most green men are to be found inside churches, where similar forms are sometimes seen being crushed below fonts — baptism being a way of negating evil spirits. They are normally carved in stone or wood (Devon is a county with particularly numerous and fine examples) and do not seem to appear in glass or in painted form.

Their significance became more obscure in the post-Reformation era, and green men appear as a purely decorative feature even in non-religious contexts, as seen for example in the carving on the facade of Lloyds bank in the High Street.