Wild Men on the Internet

The early modern "wild" or "green" man, associated in popular folk tradition with the rites of spring, including Shrovetide, April 23 (the Feast of St. George), and May Day.

Marie Merkel posted a request for further documentation on the statement in our Shakespeare Yearbook Tempest as Shrovetide Revelry” article, that the “Green Man” was associated in the folk tradition with Shrovetide and April 23 (St. George’s Day).

Since the answer is somewhat involved, and may be of general interest, we’re doing a full post on it.

The short answer is that the calendrical associations of the Green Man with these dates are so ubiquitous in the extant literature that we didn’t imagine that the topic could become a point of controversy. Remember, Google is your friend!

In this case, however some background enables effective search strategy as Lynne and I discovered when we attempted to retrace our own steps to provide the documentation Ms. Merkel requested.

It helps to know that the “Green Man”  went under many different names and guises. He  was also known, for example as the “Wild Man” – and in relation to Shrovetide in particular that’s the best search term if you want to connect the dots.

Under both names the figure is associated with the seasonal symbolism of rebirth that has been part of the human experience of springtime for thousands of years. In many but not all of the rituals associated with him, he undergoes the same ritual of sacrifice and rebirth that is part of the Shrovetide festival when the victim’s name is “Jack-a-lent.”

In fact, as E.K. Chambers makes clear in his classic English Folk Play, all these names essentially allude to the same symbolic referent. The green man is a variant of the Shrovetide  “Jack-a-lent (of distinctive Shrovetide/Lent fame), who is also, says Chambers

“the Pfingstl or Wild Man, the equivalent of English Wod-woz and Jack-in-the-Green….In a [Swabian] Shrovetide ceremony, Dr. Ironbeard  bleeds a sick man, who falls as dead, and the Doctor thereupon restores him to live by blowing air into him through a tube. On Whit-Monday, the Wild Man, as elsewhere, is executed. All this is very much like the Mummer’s play. The German rites do not take place at Christmas, but most often at Whitsuntide or on May Day, and occasionally at Shrovetide or mid-Lent. In Carinthia and among the gipsies of Transylvania and Rumania the Wild Man becomes Green George, and goes at East or on St. George’s Day, but there is no death or combat.”

Not only does the wild man go under diverse names, but the particular days on which his rites were celebrated varied from place and place and changed historically, making it difficult to make secure generalizations about them. In some form or another the rituals of spring, including Shrovetide, May Day, and eventually Easter, seem to have existed throughout Europe, and the “green” or “wild” man is among the pan-European motifs generally linked to the passage of winter and welcoming of the spring.

The most definite and distinctive evidence for the association between the Wild Man  and Shrovetide comes from Germany, which is no surprise since Shrovetide rituals (and the associated drama, which even had its own genre tag, fastnachtspiele), were more central to the liturgical calendar there than they seem to have been in England or other European countries. In their The wild man within: an Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, Edward J. Dudley and Maximillian E. Novak observe that

“The Wild Man occupies a position of considerable prominence not only in German folklore but also in Early German literature; for instance, a number of Shrovetide plays of the sixteenth century center on the wild man…”

The connection between Shrovetide and the “wild man” was not static, however.

Among the more interesting  insights of the research conducted for our Shrovetide article was the discovery that the Shrovetide “spectacle of strangeness” — to use John G. Demaray’s apt phrase — accommodated itself to the voyages of discovery, blending the European tradition of the wild European woodsman with the emerging image of the new world native.

That there is an undeniable link between the Jacobean Shrovetide masques and spectacles of the “new world” is not the least of the many connections that emerge from our study tying Tempest to Shrovetide. To our knowledge, we were the first to draw attention to this connection between the liturgical festival and imagery of the new world in early modern dramatic representation.

According to Hal Rammel in his Nowhere in America: the Big Rock Candy Mountain and other Comic Utopias,

“A rite associated with May day in one part of Europe may turn up slightly altered in the Shrovetide feasts of England…In the sixteenth century, the English Robin Hood became the personification of the Wildman of the Woods, the Jack-in-the-green or Green man, and along with his May Marion took part in the May games…in general, these many associations and parallels with seasonal sacrifice and drama provide, for many scholars, argument for consideration of the mummers’ play as a folk survival…celebrating the fertile rebirth of the natural world at the coming of each new year.”

From this it is evident that the Green Man/Wild Man was associated with a diversity of dates, as our original analysis indicated – he could make an appearance at Shrovetide, as we have seen, but April 23 and also May 1 (which a more comprehensive analysis of this particular motif would be obliged to note) were also days on with the rites of spring and the Green Man were celebrated.

Thus as Gary R. Varner describes it in The Mythic Forest, the Green Man and the Spirit of Nature, citing the work of Janet and Colin Bord, “The theme [of the Mummers] is generally the same as in the Green Man or Green George Ceremony of May Day, that is, of the death and rebirth of nature…”

Varner goes on to note that these rituals are closely related to the celebration of St. George’s day on April 23:

“Pagan festivals that have merged with St. George’s Day include Ploughing Day and the Shedding of the Yellow Leaves celebration. The festival day of the pagan God Pergrubius, god of flowers and all plants, falls on April 23 which is the church calendar day for St. George.”

More directly, Christian Roy in  the reference work Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia (vol. 2) states unambiguously that St. George in England “appears on his April 23 feast as Green George in much European folklore and is often identified in Britain with the Green Man of May Day customs.”



7 Responses to “Wild Men on the Internet”

  1. Medieval Mummers’ plays still exist in some areas of Ireland and Newfoundland and doubtless elsewhere. The characters almost always include the doctor and the Green Man, and at Christmastide, Father Christmas. Mummers were known to perform at various times of the year, including Shrovetide and May Day. You can see the Green Man Morris Dancers here:

    (I love Morris dancing.)

    April 23rd has long been associated with St. George, the Green or Wild Man, and of course, William Shakespeare of Stratford, though we actually don’t know for sure on which day his birthday fell. I see Roger has included some sources, so I won’t bother, but they’re in any case all over the web.

    Hope this and the article above helps!

  2. rstritmatter

    Cool. Yes, I didn’t know until Marie inspired this round of research that there was a definite link between the Green Man and St. George. That’s really quite fascinating when you think of it, for we tend to think of them as being in separate boxes, but actually they weren’t. They were different but also sort of “the same” — something I think was easier for early modern folks to understand than it probably is for us.

  3. I’ve known that for ages; however, I lost the original source I discovered for it and never found it again. 🙁

    Of course, St. George is better known in England, and I believe the Green Man is too.

    Most interesting, at least for me: There are Green Man images at Rosslyn Church–the reputed Templar church–in Scotland.

  4. See also

    for an article on St.George/GreenMan, also by Varner, with a biblio for anyone who wishes to investigate the subject further.

    Now I must leave this fascinating topic and get back to work.

  5. rstritmatter

    Thanks Lynne!

  6. James Wildman

    There are 3,500 people with the surname Wildman in Britain.
    Peter Rex in ‘The English Resistance’ tells of Eadrich the Wild Man from Clun in Shropshire who was a ‘Silvaticus’, a man of the woods, who led resistors against the Normans. A King Arthur type legend attaches to him.
    The geographical spread of the surname in 19C matches Catholic recusant areas.
    The Green Man images occur after the Norman Invasion. Are they a Saxon expression of ‘We’re still here’?

  7. rstritmatter

    Very interesting, James! Your theory makes sense to me….

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