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11.06.27, Hayman, The Green Man

The Medieval Review

11.06.27, Hayman, The Green Man


The greatest value of Richard Hayman's The Green Man is clearly its illustrations, almost all of which are photographs taken by the author. Among these are a few familiar (green) faces, and a great many that are uncommonly reproduced, particularly those located in small parish churches and private chapels. Most pages feature two or three, so even though the volume is slim--56 pages, including the index--it features approximately 90 illustrations, the vast majority in color and, though small, clear.

Unfortunately, the text of the book does not hold up in comparison with the strong images. Indeed, it is quite problematic, and in a number of ways. From the very first words, Hayman runs into trouble, opening the book by asserting "Anyone with even a passing interest in history has heard of green men." This may perhaps be true in England, which is the unannounced focus of this book (a more accurate title would be something like A Pictorial Guide to Medieval and Early Modern English Green Men in Churches); it is certainly not true in the US, nor is it likely to be so in most of the rest of the world. This sort of lack of self-reflection is a continued issue, as are similarly unproven (and unprovable, and at times simply false) assertions.

It is clear that this is not intended to be a scholarly text. It is brief, without any form of citation, and bears a bibliography of four works, three of them likewise general surveys of the Green Man. It should therefore be assessed for what it is, a booklet aimed at a general audience. This likely accounts for the romanticism of the Middle Ages, evident in the claims about "inventive freedom enjoyed by medieval freemasons" (46) such as the notion that "wood carvers found the undersides of misericords impossible to resist" (36). These were, like the preponderance of art in the Middle Ages, commissioned works, resulting from agreements and payment made, not from carvers unable to contain themselves. Even bearing in mind its audience and function, though The Green Man falls short of the mark.

The tone of the text is quite confident, filled with phrases like "the mask is deliberately rendered ugly" (7, emphasis added); "it symbolizes the work of the Devil" (9); "the initial M is clearly a demon" (12, emphasis added), and so on. However, there is little or no evidence used to justify such claims. The lack of footnotes contributes to this, but of course supporting evidence can always simply be included in the body of the text. Such evidence is not supplied because, in large measure, there is no evidence to justify these claims. Even the early claim that "none of them are green" (5), is problematic, as there are green Green Men in manuscript illumination, and architectural sculpture was often painted, so the lack of green in stonework is hardly meaningful, and, further, I have myself seen green Green Men in the Rhineland. This statement, like many others, at the very least needs qualification.

Hayman's discussion of one of the most provocative images in the volume exemplifies these issues: "[it] shows a demon, his legs splayed to reveal his testicles, biting a branch, which he has bent over. It symbolizes the work of the Devil, deforming but not quite destroying the work of God" (9). This is a wonderful suggestion, and not impossible, but such a precise claim demands either some form of evidence (Related metaphors appearing in more concretely understood works of art? Parallel poetic metaphors? Sermons containing similar statements?) or at least an argument rather than merely the assertion. Whatever this highly enigmatic carving might mean--and I have no idea what this might be--I cannot accept that it is something so direct, nor so simply and crisply Christological.

Indeed, it is not clear that this figure is a devil at all. Hayman describes such faces with decreasing specificity as "the Devil" (9), "a demon" (10), and "devilish" (10), but it is also quite similar to the "feline" faces (21), as well. Surely, each of these would bear different implications, if indeed the blurred categories suggested have any veracity. Similarly, it is not even clear that the image shows the figure's testicles. It well might, but there seems to be no suggestion of a penis, so this would be an unusual way to represent male genitals. The splayed pose is reminiscent of anatomically explicit images (like the famous Sheela-na-gigs), but this figure may allude to the genitals, rather than depict them outright. Such a figure is a wonderful mess of syncretic imagery that any straightforward iconographical reading of it is likely to feel inadequate.

The consistently assertive tone is all the more inappropriate in light of Hayman's acknowledgement that "They are difficult to interpret because there is no literature that describes them, unlike almost every other image in medieval iconography" (8), a statement itself incorrect, as a great body of image types exist in the Middle Ages without textual referent, including (but hardly limited to) the entirety of the imagery of the numerous non-literate cultures of the period, especially early on.

Ultimately, I regret that I did not learn anything from this volume about these fascinating figures, after the first two pages. Here, Hayman establishes the origins of the term "Green Man," apparently popularized by Lady Raglan in a publication from 1939. At the back of the volume, there is a list of churches containing Green Men that would prove useful to their hunters, with many little-studied churches among them. Perhaps another author will take up the challenge, tracking them down and working to wrest more convincing meaning from these wonderful figures.