Kathleen Basford, The Green Man (D.S. Brewer, 1978; reprinted 1996)
I am, of course, deeply honored to be given the task of writing about our noble namesake, and I had high hopes for this book. The cover, after all, features a black and white photograph of a beautifully executed carving of the Green Man. The book, with its ninety-six black and white plates, promises a veritable feast of medieval art.
The Green Man is a history and analysis of an image that is ubiquitous in medieval sculpture. Though we now interpret the Green Man as a symbol of revival and regeneration, Basford says the meaning of the Green Man symbol has changed dramatically since ancient times.
"Images," she writes, "may pick up many different ideas during the course of time. They can evolve and diversify as they are exposed to different cultural climates and as they catch the imagination of the particular individuals who use them. Visual images, no less than written documents, can give valuable insights into the thoughts, ideas, and even the dreams of the people who made them."
Basford makes a distinction between the foliate head of antiquity and the Green Man of Medieval art. The foliate head represented a fertility god who was associated with forests and untamed nature. In early medieval times, the representation of the foliate head changed. The Green Man was now seen as representing "the darkness of unredeemed nature as opposed to the shimmering light of Christian revelation." The Green Man was depicted as a demon who was more vegetable than human. From the 13th century onward, the image of the Green Man shifted once again. Heís represented as human, a damned and tormented soul who is being eaten alive by vegetation. Heís also more individuated than his predecessors. Heís not just a symbol with a generic facial expression; heís the image of a real suffering human being.
From all this, I was expecting that the essay would relate changes in the Green Man iconography to changes in medieval society, but Basfordís text ends rather abruptly and the plates begin.
The graphic design of the book presents several problems for the reader. The pictures are often poorly lit and out of focus. The text is in the front of the book, but the plates are all in the back, so one has to flip back and forth between the two sections. Itís easy to get distracted and lose oneís place and the thread of the argument.
Thereís no index, so looking for specific information is very difficult. For example, I was curious to learn why Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, a site thatís rich in associations with the Knights Templar, had a very prominently placed Green Man. Without an index, all I could do was thumb through the text.
Basford assumes that everyone knows the relationship between the Green Man and Jack-in-the-Green and Robin Goodfellow, and that; therefore, thereís no need to explain the complex web of associations that links the Green Man to morris dancing, May Day and Robin Hood.
This book took me on a fascinating journey through medieval iconography, and then unaccountably dumped me midway through the trip.