The Green Yorkshireman

Following on from my last post about sheela-na-gigs I thought today I would look at the green man.

There are a number of similarities between the two figures in that no-one knows exactly what the green man symbolises nor why it is found so frequently in churches and other buildings. Its origins are also obscure but appear to be worldwide in various forms. As with the sheela there are many theories about what the green man represents but none of them really explain all of its instances with satisfaction. The most popular is that it represents renewal, rebirth, spring and fertility. Maybe it does, but we don’t know for certain. It is likely he is in fact a mixture of many ideas and myths. There is the wildman, Jack-in-the-Green and many localised traditions that all align with the green man so his appearance may represent different things to different people and we may tend to group them together because of their similarities. The term ‘green man’ is relatively modern, first coined by Lady Raglan in 1939 but now generally accepted as an umbrella term incorporating all instances of the leafy face.

He appears quite often in Yorkshire churches though not always in the same form. It is difficult to categorise him, though some have tried, because however you draw the boundaries there will always be figures that cross them.

One of the most well-known forms is that of the foliate head. The head and face of the figure are made up of leaves and other foliage. This face from the church porch in Barton-le-Street is a good example.

Barton porch

Here’s another from a roof boss in the church at Thirsk.

Thirsk roof boss

A third, smiley face, from Sherburn church. 

Sherburn roof boss

All of the faces are made up of foliage in similar ways. Some, however, are only part foliage like this one from Helmsley. It has leaves only down the side of its face and is relatively modern, probably Victorian.

Helmsley green man

This form is not the most common, however. The type I’ve seen most of is known as the spewer, or disgorger, as it appears to be spewing foliage from its mouth, and often, nose, ears and eyes too. There are some quite early versions of this form of green man, such as this one from Hawnby church. The church has Norman origins and some of the stonework from that church still exists. This green man may well have been part of the early church.

As stated above the disgorger is by far the most common form in Yorkshire as you will note from the further examples below. The first three are disgorgers from Barton.

Barton disgorger

It is not unusual to see animal heads as ‘green men’ too. This one appears to be a lion.

Barton lion disgorger

The third is known as a beakhead, a motif that appears quite often in Romanesque architecture, this one is disgorging.

Barton beakhead disgorger

One of the most well known green men is the disgorger shown below. It is found on a window of Fountains Abbey in the Chapel of Nine Altars but probably didn’t originate there. It was this figure that set Kathleen Basford off on her trail of the likenesses in 1964 which culminated in what is regarded as the definite work on green men, The Green Man (see sources).

Fountains Abbey disgorger.

The green man takes many forms and appears in many differing locations. I have a large collection of images from around Great Britain. Some of the more interesting ones from Yorkshire are shown below.

We start with Beverley. Both the Minster and St Mary’s church have green men but it is the Minster that has the most I have ever seen in one building, there are just two of them shown here.

Beverley Minster capital
Beverley Minster column base

These two are from St Mary’s church.

St Mary's capital
St Mary's misericord

The next is from the font in Bedale church.

Bedale font

A particularly oriental looking painted figure looks down from Coxwold church

Coxwold green man

Another fine carving high in the roof is in Bridlington Priory church. He’s very difficult to see unless you know he’s there.

Bridlington green man

The wonderful church in Old Malton has two green men. The first is on a misericord and the second is hardly visible high up on the altar screen.

Old Malton misericord
Old Malton altar screen

One of my favourite churches is the disused church at Wintringham. It is cared for by the Historic Churches Trust. This image is one of the misericord green men.

Wintringham misericord

Not all green men are found in churches, this one is from the doorway of Askham Grange prison. It is of poor quality as it was taken on a very old mobile phone I used to own.

Askham Grange doorway

This final image is from inside Duncombe Park stately home, but is another poor photograph.

Duncombe Park

Here ends a quick tour of some of the Yorkshire green men. If you would like to see some more from my collection please visit my site here. As with the sheela-na-gigs I hope it inspires you to get out and search the churches and buildings of the country to find them for yourselves.

Basford, K, 1978, The Green Man

Harding, M, 1998, A Little Book of Green Men

Hicks, C, 2000, The Green Man: A Field Guide

Lady Raglan, 1939, The “Green Man” in Church Architecture, Folklore, 50:1, 45-57

Macdermott, M, 2003,  Explore Green Men

Millar, R, 1997, The Green Man

Pillow Mounds

A pillow mound on Levisham moor

The Normans introduced rabbits into England; or was it the Romans? No-one is really sure, it is usually attributed to the Normans and I’m fairly certain they brought rabbits in quite large numbers but were there some already here? Until quite recently the Normans were accorded the somewhat dubious accolade of introducing them, however, there is now evidence that rabbits were butchered in the United Kingdom during the Roman occupation. Whether rabbits remained here after the Romans left or died out to be re-introduced by Normans is as yet an unanswered question but I suspect that it is highly likely they did.

Regardless of their origin we certainly know they are here now and here to stay, they live and breed freely in nearly all areas of the United Kingdom and in many places are regarded as a pest. However, even after introduction, they were not running freely in the wild but were more closely farmed.

Why am I writing about this? I will tell you. I have recently signed up with the North York Moors National Park as a Historic Environment Volunteer. This involves regularly inspecting nearly 300 historic monuments throughout the park to ensure they are in good condition and reporting where they are not, action can then be taken to restore or minimise further damage to the monument. The monuments consist of a wide range of sites from prehistoric mounds to industrial areas in the moors, each one has its own attractions to someone interested in history. Part of my first assignment was to inspect a pillow mound. I knew what a pillow mound was but since inspecting it and talking to others it is clear that they are not generally known, thus the idea for this article.

As stated above when rabbits were introduced they weren’t just let loose into the wild but given artificial warrens in which to live and breed. This made the capture of the rabbits easier as they were centralised. The warrens (pillow mounds) were large, often rectangular mounds of earth usually surrounded by a ditch. Some had a fence or even a wall built around them but others were left open. When the mounds were constructed they often contained stone-lined chambers, or just areas cut out of the natural earth, and tunnels leading to the open. The rabbits were thus encouraged to stay within the area and expand upon the warren as their families grew.

The name of pillow mound is quite a recent addition, it is unlikely they were referred to like this when they were built. They have been known by several other names, rabbit buries being one of them. The remains of most of the warrens are now seen as rounded rectangles with a shallow vestige of a ditch encircling them. They look similar to a pillow laid upon the grass.

The mound I visited on this occasion is thought to have belonged to Malton Priory. They had land and a grange at Levisham where sheep were farmed and some produce was grown, it would make sense that there were some rabbit warrens here too. The goods from the area would have been carted south to the priory as required. Meat from the rabbits would have been a welcome addition to the cook’s pantry and the skins would have been used for clothing.

Warrens did not usually consist of just one pillow mound but may have contained many more and often covered several acres. In the area I was inspecting there are several others still in existence some few hundred metres away and probably many more were between that have since been lost. In some areas they were even grander and had an enclosing wall and sometimes a house in which the warrener lived. After their introduction (or re-introduction) they were mainly bred and eaten by the higher nobility but over the centuries they became a common commodity for a wider part of society and it was not unusual to find warrens in most communities. They can still be hinted at today in the names of some places in towns and villages. The common name for a rabbit in those days was coney and today’s use of names like Coney Garth are indicators of a warren site (a garth being a yard or enclosure).

It was not until fairly recently that evidence was discovered of rabbit butchery in an excavation of a Roman site, thus casting doubt on the belief that the Normans were the first to introduce the mammal to these shores. It was in Lynford, Norfolk that the excavation took place in 2001; in one of the rubbish pits rabbit bones were found with marks indicating the rabbit had been butchered.  There has been other evidence found in Sussex.

It may be, therefore, that the Romans brought rabbits to this country in smaller numbers as food. Did they start breeding them or were they only imported as required or as available? Could the Romans have started using structures like the pillow mounds or was it much later that these developed? Of course, there then arises the question of how long they were in use. There seems to be evidence that they were commonly used up to the seventeenth century but could easily have been in continuous use much later, especially in the more isolated rural communities.

It seems that there is really very little known for certain about the warrens and pillow mounds and as with all subjects like this the information is being continually updated by historians and archaeologists. But next time you see a bump in the ground give it a little thought as to what it may have been for and you never know you might unearth a story.

Initial Thoughts

Welcome to this blog. I hope to post a number of items on different topics. I intend posting on what I am up to, where I’ve eaten, things I’ve seen both in the real world and on the web. My intentions are good but time will tell how often I actually get around to it.

If you read one of my posts and would like to comment then I would be delighted to hear from you, whatever your thoughts. I look forward to developing the blog over the coming months.