Monday 12 May 2014

Jack-in-the-Green and the living ritual, by H.M. Castor

Jack-in-the-Green, Bristol, 2014
(Note the face above the yellow flower!)
[All photos copyright H.M. Castor unless otherwise labelled]

[O]ne of my colleagues [was] asked by a friend about our collaboration with [Joseph] Campbell: "Why do you need the mythology?" She held the familiar, modern opinion that "all these Greek gods and stuff" are irrelevant to the human condition today. What she did not know — what most do not know — is that the remnants of all that "stuff" line the walls of our interior system of belief, like shards of broken pottery in an archaeological site. But as we are organic beings, there is energy in all that "stuff." Rituals evoke it.
(Extract from Bill Moyers’ introduction to The Power of Myth 
– a series of conversations with Joseph Campbell.)

Compared to the lives of our ancestors, our lives in the 21st century are very short on ritual. Shout me down if you will, but I’ll hazard a guess that, unless you attend a daily religious service, are a warden of the Tower of London (say), or – at certain times of the year – happen to be the Queen, you are likely to take part in what might be called a ritual much less frequently than the vast majority of your forebears. On the power of ritual, and what we might have lost as a society through its decline, there is much to be said – I won’t go into it here. Instead, I’d just like to tell you what happened to me the Saturday before last.

It was the first Saturday in May – the day, I’d (just) heard, when the Bristol Jack-in-the-Green would be making his annual appearance. Setting off in the morning, he would spend several hours processing through town, and by mid-afternoon would be passing along the main shopping street near where I live. From there, he would go on to be ritually ‘slain’ on a common not far away.

I didn’t know Bristol had a Jack-in-the-Green.

I didn’t, if truth be told, know what a Jack-in-the-Green was.

Hastily I reached for my copy of Steve Roud’s excellent book The English Year: a month-by-month guide to the nation’s customs and festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night. Roud told me that, from the late 18th to the early 20th century, Jack-in-the-Green had appeared as “an integral part of the [May Day] celebrations put on by chimney sweeps,” during which they collected money “to help see them through the summer, the lean period of the trade.”

And there was a vivid description of Jack’s appearance, from A.R. Bennett’s memoir of a south London childhood in the 1860s:

A lusty sweep — for strength and endurance were necessary for the due performance of the part — covered himself down to the boots with a circular wicker frame of bee-hive contour, carried on the shoulders, and terminating in a dome or pinnacle above his head. The frame was entirely concealed by green boughs and flowers… A small window gave egress to his gaze, but was not very obvious from without, and one seldom caught a glimpse of the perspiring countenance within.
[quoted in The English Year by Steve Roud, p.210]

Wikimedia Commons also provided some fascinating pictures, including one (the second below) from Germany:

18th-century print (hand-coloured by Simon Garbutt, 2006),
of the chimney-sweeps' May Day "Jack in the Green" in London

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (ownership and copyright
of the original hand-coloured artwork retained by Simon Garbutt)

Jack im Grünen, 1863
Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld: Das festliche Jahr in Sitten, Gebräuchen und Festen der germanischen Völker. Mit gegen 130 in den Text gedruckten Illustrationen, vielen Tonbildern u. s. w. Spamer, Leipzig 1863. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Illustration from an article, 'May Day in Cheltenham', 1893
Journal “Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution & Custom" 
Vol. 4, 1893. 
[Published by David Nutt; public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

The historian in me pounced on the German connection with interest: since Jack-in-the-Green appeared in England in the late 18th century, when many things from Germany were in vogue, was he a straightforward import? Was he connected with chimney sweeps in Germany too? How far did the tradition there date back?

But I didn’t get any further with this – I had to go and see the real Jack. With my (rather reluctant) 10-year-old daughter for company I set off, and on the main street we soon heard drums signalling Jack’s approach.

An account from 1900, quoted in The English Year, said that Jack-in-the-Green looked like “a big bush… bobbing up and down” – I soon saw that this was a perfect description. Jack bobbed, jigged and spun around while his band of green companions (I’ve seen them called ‘bogeys’ or ‘bogies’ on some websites) played instruments, sang, walked backwards to warn him of upcoming obstacles, and daubed the noses of any willing bystanders with a smear of green face-paint.

A 'bogie' at Jack in the Green, Hastings 2004
by Nicklott (Own work) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Some of Jack's followers in Bristol this year were younger than others...

The procession halted at one point for a bit of morris dancing (with Jack twirling in the centre of the circle), and then progress was resumed. Jack was picking up a fair few followers as he went, but plenty of other people he passed just waved, grinned or took pictures.

My daughter and I hadn’t planned on following him, but we were beguiled, and a short while later found ourselves accompanying Jack onto the common.

In the middle of the common Jack stopped, surrounded by his green companions and a circle of onlookers. He moved around the crowd, bobbing little bows here and there, approaching people as if investigating them… but any attempts at escape were blocked by the ‘bogeys’ with admonishing shouts of “Now, Jack!” 

There was more dancing… and the recitation of a poem about ‘the Green Man’.

And then, after a swift surreptitious escape was made…

…Jack was hoisted into the air…


… and ‘slain’ with ferocious jabs of a stick.

After that the kids piled in (my daughter included) and pieces of Jack’s greenery were pulled off and handed out for everyone to take home.

So, what had we just witnessed? A bit of silliness? A meaningful tradition? Given the inclusion of a poem about the Green Man, some people – The English Year’s author Steve Roud included – might not have approved.

[Jack-in-the-Green’s] history and reputation have been sadly misrepresented. Despite the fact that Jack dates from the late eighteenth century, lasted for little more than 150 years, and was an urban rather than rural custom, he is routinely claimed as an ancient pagan tree-spirit, or as a personification of a vegetation god who dances to welcome the spring. He has also become inextricably tangled up in the complex modern persona of ‘the Green Man’, that powerful symbol used by the romantic wing of various eco-friendly and New Age groups. He has thus been absorbed into the amorphous blend of foliate heads (as the Green Man carvings in churches were previously called), medieval wildmen, Robin Hood, Gawain and the Green Knight, and anything or anyone else ‘green’, who are all now equated with vegetation and nature spirits. Needless to say, there is not the slightest evidence that Jack-in-the-Green has any connections with these other characters, but it is probably impossible now to rescue him from such dubious company.
[The English Year by Steve Roud, p.212]

With my historian’s hat on, I do appreciate the important distinctions Steve Roud makes, but the Jack-in-the-Green procession I saw was not performed as a historical re-enactment – it was performed as a living ritual. And a question springs to mind: what is wrong with letting Jack-in-the-Green evolve? May Day celebrations have been many and varied over the centuries, and new versions of them have always developed – surely – out of what has gone before. Jack-in-the-Green did not appear in the 18th century out of the blue (as it were); in making such a feature of green boughs and flowers the chimney sweeps were continuing a much older tradition of welcoming in the spring/summer, and in symbolising this new season in the form of a figure, were they not drawing inspiration from other figures? Strictly speaking, it might be ‘wrong’ to equate Jack with ‘the Green Man’, but he was a green man, a figure of nature, a figure of the May, without doubt.

Would it be better if, today, Jack’s followers smeared their faces with chimney soot and carried sweep’s brushes, since that would be sticking to Jack’s specific and particular origins? Personally, I don’t think so (though neither am I objecting, if they want to). The heart of the ritual is the marking of May Day, and I think you can let some bath water go while still hanging on to the baby.

I also think it’s important to remember that legends, myths and symbols inevitably shift and alter as they are viewed from different perspectives in different eras. Indeed they must if they are to continue to carry any meaning. In the current climate (literal and metaphorical) it is not surprising that a symbol like ‘the Green Man’ is gaining new popularity, and while any claims made to a straightforward lineage might be mistaken, it is not true (either) to say that the Green Man is a new invention. We have a soup of traditional figures and stories that – for centuries – has been energetically stirred. And we must go on stirring, because setting symbols in aspic will eventually render them lifeless and irrelevant.

So, for me, the point lies in asking ourselves whether a symbol or a ritual still carries some living energy – can it still mean something to us? I don’t know about you, but the coming of sunshine and warmer weather has a profound effect on me (not as profound as if I had lived before central heating and tarmacked roads, but profound enough nevertheless). And to my surprise, I found last week that doing something more to mark summer’s arrival than putting away my jumpers and saying ‘What lovely sunshine’ could have meaning. I wasn’t the only one.

My 10-year-old daughter, as I mentioned, had been reluctant to come with me to find Jack-in-the-Green. Go and look at a man dressed in leaves? She didn’t see the point. But at bedtime that night she told me it had been ‘the best thing ever’. Why? Neither of us could quite put our finger on it. Something to do with the feeling of community? Something to do with the fact that the only point was the ritual itself (no presents, no sweets, no commercialization!)? Something to do with how it was playful, symbolic, silly and serious, all at once? We didn’t know. But we’d gone with no expectations, except of seeing a curiosity. And we’d come back having – rather mysteriously – loved it.

Thanks to Mike Slater, there's footage on Youtube showing the whole of the final part of Jack's journey in Bristol on May 3rd 2014, including the morris dancing and the ‘slaying’. It can be seen here (the action begins at 2:09 mins).


Penny Dolan said...

Enjoyed both the post and the video. I'm sure that all sorts of rituals have to adapt or be re-interpreted by the community, or by those who wish to profit in some way from them.

Public rituals can be encouraged or be shut down, especially by regulations. So hooray for Bristol and all the other Jacks in the Green and Mayday events, and glad that you and your daughter had such a good time.

Catherine Johnson said...

Harriet - we have a buge Jack in the Green here in Hastings and it's really re-invigorated the town. Lovely to see they're coming back!

Leslie Wilson said...

I do agree with you about rituals evolving - after all, we have no idea of what 19th century people saw in him. If anything beyond just 'what happened in Maytime and a bit of fun.'
I've never seen or heard of 'Jack im Gruenen' in Germany, and Jack is not a German name, which suggests to me that perhaps the traffic was the other way round, this time. Though sweeps still figure largely as good-luck symbols for weddings, etc.
What I have seen on the Rhine for May-Day is small trees and greenery mounted on buildings and also on the boats, which looks very nice. It is odd that Britain is so poor in these things, but I fear this is linked to the absence of public holidays - there are LOADS more in Germany, at least in Catholic areas. I am glad Jack in the Green is making a reappearance!

Sue Purkiss said...

I've never heard of this before - what fun!

Susan Price said...

Loved this - thank you! I completely agree. All myth, all religion, has been 'made up' and has then evolved, to fit the spiritual need of the time.

Myth thus contains a truth of its own - what the people at any given time NEED to be true.

On one side there are the researched historical facts: Jack in the Green didn't exist before the 18th Century, the chalk figure of the Long Man is a 17th Century carving and not an ancient fertility figure, and so on...

We need such clarity - but meanwhile, our present need seems to be for something that returns us to an (imagined) respect for Mother Earth, and Neo Paganism is busily weaving a new religion from such things as the Long Man and the Jack in the Green. We probably need that too.

michelle lovric said...

I agree with all the above. There is a kind of natural selection of the myths that we find reinforcing today. But I was sorry to see poor Jack slain!

Nice nose, Harriet!

Leslie Wilson said...

But unlike the LOng Man, the White Horse of Uffington has been there for thousands of years.. (bit of local patriotism here)