The Green Man towers over us in the middle of a hilltop field, the face-of-foliage smiling skyward. His livery of greenery rustles gently in the wind. Behind him curls a snarling red dragon, and together they make a flammable tableau of medieval mythologies. It is a wet weekend in August at the Green Man Festival in Brecknockshire, rural Wales. This great sculpture stands on the highest hill plateau of the main festival grounds, between the Far Out stage and the Chai Wallah tent, beside the food stalls, watchful guardian over the helter skelter. At the end of the festival he is set alight, flaming in the night like a family-friendly Wicker Man. He is temporary, as fleeting as festival sunshine. I speak in the present tense although this 2017 iteration is now destroyed, because we also may say that he is not yet built: the sculpture rises each year in new forms. This is the Green Man that was and will be, recurrent and relevant in each of his annual bodies. He is one part of the wider tradition in contemporary Britain of sculptures of wood or wicker which, as Carolyne Larrington observed in The Land of the Green Man, ‘spring up in the British landscape in dialogue with stories of the past’.[1] The Green Man, as both sculpture and enigmatic cultural symbol, is illustrative of our contemporary medievalisms, that persistence and echo of the Middle Ages in the present. M.J. Toswell offers a straightforward definition of ‘medievalism’, suggesting, ‘a nostalgic impulse to rework or recreate or gesture towards the Middle Ages, sometimes in a careful and precise way but mostly making use of some standard images and motifs that evoke the medieval.’[2] It may seem strange to identify an indie music festival as being ‘medieval’, but if Angela Weisl can find the Middle Ages in the pop-culture of American baseball, then why not see it in a gathering that holds a medieval face as its thematic centre?[3] The Green Man and the festival surrounding him is a site where medieval symbols, folklore, and modern anxieties about our past and future intersect. It draws upon our romantic ideas about a premodern folk past and ecological ‘wilderness’ within a landscape that is overlaid with medieval national mythologies. The 2017 line-up included musical acts that show just some of the varied ways we engage musically with the Middle Ages: Shirley Collins, Circulus, and Richard Dawson. Whether approaching the Middle Ages as an academic or an enthusiast, and these are not mutually exclusive, our goals and perspectives determine what we see and select, what we engage with and how we do it. We appropriate it for our needs, we impress upon it our desires and imaginings, we create joyful or tragic anachronisms that speak more about our present than our medieval history.

Forests, Folkways, and Foliate Heads

The face of our modern Green Man stares out wide-eyed at us from the Middle Ages: fearsome or fearful, dangerous or benevolent. The source of our modern mythos is the ‘foliate head’ decorations found in Britain from the Anglo-Norman period. In the nearby Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire there is a 12th century example: here foliage grows from a mouth opened grotesquely wide. In examples elsewhere, oak or ivy grows from the temples or ears, or makes a leaf-mask over his face. It appears to have been a common artistic motif in ecclesiastical architecture of the British Isles, increasing in popularity towards the later Middle Ages. A survey of popular literature, and enthusiast websites, concerning the ‘Green Man’ suggests that he is predominantly understood by us as a folkloric environmentalist symbol, a spirit of the woods and wild places. He is identified in New Age and amateur folklore as both a pagan god of the fertile earth and a universal symbol of our essential connection to nature. This is how he found himself the figurehead of an eco-friendly music festival in rural Wales.

Kilpeck Church’s ‘Green Man’

This tradition of the Green Man, our spirit of nature or symbol of Romantic ‘wilderness’, in fact has a very short pedigree. It is essentially a composite character created by Lady Raglan, an amateur aristocratic folklorist, in 1939.[4]  Inspired by the foliate head decoration she saw at Llangwm, Monmouthshire, Lady Raglan believed that this widespread decorative feature depicted a pre-Christian pagan fertility god or nature spirit. She conflated this motif with a host of other ‘green men’ in English folklore and history: Old English wodwose, ‘Green Men’ whifflers of Early Modern pageants, green/wild men of distillery and pub signage, the Jack-In-Green tradition, and even Robin Hood. This medieval face represented to her, and the folklorists who enthusiastically followed suit, a present-day folk continuity with a pre-medieval belief system.  Carolyne Larrington, professor of medieval literature at Oxford and author of works on popular medievalism, provides the best overview of the evolution of the Green Man. Larrington points out that these figures named by Lady Raglan are all quite different, linked only by associations with the colour green or the presence of foliage. The ‘human-plant hybrid’ of ecclesiastical decoration is a step apart from a man who merely wears a garland or green clothing. There is no reason to suppose that these church carvings represent a wodwose or ‘wild man’, whose body was covered in thick hair rather than leaves. Roy Judge showed the Jack-In-Green tradition to have been an urban chimneysweep moneymaking activity originating in the late 18th-century, and not an ancient pagan ritual at all.[5] There is no evidence that premodern people brought these disparate traditions together as Lady Raglan did. Larrington concludes that ‘The Green Man as an ancient folkloric figure, a vegetation god that’s come down in the world, has been shown not to exist.’[6] And yet, as a modern medievalism, he persists. That foliate head captivates us, drives us to make new narratives, to invent for him an ancient or primal meaning.

c. Green Man Festval

 

Lady Raglan’s article was published at a time when there was a prevailing theory that the peasants of medieval Britain had remained essentially pagan, and that Christianity was an ‘elite’ religion. This belief, which persisted into the 1970’s, was influenced by the immensely popular 1890 work by James Frazer, The Golden Bough. There is no hard evidence to suggest that a resistant pagan belief persisted into the Middle Ages, especially not into the later period when the foliate heads were most popular. Lady Raglan had a strong ‘Frazerian’ impulse to see the ‘Green Man’ as in some way pre- or even anti-medieval. By attaching it to an imagined pagan folk past, present-day believers can remove the medieval symbol from its context within the church and give it the greater value of an older, non-Christian source. This may, as Ronald Hutton suggests, have at its source a disaffection with both modernity and ‘conventional Christianity’, as well as a discomfort with the alienating fervour of the medieval Christian worldview.[7] In our popular culture the medieval church is perceived as oppressive and destructive, a stain on what could otherwise be a period of imagination and rural idyll, fabulous beasts and fine gowns. By essentially bypassing the ‘medieval’, a New Age, neo-pagan, or secular viewer can feel ‘connected’ to medieval folk experience. It illustrates the Middle Ages as a space where we may project what we wish to see: we take, we appropriate, and we impose anachronisms to make it meaningful. The symbol of conservation, of resistance to modernity and its attendant ecological destruction, presents a ‘progressive’ environmentalism that rests upon a cultural conservatism: an older, purer point of origin for our modern idea.

For all the eco-slick modernity of the Green Man Festival, with compostable food packaging and environmental science stalls and a cycle-to-charge-your-iPhone station, there are elements of the premodern, even medieval. It is the only British music festival to be opened with a druidic blessing. Along the hillside from the bonfire may be found a stall for bow-making and archery, one for forging, another for woodturning or wicker-weaving. There is an emphasis on local craftspeople and hand-made wares as well asthe traditional medieval experience of miserable exposure to the elements and unplumbed lavatories. The eco-focus of our modern Green Man is not incongruous with the medievalist impulse, rather this convergence is at the roots of our contemporary romantic medievalisms. The 19th century medievalist nostalgia for premodern landscapes and preindustrial crafts was exemplified by the works of William Morris and John Ruskin. This in turn influenced the worldview of J.R.R. Tolkien, which we find in both his fiction (forest-dwelling tree-giants wreaking havoc upon the mechanised industry of Isengard, anyone?) and non-fiction, as in his essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’.[8] These medievalists emphasised the premodern as a more ‘real’ experience, insisting that a purer, even primal, relationship with nature existed in Britain before the advent of factories and intensive farming. As Valerie Johnson notes, this is a medievalism that operates within a romanticised idea about the natural world and ‘fantasies of a recoverable Edenic condition.’[9] This ‘untouched wilderness’ ideal bears little resemblance to the actual medieval environment and royal forests, which were highly cultivated and demarcated spaces in a country that had been shaped by human activity for thousands of years. These ‘highly cultivated’ spaces include sites like the Glan Usk Estate which hosts the Green Man annually. The festival marketing utilises ideas of the forest and the rhetoric of untouched nature. They sell the picture of a counter-cultural hideaway among the hills, appealing to our communal ‘false nostalgia’ for idealised landscapes and a more ‘real’ relationship with nature. The Green Man is the symbol of Edenic return, a site where ecological fantasies entwine with medieval ones. Environmentalism, neo-pagan imaginings, and a disaffection with modernity guide the ways in which we resist, embrace, and remake medievalisms.

Musical Middle Ages

While ecology and folk-romanticism are the thematic framework for the Green Man Festival, music is its reason for being. Let us speak now of ‘musical medievalism’, of Shirley Collins and the intersection of the Folk and Early Music Revivals, and of the neo-medieval psych-rock band Circulus, and Richard Dawson’s experimental grim-folk approach to the Middle Ages in his latest album ‘Peasant’. These artists illustrate ways that music can be used as a means to allude to, deconstruct, and reinvent the Middle Ages. The subgenre of ‘neo-medieval’ music, as explained by Alana Bennett in her excellent chapter on the subject, differs from the formal Early Music attempts to recreate medieval music through Historically Informed Performance (HIP).[10] While the neo-medieval subgenre can include the use of Early Music instruments or arrangements, the artists are not always concerned with ‘authentic’ reproduction of medieval sound. It is, again, a medievalism made to serve modern tastes and contemporary concerns. These artists re-imagine the medieval, or use it for symbolic or thematic purposes, gesturing through sound and story towards our shared understanding of the Middle Ages.

Shirley Collins – The Morris and Maypole

Shirley Collins sits in the centre of the Mountain Stage, her smiling face painted with silver glitter, hands folded patiently in her lap. The mandolin-player delicately plucks the melody of a 16th century English carol as Collins sings. Out rolls the sombre drone of a hurdy-gurdy, echoing around the amphitheatre hillside, beneath the shadow-crest of a high hill. A lone Morris dancer emerges. He leaps in percussive movements, a bell-shaking rhythm and an old sound, revived. It began its life in 15th century England as a courtly dance, spreading thence to the cities and towns and finally to the countryside.[11] It is this rural form that it has persisted, growing in popularity there even as it faded from the court and capital. It has become a signifier of the English folk identity, and, for Collins, a symbol of the losses and survivals of folkways in the modern age.

From the 1950s Collins had been integral to the English Folk Revival, as both a performer and as a collector of traditional music, including an extensive recording archive of American folk songs with Alan Lomax. She returned to the folk music scene in 2014, after a hiatus of more than 30 years. Collins not only collects the past for preservation, but interprets and expresses it in modern forms. For her, the performance of traditional songs is about giving life to a cultural inheritance, and she is keenly, poetically aware of the cumulative weight of history upon her work. In an interview with The Guardian shortly before her 80th birthday, Collins explained that

“Singing English folk songs is as crucial to me as walking the Sussex landscape, where the footprints of our ancestors are everywhere. When I sing, I feel past generations standing behind me – and I hope I’m a conduit for them – those farm labourers and their wives who kept the songs going for us.”[12]

The impulse of musical Folk Revivalists of the mid-20th century, as collectors and reanimators, had followed on from the 19th century folklorist movement. Many songs that Collins performs were recorded by folklore archivists like Cecil Sharp. The 19th century also saw the creation of the rural ‘Merrie Englandism’ mythos and its imagery of a medieval peasant idyll, typified by communal May Day celebrations, and of course the Morris and maypole.[13] These two symbols of persistent English folkways in the modern age were significant for Collins’ most medievalist work, the Anthems In Eden suite (1969).

The Anthems suite, later re-released as the B-Side of Amaranth (1976), is a ‘song story’ in which Collins utilised the instruments and influences of medieval music to create a nostalgic elegy for the pre-WWI folk landscape. Collins has performed various medieval pieces throughout her career, and the Amaranth A-side also includes two 13th century songs, ‘Edi Beo Thu, Hevene Quene’ and ‘C’est La Fin / Pour Mon Cuer’. The Anthems suite, however, was the only project in which Collins used the medieval as a sustained and unifying theme. David Munrow, an Early Music specialist, consulted on the record and played a number of the Early instruments, including crumhorn, sordun and recorder. In the Amaranth sleeve notes, Collins said that the original 1969 album ‘brought together for the first time folk-song and hitherto rarely heard early-music instruments.’[14] These two musical traditions, the Early Music and Folk Revivals, were happening roughly in tandem from the 1950s, informing one another even as they took divergent interpretive paths. Collins drew from historic source material for her performance, reinterpreting it to express the idea of a persistent, but evolving, folk tradition that was almost lost to 20th century catastrophe. Where other medievalisms constructed in resistance to the dangerous effects of modernity have focused on the Industrial Revolution as the point of crisis, Collin’s album locates the rupture in the English death toll of WWI. From the Amaranth sleeve notes:

‘It was intended to give a picture of England “before the Fall” – that is, up to the Great War, when the maypole, which had once been the centre of so many village greens, was replaced by the memorial stone.’

The Suite follows a storyline of traditional and original songs: A Beginning / A Meeting / A Courtship / A Denying / A Forsaking / A Dream / A Leavetaking / An Awakening (Whitsun Dance) / A New Beginning. ‘A Beginning’, sets the earliest chronological point for the story with a short Early Music instrumental piece that suggests a distinctly medieval style. While many of the arrangements on the songs that follow are traditional, i.e. ‘folk’, tunes, the use of Early Music here signals a depth of time that Collins perceives in the folk music that survived into the modern age. The final song, Whitsun Dance, is to the tune of a traditional folk melody recorded by Cecil Sharp, with original lyrics by Austin John Marshall. It tells the story of women in rural communities who danced the Morris when men left to fight in WWI:

Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones

Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.

There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was,

And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

As the song ends, the chorus and bells of Morris ring out: the ghosts of those dancers who did not return. For Collins the loss of life in WWI constituted a destruction of old folkways by permanently removing from communities the human repositories of living folk tradition, traditions stretching back into the Middle Ages. The sounds of medieval dance and instrument draw us back to those many past generations upon whom English folk identity rests. The suite’s title, Anthems in Eden, evokes a pre-lapsarian state of green and plenty even as it echoes Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’. It utilises the same nostalgia for the premodern folk idyll that pervades the medievalisms of the Green Man Festival. The percussive Morris dancer, at Green Man as in the Anthems suite, is Collins’ symbol for the depth of history surviving in folk practices. Collins uses the Middle Ages to tell a story of the strength and continuity of tradition, conveyed through the revival of now-unfamiliar sounds that signal a distant past.

Circulus – ‘A Medieval Disco’

Circulus starts late, with the leisurely style of any pre-midday show. The enormous dance-tent of the Far Out stage is mostly empty. Nag champa incense burns nearby, and pints proliferate among the small crowd, although it is still technically morning. This latter feature is fittingly medieval for the show at hand. Hand-dyed fabrics and floral-leaf crowns, organic and plastic alike, abound. There is a lot of long hair, and grey hair, and a festival-goer with oak leaves stuck to his baseball cap. In front is a man with a Viking-mohawk and Norse symbols tattooed along his scalp, runes on one side and boar on the other. At last Michael Tyack and his band arrive, their costumes a thrift-shop pastiche of time periods, military epaulettes and Renaissance gowns and flowing cloaks alongside garb of a 70s cut. From the crowd, someone shouts ‘Crumhorn! Play the crumhorn!’ Taking their places and tuning up in an unhurried way, at last Circulus are ready to begin. They know what we want, they know the crowd-pleaser. Standing before the mics, all electrified sound and big screen projections, in a cappella unison they drop that sick one on us: ‘Miri It Is’, a 13th century Middle English song about the weather.[15]

 

 

Circulus, a subgenre-spanning neo-medieval-psych-folk-prog-rock ensemble, is part of the 1990s wave of Western European neo-medieval musical acts. Modern neo-medieval music emerged as a recognisable genre in England the 1970s.[16] Notable examples of this included Pentangle, whose John Renbourn also released multiple albums of reinterpreted medieval songs, and Steeleye Span,  whose 1972 album Below the Salt has just the most folk-medievalist cover you ever did see. Circulus do not aim for historical authenticity. They follow the medieval for as long as it is fun, freely drawing on different time periods and texts, taking inspiration from medievalist fantasy as well as Early Music and history. This is a common feature of the neo-medieval style, according to Bennett, and encapsulates its spirit of pastiche and creative anachronism.[17] Tyack is clear about his creative debt to romantic medievalisms: in the 2005 MTV Europe special This Is Our Music, he said

“I like the way the Victorians looked back on the medieval period, they kind of took what they wanted out of it, and created this real, kind of, fantasy out of the great Romances.”

Tyack claims the 15th century Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy as his fashion inspiration, although most images of the Duke appear positively drab in comparison to Tyack’s cross-emblazoned sequin robes or shimmering gold tights. While initially inspired by Early Music, specifically a cassette of lute songs, Tyack prefers medievalism to the Middle Ages: “Take away the diseases and the brutality and it’s a very stylish period.” Circulus presents a pastiche of the romanticised ‘medieval’, a weird Ren-Fair collision with counter-cultural prog rock about pixies. Using Early Music instruments, medieval source material, and Romantic lyrical tropes, Circulus reinvents the Middle Ages as a space in which they can play, and invite us to play with them.

c. Green Man Festival

‘Miri It Is’, c.1225, is probably Circulus’ most famous song. It is a popular piece for both HIP and neo-medieval acts to cover, as well as featuring in The Wicker Man (1973). YouTube offers versions by Circulus, the Oxford Girls’ Choir, the metal band Forefather, the delightfully-named Mediaeval Baebes, and live performances by historical re-enactors from Europe and beyond. The Circulus version begins with a harmonised chant, tumbling thence into the medieval melody performed with both Early Music and contemporary instruments including the ethereal weird of the Moog synth. Circulus has also covered ‘Tristan’s Lament’ (Lamento di Tristano), a medieval dance song reinterpreted with contemporary instruments like distorted electric guitars, a modern drumkit, and a heavy bassline. Early Music instruments, like the crumhorn and lute, are used in original Circulus compositions to achieve a generalised ‘medieval’ sound. ‘Fortunate Ones’ utilises recorder and crumhorn in a melody and choral repetition that gestures to a premodern polyphony, and ‘Orpheus’ incorporates Early Music instruments alongside synth and bongo drums. These lively musical interpretations of the medieval are, as Bennett notes, more like the ‘peasant bransle’. The heavy percussive elements encourage audience engagement, drawing us in to twirl and stamp and sing by offering the double licence of ‘festival space’ and ‘medieval make-believe’. Circulus presents a medievalism to groove to, a musical call to which we are expected to respond with joyful dance. To be fair, most of the Green Man audience do so.

The modern compositions of Circulus are interspersed with medieval literary and symbolic tropes. King Arthur is the one who will “lift his sword and strike” in the synth-and-crumhorn psych-rock story of ‘Dragon’s Dance’. Arthur naturally fits well with Tyack’s love of Victorian medievalisms, and is a figure beloved by the kind of New Wave counter-culture that Circulus appeals to. When Tyack sings “Bring me the casket, the Serpent, the soul of the Swan Woman” in ‘Wherever She Goes’ he potentially refers to the Old Norse/English figure Volund/Weyland the Smith and his missing swanmaiden. The mournful ‘We Are Long Lost’ begins “In a rusty suit of armour / The tumbling castle was my home”. The melody and instruments, save for a lonely recorder that plays a folk-style tune, are modern: electric guitars, synth, and bongos. ‘Reality’s A Fantasy’ is curiously complex. A gentle psych-folk groove is carried on guitar, synth, and electric keyboard. Tyack’s voice comes through distortion and radio static, like recordings we might hear of early transmissions from space. He sings, “In a castle far away / A band begins to play / the medieval disco lights are shining / Let’s go / the prince is spinning on his toes”. Circulus creates a world where space travel and medieval disco princes coexist, which is the perfect sum of their aesthetic and freedom of interpretation.

Tyack self-consciously channels the figure of the medieval minstrel, who is, as Bennett observes, ‘the champion’ of neo-medieval folk musicians.[18] In the opening to Miri It Is, Tyack recites the modern English translation of the original medieval lyric after the acapella Middle English, guiding us into this foreign, former time. With flowing gesture and monologue, Tyack expounds upon the music on stage, dispenses his wisdom of love and harmony, and announces that the pixies are inside us. Poetic and obtuse with proclamatory speech, he embodies the medieval Romance ideal of the minstrel guide, drawing us into and through a world of musical fantasy. Circulus operates in the world of medieval Romance, from a minstrel narrator that leads us to the Otherworld of pixies and magicians, to King Arthur’s battle against a dragon and a Fisher-King-esque figure in a ruined castle. Tyack admires how the Victorians “created a little idyll for themselves, a little dream to explore,” and this is what he brings to us. Circulus has chosen the Middle Ages as a muse because they view it as a period of imagination and fantasy, a dream we can all explore. Their debt of inspiration is partially to the Middle Ages and Early Music, but mostly to the medievalisms that have gone before, intertwined with one another. And also, of course, to the pixies.

Richard Dawson – Proto-Geordies and Potatoes

Scrolling online through the 2017 line-up for the Green Man Festival, past the self-consciously cool photographs with perfect filters or pensive floral waifs, there is Richard Dawson: his face a moon of happiness, bursting from the ocean like a joyful seal. It is charmingly incongruous, and seemingly at odds with Dawson’s distinctive grim-folk style, his challenging melodies and stories of dread or debauchery. For all the darkness of his songs, Dawson is a joyful performer. He takes the stage at Green Man in a t-shirt and jeans with his battered acoustic guitar.

“Could we get more vocal on Teddy, please?” he indicates a sunglasses-wearing teddy bear behind a mic.

“He’s not actually called Teddy,” Dawson admits. “He’s called Patrick Stewart.”

This happens during his set of bleak or lonely tales, which includes the infamous ‘The Vile Stuff’: a 16-minute epic about a disastrous year 7 Geordie school trip, evoking Dante’s Inferno and the complex grotesqueries of Hieronymus Bosch. He sings about fear and sorrow and blasphemy and pain. It appears to be a collective agreement in the music world that the easiest genre in which to fit Dawson is ‘folk’. Although he resists it, suggesting instead “community music”, ‘folk’ still seems the most appropriate of our pre-existing terms to encapsulate the spirit of his work: his interest in musical storytelling and the details of the everyday, his emphasis on community and a sense of place, his fingerpicking acoustic guitar (at times delicate and precise, at other times a dissonant shout of strings), and his generally scaled-back approach to instrumentation. In the live performance there is guitar, violin, harp, drums, and even a beat stamped out for an a cappella chant in ‘Ghost of a Tree’. There is a folk-style to his storytelling, even just in the misery of it.

“This song,” Dawson tells us, “Takes place in the year 600AD… and 1456…. And 1956…. And now… and 17,000 years from now, on a spaceship. It’s about people blamin’ the wrong places, we’re always blamin’ the wrong places.”

With a pleasant folk-sounding melody, Dawson and his band launch gently into ‘Ogre’.

Dawson’s newest album Peasant presents vignettes from life in the early medieval kingdom of Bryneich, an area roughly covering present-day Northumbria and Dawson’s home city and spiritual centre, Newcastle. Each song title is a profession or identity: Weaver, Soldier, Beggar, Prostitute, Scientist, Masseuse, Herald. There are also Otherworldy designations: Shapeshifter, Ogre, and Hob. The eponymous ‘Hob’ is the folkloric brownie/faerie of Hob Hole in North Yorkshire to which the father-narrator of the song takes his sickly child.[19] The exception to these song titles, where characters are identified and given context and flesh, is the instrumental track ‘No One’. History is full of No Ones, the people whose existence we know nothing of and whose names are forgotten. There are no words bequeathed to us from history for ‘No One’. Dawson’s historical fiction does not tell glamourous tales of chivalry but the experiences of those who are less likely to be the protagonists of histories. His subjects are also imagined as locals of the pre-Geordie northeast, creating a sense of continuity with stories on Dawson’s other albums:the Weaver or Prostitute could easily be the ancestors of Si Shovell from ‘The Vile Stuff’ who “fills a Reebok pump / With the pulp from his belly”. Dawson brings to life the stories of people we cannot know, the ones that we assume must have existed in the amorphous mass of ‘soldiers’ and ‘beggars’ or simply ‘peasants’. Dawson engages with historical material, and our very construction of history and the place of people within these narratives, in a sensitive and nuanced musical medievalism. He acts as patron of the lost and forgotten, giving voice to speculative lives.

Richard Dawson c. Sally Pilkington

There is no distinct medieval sound to the songs on Peasant. Sometimes, like in the opening to ‘Ogre’ or ‘Scientist’, there is a gentle melodic introduction, that conjures up a pleasant folk idyll, but we are soon disabused of this notion by sudden discordant guitar or the lyrical content. It is in the words themselves, the short stories that Dawson has written for his subjects, that we find the medievalism. He has created stories within a landscape of uncertainty, mud, and dread, within a temporal fog of vague ‘Dark Ages’. The tales are full of unknowns: the character names, the attacking armies, the leader for whom the Soldier fights. Dawson then uses specific, minute details in suggestive worldbuilding. He brings flashes of the medieval to life in brief tableaux, tantalising and bare. Take the story of ‘Weaver’. With painstaking diligence, the narrator-Weaver gives us an in-depth itinerary of his dyeing practices, beginning:

I steep the wool in a cauldron

Of pummelled gall-nuts afloat in urine

Add river water thrice-boiled with a bloodstone

He watches the wool as it dries above him, noting how “it looks like a thundercloud”, before he begins to comb. Meanwhile, his pregnant wife falls down the steps of the merchants’ guild and goes into early labour. She is rushed home, a market crab tangled in her hair. The weaver is with her as she screams through contractions, and he sees the baby as it suddenly crowns and emerges. He reveals that this child is not his blood relation, but he nonetheless feels himself overcome with love, that “very ancient friend”. The family trinity is linked by thread and fibre: Weaver and his wool, the wife who grips the spindle between her teeth, the child that “lies dangling by a string”, all inextricably bound in that sudden moment of being. Dawson provides enough historical detail to evoke a former time, and then gives us glimpses into the imagined world of a person who might have lived. His stories are raw and haunting like after-images. In this way Dawson, and historical fiction in general, has the power to make history feel intimately human.

Dawson’s fictions also display another longstanding feature of medievalism: anachronism. There is a tradition of anachronism in medievalist literature, from Walter Scott’s mixing of material and styles in Ivanhoe, to the Merlyn of T.H. White’s Once and Future King series, the wizard living backwards through time. It can be haphazard or deliberate, and in Dawson’s songs it tends to happen where genres slide and history becomes tinged with fantasy. The most significant here, that most essential of medieval anachronisms, is the potato. In ‘Shapeshifter’, the narrator trapped in the Bog of Names is approached by a “figure wrapped in a garment of northern light” who “Heaves me free / Gives me a potato” and leads him to safety. The potato is a common food anachronism of popular medievalism, from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim video game, to casual mentions in Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, to the infamous po-tay-toes (boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew) of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers. The potato, originating in the Americas, was not known in Europe before the 16th century.  This foodstuff has a place in popular fantasy medievalism that is difficult to shift. When we imagine medieval-attired sword-and-sorcery protagonists sitting down to a rustic pot of stew around a campfire, we tend to picture that starch vegetable as an integral component. The potato almost functions as a signal for the fantasy status of a text, and perhaps that is why it appears in ‘Shapeshifter’: as a sign that this story concerns an Otherworldly encounter. Then again, perhaps it is just impossible to conceive of an Englishness without the potential for chips.

Dawson uses the ‘Dark Ages’ because it is perceived as a period of enough unknowns and blank spaces to invite writing upon, and because, in his view, there is a persistence of history, and of humanity, of which we should be aware. In this way ‘Ogre’, that story of “people blamin’ the wrong places” that takes place a thousand years ago or thousands of years in the future, is the story that we keep playing out. It is the story of scapegoating, persecution, misdirected hatred and its futility, and the fact that, as Dawson believes, we seem unable to overcome it. The music video for ‘Ogre’ is the most explicitly medieval. There is a general visual language of ‘Middle Ages’ through costume, rural activity, and padded-armour wrestling. The anachronism of fashion, specifically a jerkin, knocks it out by about 1000 years, but symbolism is more important than accuracy. As a peasant community goes about its tasks, they are gradually overcome by a sleeping sickness. They gather drowsily to descend on the cave of the Ogre, Dawson himself. They tie and drag him to a hilltop stake-and-pyre. There the Ogre is set alight and burned by night. All the while the multi-voiced chorus emphasises the communality and consensus of the act. The peasants dance joyfully, believing their curse to be done. The Ogre burns at the centre of their revel, like the closing scene of The Wicker Man, the closing night of the Green Man. As the song lilts to an end, the peasants slow and stop, nodding to sleep once more. They were blamin’ the wrong places, and their communal violence was to no avail. The power and danger of community relying on the myth of the Ogre, the monstrous outsider that is the cause or vessel of all evil things, is as relevant today as it ever was and will be.

 

Nation-States of Mind – Philological Medievalism

Where Dawson warns of the dangers of community mythologies, the Green Man Festival takes place within a nationalist landscape that revels in it. The 2017 Visit Wales campaign, with its ‘Year of Legends’ slogan, heavily emphasises medieval mythology and history in the construction of Welsh national identity. The accompanying TV advert stars Luke Evans, familiar as Bard the Bowman of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. The banner along the ‘Stories’ page depicts a symbolic landscape replete with medieval tropes, stylized castles and knights, intermingling features rooted in history with those drawn from literature like the Mabinogion and popular Arthuriana. They list historical figures like Owain Glyndŵr and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd alongside those from medieval literature: the flower-woman Blodeuwedd, the giant Bendigeidfran and his sister Branwen, and, of course, King Arthur. Arthur and his so-called ”supernatural sidekick” Merlin, discoverer of the red Welsh dragon, have their own page on the site which includes all the tangentially Arthurian places to visit. These mythologies are, quite literally embedded in the landscape of Wales: if you drive up north towards Snowdonia, on the A487 between Machynlleth and Dolgellau you will find King Arthur’s Labyrinth (“A Legendary Day Out”), a subterranean Arthurian children’s attraction in a disused slate mine. The Arthur of the historical record, what little there is, barely factors into these narratives. As with all national mythologies, the history is less important than the legend, especially where tourist dollars are concerned.

This type of medievalism is also at present the most contentious, and potentially the most dangerous. These nationalist mythologies have traditionally found a comfortable home within the spheres of white supremacy, colonialism, and xenophobia.[20] Alongside the development of our Romantic medievalisms in the 19th century, the peoples of Europe were in the process of constructing national ethnic identities. In seeking a literary or linguistic origin in the Dark or Middle Ages, countries competed for supremacy by appealing to grand mythologies of the past, ‘philological medievalisms’. In our present, we need only to look to the rhetoric of the rising Alt-Right both in Britain and abroad to see how deeply entrenched medievalisms are within the identities of these groups; language of Crusader aggression, the appeal to a fallacious ideal of homogenous white medieval Europe, co-opting iconography from the Holy Roman Empire, and the longstanding white supremacist use of Norse pagan symbols. Their memes, their online presence in medieval fandom forums and Facebook pages, all show the intersection of medievalism and virulent racism in our political culture. This is a subject addressed on an ongoing basis by academics through blogs like In the Medieval Middle, as well as The Public Medievalist. Even the mainstream media, such as the Huffington Post and the Economist, are starting to take note. The Middle Ages is a contested landscape, one traditionally beloved and appropriated by Nazis and far-right movements. Re-examining our medievalisms, our uses of history and symbol, is more important now than ever.

Even the Green Man, our enigmatic ‘nature spirit’, is not free of a nationalist slant. Paul Kingsnorth, author of the medievalist novel The Wake, has a fascination with the foliate heads. His essay ‘The Old Yoke’ expounds a theory about the proliferation of ‘green men’ in England. These heads, he claims, are intended as resistance symbols of the ‘native’ English, the Anglo Saxons, representing the ‘grassroots rising’ of ‘silvatici’ – anti-Norman guerrilla fighters attacking from the wilds. Like Lady Raglan, Kingsnorth cannot resist bringing in that popular character of Robin Hood, suggesting an inspiring English composite figure, not of pagan fertility but of nationalist resistance. He believes stonemasons of Anglo-Norman churches were acting in rebellion against Norman lords through ecclesiastical design:

‘What would you do if you were an English stonemason in the 1070s, required to help construct an alien church by new masters you despised? …Perhaps you would carve the face of a green man inside the church: perhaps you would bring the spirit of the silvatici into the temple of the enemy.’

A pro-Brexit and anti-European stance concerning English identity informs Kingsnorth’s commentaries. He feels that England still chafes under that ’Norman yoke’, the power of Continental elites. It does not matter for this nationalist mythos that, for example, the earliest representation of the foliate head in northern Europe appears to be in a 10th century French monastic manuscript, suggesting that it was part of the Norman imposition of Continental influences. It also appears predominantly in buildings commissioned and controlled by the elite, rather than those where non-elites may have had more influence over decoration.[21] The aforementioned Kilpeck Church was commissioned by a Norman lord who imported his own stonemasons from the Continent to work in the Romanesque style. This is not to say that people, such as the Anglo Saxons, cannot ascribe their own meaning to a symbol that differs from the artistic intent. Indeed, this is what Kingsnorth has done: beginning from a place where both the Green Man figure and English nationalism were of personal importance, he made a medievalism to fit. The Middle Ages is rewrought time and again to serve our needs, our anxieties, our desire for an ultimate and justifiable source for our beliefs and identities.

As our contemporary medievalist impulse has its origins in the 19th century, in the Romantic movement and the fashionable passion for the Gothic, it is fitting that we enter the festival space through the Victorian-Gothic folly of the Glan Usk gatehouse. Medieval echoes creep in throughout the Green Man Festival. Stalls sell handcrafted wands and wizard hats, signifiers of medievalist fantasy. Some festival-goers are costumed in animal face-paint and tails, like masked medieval mummers. A trio of ‘druids’ pass in brown robes and fake beards, with pilfered oak leaves taped around their heads, holding makeshift twiggy ‘staffs’. As I sit on the hillside waiting for Shirley Collins to begin, a group of young girls nearby act out a ‘medieval court’. One wears a cardboard crown and a tulle skirt that she instructs two others to hold. A fourth announces, “I’ll be the queen’s joker!” as she capers about. Another girl strums a frisbee as court minstrel. The Green Man figure creates a wider community formed around an artistic and folkloric medievalism. It is, by the standards of academic history, predominantly inaccurate, but a medievalism does not need to be accurate to be culturally important. Often the opposite is true. The medievalisms of this festival are based upon the folk, the peasant, or the wandering minstrel, rather than warriors and kings. They are lovers, not fighters: Shirley Collins eulogises the folkways lost to violence, Circulus invites us to a medieval disco, Dawson’s Soldier runs away, wanting only to “Find some better place where / We might raise a family”. The Green Man forms part of the British festival tradition, our romantic ideal of folkways where we dress up, we parade or sing or wassail, we gather around the fire as dark draws in. It is part of a modern ritual year. In 2018 our foliate festival god will be born anew into this complex landscape of symbols and cultural echoes. The Middle Ages is a water from which we continually draw and a surface that reflects us back at ourselves.

[1] Carolyne Larrington, The Land of the Green Man, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015) p.7.

[2] ‘The Tropes of Medievalism’, in Studies in Medievalism XVII: Defining Medievalism(s), ed. Karl Fugelso, (Boydell & Brewer, 2009) p.69.

[3] Angela Weisl, The Persistence of Medievalism: Narrative Adventures in Popular Culture, (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

[4] ‘The “Green Man” in Church Architecture’, Folklore, Vol. 50, No. 1, (Taylor & Francis Ltd., Mar., 1939) pp. 45-57.

[5] Roy Judge, The Jack-in-Green, 2nd ed., (London: 2000).

[6] Larrington, The Land of the Green Man, p.227.

[7] Ronald Hutton, ‘How Pagan Were Medieval English Peasants?’ Folklore, Vol. 122, No. 3, (2011) p.236.

[8] Kevin Moberly and Brent Moberly, ‘Swords, Sorcery, and Steam: The Industrial Dark Ages in Contemporary

Medievalism’, Studies in Medievalism XXIV, eds. Karl Fugelso, Vincent Ferré, Alicia C. Montoya, (Boydell & Brewer, D. S. Brewer, 2015) pp.193-194.

[9] ‘Ecomedievalism: Applying Ecotheory to Medievalism and Neomedievalism’, Studies in Medievalism XXIV, p.32.

[10] Alana Bennett, ‘Reinventing the Past in European Neo-medieval Music’ in The Middle Ages in Popular Culture: Medievalism and Genre, ed. Helen Young, (Cambria Press, 2015) pp. 91-112.

[11] Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp.264-266.

[12] Jude Rogers, “Shirley Collins: ‘When I sing I feel past generations standing behind me’.” The Guardian, May 31, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/may/31/shirley-collins-sing-past-generations-standing-folk-music.

[13] ‘Merrie England’, in A Dictionary of English Folklore, eds. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, Oxford University Press, 2003.

[14] ‘Anthems in Eden’, Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music, January 4, 2015, https://mainlynorfolk.info/shirley.collins/records/anthemsineden.html.

[15] Ian Pittaway, ‘Mirie it is while sumer ilast: decoding the earliest surviving secular song in English’, Early English Muse, February 4, 2015, https://earlymusicmuse.com/mirie-it-is-while-sumer-ilast/

[16] Bennett, ‘Reinventing the Past in European Neo-medieval Music’, p.93.

[17] Bennett, ‘Reinventing the Past in European Neo-medieval Music’, pp.107-108.

[18] Bennett, ‘Reinventing the Past in European Neo-medieval Music’, pp.99-100.

[19] Larrington, The Land of the Green Man, p.149.

[20] Helen Young, ‘Whiteness and Time: The Once, Present and Future Race’, in Medievalism on the Margins, eds. Karl Fugelso, Vincent Ferré, Alicia C. Montoya, Boydell & Brewer: 2015, p.42.

[21] Hutton, ‘How Pagan Were Medieval English Peasants?’, p.238.