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Jack-in-the-Green


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An urban street calendar custom enacted on May Day by chimneysweeps. The sweeps dressed up in their finery, if they had any, with added ribbons; one dressed as the Lord, another as a Lady, and one or two as clowns. They had musicians and carried a brush and shovel which they clashed together rhythmically, and a regular feature was a donkey for one of them to ride. The character that really got the audience's attention was the Jack-in-the-Green, a man inside a wood or basketwork frame, from well above his head to his ankles, on which was fixed an abundance of greenery and flowers. The visual effect was a conical-shaped bush on feet, which danced. In the earlier period, the sweeps would be accompanied by their boys, whose capering and antics were popular with the crowds, but the boys disappeared from the scene after public opinion turned against the use of children in the trade. References become fewer and fewer after the 1850s, and descriptions tend to stress the drunkenness, tawdriness, and vulgarity of the proceedings rather than its quaintness. The Victorian drive towards the invented Merrie England May Day was in full swing, and, as with so many other customs, the real Jack-in-the-Green had to be abolished before it could be reinvented, cleaned up, and made safe, to take its place in the pageants of the late Victorians and Edwardians, and the fe^tes, fayres, and processions of the 20th century.

Even in its heyday, the Jack was far from being a national phenomenon. Roy Judge's distribution map shows a highly regionalized custom, including only 81 places, and some of these are of dubious traditional standing. Sightings cluster most thickly in London, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The earliest references to the Jack are from the late 18th century, but this has not prevented writers extrapolating backwards and claiming him as a true survivor of a wood-spirit, nature worshipper, Robin Hood, medieval Wild Man, Gawain and the Green Knight, and so forth, for which there is no evidence but plenty of wishful thinking. Perhaps the most audacious argument-without-evidence was the confident identification of the Jack-in-the-Green with the so-called ‘Green Man’ (see foliate heads) to be found on many churches. This was a mere speculation by Lady Raglan in 1939, which has since been quoted as fact countless times.

Judge, 1979/2000;Judge, 1987;Hone, 1827: i. 292–6;George L. Phillips, ‘May-Day is Sweeps' Day’, Folk-Lore 60 (1949), 217–27;Charles Phythian-Adams, ‘Milk and Soot: The Changing Vocabulary of a Popular Ritual in Stuart and Hanoverian London’, in D. Fraser and A. Sutcliffe, The Pursuit of Urban History (1983), 83–104.


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