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Under the Greenwood Tree

Jeremy Harte

tree pic (3k)

They had real dungeons in the Middle Ages, and real dragons if rumour be true. They had knights in shining armour, too, and damsels in distress; wicked barons, wandering minstrels and holy hermits were not unknown. They did not have any psychiatrists, however, and so escaped being counselled on how to give up a fantasy world for real life - which is probably just as well, because the real life of mediaeval people was packed with the sort of figures who have been the stock-in-trade of fantasy writers ever since.

It is hardly surprising that subsequent generations have used the magic mirror of mediaevalism to conjure up visions of their own. Among the nine suspect views of the Middle Ages scheduled by Umberto Eco, the re-invention of romanticism finds an honourable place [1]. But is there a genuine history behind the Gothick mist? Or are we just using romance as a therapy for the unease we feel about breaking with the past? Without the repudiation of mediaeval Christendom, romantic or not, none of the liberties and conveniences of our secular civilisation would have had a chance to flourish. Each of us is a little like the young Byron, inhabiting comfortable apartments tacked onto a monastic ruin, and getting a perverse pleasure from limping about the haunted wing in fancy dress.

But mediaeval people knew about fancy dress too. Their art and architecture can be a living extravagance, a genuine fantasy. Look at St Michaels Mount rising pinnacle on pinnacle from the sea, or pass through some city gatehouse exuding municipal pomp, or walk into the underworld piety of the Royston Cave. These structures are deliberately romantic; they are meant to evoke atmosphere, not to serve as plain lodgings for monks or knights. If this is their effect on us now, what must it have been like when the art of pageantry was in full swing, when dragons and giants and the Nine Worthies were on the streets, and every conduit flowed with wine?

Well, you may say, there was genuine romance and fantasy for the elite, who could afford it. But the countryside was different. The countryside, in a view still widely held, was the home of dour and pragmatic peasants with as much aesthetic imagination as a turnip, and visions of beauty in the landscape are cultural constructs with a suspect class pedigree. As for the mystic power of Nature, this is something that Wordsworth and Coleridge cooked up on one of their walking tours to entertain a mass-circulation public, who would otherwise have felt that fields were there to grow things in.

Now our ancestors certainly had a lively sense of what landscape was good for. Whoever you were, rich or poor, in the end you depended on your immediate surroundings for food and clothes and warmth in winter. This straightforward reliance on the earth bred a personal relationship, a love which (like other loves) was enhanced and not diminished by its origin in the business of production. Each harvest was a covenant - ‘Thou crownest the year with thy goodness . . . the little hills rejoice on every side. The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing’ [2]

‘Harvest is the hope of men, when the holy one - God, king of heaven - makes the earth bear the shining corn for rich and poor alike’ [3]. The power of this relationship is shown by the eagerness of urban tradesmen - the only class excluded from it - to join in. As early as the twelfth century village lordships were being acquired for use as second homes; Cuddington in Surrey, acquired with the profit on war loans for the Third Crusade, is a recognisable ancestor of the stockbroker belt [4].

If harvest was a sacrament, infertility was a curse. Mediaeval people were alive to the fearfulness of barren places as modern Europeans are not. So much of our appreciation of nature is based on an ability to travel to a viewpoint, admire, and return home in time for tea. When exposure to the world was less cushioned, a quite different set of literary expectations were prompted. ‘I must go walk the wood so wild’, says a fifteenth-century poet, and we imagine he is after the healing power of nature. But no, he is going to live off acorns and tree-water because he has been betrayed in love and life cannot get any worse. Another forlorn lover, Sir Orfeo, goes into the woods as to a living death - ‘Nothing he findeth that him is ease/ But ever he liveth in great malaise’ [5].

Medieval aesthetic of woodland

Surely, if uncultivated land was held in such abhorrence, we are wasting our time looking for a mediaeval aesthetic of wilderness. Should we not rather regard our ancestors as so many William Cobbetts, with ‘no idea of picturesque beauty separate from fertility of soil’? [6] Well, no. The popularity of wilderness in fiction suggests that, after all, it had a fascination bound up with its horror. The tangled trail runs from Broceliande - ‘a thick forest... full of briars and thorns’ to the Cheshire moors, ‘naked rocks/ As claterand from the crest the cold burn runs’, through which Gawain toils his way [7]. These places may not have been credited with beauty, but they were certainly landscapes to stir the imagin-ation. And genuine landscapes, too: the romancer Wace scrambled through some very real briars at Broceliande/ Paimpont looking (unsuccess-fully) for fairies [8].

Fear and contempt for the wild were not a natural feature of the mediaeval mind but the expression of certain literary conventions. Turn to a different literature, and the picture changes. English poetry, which is conceived on French and Latin models, is limited in its response to wild nature; the Celtic languages are not. Suibhne, like Orfeo, is a mad king in the forest, but it is the Irish lunatic who delights in the beauty of his surroundings. Manchan, the tenth-century hermit of Liath, calls for ‘a secret hut in the wilderness . . . a beautiful wood close by around it on every side’ [9]. Comparisons of this kind show the pitfalls that await if we judge what people might have felt only from what they happened to write. A Welsh poet like Dafydd ap Gwilym saw the same hills and trees as Chaucer, but he was able to express his feelings about them through the traditions of a different language. Besides, literature is not the only way of expressing feelings. There is nothing in Old English poetry to match the Gaelic poems in praise of places, but almost every Irish epithet may be paralleled in the English place names themselves. At a rough reckoning, half of the descriptive epithets in Dorset names point out features with limited practical value - including, in the natural history line, such things as wall-germander, tansy, frogs, woodpeckers and gudgeon [10]. No-one would have observed these details who was not sensitive to the natural world.

The English delight in wild nature was expressed in ritual rather than poetry. Those same woods which in night or winter had been so monstrous, became the scene of delight on May morning. ‘They took their horses with the queen and rode on-maying in woods. and meadows as it pleased them, in great joy and delights . . . bedashed with herbs, moss and flowers in the freshest manner’ [11]. In the calendrical works of the months, May is usually represented as a young man carrying two branches of greenery. And this delight in the springing of the leaves is expressed in that evocative term ‘the greenwood’: a word purely poetical, not borrowed from the terms of art of lawyers or estate bailiffs. It is in the greenwood that the nightingale and thrush are heard to sing, it is to its shade that lovers and outlaws flee.

A strange and marginal world

The wild woods, whether beautiful or terrifying, were a strange and marginal world. May Day rituals were not simply celebrating greenness and vitality. By retrieving them from the Puckish environment of the woods these qualities were brought to the safety of the home. Even here trophies from the wildwood had to be treated with respect, and there is a long-standing prejudice against actually taking may blossom into the house. The forest is a chancey place. Anything may come to meet you under its boughs; that is the literal meaning of the ad-ventures for which Arthurian knights make their quest. In the outlaw literature, the greenwood is the place where men who are no longer men, who bear a wolf’s head, can eke out a hidden existence in the shade. In an earlier essay [12] I argued that in mediaeval imagery the high and the low, kings and beggars, display an unexpected resemblance through their shared marginal status outside the social order. If this were so, one would expect kings to have had a special interest in forests. And they did.

A forest, says the lawyer Manwood, is ‘a certain territory of woody grounds and fruitful pastures... in the safe protection of the king, for his princely delight and pleasure’ [13]. Admittedly the royal pleasure was in killing things, and the sophisticated machinery of forest law was dedicated to preserving beasts of the chase for their eventual fate, not to maintaining areas of outstanding natural beauty. The forest, in Rackham’s felicitous phrase, was a place of deer, not a place of trees. For all the lawyers cared, it might as well be a heath or fen instead of a wood. Diversity of environment was to be expected, in any case, when whole counties like Rutland or Essex could be afforested by a stroke of the pen - a power intended, not to increase the number of deer, but to raise funds by fining those who disturbed their notional habitat.

On their first introduction into English, the words desert and forest were synonymous, neither of them referring to a type of landscape but to a much more anthropocentric feature - the fact that nobody lived there. It was because they were uninhabitable that forests were claimed as royal enclaves, a property outside the boundaries of society which came to the king. But the image of the forest could change, with the suddenness of sunlight coming out from behind a cloud, away from the gloom of savage wildness and into the radiance of the greenwood. ‘For the very sight and beholding of the goodly green and pleasant woods in a forest is no less pleasant and delightful in the eye of a prince than the view of the wild beasts of forest and chase, and therefore the grace of a forest is to be decked and trimmed up with store of pleasant green coverts, as it were green arbours of pleasure for the king to delight himself in’ [14].

The mediaeval forest was intended to be beautiful and mysterious, as deliberately as any cathedral. In neither case was there any likelihood of a return on investment. Even in their thirteenth-century heyday, it took 500 acres of forest per annum to yield a single deer [15]. No consideration was given to afforestation as a practical strategy for land use. Dartmoor and the New Forest are tracts of poor land placed under forest law for want of any better use, but there is nothing wrong agriculturally with Dean, and a whole belt of forests lay across the fertile Midlands from Huntingdon to Wychwood. Where a palace stood, a forest was required - which meant that where palaces were thickest on the ground, as in Wessex, a series of minor forests follows them across the map.

Forests were living monuments to kingship, to the princely power to ride through a beautiful and uninhabited landscape dealing out life and death. Actually, the process of killing was done by professional huntsmen who worked the forests on a rota, culling the deer and salting them down in barrels for despatch to London: but that was not the stuff of poetry. Instead we have the noble image of the king’s hunt, the pursuit of a magic beast. ‘Right so as they sat there come running in a white hart into the hall, and a white brachet next him, and thirty couple of black running hounds come after with a great cry’. The dream-hunt in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess takes place in a May-time wood tinged with otherworldly sadness. And when Orfeo is lost in the hallucinatory wilderness ‘He might see him besides/ Oft in hot undertides/ The King of Faerie with his rout/ Come to hunt him all about/ With dim cry and blowing' [16].

The sport of fairy princes, it seems, is much like that of earthly ones. When Pwyll meets Arawn, the otherworldly king, they open with a polite dispute over the stag which they have both pursued [17]. You might suppose that supernatural beings of this kind are being visualised as if they were mediaeval aristocrats, but I sometimes wonder if the imitation was not the other way round. Traditions of the Wild Hunt and its congeners are so universal that it may have been the mortal kings who first went hunting because they wanted to take on themselves the magic of the fairy ride.

Redeeming Robin

But meanwhile, in another part of the forest, the wilderness protects characters of a quite different stamp. ‘In summer when the shaws be sheen/ And leaves be large and long/ It is full merry in fair forest/ To hear the fowles song’ [18] opens the poet, but this aesthetic landscape is Sherwood Forest and it harbours Robin Hood and Little John - in their earlier, unreformed avatars before they became a disinherited aristocrat and a Saxon freedom fighter, and were content to do over unwary travellers on the Great North Road. It is the greenwood that redeems Robin, and makes him poetical. Without the forest shades to disguise him, he would be just another mediaeval thug. The magic of his name does not stem from anything in the story line of the ballads, which, though strong on violence, are weak in invention. What really fired the imagination of England was the idea of a free spirit in the woods - ‘Robin was in merry Sherwood/ As light as leaf on linde’ or (if Yorkshire is the side you support) ’My dwelling is in the wood,' says Robin 'By thee I set right nought;/ My name is Robin Hood of Barnsdale’. His men wear green, like trees. They shoot with the bow, which is part of a tree. They meet, or tryst, at a special tree - ‘Then Robin took them both by the hand/ And danced round about the oak tree’; ‘Robin he walks in the green forest/ Under his trusty tree’ [19]. The roots of the Major Oak run deep.

The mise-en-scène of the Robin Hood ballads is pure romance. Living off the land may have been an option for an earlier generation: Hereward the Wake and his followers are certainly said to have resisted the forces of nine shires from the forest of Bruneswald, but even in the eleventh century this corner of Huntingdonshire can hardly have been a pathless wilderness, and it is more likely that the legend of his resistance shows how an ideal connection of wilderness and liberty was already firing the imagination [20]. Afterwards real bandits took to dramatising themselves in the language of the ballads. In 1336 Lionel, King of the Rout of Robbers (a Yorkshireman who also answered to the name of Adam of Ravensworth) was threatening the north with a later dated from ‘our castle of the wind in the Greenwood Tower in the first year of our reign’ [21]. He uses the same imagery of the geomantic tree-as-castle and of the free greenwood; we need not enquire into the squalid reality, except to suggest that Adam probably spent more of his time indoors than he cared to admit. Mediaeval England was not covered with vast tracts of wildwood into which outlaws could disappear without trace; the tree cover in Sherwood was about 25 square miles, scattered in discontinuous coppices [22] and cannot have afforded much of a hideout. Real outlaws, as recognised by the Statute of Winchester, liked to crouch in the brushwood adjoining main roads before mugging travellers and returning to drink the profits in the nearest market town.

The forest glade and the merry men are pure romance. But at least they are genuine mediaeval romance - the lure of the greenwood was there in the poems from the beginning and is not a later nostalgic development. By turning the woods into an endless labyrinthine refuge from the world of law, minstrels could turn Robin Hood into the master of a magical territory, an anti-king of inverted values, a prince of thieves in John Major’s phrase. Robber kings and their antitheses, blue-blooded bandits, are not an invention of the gothic novel. The merry men in the fourteenth-century romance of Gamelyn announce that ‘our master is crowned of outlaws king’; and the climax of the fifteenth-century ballad of the Nut-Brown Maid comes when a soi-disant banished man reveals (in the manner of the chorus in the Pirates of Penzance) that he is the son of a peer [23]. Robin Hood takes this metaphor a stage further. He lives in the king’s forest; he lives off the king’s deer; he passes judgement on the king’s officers. The narrative of the Little Gest develops steadily to the point where the real king goes in person to the greenwood, feasts in disguise among Robin’s band, and then reveals his identity. After that climactic meeting everything winds down, since Robin can no longer act as a king-by-proxy. He leaves the marginal environment of the forest, goes to court, goes to seed, and his last adventure is his death.

Paradoxically, this regal imagery refers to a state of things which was already archaic by the time the ballads were composed. Between 1300 and 1325 the machinery of forest administration fell into disuse; visits of justices ceased and the administration of courts passed to local initiative [24]. Forestry changed its emphasis from the production of venison to the growth of timber - though deer parks, the economic successors to forests, continued to supply meat until the days of Capability Brown [25]. Later generations of royalty had certainly lost none of their passion for hunting. Henry VIII had a great circuit of palaces built in Surrey, each with an associated park where he could act the part of an invincible master at the expense, for once, of wildlife rather than wives. ‘The hunt is up, the hunt is up/ And it is well nigh day/ And Harry our King is gone hunting/ To bring his deer to bay’ [26]. But the days of the forest as an otherworldly landscape were over. Charles I tried reinstating them as a tax dodge in the years of personal rule but, when he died, the magic died with him.

The dangers of viewing the past through a haze of romance are well known. At the Edge readers, of all people, ought to be on their guard against it. But it is just as blinkered to regard mystical, intuitive responses to the spirit of place as if they were a modern invention, a form of recreation unknown to our blunt ancestors. People are more complicated than that, and so is the landscape, which people share and always have shared with supernatural forces.


1: Christopher Frayling, Strange Landscape, BBC Books, 1995 p208
2: Psalm 65:11-13
3. Rune Poem ger in Tony Linsell, Anglo-Saxon Mythology, Migration and Magic, Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994 p82. Linsell deliberately mistranslates his text in order to paganise God into Frigg. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum!
4: Fitznells Cartulary edited by C.A.F.Meekings and Philip Shearman, Surrey Record Society 1968 pxviii; and, for the broader context, John Blair, Early Medieval Surrey, Alan Sutton, 1991 p81-82
5: R.T. Davies, Mediaeval English Lyrics, Faber & Faber, 1963 p261; Donald B. Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, New York 1966 p192
6: Quoted in Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World, Penguin 1984 p257
7: Chretien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, Dent 1914 p182; Pearl, Cleanliness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Dent 1976 p186
8: Chris Lovegrove, 'A Fountain in Broceliande', Pendragon 24 ii (1994) p4-9
9: Kenneth Jackson, A Celtic Miscellany, Penguin 1971 p73, 280
10: A.D. Mills, Dorset Place-names, Roy Gasson 1986 p37, 75, 86, 93, 134
11: Thomas Malory, Works, Oxford UP 1977 p650
12: Jeremy Harte, ‘The power of lonely places’, Mercian Mysteries 23 (1995) p8-13
13: John Manwood, A Treatise and Discourse of the Lawes of the Forrest, London 1598
14: Op. cit.
15: Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside, Dent, 1986 p138
16: Malory, op.cit. 63; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Complete Works, Oxford UP 1974 p271 (significantly the locus amoenus trope has been adapted from garden to forest); Sands, op.cit. p193
17: The Mabinogion, Penguin 1976 p47
18: R.B. Dobson and J.Taylor, Rhymes of Robyn Hood Alan Sutton 1989 p115 (Robin Hood and the Monk)
19: Op.cit. p121, 144; 152 for the trysting tree, and again p99, 130 and 141; for the oak tree, J.C. Holt, Robin Hood, Thames & Hudson 1983 p58
20: Victor Head, Hereward, Alan Sutton 1995 p116,125
21: Holt, op.cit. p58
22: Rackham, op.cit. p293
23: Sands, op.cit. p174; W. Carew Hazlitt, Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England, John Russell Smith 1866 p271- 294
24: Holt, op.cit. p77
25: The stag continued its role as a signifier for ‘gentleman’s residence’ – see Tom Williamson, Polite Landscapes Alan Sutton 1995 p4, 21, 145
26: Edmonstone Duncan, Lyrics from the Old Song Books, Routledge 1927 p43

Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.

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