And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 11. juni 2011


But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge
-Woodwose, Ted Hughes

As an aspiring historian of mentalities and the Middle Ages I have an immense fascination for worldviews of the past, chiefly the Medieval worldview. Part of the historian's task is to understand or at least be familiar with the realities peoples in ages past believed themselves to inhabit. These realities can be very strange to our modern minds, but it is all the more important, therefore, to abandon our modern-day prejudices when examining or studying the worlds that once were, regardless of whether they existed or not.

There are numerous windows into the Medieval mind through which we can peer and attempt to gather some knowledge, but we can never enter through those windows so the knowledge we harvest is imperfect at best, whereas sometimes we just get it wrong. Some of the best windows are those of cultural aspects, be it literature, art, architecture or folklore. It is partly because of this I have a strong fascination for legendary creatures. We now know that the mythical beasts encountered in Medieval bestiaries or architecture, for instance, either never existed or were at best based on real animals but distorted by interpretation and misunderstanding. To the Medieval man or woman, however, this was not the case; to them basilisks, griffins and dogheads - just to mention a few favourites of mine - were as real as the fox or the heron. Historians must necessarily take this into account, and I have made it a mission of mine to accumulate knowledge of mythical beasts that once roamed the realities of ages past.

One of these creatures is the woodwose, a wild man of the woods that appear either covered in hair or leaves and which can be found in numerous works of art or literature from the Late Antiquity to modern times, particularly they are to be found in carvings of wood or stone adorning Medieval architecture.Mike Harding's A Little Book of the Green Man is a very nice compilation of such carvings; he has chronicled various green men in English churches and Javanese temples alike.

I have myself stumbled across a couple of woodwoses in York, or three to be more precise, but I am convinced I would have found more had I searched more diligently. The pictures are not very great, but they should give you an idea of some of the woodwose's appearances.

I am the face in the leaves,
I am the laughter in the forest,
I am the king of the wood.
- Mike Harding

The above woodwose is found on the exterior of St. Mary's Church in York, and this is perhaps one of its most typical depiction: the vegetable man with leafy branches issuing from its orifices. I became very happy when I discovered it.

It was to weet a wilde and saluage man,
Yet was no man, but onely like in shape,
And eke in stature higher by a span,
All ouergrowne with haire, that could awhape
An hardy hart, and his wide mouth did gape
With huge great teeth, like to a tusked Bore:
For he liu'd all on rauin and on rape
Of men and beasts; and fed on fleshly gore,
The signe whereof yet stain'd his bloudy lips afore.
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

The above picture shows a circular bench nearby the York Minster. In the background you can see what was formerly the archbishop's palace, which now houses York Minster Library. This carving is of course modern, but it is deeply rooted in the age-old vision of a beastly humanoid.

Edmund Spenser in his description, as quoted above, merges the wild man of English folklore with the creature Orc found in Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which was Spenser's chief source of inspiration to his epic poem.

Sumwhyle wyth wormes he werres, and with wolves als,
Sumwhyle wyth wodwos that woned in the knarres
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Anonymous

This picture shows a ceiling boss from the Guildhall. When you stand in the main hall and look up you'll see several woodwoses staring down at you with a grin in their leafy faces. I do not know how old these carvings are, but although the hall itself is Medieval I suspect the above decoration to be a result of more recent endeavours. Nonetheless, it was a very gratifying discovery.

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