The Dirt on the Jack-in-the-Green
(Originally published in Druid's Progress 13)
When most Pagans hear of a Jack-in-the-Green, they almost always imagine either a Green Man or Robin Hood. I was one those Pagans. Now I know better and here's why...
May first is, to most of us, a beginning. Spring has arrived and all life rejoices. Not so for chimney sweeps. Perhaps your mind did a flip flop. Chimney sweeps? Whatever do you mean? May heralds the end of the busy season for sweeps. Who needs to have their flue cleaned in the summer heat? So May Day was a sweep's chance to earn a few coppers before unemployment set in. But I get ahead of myself.
Customs overlap (with only 365 chances to celebrate, they must) and milk maids had a custom of garlanding their pails on May Day and singing through the streets (1). No doubt a pretty sight and a well-rewarded one, as pennies were often cast into the pails. As in all things, competitions arose and the maids began trying to out shine (literally) their neighbors, by collecting silver spoons, plate and tankards and arranging them in conical forms upon their Heads (2). Eventually, even this out-grew itself and palanquins were used to cart the borrowed plate through the streets before the girls (3). Then added to the menagerie were a fiddler and a drummer. Yes, this is developing into a parade, with rich rewards to be had.
As one moved into the poorer quarters of town, one encountered the chimney sweeps and their 'climbing boys' facing long months of little income. So the sweeps took a cue from the maids and began their own display. Wearing their best suits, bedecked in colored paper and gilt, garlands on their hats and beating shovel with brush, the sweeps took to the streets (4). Fiddle and drum were easy to come by, but what of the silver) Maintaining the maid's conical form, by extending it to man size and covering it with foliage, Jack-in-the-Green was born (5). Sometimes surmounted by a green crown, sometimes with flowers, Jack joined the troupe.
By bringing a bit of the forest into the city, the sweeps enjoyed a 'locomotive mass of foliage,' (6) to Maypole around.
A nice theory, but it won't wash.
Forced daily to risk life and limb to earn a living, sweeps no doubt longed for a tactile sign of life outside the coal dust. By spending one day a year dancing around a figure totally encased in living vegetation, they were in touch with a symbol of life and renewal (7).
The recurring theme of a Lord and a Lady (usually a man in 'fancy dress') traditionally, always have a Fool in attendance. 'Jack' could be viewed as fulfilling the role, adding the needed unexpected quality to the show. Parallels have been drawn between the two and at St. Wandrille, Normandy, he is combined and represented by a foliate Fool (8).
This too, is far-fetched.
No, what really happened was; Lord and Lady Montagu were happily delivered of a healthy son. While enjoying the pleasures of a noble infancy, the child was left unattended for a crucial instant and was spirited away by gypsies. Sold to a chimney sweep, he became a climbing boy and suffered the kind of torment only dreamed of in romantic novels. After a particularly bad day he either; A) was recognized by a footman of his lost family household or B) fell asleep in Lord Montagu's bed where either a) his mother discovered him or b) his mother discovered him and demanded to see a birthmark on his arm. Either way, the family was reunited. Thereafter, Lady Montagu annually feasted chimney sweeps on May 1st, the day her son was returned to her. On May 2, 1799, this appeared in the Times, 'The donations given by Mrs. Montagu, of Portman Square, every May-day, proceed from pure benevolence towards the distressed poor. The story which has been generally believed of her having lost a child, who was trepanned from her house, is wholly unfounded' (10).
So, where does this leave us?
Luckily, it leaves us with a thrilling sense of wonder.
As we scan the history that appeals to us, we root out bits of things, or whole chunks, we need to add to our days, rituals, lives. To many people, Jack-in-the-Green is such a thing. In the early twentieth century only a handful of old men remembered being told about Sweeps' Day/May first and yet, at Hastings Castle, a Jack-in-the-Green can be seen on May first this year and next year and as long as the people who need it are alive (11).
Long may they live.