Every man would walke into the sweet meadows

Today’s snippets are on May Day celebrations in early modern England. The traditions of dancing around a maypole are routed in European paganism, and the maypole has a troubled history. Observed by the Romans to celebrate Flora, the goddess of Flowers, May Day celebrations were strongly aligned with the arrival of spring and fertility, and the act of dancing around a maypole was symbolic of bringing the community together in thanksgiving. After the Reformation, during the reign of Edward VI, Protestants denounced the maypole as idolatrous and many were burned, but it was not until the Interregnum that May Day practises were abolished, labelled, along with much else, as dangerous superstition. Despite this, with the Restoration came the return of the maypole, and May Day traditions were once more observed. Edmund Spenser, in The Shepherd’s Calendar, describes people going out into the countryside to collect hawthorn (‘may’) branches, which they would bring home to celebrate the arrival of summer:

Yougthes folke now flocken in every where,
To gather may buskets and smelling brere:
And home they hasten the postes to dight,
And all the Kirke pillours eare day light,
With Hawthorne buds, and swete Eglantine,
And girlonds of roses and Sopps in wine

The Puritan Philip Stubbes writes with damning criticism of the annual May Day celebrations in 1583 – a sharp contrast to the fondness with which Shakespeare includes aspects of May Day in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

All the young men and maides, olde men and wives run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills & mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes, & in the morning they return bringing with them birch & branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall, and no marvaile, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Satan prince of hell. But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration. They have twentie or fortie yoke of Oxen, every Oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flowres placed on the tip of his hornes, and these Oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinking Idol rather) which is covered all ouer with flowres, and herbs bound round about with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men following it with great devotion. And thus being dressed up with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they strew the ground rounde about, binde green boughes about it, set up summer bowers and arbors hard by it. And then fall they to dancing about it like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols.

John Stow, Elizabethan England’s great surveyor, describes May Day celebrations in London:

In the Month of May, May games namely on May day in the morning, every man, except impediment, would walke into the sweet Meddowes and green woods, there to rejoyce their spirits with the beauty and savour of sweet Flowers, and with the harmonie of Birdes, praising God in their kinde. And for example hereof, King Henry the eighth, as in the third of his reigne, and divers other yeeres, so namely in the seventh of his reigne, on May day in the morning, with Queene Katharine his wife, accompanied with many Lords and Ladies, rode a Maying from Greenwich to the high ground of Shooters-hill: where as they passed by the way, they espyed a company of tall Yeomen, clothed all in greene, with greene hoods, and with bowes and arrowes, to the number of 200. One, being their Chieftaine, Robin Hood, required the King and all his company to stay and see his men shoot: whereunto the King granting, Robin Hood whistled, and all the 200 Archers shot off, loosing all at once; and when he whistled againe, they likewise shot againe: their Arrowes whistled by craft of the head, so that the noise was strange and loud, which greatly delighted the King, Queene, and their company. Moreover, this Robin Hood desired the King and Queene, with their retinue, to enter the greene Wood, where, in Arbours made with boughes, and deckt with flowers, they were set and served plentifully with venison and wine, by Robin Hood and his men, to their great contentment.

I find also, that in the month of May, the Citizens of London (of all estates) lightly in every Parish, or sometime two or three Parishes joyning together, had their severall Maynings, and did fetch in May-poles, with divers warlike shewes, with good Archers, Morice-dancers, and other devices for pastime all the day long; and towards the evening, they had stage-plaies, and Bonefires in the streets.

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One comment

  • May 3, 2010 - 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Lovely. As a May Day baby, I was always called a “May Gosling” in the Lake District – and always wanted to be a “May Queen” instead.

    This from May day dawn near the iron age ring at Wandlebury… http://twitpic.com/1jw6bx

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