Saturday 27 April 2019

May Day by Janie Hampton

'Bringing in branches at Maytime', from 
A Book of Hours by Jean Poyer, 1500

The first of May has been important in our family ever since my grandmother Rachel Gurney was born on that day in 1886. Two years later, her sister Richenda was also born on 1 May. Both survived into their 80s and enjoyed many shared birthday parties.
For over 30 years I have lived in Oxford, where May Morning has been celebrated since mediaeval times with garlands of greenery, dancing and music.
The new growth of Spring has been celebrated in Europe since ancient times: the Romans celebrated Floralia, the Celts observed Beltane, and Germanic peoples had Walpurgisnacht. The early Christian church incorporated the lively pagan traditions involved in  bringing in the May, but by 1250, the Chancellor of Oxford University felt the need to  forbid ‘alike in churches, all dancing in masks or with disorderly noises, and all processions of men wearing wreaths and garlands made of leaves of trees or flowers or what not.’ However Spring is Spring and not easily repressed, so by 1550 in Thame, the churchwardens had again bought fifteen yards of green and yellow fabric and bells to make coats for their Morris dancers. In Abingdon in 1566, the churchwardens‘paid for setting up Robin Hood’s bower, eighteen pence.’ ‘Church ales’, or festivals, were often used as  fund-raising events. The church financed the amusements and sold the ale. Profits then paid for the maintenance of the parish church, and  alms to the poor.
Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses (1583) describes how hundreds of people of all ages ran into the woods on May Eve and made merry all night. At dawn they returned with branches of trees, pulled by twenty or forty yoke of oxen, each with a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns. ‘Their chiefest jewel they bring home from thence is their Maypole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top they straw the ground about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer houses, bowers and arbours hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it, as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their Idols.’

File:St. George's Kermis with the Dance around the Maypole by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.jpg
St. George's Kermis with the Dance around the Maypole', 
Pieter Breughel the Younger, 16th century. 
Note the drinking bower on the right  
In 1598 there was a May Day clash between Town and Gown in Oxford when youths, including the mayor's son William Furness, fought the University authorities. Nineteen years later, a group of  young men were found guilty of insulting the Mayor by dressing up on May Day.  William Stevenson an apprentice, Frost the cobbler, Peter Short the cutler, Tilcock the painter and Pigeon the chimney sweep were held in the stocks for two hours the next market day, with paper notices pinned to their hats describing their offences.
King James I was entertained by ‘Suites for morrice dancers all lyke with garters of bells’ on his first Royal Progress to Oxford in 1605. He described Maypoles and Morris dancing as ‘harmless recreation’ in his 1618 Book of Sports.
17th-century woodblock from the ballad sheet 'The May Day Country Mirth'
During Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate , May revels were shut down everywhere. In Oxford, Anthony Wood reported on May Day in 1648 . ‘ This day the Visitors, Mayor, and the chief officer of the well-affected of the University and City, spent in zealous persecuting of the young people that followed May-Games, by breaking of Garlands, taking away fiddles from Musicians, dispersing Morrice-Dancers, and by not suffering a green bough to be worn in a hat or stuck up at any door, esteeming it a superstition or rather an heathenish custom.’
With the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, May Games returned, to widespread public  rejoicing, and Wood reported, ‘the people of Oxon were so violent for Maypoles in opposition to the Puritans that there was numbered 12 Maypoles besides 3 or 4 morrises.’
However, to  Thomas Hall, Flora was a heathen goddess. He wrote in 1660, Funebria florae, the downfall of May-games, that Flora was ‘the whore of the city of Rome, in the county of Babylon’. She attracted a pack of ‘ignorants, atheists, papists, drunkards, swearers, swash-bucklers, maid-marions, morris dancers, maskers, mummers, may-pole stealers, health-drinkers, gamesters, lewd men and light women’.
By the late 17th Century, singing from church towers was widespread in Europe, and Oxford diarist Anthony Wood, recorded in 1695: ‘the choral ministers of this House do, according to an ancient custom, salute Flora every year on the first of May, at four in the morning, with vocal music of several parts. Which having been sometimes well performed, hath given great content to the neighbourhood and auditors underneath’. They then processed to St Bartholomew’s Hospital on Cowley Road, with ‘lords and ladies, garlands, fifes, flutes and drums to salute the great goddess Flora and to attribute her all praise with dancing and music.’ This was only abandoned after too many  clashes between Magdalen men and ‘the rabble of the town’.
Hornblowers accompany the May garland, from Hone's Table Book of 1827. 
During the 18th century, boys in Oxford blew horns early on May morning. In 1724, Thomas Hearne writes: ‘The custom of blowing them prevails at Oxford, to remind people of the pleasantness of that part of the Year, which ought to create Mirth and Gayety.’ ‘Whit-Horns’ were made from strips of willow bark wound into a funnel and fixed with hawthorn or blackthorn spines. The reed was made of bark and the mouthpiece pinched to create a primitive oboe. From about 1800, Oxford town boys blew their horns at the foot of Magdalen Tower to drown out the choristers.
May Day outside the parish church Great Tew, Oxfordshire, 1911.
The Victorians forgot about the pagan origins of May Day celebrations as they embraced the myth of Merrie Olde England. Three Victorian men helped popularise May Day: Alfred Tennyson with his poem The May Queen; William Holman Hunt with his painting May Morning on Magdalen Tower; and John Ruskin who taught trainer teachers May Day dances at Whitelands College in Chelsea.
By the early 20th Century when my granny Rachel married a vicar, choosing the May Queen was an important part of the parochial calendar. Once seen as a pagan goddess in human form, she was now chosen not for her beauty, but for her regular attendance at Sunday School!
Grand-daughters and great nieces celebrate Rachel and Richenda's
80th and 78th  birthdays, May 1 1968.  The author is on the far left. 
The people of Oxford still celebrate May Morning, starting at 6 a.m. with Magdalen College choir singing the 17th Century Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower. Church bells then peal out over the city for 20 minutes, and the carousing begins. In Broad Street the Whirly Band  play 'Rough Music'; Sol Samba perform on Magdalen Bridge; and Oxford's community street band Horns of Plenty in Queen’s Lane. Pubs and cafés are open from dawn.
An alternative May Day was started in 1972 by the sculptor Michael Black (1928-2019). His daughter Chess recalls, ‘Michael built a 30 ft high scaffold replica of Magdalen Tower. A full-size plaster ox was decorated with flowers and filled with beer. The Headington Morris men danced outside the Anchor Pub near Aristotle Bridge.Then the dancers came to a slap-up breakfast at Michael's house, cooked by us daughters! Much more drinking and singing followed.’ This year, there will be a wake for Michael in the form of more dancing, drinking and singing at dawn.

1 comment:

Donna S said...

Very interesting post and it must be lovely to live in Britain where May Day is warm and there is greenery. Here in Canada we are still having snow and cold temps. Very discouraging. It has been a long cold winter and I wish we could celebrate Spring!