May 1 – Part 3: “May Day” in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern Europe

For most people nowadays, late June marks the beginning of Summer with the occurrence of the Summer Solstice, the day which holds the longest period of sunshine. However, this view is relatively recent. Even in some societies to this day, the Summer Solstice of late June marks the high point, the middle, of Summer. So with that being said, when did these people think that Summer actually began?

For centuries, the beginning of Summer was said to occur exactly half-way between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice. This would place the beginning of Summer in early May. In medieval, Renaissance, and the early modern period, the first day of May, known as “May Day”, was a festival commemorating the arrival of warm weather.

Interestingly, the day before on April 30, known as “May Eve”, was traditionally regarded in Europe as a time when the evil powers of Darkness surged in their potency. At least two of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Very Old Folk” feature black magic being practiced on this day and on “All Hallow’s Eve”, October 31. The 17th Century author John Aubrey has the following to say in his book Remains of Gentilism and Judaism concerning these matters: “’Tis commonly say’d, in Germany, that the Witches doe meet in the night before the first day of May upon an high mountain called the Blocksberg, where they together with the Devils doe dance and feast and the common People doe the night before ye said day fetch a certain thorn and stick it at their house door believe that the witches can then doe them no harm” (1). This likely explains people decorating their doorways with hawthorn, which was believed to have protective powers against the forces of Darkness.

While celebrations commemorating the beginning of Summer are common throughout the world, the European traditions which are most frequently associated with “May Day” appear to be of a mixture of Roman, Celtic, and Germanic origin. These festivities appear to have been especially popular with the Germans and all those of Germanic stock, including the English. In fact, one passage from 1868 observe that “The festival of May-day is more generally celebrated in Germany than elsewhere” (2). Reverend W. S. Lach-Szyrma, who wrote an article on May Day in 1882, likens it to being the English version of the ancient Roman flower festival known as the Floralia, even going so far as to suggest that the ancient Roman feast day might be the direct ancestor of the modern May Day (3). Indeed flowers played a very prominent part in the May Day celebrations from medieval times onwards.

There is very little which suggests what the ancient Germanic traditions may have been concerning May Day, if the Germanic barbarians even celebrated it at all. One suggestion may be found within the ancient totem known as the Irminsul, meaning “the great pillar” in Old Saxon. This was a large wooden column, and it was an important symbol of pre-Christian Germania, erected upon the principal holy site of Germanic paganism (4). However, there are very few references to this site, with the earliest hints of this pillar existing dating to the Dark Ages. So far, no definitive mentions of this cult site have been found within any ancient Roman document. Indeed, very little information about the ancient Germanic religion is preserved within the Classical sources.

The ancient Germans did not build temples, with the Roman writer Tacitus claiming that the Germans believed it to be improper to confine gods within walls, or to have divine celestial beings represented in an all-too-mortal human form. They did, however, have locations that they believed to be sacred – lakes, certain tree groves, etc. – and conducted rituals there. The Germanic portrayals of gods consisted mostly of large wooden “pillar idols”. Unlike the detailed marble and bronze Mediterranean sculptures common to Greece and Rome, these large column-shaped poles with roughly-carved faces on the top were very stylized and simple. It has been suspected that they may represent a fertility cult, since they could be taken to be large penises. The fact that many of these pillar idols are forked in two at the bottom could corroborate this, being perhaps stylized versions of testicles. However, I believe that the supposed connection between the pillar idols and phallic symbols may be a bit of a stretch, and they are simply overly-simplified human forms. Many of these pillar idols have been discovered in bogs, and it’s thanks to the anaerobic quality of the water that these wooden sculptures have been preserved (5).

The German writer Jacob Grimm, of Grimm’s Fairy Tales fame, makes a connection to the Greek god Hermes, who is interchangeable with the Roman god Mercury. He claims that the Greeks erected pillars to Hermes, which were known as Hermae, which the author claims is linguistically related to the Germanic irmin (6). However, I am not aware of any “sacred pillars” erected by either the Greeks or Romans to Hermes/Mercury. This connection might be contrived from the ancient Roman historian Tacitus’ claim that the god which the German barbarians principally worshiped was Mercury (7). This is of course false, since Mercury is a Roman deity, and the ancient Romans themselves scarcely took serious note of the religions of the people that existed beyond the empire’s borders.

While I’m not aware of pillars erected in honor of Mercury, the Romans did erect ceremonial pillars dedicated to Jupiter, the king of the gods. Interestingly, these “Jupiter columns”, as they are sometimes referred to by modern archaeologists and art historians, were particularly common within the borderlands of Roman Gaul which butted up against German territory, and only small numbers of these columns are found elsewhere in the Roman Empire. So far, approximately 550 examples of these columns have been found, all of which are dated between 170 to 240 AD. The base of the column was a rectangular block pedestal, with each of the four outward faces depicting a different god – usually Juno, Minerva, Mercury, and Hercules. On top of this would be a smaller secondary pedestal, either square or cylindrical in shape, which depicted divine personifications of the seven days of the week. On top of this would be the actual column itself, which was often decorated in a pattern meant to emulate the overlapping scales of snakes. Surmounting the entire structure would be a statue of the god Jupiter. The entire column would be set up within the center of a walled enclosure measuring just a few square meters in area, and a sacrificial altar would be nearby. While many of these shrines have been found within major cities (over 40 have been found in Mainz, and more than 20 in Cologne), they were also to be found in small villages and even in privately-owned estates (8).

While almost 550 examples of Jupiter columns are known, either whole or fragments, it was determined that no two were exactly alike. Aside from individualistic artistic variation, there were also regional differences as well.  Within the northern Rhineland, Jupiter was depicted as seated upon a throne, while in the southern Rhineland he is shown as defeating a giant. According to the British historian and archaeologist Gregory Woolf, the statues represent Jupiter, the embodiment of order, triumphing over the forces of dis-order. By extension, they could also be seen as an allegory of the Roman Empire seeing itself as bringing order to the lawless animalistic barbarian wilderness, which would explain why these monuments are often found along the border of the Roman world and are seldom found within the interior (9).

One recognizable feature of today’s May Day celebrations might in fact be a hold-over from ancient Germanic paganism – the maypole. This is a tall wooden pole bedecked with flags, ribbons, flower garlands, and other forms of greenery. Several sources from the 19th and early 20th Centuries claim that the maypole is a modern vestige of the ancient veneration of trees practiced by many European tribal societies prior to their conversion to Christianity. Such rituals are seen in the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, and Dacian regions which laid beyond the boundaries of the Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Even within the Greek and Roman spheres, there were sacred woods which were believed to have heightened spiritual power or even to be the abodes of gods and goddesses (10). Yet nowhere, it seems, was the forest more strongly regarded than in Germany. The ancient Romans repeatedly remarked on how vast the forests were in ancient Germania – an immense untamed barbarian wilderness, in complete contrast to the strictly-ordered manicured countryside familiar to the Mediterranean. The sentimental and nationalistic views of the Victorian Period reinforced these ideas, leading the modern-day Germans to perpetuate this idea that the forests were somehow inherently German.

The maypole was erected to commemorate the coming of Summer. Yet it was more than just a decorative object. It was believed to possess spiritual powers of fertility, especially over women and livestock. In some parts of Germany, farmers would set up “may bushes” or “may trees” before the doors of stables and barns in order to bestow increased fertility upon the animals dwelling within, and was even thought to grant cattle the power to produce more milk. To further guarantee such potency, multiple “may trees” might be set up, one for each animal. However, there is also the idea that the purpose of the “may tree” was not to encourage fertility, but rather to guard against infertility. It was, therefore, a protective talisman to protect the livestock from death, disease, sickness, and barrenness. In particular, witches or evil spirits were thought to sally forth on May Eve and steal farmers’ milk, unless their presence was warded off. This practice afterwards transformed into pinning or entwining branches of hawthorn, buckthorn, or rowan onto doorways, as thorny trees (and hawthorn in particular) was believed to be especially repellant to witches and other sinister beings (11).

While maypoles are seen throughout Europe and elsewhere today, it would seem that they are of Germanic origin. Maypoles were frequently seen on May Day in continental Europe, but they weren’t adopted in England until the second half of the 14th Century. Even in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, maypoles were only seen in those areas which had a strong English influence. Otherwise, the fire festivals associated with the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane were practiced within those regions, which isn’t surprising. Many regional variations existed concerning maypole traditions. In the northern German region of Saxony, food such as sausages and cakes were suspended from the top of the maypole, and one of the contests which took place on May 1 was where the young men of the village attempted to climb it in order to obtain these prizes. In the southern German region of Swabia, the maypole stood in place for a full year, until the following May 1, when it was replaced by a new one. One source states that in Bohemia, at the end of the day’s celebrations, the maypole is set on fire – a climbing column of flame, a torch in the darkness. This is similar to the Beltane bonfire of the ancient Celts, and this is no surprise since Bohemia is named after the Celtic Boii tribe who once lived there (12).

One source which goes over the May Day rituals and their origins in great detail is Sir James George Frazer’s 1890 book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. To be fair, The Golden Bough needs to be read with not just a pinch but a bucket of salt, but it is still an interesting source to look at to get unusual anthropological factoids. The maypole might have its origins as a facsimile of a sacred tree, or it could simply be a large easily-visible post which was to indicate the location where various May Day rituals were to occur. In later times, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, maypoles were identified either as phallic symbols (which was referenced in the 1973 movie The Wicker Man) or as a holdover of ancient Roman paganism. However, the fact that these structures were found within the Germanic lands of northern and central Europe indicates that it has a Germanic rather than Roman origin. One idea which was proposed was that it was a representation of the Irminsul pillar, although there is no direct evidence to corroborate this (13).

During the late medieval and Renaissance periods, the First of May was a day of great celebration and festiveness. This day was marked by a “greening” of all public spaces with the addition of leaves, branches, flowers, and shrubs. Hawthorn flowers were especially favored, although other flowers were used as well. This has been connected to a certain degree to the ancient Roman Floralia festival, although there’s no hard evidence which unequivocally links the two (14)

The act of gathering in the flowers and the greenery from the countryside first thing in the morning was regarded with great joy from city and country folk alike, whether they were nobles or peasants. The medieval English writer Geoffrey Chaucer states (15)…

Went forth all the court, both most and least,
To fetch the flowers fresh, and branch, and bloom,
And namely hawthorn brought both page and groom,
And then rejoicing in their great delight,
At each other threw the flowers bright,
The primrose, the violet, and the gold
With garlands parted in blue and white.

In medieval and Renaissance Europe, “May” not only referred to the name of the month, but it was also the term used for the flowers and greenery which was gathered to be used in the May Day celebrations. There are numerous references in documents from the 1500s and 1600s of people “gathering the May” or “bringing in the May”, meaning to gather flowers and tree branches. When people hung hawthorn or rowan branches above their doors, they were hanging the doors “with May”. Young lads would leave flowers at the doorsteps of their sweethearts saying that they had brought them “a branch of May” or “a gift of May”, or something of that sort (16).

In England and those parts of Ireland and Scotland where English customs prevailed, there was a tradition held on May 1 of a boy placing a particular plant before the door of a girl that you fancied. This possibly reflected the belief that the “may tree” had the power to promote fertility (17). To be fair, flowers have long been ascribed certain connotations. In Renaissance Europe, rosemary symbolized remembrance, while rue symbolized grace, at least according to William Shakespeare in his play The Winter’s Tale. On May Day, what particular flowers or shrubberies were left at someone’s door indicated your feelings for that person. Hawthorn branches and flowers were traditionally given as tokens of respect throughout much of northern Europe. It was considered insulting to hang blackthorn (which symbolized Winter) instead of hawthorn (which symbolized Summer) atop someone’s door. Depending on which geographic area you’re talking about, the same plant could be associated with different character traits. For example, in the countryside around Valenciennes, France, having thorn branches hung above a woman’s door indicated she was a prude. Meanwhile in Cambridgeshire, England, the exact opposite was the case – having blackthorn hung above a door indicated the women who lived there was a slut. Using these same examples, in Valenciennes, a branch from an elder tree indicated a flirtatious coquette, while in Cambridgeshire, elder symbolized that the woman was a dirty unkempt slob. In Lancashire, England, the lads often used rhyming slang in conjunction with their gifts – holly signified folly, briar meant a liar, and so forth. Some people went overboard when it came to broadcasting just exactly how they felt about a particular person. For example, in Wales, if you really…REALLY…didn’t like someone, it was the custom to leave a special gift on their doorstep on May Day – the decapitated head of a dead horse! Yikes! (18).

In western England and in Wales, there was the tradition of singing “May carols” on May Day. These May songs were especially popular during the late 1600s and early 1700s. Most of these were strongly of a religious nature, and were frequently written by members of the clergy. Groups of young men when caroling from door to door, and were often rewarded with some food and drink. Another custom associated with May Day in Europe was the selection of a local girl as the “May Queen”, and sometimes to crown a couple as the “May Queen” and “May King” as part of the day’s pageantry (19).

For a long time, it was believed that the May Day celebrations which are seen today in churchyards, small community parks, or in little village squares were wholesome and tame compared with those of yester-year. It was felt that a modern person transported back to the 1500s would find the activities which occurred on May 1 to be scandalous! Yet to the people living back then, it was only natural – this was, after all, “the Lusty Month of May”.

Until fairly recently, it was taken as historical truth that, during the 1500s and 1600s, it was commonplace for young men and women to get a bit more raunchy than usual on this day. For some reason, or perhaps for no reason in particular, May 1 was demarcated as the day in which all social conventions of sexual propriety were thrown out the window. James Frazer devotes an entire chapter of The Golden Bough to this particular subject, and the information that he presents as to the sort of activities that occurred during “the Lusty Month of May” definitely raises some eyebrows (20). Just look at the lyrics from the song of that title from the 1960 musical Camelot, and you’ll see what I mean…

Tra la, it’s May, the lusty month of May,
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.
Tra la, it’s here, that shocking time of year,
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.

It’s May, it’s May, that gorgeous holiday,
When every maiden prays that her lad will be a cad.
It’s mad, it’s gay, alive, a lust display.
Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks.
Everyone makes divine mistakes
In the lusty month of May.

Whence this fragrance wafting through the air?
What sweet feelings does its scent transmute?
Whence this perfume floating everywhere?
Don’t you know, it’s that dear forbidden fruit.

It’s May, the lusty month of May,
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away.
It’s time to do a wretched thing or two,
And try to make each precious day one you’ll always rue.

It’s May, it’s May, the month of “Yes, you may”
The time for every frivolous whim, proper or im-.
It’s wild, it’s gay, depraved in every way.
The birds and bees with all of their vast amorous past
Gaze at the human race aghast
In the lusty month of May

Tra la, it’s May, the lusty month of May
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.
Tra la, it’s here, that shocking time of year,
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear

It’s May, it’s may, the month of great dismay,
When all the world is brimming with fun, wholesome or un-.
It’s mad, it’s gay, alive a lust display.
Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks.
Everyone makes divine mistakes
In the lusty month of May.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, stories repeatedly popped up of multitudes of countryside virgins going out on May 1 to partake in the day’s celebrations, and coming back home virgins no longer! Several bawdy ballads appeared during the 1620s and 1630s telling tales of young lovers who decided to get frisky in the nearby woods on May Day. Even in the royal court, things could get a bit wild. During the reign of King Charles II, on his May Day parade in Hyde Park, London, the court ladies thought it great fun to suddenly pull down their bodices and flash any male passers-by. But are any of these stories true? While it might be true that the court ladies of King Charles II decided to “get your tits out for the lads” on a lark, the other tales told by 17th Century Puritans of the wicked deeds done on this day are almost certainly fiction. Pains-taking efforts made by historians in the late 20th Century have demonstrated that there is no documented evidence of a sudden rise in pregnancies on or around May 1 (21). But what about the tales that were often told of May 1 being marked by excessive sexual promiscuity, which makes it appear that seemingly everybody in the village was going at it like rabbits? While official government documents and medical records making note of births and pregnancies can be ascertained with a certain degree of credibility, the scale of sheer utter horniness exhibited by people in the past is much harder for modern-day academics to verify.

As you can see, there are a lot of misconceptions about May Day which simply aren’t true. However, one thing that many people can agree on is that you don’t need an excuse to have a party, and certainly a good enough reason is the arrival of warm weather. Speaking for myself, with the chilly weather that has prevailed where I live ever since the year began, extending even into late April, I’m looking forward to things warming up. Already the grass is growing thick and lush, flowers are in bloom, and new leaf-sprouts are emerging from the lifeless grey bark of the trees that line my street. Summer is a-comin’ in. Sing, cuckoo, sing…

Please read the other two articles within this set:

Source Citations

  1. Reverend W. S. Lach-Szyrma, “May Day”. The Antiquary (May 1882). Page 185.
  2. McWhorter, George C. (1868). “Whitsuntide”. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, volume 36, issue 216 (May 1868). Page 748.
  3. Reverend W. S. Lach-Szyrma, “May Day”. The Antiquary (May 1882). Page 185.
  4. Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. London: George Bell & Sons, 1882. Pages 115-119.
  5. Tacitus, “Germania”, in Chronicles of the Barbarians. New York: History Book Club, 1998. Page 81; The Germanic Tribes, episode 1 – “Barbarians against Rome”; Malcolm Todd, The Early Germans. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1995. Page 107.
  6. Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. London: George Bell & Sons, 1882. Page 118.
  7. Tacitus, “Germania”, in Chronicles of the Barbarians. New York: History Book Club, 1998. Page 80.
  8. Woolf, Greg (2001). “Representation as Cult: The Case of the Jupiter Columns”. Religion in den germanischen Provinzen Roms. Pages 117-118, 128.
  9. Woolf, Greg (2001). “Representation as Cult: The Case of the Jupiter Columns”. Religion in den germanischen Provinzen Roms. Pages 127-130.
  10. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Third Edition, Part 1 – The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Volume II. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1926. Pages 7-10.
  11. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Third Edition, Part 1 – The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Volume II. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1926. Pages 52, 54.
  12. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Page 233; Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Third Edition, Part 1 – The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Volume II. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1926. Pages 66, 68-69.
  13. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 233-234.
  14. Charles Dickens, “Beltane, or May-Day”. Household Words: A Weekly Journal, No. 477 (Saturday, May 14, 1859). Page 559; Robert R. MacGregor, “Beltane”. Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine (June 1878). In Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine. Volume XXXV – March to June 1878. London: Chatto and Windus, 1878. Page 430; Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 226-231.
  15. Miss Caruthers, Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers; Historical, Legendary, Poetical, & Symbolical. Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson, & Orr, 1879. Page 23.
  16. Miss Caruthers, Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers; Historical, Legendary, Poetical, & Symbolical. Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson, & Orr, 1879. Page 23; Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 226-227.
  17. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Third Edition, Part 1 – The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Volume II. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1926. Pages 56, 59.
  18. Miss Caruthers, Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers; Historical, Legendary, Poetical, & Symbolical. Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson, & Orr, 1879. Pages 23-24; Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 230-231.
  19. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Page 232; Miss Caruthers, Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers; Historical, Legendary, Poetical, & Symbolical. Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson, & Orr, 1879. Pages 24-26; Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Third Edition, Part 1 – The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Volume II. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1926. Pages 87-96.
  20. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Third Edition, Part 1 – The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Volume II. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1926. Pages 97-119.
  21. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 227-229.

Bibliography

Books

  • Caruthers, Miss. Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers; Historical, Legendary, Poetical, & Symbolical. Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson, & Orr, 1879.
  • Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Third Edition, Part 1 – The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Volume II. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1926.
  • Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. London: George Bell & Sons, 1882.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. https://archive.org/details/stationsofsunhis0000hutt/mode/2up.
  • Todd, Malcolm. The Early Germans. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1995.

Articles

  • Lach-Szyrma, Reverend W. S. (1882). “May Day”. The Antiquary (May 1882). Pages 185-188.
  • MacGregor, “Robert R. Beltane”. Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine (June 1878). In Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine. Volume XXXV – March to June 1878. London: Chatto and Windus, 1878. Pages 426-431.
  • McWhorter, George C. (1868). “Whitsuntide”. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, volume 36, issue 216 (May 1868). Pages 747-752.
  • Tacitus. “Germania”. In Chronicles of the Barbarians: Firsthand Accounts of Pillage and Conquest from the Ancient World to the Fall of Constantinople. New York: History Book Club, 1998. Pages 77-98.
  • Woolf, Greg (2001). “Representation as Cult: The Case of the Jupiter Columns”. Religion in den germanischen Provinzen Roms. Pages 117-134. https://www.academia.edu/554124/Representation_as_Cult_The_Case_of_the_Jupiter_Columns._.

Videos

  • The Germanic Tribes. Episode 1 – “Barbarians against Rome”. Directed by Alexander Hogh. Kultur International Films, Ltd., 2007.


Categories: History, Uncategorized

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2 replies

  1. What a series! For me, May Day has always been a peripheral celebration that has something to do with villagers dancing around a pole. You’ve really brought it to life by diving deeply into its multiple cultural sources and the fascinating connections between them.

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