17th-century woodblock from the ballad sheet 'The May Day Country Mirth'
'Dancing in masks, disorderly noises...''
The first of May has been celebrated since ancient times to honour the seasonal rebirth of vegetation. While the Romans had their Floralia, the Celts observed Beltane, and Germanic peoples
had their equivalent, known as Walpurgisnacht.
Maytime revels were already controversial in the 13th century, though there is no mention of the Morris as yet. The earliest accounts chiefly refer to the practice of going out into the countryside to gather
flowers and greenery and ‘bring in the May’. Branches and blossom were used to decorate homes and public buildings, so welcoming the season.
In 1250, the Chancellor of Oxford University forbade ‘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.’
'Men attired in women's apparel...'
Morris dancing was first recorded in England in 1448
when the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London made payments to a harper, a piper and morris dancers to perform at their annual feast. No one knows for sure how it started, but it does seem that the Morris was originally danced as some form of Court entertainment
and only later became more widespread as a rural activity, perhaps fusing with local traditions.
By the 16th century May games and morris dancing are closely associated. In Oxford in 1599, we are told:
‘The inhabitants assembled
on the two Sundays before Ascension Day, and on that day, with drum and shot and other weapons, and men attired in women’s apparel, brought into the town a woman bedecked with garlands and flowers named by them the Queen of the May. They also had morris
dancers and other disordered and unseemly sports, and intended the Sunday to continue the same abuses.’
It is interesting to note the reference to Ascension Day (traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter). This may fall
in May or June, so the revels were not only associated with May Day itself but with more general springtime festivities. In Oxford, beating the parish bounds on Holy Thursday was an age-old custom with which the games were associated. And throughout Britain,
they were often celebrated around Whitsuntide, which often falls in June.
The report also alludes to ‘men attired in women’s apparel’. Cross-dressing was a ribald feature of morris celebrations, which particularly scandalised opponents.
The Puritan Christopher Fetherston fulminated against the practice in his Dialogue Against Light, Lewd and Lascivious Dancing (1582). ‘For the abuses which are committed in your May games are infinite. The first whereof is this, that
you do use to attire men in women’s apparel, whom you do most commonly call May Marrions, whereby you infringe that straight commandment which is given in Deuteronomy 22.5. That men must not put on women’s apparel for fear of enormities.’
Confrontations are recorded. In 1598 there was a May game clash between some youths of the town and the University authorities. The revellers included the mayor’s son, William Furness. In 1617 ‘riding company’ disguised on May Day were
held to be in contempt of the Mayor and council. The subversive crew included William Stevenson an apprentice, William Stapler, Frost the cobbler, Peter Short the cutler, Tilcock the painter and Pigeon the chimney sweep. All the riders were put in the stocks
for two hours the next market day, with papers on their hats explaining the cause of their punishment.
'This stinking idol...'
Ironically, all the most vivid descriptions of the Maytime frolics are provided by the Puritan pamphleteers
who most detested them. Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses (1583) paints a wonderfully lurid picture, describing how men and women, young and old, would run out to the woods on May Eve and spend all night making merry. They returned in the morning
with birch and branches of trees, in big crowds.
‘Their chiefest jewel they bring home from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twenty or forty yoke of Oxen every Ox having a sweet nose-gay
of flowers placed on the tip of his horns. This 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 with two or three
hundred men, women and children 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.’
The Maypole seems to have been the focal point for wider festivities, and the ‘summer houses, bowers and arbours’
evoke quite elaborate scenes. The bowers may have been shady retreats in which to chill out; for serving ale; or both. Altogether, accounts irresistibly evoke contemporary preparations for setting up an impromptu rave.