Medieval May Day Traditions

Back in the spring of 2018, I studied abroad at the University of Oxford. At first, I wasn’t aware of the festivities that would happen all across the city. Luckily one of my roommates told me about the May Morning celebrations the night before. At 6am, the Magdalen College Choir sings Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of the Magdalen Tower. I was fortunate enough to witness that year’s event. Due to the Coronavirus, Oxford’s May Morning 2020 has been canceled, but I recommend watching one of the many YouTube videos of past celebrations. It’s a beautifully haunting experience that has been stuck in my mind ever since.

While Hymnus Eucharisticus was written during the 17th century, the tradition of singing from the top of Magdalen Tower goes back 500 years. Witnessing this made me wonder about other European May Day celebrations that occurred in the Middle Ages and are still happening today.

Unfortunately, I  haven’t been able to find a lot of solid sources for earlier medieval traditions, so I will be focusing on two traditions from the late Middle Ages. I will note that it’s possible (and very probable) that these traditions were happening earlier than the earliest known record of them.

The Maypole

Our first tradition is the maypole. It’s a tall wooden pole that is decorated with flowers, greenery, and ribbons. During the festivities, people will dance around it, twisting the ribbons into complex patterns around the pole. It should be noted that different places in Europe put them up at different times (for example in Scandinavia maypoles are a Midsummer tradition).

maypole-dancers-at-the-bavarian-celebration-of-spring-festival-in-leavenworth-49f77e
Maypole dancers at the Bavarian Celebration of Spring festival in Leavenworth, Washington | Source: PICRYL.com

No one is quite sure when the maypole became a tradition in Britain. The earliest concrete written references to the maypole date back to the 14th century. Interestingly enough, these references occur in English and Welsh poetry. One poem is by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd and the other is by Geoffrey Chaucer. In Dafydd’s work, the maypole is a birch tree while in Chaucer’s work it is a permanent maypole erected in London.

There are mentions of possible maypoles in medieval legal documents, but due to misreadings and Middle English’s lack of standardized spelling, it can’t be said for sure if the authors were referring to maypoles. (They may have been referring to a pool of water, for example.)

Morris Dancers

Morris dancing is a folk dance that includes one person playing an instrument while the rest of the group performs in costume. The dancers I saw in Oxford wore white, silly hats, and had bells tied to their shins. As the music is played, the dancers use the bells and big sticks to add to the melody.

Morris.dancing.at.wells.arp
Morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England. (Exeter Morris Men) |Photo by Adrian Pingstone | Source: Wikipedia

The tradition is not without controversy. Border Morris dancers (usually found near the English-Welsh border) wear blackface. This seems to be slowly changing as festivals are starting to ban blackface. However, not all dancers do this. (I will add that the morris dancers I saw were not wearing blackface.)

The earliest known reference to morris dancers dates back to the year 1448 in an inventory for Sir John Fastolf’s castle. He owned a tapestry with morris dancers on it. If the dancers were on an item like this, then the tradition must be older than 1448.