Law & Folklore

May capers and the morisdauns, according to the ancient manner

“…all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils & mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes; & in the morning they return bringing with them birch & branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall and no meruaile, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lorde over their pastimes and sportes namely Sathan, prince of hel.

But the chiefest iewel they bring from thence is their May-pole which they bring home with great veneration as thus.

They have twentie or fortie yolk of Oxen, every Oxe having a sweet nosegay of flowers placed on the tip of his hornes; and these Oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinking Ydol, rather) which is covered all over with floures and hearbs, bound round about with strings from the top to the bottom, and sometime 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 hovering on the top they straw the ground rounde about, binde green boughes about it, set up sommer haules, bowers and arbors hard by it; and then fall they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols…

Philip Stubbes railing the May Day festivities in his Puritan thesis Anatomy of the Abuses in England in Shakspere's Youth in the Year of Our Lord 1583.

Fertility customs had survived centuries of Christendom, but were hard pressed to withstand the forces of the Puritans, Cromwell himself later ordering the felling of all May Poles. Even so, native power ran deep, and the springtime homage to re-birth enjoyed a recovery at the restoration of the monarchy.

With the Industrial Revolution came the disruption of country communities, and the traditions were again under severe threat when Cecil Sharp led a folklore revival which continues today, albeit in a less licentious form.

Stubbes again:

“I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of fortie, threescore or a hundred maides going to the wood over night there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.

These be the fruits which these cursed pastimes bring forth!