Long before May 1 became associated with workers, it was associated with the joys of spring and the restoration of fertility to the land. The Celtic festival of Beltaine (Modern English Beltane) is the ancestor of the calens Mai, or May Day associated with May 1, and I suspect the Roman floralia may have contributed. Beltaine is one of the four main Celtic seasonal festivals, and as a liminal time, between the death of winter and the birth of the warm half of the year, it is one of the occasions when the barriers between the mortal world and the otherworld are easily passed (Rees and Rees, 1961, 89-90). Perhaps because the Celts counted the passing of time in “nights,” the rites of May often begin on May Eve, April 30. These rites, typically an expedition at dawn on May 1 to “bring in the May” or Hawthorne, are often preserved in some form in the Medieval manuscripts called Books Of Hours, which served as both a calendar and a program of the psalms and scriptures and prayers to be used on a given day throughout the year.
The image at the top is from the Très Riche Heures of Jean Duc du Berry, and was painted by the Limbourg brothers sometime between 1412 and 1416. The image above is from the lower portion of the calendar page for May. Calendar pages, featuring the zodiac symbol for the month and a depiction of labors or pastimes associated with the month, are common in Books of Hours,. This one shows the May jaunt, a semi-formal promenade by the aristocrats celebrating the “joli mois de Mai.” You’ll note that the participants are dressed in green, the “livree de mai.” The woman in green in the middle foreground has a headdress decorated with green leaves, perhaps freshly gathered that morning.
Here’s an image of May from a psalter in the collections of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. This psalter was created in Normandy in about 1180. The image is from the calendar page for May. A knight on horseback rides out to go hawking. He is just about to remove his hawk’s hood. There’s a common motif in May images of hawking parties, often shown in common with “processional” images. This page shows several May images from the Books of Hours in the Koninklijke, including their part of the Hours of Simon de Verie which shows a young man hawking. You’ll notice that the Book of Hours by the Master of Jean Rolin II also shows a young man hawking. You’ll also see the familiar “twins” image.
This one, BNF, Lat 18104 is fol. 3 from
John Duc du Berry’s Petites Heures, created in France, Paris 14th Century. It’s from the Bibliotheque National, and is the actual calendar page for May. Most of the images are sacred in nature, but at the top right is a couple, possibly the Gemini twins, possibly a male and female couple bathing or doing something naked. It’s similar to images on other May pages that are definitely of a young couple in an embrace.
This particular page, fol. 4r is the May calendar page from Bodleian MS. Buchanan e. 3, a Book of Hours, Use of Rouen, in Latin and French, produced in Rouen, France, c. 1500. There’s man and a woman on horseback, a typical May promenade image, and at the bottom right, a definitely naked couple embracing amidst shrubbery—another traditional May image.
The Frick Book of Hours, ND3363.P23B5 a Book of Hours in Latin and French, with the calendar in French, use of Paris; Hours of the Virgin and Hours of the Dead, use of Paris. France (Paris), c. 1475-1485 has two calendar pages for each month. The first calendar page for May, F. 5r, shows a couple hawking with dogs. The second page, F. 5v. shows the familiar nude male and female youths half hidden behind a shield.
There are, as I mentioned, many literary references to May Day, or Beltaine, and the custom of Maying. In the Celtic tales, the emphasis is on fertility and the accessibility of the Otherworld. In the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, Teyrnon, a former man of Pwyll, the lord of Dyfedd, is troubled every May eve by the mysterious disappearance of the new-born colt of his best mare (Ford 1977, 52). One of the three plagues in Lludd ac Llefelys is a scream heard every May eve. In Culhwch ac Olwen Gwythyr ap Greidawl and Gwyn ap Nudd fight every May day until Judgement Day. The winner on Judgement day will have Creidylat uerch Lud Law Ereint to wife.
Beltaine is important in Irish myth as well, though the Irish seem to have favored Novemenber 1, or Samain a bit more. The tales Scel na Fir Flatha, Echtra Cormaic i Tir Tairngiri ocus Ceart Claidib Cormaic begins at dawn on ceitemain or May 1 in Tara when Cormac makes a rash bargain with Manannan mac Lir that results in the loss of his entire family to the otherworld intruder and god of the sea.
King Ailil is killed on May 1 while meeting with a woman behind a hazel bush (Rees and Rees 337), an activity that we will see is frequently indulged in on May day even hundreds of years later.
In the ballad “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight” (Child Ballad #4), Lady Isabel “heard an elf-knight blawing his horn. / The first morning in May.”
In an Irish version of “Tam Lin” the fairies ride on the “first of May” (Edith Wheeler. “Irish Versions of Some Old Ballads.” Journal of the Irish Folklore Society I 41-48; 47. Collected from the singing of Ann Carter. URL ML 5 I68 v. 1-10).
In Malory’s “Launcelot and Guinivere” the queen is kidnapped by Mellyagaunce as she rides out on a Maying expedition, dressed all in green, “uppon the morne or hit were day, in a May mornynge” (Vinaver 1990 1120).
In Robert Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice Euridice “walkit furth in till a Maii mornyng” and was “with the fary tane” when she steps on a serpent “with that the quene of fary / Claucht hir up sone and furth with hir can cary” (Fox 1981 ll. 93; 119; 125-26).
In Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emelye when they see her rise early to “don observaunce to may,” and Chaucer later has Arcite get up early on May 3 (an important date in Chaucer‘s world) “to do his reverence to May.”
Shakespeare, picking up on references to May Day in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, used them in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
By 1583, Puritanical rant-writer Phillip Stubbes included Whitsontide and May day practices in his Anatomie of Abuses, complaining
Against May, Whitsunday, or other time, olde men and wives, run gadding over-night to the woods, groves, hills and mountains, where they spend all night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal. … But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-Pole, which they have bring home with great veneration. … They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay 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 bottome, and sometime painted with variable coulours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And this being reared up … then fall they to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, wereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of forty, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over-night, there have scarcely the third of them returned home againe undefiled.’
But perhaps the finest expression of the Rites of May we have is that in Herrick’s delightful Corrinna’s Going A-Maying.