Calens Mai or May Day

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry calendar image for May, MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry calendar image for May

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 or shared an common IE ancestor.

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 collection of the psalms and scriptures and prayers to be used on a given day throughout the year. Calendar pages, featuring the zodiac symbol for the month and a depiction of labors or pastimes associated with the month and a list of the local feast days and saint’s days, are a standard feature in Books of Hours.

The image at the top is from the May calendar page 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; the top shows the zodiac symbol for Gemini and the astrological position of the sun. This labor for May 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.

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’s, 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.

Beltane or Beltaine (OI) is important in Irish myth as well, though the Irish seem to have favored November 1, or Samhain (OI 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. You may sometimes see the Gemini, the twins associated with May via the astrological symbol on most calendar pages in books of hours, looking as if they might be fornicating behind a bush (and yes, sometimes they”re both sexes, sometimes both are male).

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.”1). Edith Wheeler. “Irish Versions of Some Old Ballads.” <cite>Journal of the Irish Folklore Society</cite> 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).

The Middle English lay of Sir Orfeo and the associated Child ballad “King Orfeo” both have Herodis “taken” by the fairies “in the comessing of May” .

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.

References   [ + ]

1. . Edith Wheeler. “Irish Versions of Some Old Ballads.” <cite>Journal of the Irish Folklore Society</cite> I 41–48; 47. Collected from the singing of Ann Carter. URL ML 5 I68 v. 1-10).

Yes, there is New Medieval Celtic Literature

Thanks to a newly discovered medieval Cornish manuscript fragment the amount of Medieval Cornish literature has increased by about twenty percent. The fragment was discovered among the papers of the recently deceased Celticist, J. E. Caerwyn Williams, whose papers were donated to the National Library of Wales.

The manuscript, NLW MS 23849D, consists of ten pairs of leaves (20 folios), foliated, 7, [8, 9], 10-13, 16-19, 22-9. As you can see, there are a number of missing pages. It is written in a secretary hand of the mid sixteenth century, by a professional scribe, copying an earlier manuscript which he refers to as containing five torn leaves. It contains two previously unknown Middle Cornish plays, one, about the life of Saint Kea, a Celtic saint favored in Cornwall and in Brittany, and whose life is described in medieval Breton texts. The second play is possibly even more important, since it is Arthurian in nature, derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannice (Books ix.15; x.1-13; xi.1-2). It refers to King Arthur’s quarrel with the fictive Roman emperor, Lucius Hiberius, about British tribute to Rome. It ends with Arthur’s victory and the emperor’s death in battle, and it also alludes to the clandestine relationship of Arthur’s nephew, Modred, with Queen Guenevere (yes, that is one of the Arthurian variants). I am not aware of any other extant medieval play about Arthur, so this is a Big Deal. Neither text is complete, and both are currently being edited by Graham C. G. Thomas and published by the National Library of Wales where he is a Senior Assistant Archivist in the Department of Manuscripts.

Even if you aren’t a medievalist or Celticist, this really is a piece of good news. There isn’t a lot of medieval Cornish literature left; much of it was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. The last native speaker of Cornish died in the late eighteenth century. There are currently several different forms of Cornish that have been carefully reconstructed as part of a language revival, but no native speakers in the usual sense. Of the extant medieval literature, there are two short pieces, one of them a poem on the Passion, the Pascon Agan Arluth, another a fragment on the back of a charter, offers a somewhat sardonic view of marriage and is the earliest known extant Cornish. The bulk of extant medieval Cornish literature is in the form of miracle and mystery plays from the fifteenth century, specifically a play about the Cornish saint, Saint Meriasek in Peniarth MS. 105. L 430, and parts of a mystery cycle, the Cornish Ordinalia, MS. Bodleian 791. The manuscript contains plays on the Creation, Passion of Christ and Resurrection, in Cornish verse, with Latin stage directions and diagrams. There are also bits of Middle English in the plays, typically in the lines of the devils and other villains.

Roman and Celtic Olfactory History

I’m working on my diss, and I notice that one of my citations lacks the publication date. I borrowed the book from a friend, and returned it long ago, so I decide to use Amazon to check the data. In the process I discover that there are, I kid you not, scratch and sniff history texts for kids. Like Roman Aromas, of which the publisher says:

Young readers will learn that smells have played a powerful role in our history with these often funny tours back in time

When the Romans arrived in Britain they soon showed the rampaging Celts the way to perfumed perfection. Poor old Celts–with their oils, and baths, and drains those Romans really got up their noses. Sample the splendors of the public baths and a fabulous feast, or suffer with the soldiers in the frozen latrines on Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. You won’t forget those Roman Aromas in a hurry.

There are others in the Smelly Old History series.

Speaking of Roman history, and things Celtic, Julius Caesar, invader of England and less than kind to the Celts, has his own Bloggus Caesari.

Vellum beats Silicon

Back in 1986, as a celebration of the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book, the census ordered by William the Bastard (that’s William the Conqueror to Sasenachs), Britain spent millions to compile text, images and, maps, audio and video recordings, as a snap shot of Britain, and stored them on laser discs as part of the Domesday Book project.

They created discs that are almost unreadable today, not because of laser rot, but because of obsolete equipment. The irony of this, as the article points out, is that the medieval manuscript is quite readable today, if you know the language and the script. There’s even an expensive archive-quality facsimile, not to mention the Bayeux tapestry.

At my old job I used to hoard working but old hardware—I knew where to get access to an old IBM Display writer, old 5 1/2 inch floppy disc drives, I had an SE under my desk to help faculty with old 3 1/2 inch Mac 800 and 400K disks, and my spouse and I have carefully archived docs and installers for a variety of old programs with proprietary data formats, not to mention things like Syquest and DAT drives.

There’s a sick irony in that cuneiform and manuscripts are more durable than digital media. But digital decay and technical obsolescence are real problems, problems we’ve known about for years.

A Circle of Stones

According to AP, by way of Yahoo, Professor Judith S. Young, Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has built a sun circle, a celestial computer along the lines of Stonehenge, or Avebury. I’ve taken pains to point out elsewhere that Stonehenge, like Avebury, or the passage tomb at Brugh Na Boine (that’s Newgrange, Ireland to you), wasn’t built by the Celts (its earliest stage predates their arrival in Britain by over a thousand years) but Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments are too deeply entrenched with things druidic and Celtic in the popular imagination to ever be disassociated.

Stonehenge looms large in our imaginations—even though Averbury—the largest such circle in Europe, is physically much larger, and Woodhenge, one of several circles at Stanton Drew, is older. Folklore names Stonehenge the “Giants Dance,” and credits Merlin as the chief architect, but those myths are comparatively recent. The circle has had a surprisingly small role in British myth, given its age and magnitude. The passage tomb at Brugh Na Boine, constructed to mark the solstice, plays a much larger role in Irish myth, and is featured in several of the tales that preface the Táin.