May Day is the first of May, sometimes known as calens mai in Welsh. It is a day to welcome spring by “bringing in the May” (usually branches of May bush or Hawthorn in leaf) in the custom known as Maying. For the Irish, May 1 was the spring festival of Beltane.
Maying is often featured in books of hours as a scene for the calendar illuminations for May. There were carols and ring-dances about May (see for instance Herrick’s poem “Corinna’s going a Maying”), and May Day is still celebrated in many European countries with May poles, May baskets, Maying, and yes, Morris dances and hobby-horses.
The custom of declaring May 1 as a European “Labor Day” while probably good for the Worker’s Party is neither ancient nor Celtic.
Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 6v Da Costa Hours May calendar image Ghent, Belgium ca. 1515 Image courtesy of Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria. Detail: Click for the full image at The Morgan Library.
As with all of the calendar pages in this book of hours, May from the Da Costa Hours features what the Morgan Library describes as “an illusionistic frame.” In the front of the image is a boat containing a helmsman, a woman looking towards the viewer, someone playing a recorder-like instrument (the Morgan calls it a pipe and describes the musician as “a gentleman”; I suspect it’s a woman), and a woman playing a lute, looking more than a little bored. In the back, the presence of greenery suggests Maying and fetching in the green. Off the edge of the boat, hanging from the boat in the cooling water, is a flask, perhaps containing wine. On the shore a heron looks on.
Detail showing a group on horse back gathering May greenery from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours f. 6v
Beyond the boaters you can see a castle, swans, trees, and a group of four on horseback in the background in this detail from the Da Costa Hours May calendar. They too have been busy gathering the green boughs of May, as the inset detail shows. The horseman are carrying green boughs.
Here’s an image from a Book of Hours illuminated by Jean Poyer; the Hours of Henry VIII/The Prayer Book of Ann de Bretagne, from the collections of The Morgan Library. This is the calendar page for May, otherwise known as f. 3. The image below is from the top part of the folio, above the calendar proper.
Notice that it appears to be a courtship scene, entirely appropriate for May, and May day (May imaged from the calenders of books of hours tend to favor courting and hawking scenes, often accompanied by greenery). The couple look as if they’ve been out “bringing in the May,” or “getting some green,” in the wee hours of May 1.
While we know the work is that of Jean Poyer, and that it was once owned by Ann de Bretagne, there’s an unproven eighteenth-century tradition that claims King Henry of England once owned this book of hours.
Mostly, I just like the Maying scene, and the little dog.
Before discussing the May from the Golf Book, I’m going to be lazy, and link to a post from two years ago about May day and May calendar images from books of hours. This calendar image from a book of hours is an image of a Maying boat expedition.
The British Library’s Golf Book f. 22v–23
This page showing May from the Golf book is an image from the British Library’s manuscript Additional 24098 folio 22v. This May calendar image is from a sixteenth century book of hours from the Netherlands workshop of Simon Bening and better known as The Golf Book. The image shows a characteristic aristocratic Maying scene in its depiction of a spring landscape (Bening is known for his landscapes), with green leaves, and branches of greenery in the boat. You’ll note there’s a lutenist, and a pipe player in the boat, presumably performing a Maying song or May carol. There appears to be an additional Maying party on the bridge above.
The style of the images in The Golf Book is very similar to that of panel paintings, and more “painterly” than is usual in earlier illuminated manuscripts, and typical of Bening’s workshop. The Golf Book is a partial ms. that consists of calendar images, similar to those in other Books of Hours, with an emphasis on leisure rather than seasonal labor. It is particularly well known for the miniature border images showing people playing games (like golf—The Golf Book has a calendar page with a scene at the bottom showing people playing a game like golf, hence the title). You can see other images from The Golf Book here and here, in a calendar scene for June, showing jousting. Some medievalists may be particularly interested in the toy windmills, or in the spectacles visible in this self-Portrait of Bening.
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).
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.”
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.