Plant the tree of liberty

17 May|Tom Hodgkinson

Those sweet days of freedom: medieval maypole dancers

Tom Hodgkinson revisits Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s thoughts on the maypole, the “English tree of liberty”

As this is the merry month of May I thought you might be interested to read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s short piece on the maypole. The charming note was published in the young poet’s magazine, The Watchman.

The Watchman was a weekly periodical launched in 1796 which rounded up the week’s news and promoted “liberty”. Coleridge crowd-funded his idea by giving talks around the country and collecting subscriptions. Once he had gathered 1,000 paying subscribers, he got to work, but gave up just three months later, saying that the simple reason was “the Work does not pay its expences [sic]”. Apparently too many people had unsubscribed, having been turned off by the politically radical nature of Sam’s effusions.

Here is the liberty-loving Coleridge on the maypole, which he calls the “Tree of Liberty”:

“The leisure days after seed-time had been chosen by our Saxon ancestors for folk motes, or conventions of the people. Not till after the Norman conquest, the Pagan festival of Whitsuntide fully melted into the Christian holiday of Pentecost. Its original name is Wittentide, the time of choosing the wits or wise men to the Wittenagemotte. It was consecrated to Hertha, the Goddess of Peace and Fertility; and no quarrels might be maintained, no blood shed, during this truce of the Goddess. Each village, in the absence of the Baron at the assembly of the nation, enjoyed a kind of Saturnalia. The vassals met upon the common green around the May-pole, where they elected a village lord, or king, as he was called, who chose his queen. He wore an oaken, and she a hawthorn wreath, and together they gave laws to the rustic sports during those sweet days of freedom. The MAY-POLE, then, is the English Tree of Liberty!”

This last reference is to the Tree of Liberty as a symbol used the Americans in the War of Independence and also the French Jacobins in 1790. To sing the Republican song “Plant, plant the Tree of Liberty” in England at the time could get you arrested on a charge of sedition.

Of course the maypole had been banned by the Puritans of the 17th century. They considered it to be a stinking idol and reminiscent of paganism and Popishness. Also they objected to the sex that it created. Maypoles were medieval Tinder. They were a way of meeting young people outside of your immediate social circle for the purposes of sex and sometimes marriage. After dancing round the maypole, maids and swains coupled off and went into the woods. The pregnancies which often ensued led to the custom of June weddings.

So we should all be thinking about planting trees of liberty this May and indulging in a bit of Saturnalian fun while we are about it.