If you think you know what a maypole represents, think again, says historian Ronald Hutton
What does the modern British person associate with maypoles? Probably the immediate associations are joy, festivity, the sense of renewed youth and optimism inherent in late spring and early summer, and dances, especially involving holding the ends of ribbons – all filtered through a hazy folk memory of Merrie Olde England.
There is also a spice of eroticism in this bundle of impressions: after all, ever since Freud, many people think they know what a maypole symbolises. They would be wrong on that point, as you will see.
Honouring the spirit of nature
Maypoles are the most spectacular aspect of the pattern of rituals performed by agricultural communities across Europe. These rites centred on honouring the spirits of vegetation that pushed those crops up and made them lush and abundant, thereby enabling the people who depended on them to prosper. Everywhere they were found, they took three forms, not mutually exclusive but representing an ascending scale of effort and elaboration.
The lowest level was just to pick and bring home flowers and flowering foliage, above all hawthorn blossom, to decorate streets and the fronts of houses with. Often this would be carried out by young people, who would go into the woods and fields in groups at dawn and bring the blooms and foliage back to the community as the others were getting up.
They would usually then distribute their cargo, door to door, sometimes as a gift and sometimes in return for a reward such as food and drink, for a feast later, or for petty cash. Normally this process would be accompanied by songs, the May equivalent of carols, which were increasingly standardised in particular regions.
The level above that was to weave young leaves, blossom and flowers into a single large garland, which might be small enough to be carried by one person or large enough to need a wooden frame and several people to lift it. This was generally paraded through the streets as a focus for general merrymaking, with singing and music, and then hung in the parish church, on the village green, or in a main street or market square.
Maypoles and green men
In London, during the Georgian period, this tradition developed into its most elaborate form as the Jack-in-the-Green, in which a man would walk inside a framework of wooden spars completely covered in woven foliage and blooms, accompanied by singers and musicians.
This custom was invented by London chimney sweeps, who were coming to the end of their main season of work as summer approached and people ceased to need hearth fires.
To tide them over for this lean period, they took to processing through the city streets asking for donations, and soon found that to harness the garlanding tradition in this spectacular form added to the attraction of their parade and solicited more generosity. It then spread out from the capital around the Thames Valley, peaking in popularity in the early 19th century.
The maypole represented the highest level of these summer celebrations, and is best thought of as an enormous garland. It consisted of a single tall and strong upright wooden pole, planted firmly in the ground and decorated with – ideally – every kind of flower and leaf now sprouting and opening in the neighbourhood, and sometimes with coloured streamers of cloth and a flag and/or garland at the top.
The Puritan hatred of maypoles
The idea that it was a phallic symbol originated from 17th century Puritan critics of the custom, who hated maypoles as survivors of an ancient paganism – which they probably were – and as a focus for dancing, drinking and other merriment that could lead to sin and disorder; which they also were.
This opposition was part of a series of objections that also included campaigns to shut down pubs and village feasts, to abolish Christmas, and to stop fornication and bridal pregnancy – so, to their enemies, maypoles were associated with all kinds of wantonness.
When in operation, however, the stark outline of the pole would have been softened by its decorations to make it look more like an enormous bush or tree, which is actually what it was supposed to be, representing and incorporating everything that was flowering and opening in the land at that time of year. It could be kept as a centre for celebrations all through the summer, from May Day until the beginning of the harvest at the end of July.
Maypoles and sex
There was a certain amount of wantonness around maypoles. The custom of dancing round them holding the ends of ribbons was originally a Sicilian one, which was introduced to England in a London stage play in 1836 and caught the public imagination.
Before then the dances could be raunchier. One in Elizabethan times which especially annoyed Puritans – reasonably enough – had young men and women form separate rings around the pole and dance round in opposite directions, kissing each other every time a woman passed a man (you can try this at home, folks).
The same Puritan evangelists also made salacious suggestions concerning what the teenagers who went to fetch the flowers at dawn got up to in the woods, but there’s little evidence to support these claims. May Day wasn’t a particularly erotic festival for the simple reason that England hasn’t normally warmed up properly after winter by then, and at dawn it would be especially chilly.
When you look at the baptisms in Tudor and Stuart parish registers, which almost always directly followed births, you can see when they peak, and so work backwards nine months to calculate the rough time of conception.
This process shows that early modern English people started having sex in large numbers in late May, and their appetite was most avid in June. This was simply because, in a society with almost no domestic privacy and little money to spare for heating the home, this was the time when evenings became warm, the foliage thick, ditches dry and the grass and corn tall.
On May Day, people would have been looking forward to making love rather than actually doing it.
Professor Ronald Hutton is an historian who specialises in Early Modern Britain, British folklore and paganism. He is a Professor of History at Bristol University and author of many books including The Rise and Fall of Merry England (OUP), Stations of the Sun (OUP) and The Witch (Yale)
Watch the trailer for Ronald Hutton’s Idler Academy course on the festivals of Britain here.
Watch Ronald Hutton on Christmas here.
The above is an extract from a longer essay on the maypole in the May/June 2020 issue of the Idler. Order here.