Thursday, April 14, 2016

May Day, the Maypole, and sincerely-held beliefs in the 1620s

© 2016 Christy K Robinson

Was it a religious strike against a pagan symbol, or was it a commercial interest that made the destruction of the Maypole such a tempest?

Thomas Morton was a bad, bad man. He was of a similar age with Anne Hutchinson, Gov. John Endecott, and Gov. John Winthrop, born in 1590. He was an English lawyer before he sailed to Massachusetts Bay in 1622, returned in 1625, and became a thorn in the side of the Plymouth Pilgrims and later the Puritans who founded Salem and Boston.

He settled with some investor-adventurers in what is now Quincy, and proceeded to drink with the Indians and to give them guns to procure furs—which terrified the Pilgrims 26 miles to the south. Morton was no Separatist, Pilgrim, or Puritan, but an Anglican who would rather be hunting and fishing than sitting in a church, anyway. You can read more about Morton and his run-ins with Massachusetts government at his profile, http://www.nndb.com/people/056/000114711/ . (Hint: he was jailed several times, and died poverty-stricken in Maine in the 1640s.)
There probably were no women in Morton's Merrymount
community, unless they were servants or Indians.

Perhaps the event that Morton is remembered for the most is that he and his men set up an eighty-foot Maypole at a hill he named Merrymount (half a mile from Mt. Wollaston, where the Hutchinsons would own a farm from 1634 on), and there, his adventurers drank and danced with the Indians on the first day of May, 1625.

"The Inhabitants of . . . Mare Mount . . . did devise amongst themselves . . . Revels and merriment after the old English custome; (they) prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day . . . and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare . . . to be spent, with other good cheare, for all commers of that day. And . . . they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. And upon May day they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drumes, gunnes, pistols and other fitting instruments, for the purpose; and there erected it with the help of Salvages, that came thether to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot longe was reared up, with a peare of buckshorns nayled one somewhat neare unto the top of it: where it stood, as a faire sea mark for directions how to finde out the way to mine Hoste of Mare Mount."
(Morton, The New England Cannan, Book III, Chapter 14.)

Things that are 80 feet in length:
brigantine, Airbus A380, truck.
Now, an 80-foot pole is eight stories high, the length of an Airbus A380, and it would weigh about 10 tons, and that seems very large for a community of bachelors to fuss about. I watched a 1985 video of the raising of an 80-foot Maypole in Slingsby, UK, where they dug a large hole in which to seat the pole, then raised it with a crane before a band played “God Save the Queen.” To raise a 10-ton tree trunk with ropes and men to balance and stabilize it seems like a lot more work than drunken rebels would enjoy.

Did Morton's people raise the Maypole with its antlers on top as a billboard for ships coming into Massachusetts Bay, that they had furs and hides to sell to European traders, in competition with the Pilgrims who were supposed to be providing furs as a generous return to their investors? If they wanted an excuse to drink their barrel of beer and do some manly feat, a 20-foot pole with a flag would have sufficed. But an 80-foot pole might be a landmark to ships spotting a trading post.

Or maybe Morton and his company raised the Maypole and its secular revelry to purposely annoy and outrage their sober Pilgrim neighbors, who, along with the Scottish Presbyterians and the English Puritans, considered the Maypole to be a pagan idol. This seems to be the tack that Pilgrims used to justify their later actions.

May Day was a spring fertility festival in many European cultures, going back to prehistory. It was a cross-quarter day, halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, when the “veil” between the spirit world and our world was weak, and spirits could enter human beings and lead them astray. It was a time of sexual initiation, and girls who met boys in the tall grass or bushes came back with gowns of green, stained with chlorophyll.

During the centuries of Roman Catholic influence and authority, Christian churches were built on top of pagan worship sites to both conquer the previous culture’s gods and votive sites, and assimilate the old ways and worshipers into the new rites. Many astronomical, seasonal dates that had honored pagan gods were supplanted with saint festivals and holy days (holidays). Old customs took on new meanings, even if they were very thinly disguised.

At the English Reformation in the 16th century, Maypoles fell into disuse as the Puritan movement took the new Anglican Church further away from its Catholic (and therefore contaminated, pagan) roots. But the Puritans bent too far for many English people, and instituted a harsh, rigid, fundamentalist way of life that grated on Anglicans. In 1618, King James I, who had been plagued by rebellious and intransigent Puritan ministers, published a booklet called The Book of Sports (see article in this blog), that gave permission to, even directed, his subjects to break the Sabbath gloom with playing games and getting some healthy exercise. Among the activities the king suggested was to hold May games and set up Maypoles.

Our pleasure likewise is, That the Bishop of that Diocesse take the like straight order with all the Puritanes and Precisans within the same, either constraining them to conforme themselves, or to leave the County according to the Lawes of Our Kingdome, and Canons of Our Church, and so to strike equally on both hands, against the contemners of Our Authority, and adversaries of Our Church. And as for Our good peoples lawfull Recreation, Our pleasure likewise is, That after the end of Divine Service, Our good people be not disturbed, letted or discouraged from any lawful recreation, Such as dauncing, either men or women, Archery for men, leaping, vaultings or any other such harmelesse Recreation, nor from having of May Games, Whitsun [Pentecost] Ales; and Morris dances, and the setting up of Maypoles & other sports therewith used, So as the same be had in due & convenient time, without impediment or neglect of Divine Service: And that women shall have leave to carry rushes to the Church for the decoring of it, according to their old custome…

Morton’s first Maypole-raising was in 1625. As a lawyer and a subject of England, he knew he was within his rights, and fulfilling King James’ order, to set up a Maypole in his town. It seems that when Morton wasn’t being removed against his will to England and bouncing back to Massachusetts, he was drinking with the Indians, dealing guns to the Indians, and setting up a phallic symbol to madden the Pilgrim neighbors. But while Morton and his men were drunkenly contemplating their handiwork in 1628, Plymouth sent their military man, Myles Standish, to arrest Morton. Twenty-six miles on foot, or several hours of sailing, seems quite a distance for the Pilgrims to reach out to punish Morton, on his own land, for his revels. (The Pilgrims, who had escaped English persecution by fleeing to the Netherlands before risking their lives in savage wilderness of America, went out of their way to put an end to Morton’s religious beliefs.) They deposited Morton on an island with some provisions, until a ship could take him back to England, but he escaped with the help of his Indian associates. 

John Endecott, in his first term as governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, visited Merrymount in 1629, and had the Maypole taken down. Chopping it with an ax would be more dramatic, but he may have pulled it down with ropes. (An 80-foot tree trunk might be useful as a ship mast.) Of course, you remember Endecott as the governor who sent four Quakers, including Mary Dyer, to the gallows from 1659-1661, tortured and imprisoned hundreds of others, hanged a woman who believed she saw the ghost of her dead child, and beat people to a pulp (including Baptist minister Obadiah Holmes Sr.) if they didn’t conform to his narrow fundamentalism.

It wasn’t solely Endecott doing those actions. He was elected to office for numerous one-year terms as governor and assistant governor between 1629 and his death in 1665. Obviously, there was an element of colonial society who shared his ideology of religious government and enforcing certain beliefs.

In our society, we see similar events and responses in the news on a daily basis. Like the Maypole story, much of the news involves religious groups proclaiming their beliefs on morality issues such as same-sex relationships, sex outside marriage, contraconception and pregnancy termination, the death penalty, domestic violence, child molestation, anti [-Islamic/-Catholic/-Semitic/-pagan/-atheist, etc.]. There are also constant reports about prayer in public meetings, schools, and the military; and the existence of monuments or displays of the Ten Commandments at government buildings.

Knowing your history, and the forces and personalities behind it, is vitally important in slowing and stopping religious intolerance and oppression. Mary Dyer and her husband William, and the entire colony of Rhode Island, worked for years to develop a society of tolerance and human rights for all faiths, even those without faith, because without that provision, there is no true freedom. Mary intentionally defied Gov. Endecott and his system, and died to prove that religious liberty was a life and death matter. William Dyer, John Clarke, and Roger Williams codified that liberty in their constitution (the Charter of 1663), and their successful experiment with religious liberty and separation of church and state (a pet issue of Anne Hutchinson) was a huge influence on the United States Constitution written in the next century.
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More reading on Morton or the Maypole
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http://newenglandfolklore.blogspot.com/2010/05/thomas-morton-and-maypole-of-merrymout.html Good material on Merrymount., which is in Quincy, half a mile from Mt. Wollaston (where the Hutchinsons owned land).
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http://www.nndb.com/people/056/000114711/  profile for Thomas Morton


Christy K Robinson is the author of five books, three of them on Mary and William Dyer (primarily), Gov. John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, and Edward Hutchinson. Click the book titles for links to 25%-off sale.