Friday, May 1, 2015

Shall We Go A-Maying? Traditions of May Day

by Barbara Bettis

Queen Guinevere's Maying by John Collier
May Day. Gathering and bestowing of flowers, dancing around May Poles. What a delightful and innocent way to welcome Summer.                         
Or so we might think in the 21st Century. In fact, like so many of our holiday traditions, May Day has its origins in ancient times and through several cultures. As so many of those current holidays, the Church also has a religious observance slotted for that day, as well.
The feast of Sts. Phillip and James is held on May 1, honoring the dedication of a church now known at the Church of the Twelve Apostles, located in Rome. It originally was dedicated to Phillip and James.
Also from Rome—at least, from early Romans—comes the festival of Floralia, celebrating Flora goddess of flowers.
May 1 falls on an important date in other early non-Christian cultures. It coincides with the Gaelic Beltane festivities, marking the return of Summer. While Spring was observed earlier, Summer was especially important, because the first crops were beginning to peek above the ground and the fertility was to be celebrated. Green was a color especially tied to the day, most evident in the later Middle Ages.
Beltane began the evening of April 30 and continued the following day. Huge bonfires were lit to much rejoicing, celebrating fertility.
"Mayflowers" Hawthorne blossoms
Early in the morning, young men and women would go into the fields and forests to pick flowers and greenery. The phrase “gone-a-Maying” stems from that (Cosman.) The day of feasting often was capped by entertainment such as that from Morris Dancers, a group of men who would perform for the villagers.
Often, villages would erect May Poles. The original purpose of the May Pole isn’t clear, but it has been suggested they may have been phallic symbols to represent fertility. Young girls danced around the poles in early such festivities. Eventually the tradition evolved, and the poles were decorated with flowers and ribbons. Some sources say any of the villagers could dance around them, although the activity was often the purview of the young. Some such poles were so tall, they had to be embedded in the earth. They were left standing year-round.
Just in case we think all this might only be myth, the London church St. Andrew Undershaft reportedly took its name from the May Pole that was erected across from it each year. (The May Pole there met its end at the hands of a mob in 1547, who declared it a “pagan idol.”)

Sweet surprise for neighbors
Much later in the 20th Century, the May Pole our elementary class danced around weaving crepe paper streamers into colorful patterns wasn’t pagan, however. That dance had taken on the tradition of a folk activity and was treated as fun and games.
In addition, I recall my friends and I making May baskets to hang on doorknobs on May Day. It was a sweet activity and I hate to see it—or the May Pole— slip into oblivion.
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays and Festivals New York: Scribners, 1981

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Medieval Valentines?

by Barbara Bettis

Valentine’s Day is here. Time for flowers, candy, send cards to celebrate the day traditionally set aside for love. But was Valentine's Day celebrated in the Middle Ages? Sort of.

When did that tradition start?

St. Valentine of Terni and his disciples
I wish I could give you a summarized, sanitized, glamourized answer, but I love accuracy too much to do so. The answer is—unclear. 
Tradition says the day was named for Valentine, an early Christian priest martyred (this is true) for his part in—and that’s where the story become murky. The church records three Valentines, all living around the third century during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. One priest Valentine was martyred in Africa. He’s not so much connected with our tale. That leaves Valentine, a priest in Rome, and Valentine, Bishop of Terni.
One story says a priest named Valentine helped Christians escape Roman persecution. Still  a another story says a priest named Valentine secretly married Roman couples to escape Claudius’s edict banning marriage for soldiers (they were better military men if they didn’t worry about wives and children, the emperor thought. However, one historian says this edict never existed.)
One of these two Valentines, while imprisoned, is said to have 1.) cured his jailer’s daughter of blindness and/or 2.) fallen in love with her. Whatever the reason, he is said to have written her a letter on the eve on his execution, signing it “your valentine.”
Both Valentines are said to have been martyred on Feb. 14 (different years). Since the church usually celebrated a saint’s birth or death, that date became common.
Some reports link Valentine’s Day to a Roman festival of Lupercalia—held Feb. 13-15. At that time, pagan priests would soak skins in the blood of a sacrificed goat (symbol of fertility) and with it slap women (and fields) to encourage fertility. Then men would draw women’s names from a bowl for their mate during the following year.
Did an early pope, hoping to link Christian holidays to pagan ones thus encouraging the spread of Christian belief, declare celebration of St. Valentine’s Day coincide with that pagan festival? Some sources say so. Ironically, other sources are vehement that it Wasn’t So. J (It does make a good story, though.)
This post is on Medieval Valentines, and this all happened in the 4th Century, the early days of the Church. How, then, did Valentine’s Day become commonly accepted ? Was it also linked to early spring mating of birds, a belief popular in many rural areas?

Jack B. Oruch says the links of romantic love and Valentine’s Day was first recorded in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382). The poem celebrated Richard II and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement contract in 1381. (They were married at 15.)

Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve (1412)
“It says: For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

(Trans:"For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.")”

The first actual recorded ‘Valentine’ (that has been found, at least) is attributed to Charles, Duke of Orleans, who wrote it to his wife about 1416 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of England after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Here is the first couple of verses of it:

French (Original)
Je suis déjà d’amour tanné,    Ma très douce Valentinée, Car pour moi fûtes trop tard née,                                    Et moi pour vous fus trop tôt né.                             Dieu lui pardonne qui estrené                             M’a de vous, pour toute l’année                              
Je suis déjà, etc.               Ma très douce, etc.          Bien m’étais suspeçonné, Qu’aurais telle destinée,     Ainsi que passât ceste journée,                    Combien qu’Amours l’eût ordonné.                            
Je suis déjà, etc.
I am already sick of love,        My very gentle Valentine, Since for me you were born too soon,                                    And I for you was born too late.                                       God forgives he who has estranged                                Me from you for the whole year.
I am already, etc.                    My very gentle, etc.             Well might I have suspected, Having such a destiny, cousin Thus would have happened this day,                                      How much that Love would have commanded.
I am already, etc           (“French Poems”)

As for valentines in English, the earliest discovered (so far) can be found in Margaret Brewes letters to her future husband, John Paston, “my right well-beloved valentine.” They are part of the Paston Letters collection. A link to the entire letter is below.

Well, there you have it. We can’t really be sure exactly for which Valentine the day was named, or even how the romantic element of it persisted and grew over a thousand years, from the time of the Sts. Valentine martyrdoms, to Chaucer’s mention of the day in a romantic context in 1382, to the Duc d’Orleans’ Valentine to his wife and a 15th Century lady to her betrothed.

Perhaps it just goes to show the enduring need to celebrate the feeling that binds us romantically to another.

But you know, the idea of romantic love goes even further back—to Greek mythology—to that arrow-wielding god Cupid and his mortal lady, Psyche, and a love that transcended time. But that’s another story J

Happy Valentine’s Day. And may we continue to celebrate this timeless tradition of love in our writings.

Sources:          for full text of the Brewes letter.                                                 (I know. I’m sorry. But it has good sourcing.)

The photos are from Wikipedia. The card is from free Valentine's cards.
And if you'd like to read some later Medieval love poems, go here:
(The above was adapted from a previous post.)