PAGANS AND PURITANS (The Story of May Mornings in Oxford)

On Jan 10th Tim Healey gave us a fascinating and entertaining account of the customs associated with May Day celebrations.

First of all he reminded us that the First of May is not only a celebration of Spring, but also a political date, even with revolutionary undertones.

But May Day celebrations have their origins in the pagan rites associated with Flora the goddess of flowers, which began in Roman times and may have been connected to orgies. A painting by Tiepolo of 1745 depicted these rites.

In 1695 Anthony Wood described the celebrations as an invocation of Summer and at this time it was not considered of great significance. However in the period of the Commonwealth many Puritans found the practice abhorrent, and they did their best to suppress any celebration connected with May Day.

Singing from towers became a common custom in Medieval times and was known to take place in Oxford on New College Bell Tower. The urge to bring green things into the towns and indoors was also a feature of these rites and is depicted in a Book of Hours of 1500.  In the Thames Valley the Hawthorn and its blossom were very popular for garlands. It often (but not always) flowered at the appropriate time.

The Celtic Beltane feasts and Valpurgisnacht were also associated with May Day rites.

In 1250 the University banned all Maytime revels and this reflected the tension which developed between Authority and the revellers. But the Church attitude was often ambiguous, partly since the profits from the sale of Church Ale were used to fund church maintenance. The University colleges, too, sometimes hosted the Morris Dancing. In 1605 there was Morris Dancing in front of the King at Christchurch college.

In the 16th century we see the first mentions of Morris Dancing in relation to May Day celebrations, including depictions of men dressed as women (which had been forbidden in the Bible).

The Puritan backlash against Morris Dancing and other forms of popular entertainment originated with the English Church’s break with Rome in the 16th Century. The Bible was the supreme arbiter, and anything that was condemned there was abhorrent to the Puritans. Banbury was a hotbed of Puritanism, and the authorities there forbade all May celebrations. The Royalists considered these things to be harmless. In 1633 St Peter’s Church tried to stop a Garland from coming into the Church. The Maypole was often erected as a provocation to the Puritans.

At the Westminster Assembly in 1644 Maypoles were banned, but at the Restoration, and the return of Charles II, they reappeared.

By the 1740s the revelries around the Maypole had become more “polite” and in tune with the new Romantic sensibility. The dancers began to include women and girls, and small boys blowing horns (the whithorns) as they might have done in the fields while herding cattle and sheep. On Magdalen College Tower the Choir sang the Hymnus Eucharistus.

In the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the popular image of the Countryside became more and more idealised, and writers and artists (including Tennyson, Holman Hunt and Ruskin) helped to create the image of May Day revels that we recognise today. The Maypole became an object with ribbons round which people danced, a Garland was brought in, the May Queen appeared (only occasionally with a May King), and songs were written and sung. But still there were more subversive elements, such as Jack in the Green, a man covered from head to foot with greenery, and often accompanied by chimney sweeps.

In the 20th and 21st Centuries the trend towards popular involvement increased, with events such as the Magdalen Bridge celebrations as the Choir sings from Magdalen Tower, followed by further revels up the High Street. This particular event attracts people in huge, sometimes frightening numbers. But on the other hand, May Day is still celebrated in small communities with dances round the May Pole, a Queen of the May, and garlands from the countryside.

600 Years of Morris Dancing

Speaker : Mike Heaney – himself a member of Eynsham Morris Dancers.

There are broadly 3 types of Morris Dancing – Cotswolds/South Midlands – distinguished by complex steps, slow capers and distinct tunes and dances; Welsh Borders/Midlands – distinguished by raucous behaviour, sticks, blacking up and simple steps; North West – distinguished by clog-wearing, slings, steps and kicks and processional movements.

There are many theories as to the origination of Morris Dancing but the most credible is that it came to England in the 15th Century from Flanders where the wealthy Burgundian/Flemish court had Morisch (Moris) entertainment.

In England the first recorded evidence of Morris Dancing was in 1448 when the Goldsmiths Livery Company of London employed Morris Dancers at its grand annual banquet. Shortly afterwards Sir john Folstaf from Norfolk commissioned a tapestry containing images of Morris Dancing. The Livery Companies perpetuated the employment of Morris Dancers at their annual Mid-Summer London banquets with the use of Morris Dancers reaching the Royal Court in 1511 under Henry V111.

Morris Dancing then filtered down to the general population initially under the auspices of the Church (Church Ale festivals). However, it fell out of fashion under Puritan Rule culminating in an Act of Parliament effectively banning Morris Dancing in 1654.

Morris Dancing returned but no longer under Church control with Whitsun Ales and Rushbearing ceremonies taking place within local communities. The revival of Morris Dancing, however, commenced at the end of the 19th Century with enthusiasts DArcy Ferrars, Percy Manning and Cecil Sharpe researching and reinventing Morris Dancing in the old style.

As far as Abingdon is concerned the first recorded mention of Morris Dancing was in 1560 where Church Records detail the purchase of bells for the uniforms of Morris Dancers to attend a Church Ales festival. Today there are 2 sets of Morris Men in Abingdon with the famous Mock Mayor election celebration a highlight.

Morris Dancing would appear to be in a healthy state today with new groups around the world developing new styles of Performance.

Conscientious Objectors in Oxford in the First World War

Speaker : Sue Smith, who has studied the subject in depth at Oxford University.

There were about 100 Conscientious Objectors (COs) in Oxford during the War, but many of the records have been destroyed. In the early part of the War the Armed Services used regular forces, but by 1916 we could no longer replace troops in sufficient numbers, so universal conscription was introduced. Everyone eligible was ‘deemed to be enlisted’. This meant that those who could not, or would not, join the Armed Forces were subject to a Military Tribunal which examined their case and delivered a verdict. Certain categories (eg those in nationally important employment, or who were ill) were able to get exemption. But those who objected to military service on ethical grounds had a much more difficult time.

The Tribunals usually consisted of men who were established local figures, and not likely to share such views. They also had a representative of the Military, who exerted an influence on them. In any case COs, among the general public, were suspected of cowardice or unmanliness, and often abused. In reality, COs, and in particular Quakers, often served as medics and ambulance men in very dangerous circumstances on the front line.

Altogether in the country during the war there were about 18,000 COs, who objected to service either because of religious objections to killing, or who objected on political grounds to the War. 6,000 of these were sent to prison. Conditions were often harsh. Many COs were sent to the notorious Dartmoor prison, and we were shown pictures of a large group of COs there.

The Oxford COs were a mixture, and came from all classes. Some COs, after the War, became well-known figures especially if they were from the upper class. Raymond Postgate, who later founded the Good Food Guide, spent time in prison, but was driven by taxi to jail. Another CO, a Quaker (Sydney Langford Jones), was a painter and sculptor, and made figures during his detention out of porridge oats. Alan Kay was of German descent, and a CO, and committed suicide in 1919.

The COs were not without sympathetic support. In and around Oxford there were the Morrells in Garsington, who provided a refuge, the Bishop of Oxford who forced a debate in the House of Lords, the Professor of Greek Gilbert Murray and many Quakers, some from influential families. Though the antagonism to them lasted for several years after the War (they were not allowed to vote until 1926), they led eventually to legislation (first in Britain, then spreading to many other countries) that guaranteed the right of COs to refuse to join the Armed Forces.

The talk was followed by a very rewarding discussion.