Everyone, Queen of the May!

1 05 2023

The great historian Peter Linebaugh, Kopkind mentor (2014), guest (2019) and friend, remembers May Day every year in stories and songs. Many of his previous essays on the lifeblood of International Workers Day are collected in The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day. Today, we reprint excerpts from the beginning of his “May Day and Abolition,” which we retitle here, but you can read in its entirety on CounterPunch. Gather round the May pole, friends, figuratively or—for our Guilford neighbors—literally! For ‘jollity and gloom’ yet contend, and we know which side we’re on. (That is not Peter above; read on for more about the Green Man in history.)

by Peter Linebaugh

“Murther, murther, murther, murther …” shouted Free-born John Lilburne from a seventeenth-century prison.  “M’aidez, m’aidez,” says the international distress signal.  Murder is the crime, and help is the need.  That is the dynamic of the day, May Day.  Its methodology therefore requires answers to two questions:  Who?  Whom?

We remember los martiros, that is the martyrs who were hanged for their support of the eight-hour day and the police riot at Haymarket, Chicago.  That struggle commenced on May 1, 1886.  Who? Whom?  

The bosses hanged the workers.  Their names were August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel.  Their hanging was judicial murder, or state sponsored terror.  “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”  Their last words, our prologue.  The Haymarket hangings were preparation for mass murder at Wounded Knee (1890).  Who? Whom?  The army massacres the Lakotas.

The tendency of capitalism is the global devaluation of labor, an abstraction covering over the four-fold murders of war, famine, pestilence and neglect that characterize our neoliberal, incarcerating, planet-wrecking times.  It is the widespread whisper, the secret thought, the unindicted accusation as more and more are shot, gassed, get sick, starve, drown, burn or have to move out so that entrepreneurial gentry may move in.  Call it expropriation, call it exploitation, combine them and you have X squared; add extraction and you have X cubed, or the formula of capitalism.  No matter what you call it, we live in murderous times.  

The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together. (I.v.188-90)

So, to all the Hamlets out there suffering from cursed spite, remember Shakespeare’s wise words, “let’s go together.”  It’s May Day!  The day of pleasure, the day of struggle. A day for the green, a day for the red.  We want more time, as Linton Kwesi Johnson sings.  More time in both senses referring to the years of our lives and to the seven generations hence. More personal time, more human/species/historical time.  

The Maypole and the Hydra

Thomas Morton and a boatload of indentured servants arrived in Massachusetts in 1624.  They settled in Passonagessit, or what became Merry Mount (modern day Quincy, just south of Boston).  In 1627 they celebrated May Day by erecting an 80-foot May pole.  The following year the Puritans destroyed it and the settlement.

The Puritan governor of Massachusetts, William Bradford, describes what happened.  “They also set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived and celebrated the feasts of the Roman Goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians. Morton likewise (to show his poetry) composed sundry rimes and verses, some tending to lasciviousness, and others to the detraction and scandal of some persons, which he affixed to this idle or idol May-pole.”

The dance around the Maypole included former indentured servants from England, a Ganymede, several Algonquin people, youth and age, men and women.  The dances were inspired by animals of the forest.  Perhaps a morris dance or “Moorish” dance.  Puritans had been fighting it for years.  A poem was made, “Bachanalia Triumphant,” in 1629, a year after the destruction of the settlement.

Nathaniel Hawthorne later called it “that gay colony,” where “jollity and gloom contended for an empire.”  In his story “The Maypole of Merry Mount” (1837), he describes “the Salvage Man, well known in heraldry, hairy as a baboon, and girdled with green leaves.”  Twice he refers to rainbows: once on the ribbon of the May pole, and once on the “scarf of a youth in glistening apparel.”  Nathaniel Hawthorne alludes to the great Peasants Revolt in central Europe a century earlier, 1526, when the rainbow was the sign of those fighting to retain access to the life-giving rivers and forests, the commons. Thus, the rainbow was the earliest flag of the settler-indigenous encounter and suggests an alternative to the bloody flag of war or the white one of surrender.  

Of May Day, Philip Stubbes reported in The Anatomy of Abuses (1583), “I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravity and reputation, that of forty, three score or a hundred maids going to the wood overnight, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled. These be the fruits which these cursed pastimes bring forth.”  The Puritan Christopher Fetherston fulminated against cross-dressing in his Dialogue Against Light, Lewd and Lascivious Dancing (1582): For the abuses which are committed in your May games are infinite. The first whereof is this, that you do use to attire men in women’s apparel, whom you do most commonly call May Marions, whereby you infringe that straight commandment which is given in Deuteronomy 22.5.  That men must not put on women’s apparel for fear of enormities.”   

Puritans saw only “enormities” and “cursed pastimes.”  These seem to have disappeared by the Victorian era.  Alfred Tennyson did much to domesticate the tradition with his long poem “The May Queen” (1855): 

So you must wake and call me early, call me early mother dear,
Tomorrow’ll be the happiest time of all the glad New Year,
Tomorrow’ll be of all the year the maddest, merriest day,
For I’m to be Queen of the May, mother, I’m to be Queen of the May!

Thomas Morton was the wildest person on that May Day of 1627, according to Hawthorne.  “Up with your nimble spirits, ye morris-dancers, green men, and glee maidens, bears and wolves, and horned gentlemen!  Come; a chorus now, rich with the old mirth of Merry England, and the wilder glee of this fresh forest, and then a dance.”

Morton told the story in a book that could not be printed or published in England, The New English Canaan, published in Amsterdam in 1637.  The English authorities confiscated four hundred of the books on import.  We don’t know that Free-born John Lilburne, the great Leveller and radical pamphleteer, had a hand in the smuggling, though he might have because time and place were right.  More anon.

The Green Man, that gentle soul of the earth and growing things, appears on the invitation for the coronation for King Charles III and Queen Camilla (the billionaires), designed by heraldic artist and manuscript illuminator Andrew Jamieson. 

The royal website explains this inclusion: “Central to the design is the motif of the Green Man, an ancient figure from British folklore, symbolic of spring and rebirth, to celebrate the new reign. The shape of the Green Man, crowned in natural foliage, is formed of leaves of oak, ivy and hawthorn, and the emblematic flowers of the United Kingdom.” 

fertility figure or a nature spirit, the Green Man provides curious ornamentation to medieval churches, abbeys, universities, furniture and fixtures – oak leaves disgorged from mouths, leaves sprouting from eyebrows, hawthorn leaves spewing from ears, nostrils and eyes. Foliage crowns, leaf heads.  These sculptures grimace, leer, smile, brood or scowl.  They make mischief or anguish and stir up mysteries, making us think of Roman fauns, the wodewose or hairy wild man of the Dark Ages, the Hindu kirtimukha or the Puck of the woodlands.  The ancient Egyptian god Osiris is commonly depicted with a green face representing vegetation, rebirth and resurrection. Robin Hood and Peter Pan are sometimes associated with a Green Man.  The Green Man was adopted by Church and Monarchy as a kind of peripheral iconography.  

The Puritan parliament in 1644 banned the erection of May poles, declaring them ‘a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.’  Under Cromwell’s Protectorate the May revels were shut down everywhere. In Oxford the antiquarian Anthony Wood reported: ‘1648 May 1. This day the Visitors, Mayor, and the chief officer of the well-affected of the University and City spent in zealous persecuting of the young people that followed May-Games, by breaking of Garlands, taking away fiddles from Musicians, dispersing Morrice-Dancers, and by not suffering a green bough to be worn in a hat or stuck up at any door, esteeming it a superstition or rather an heathenish custom.’

May Day celebrations were revived in 1660. When Charles II returned to England, common people in London put up May poles “at every crossway,” according to John Aubrey. The largest was in the Strand, reaching over 130 feet, half again taller than Merry Mount’s May pole.  It was blown over by a high wind in 1672, when it was moved to serve as a mount for the telescope of Sir Isaac Newton.  Thomas Hobbes, who tutored Charles II in math, believed the May pole was a leftover from the time the Romans worshipped Priapus.  But the earliest reference to a May pole in England is from the time of the peasants’ revolt of the 14th century.

The Maypole revelers in Massachusetts were defeated by Myles Standish and Governor Endicott.  Morton was arrested, exiled and imprisoned.  Some were suspected of witchcraft, and whipped. The May pole became a whipping post.  

The Boston Puritans compared these folk to the many-headed Hydra, frightened “of Hydras hideous form and dreadful power” … no sooner was one head cut off than others grew in its place.  This was so frequent a charge against the landless people of the world, the crowds of its towns, and the ships’ crews in the era of settler colonialism and primary accumulation, that Marcus Rediker and I took it as a symbol for the circulation of struggles among the various components of the nascent proletariat against their rulers and oppressors.  Evidently we were not the first to do so!  

We the working class, or we the people, or we commoners determine what we make and not just how we make it or who does the making, and that this is required in the face of climate change and what geologists term “planetary perturbations.”  Human society must find its nature in an ecology that saves the waters, saves the soil, saves the air for purposes of life.  This is why, as the Red Nation teaches us, indigenous sovereignty (Land Back!) and decarbonization require us to look again at history with a view of the commons.  Morton was among people who were commoning, bringing together various forms of mutuality based upon English celebration and indigenous commons.  Here is Morton’s testimony:

“The more I looked, the more I liked it. And when I had more seriously considered of the beauty of the place, with all her faire endowments, I did not think that in all the known world it could be paralleled, for so many goodly groves of trees, dainty fine round rising hillocks, delicate faire large plain, sweet crystal fountains, and clear running streams that twin in fine meanders through the meads, making so sweet a murmuring noise to hear as would even lull the senses with delight a sleep, so pleasantly do they glide upon the pebble stones, jetting most jocundly where they do meet and hand in hand run down to Neptunes Court, to pay the yearly tribute which they owe to him as sovereign Lord of all the springs.  Contained within the volume of the Land, [are] Fowles in abundance, Fish in multitude; and [I] discovered, besides, millions of turtledoves on the green boughs, which sat pecking of the full ripe pleasant grapes that were supported by the lusty trees, whose fruitful load did cause the arms to bend: [among] which here and there dispersed, you might see Lilies and of the Daphnean-tree: which made the Land to me seem paradise: for in mine eye t’was Nature’s Masterpiece.”

Here is the green vision, idle for sure, idol not at all…

To read the full story, go to CounterPunch here. Peter Linebaugh is the author, most recently, of Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Gespard (University of California Press), as well as The Many Headed Hydra, with Marcus Rediker, The London Hanged and more. He gives thanks here to Michaela Brennan, Tim Healey, Joe Summers, Janie Paul, and all my friends at Retort, ECI, and Under the Bus. 



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