May Day and Robin Hood

May 1 is mostly behind us, but still worth covering from the Middle Ages. May Day was a true folk holiday celebrating spring. It had nothing to do with the church, which generally opposed May Day games on prudential “they’ll just get into drunken fights or get some girl knocked up” grounds. Which was basically true.

The village chose a “King of Summer,” and later, a Queen as well. They set up a May pole, crowned with flowers or a ram’s horns. By the High Middle Ages, it was the May Pole as we know it, with ribbons for girls to hold as they dance a carol around it. Young people went into the woods, as couples, to fetch garlands of flowering branches to decorate the May Pole and their homes.

May Day was also a time for outdoor drama. The death/resurrection story of the Mummers often played out again, but in England they had a new, growing tradition: Robin Hood.

Robin Hood seems to have been an amalgamation of various folk robbers, probably chosen because his name scanned and rhymed better than some others. His stories grew out of cheap storybooks in the 1200s, and we can trace the influence of each age. Early Robin Hood stories have him chiefly engaged in robbing dishonest priests and the Sheriff, who was the appointed official in charge of punishing those who broke the Forest Laws. (Outlaws, of course, broke the Forest Laws constantly.) Early Robin is middle-class and single; his devotion is all given to the Virgin Mary. Invoking Mary was one way to get some mercy from him, though dishonest, cheating landlord abbots still didn’t have much chance.

But as Robin’s stories became fodder for May plays, they got gussied up. Robin slowly turned into a dispossessed nobleman, perhaps to keep up with the village’s crowning a Summer King. Because May Day was all about girls and flowers, he needed a girlfriend. Maid Marian seems to have been a character created just for May Day plays. Eventually, the Adventures of Robin Hood could be assembled, as if telling a real history, from collected legends and May Day dramas. By the time Disney got their hands on it—well, say no more.

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