Green Women and Green Beasts - research
Due to political and religious upheaval in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, festivities often became a focal point for dispute. As the most prominent symbol of May Day, the Maypole itself was often targeted. Maypoles were loathed by the Puritans. Philip Stubbes (1583) was representative of Puritan reformers who regarded the maypole as a sort of pagan idol:
“The chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration... Then fall they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself”.
In records they described in detail what they were demolishing, though the dances have not survived. We know that by the 16th and 17th centuries they were often very tall as we have paintings showing people dancing around them.
Under King Edward's Protestant regime of the 1540’s many seasonal festivities faded in the face of official antipathy: in 1549 the Corporation of London even told property owners to forbid their servants from attending May games (Hutton 1994). It was in this atmosphere that the local Maypole in Wandsworth was removed in 1547-8 but it must have been reinstated, because a century later it was destroyed. This was shortly after the Long Parliament had dispensed with the King's 'Book of Sports', which up until then had afforded some protection for popular celebrations against the Puritan suppression. However, in 1644, Parliament passed a law banning Maypoles, describing them as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness”.
None of these Maypoles had ribbons so the dances were probably circular dances that were well known at the time. Inspired by earlier maypole performances there is a circular dance element incorporated into Green Women and Green Beasts.
Maypoles with ribbons were however known in France and seem to have been introduced into England in the 18th century. Horace Walpole wrote of a 1749 visit to France that “in one quarter was a maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked' (Walpole, 1840).
After the Restoration many Maypoles were re-instated and the Strand in the City of London boasted one over 130 foot tall. It remained there until Sir Isaac Newton used parts of it as a base for his telescope.
John Ruskin is mainly responsible for the Maypole dancing we're familiar with today. Introduced at Whitelands College in the late 1880s, he created a series of may dances and a pageant as part of teacher training, which generations of teachers took wherever they went on to teach. This strange mix of Christian ceremonies with features of paganism (or Edwardian/Victorian versions) was adopted by staff and students, becoming central to the institution’s identity.
Ruskin made a deliberate attempt to re-create an image of “Merrie England” but as this was mostly a myth to begin with, costumes were been created to echo that. With the rise of industry and urbanisation there ran a cherished a dream of a return to a rural idyll. It's height came in the first decade of the 20th century but the second decade, ceremonies became less embellished, perhaps a result of the outbreak of war.