- For many people the maypole is the very symbol of the traditional May Day, but its history is not a simple one. The earliest references to maypoles are literary; a mid-14th century Welsh poem and a late 14th-century poem Chance of the Dice (Hammond, 1925: 6) which refers to 'the grete shafte of Corneylle', in London. Two earlier references which had often been quoted have now been brought under suspicion as probably referring to pools or even maples rather than maypoles. However, there is no reason to believe that the maypole was a new thing in the 14th century, but neither is there any evidence to show that it existed much before then. Certainly, the limited distribution of poles in Wales and Scotland, and the paucity of references there, argue strongly against the existence of maypoles before the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England.From the 15th century onwards, references to maypoles proliferate, sometimes in municipal or parish accounts, and often in the writings of the new moralists who were keen to reform the ungodly celebrations surrounding such traditional events as May Day and Christmas. The finding, decorating, and erecting of the maypole emerges as an important part of community life, becoming the focal point for dancing and other celebrations of the season (see also *May, bringing in). Some places had permanent maypoles, such as probably the best known in the country at Cornhill (as referred to by the Chance poet) in London, which was reputedly taller than the church to which it gave its name, St Andrew Undershaft, while others started from scratch every year. It is clear that maypoles were as popular in urban as in rural communities.If the maypole was the clear symbol of traditional May merrymaking, it was equally the clear target for those opposed to the festivities. John Stow (1598) relates how the Cornhill pole was taken down after 'evil May Day' (1517) when rioting apprentices had to be suppressed by the authorities. The pole was laid on iron brackets above the doors of the houses in Shaft Alley, and stayed there for another 32 years. However, in 1549, a reforming curate of St Katherine's took strong exception to this 'idol' and caused it to be chopped up and the wood shared among the inhabitants. As is often the case for this period, our most detailed descriptions are provided by those who opposed the traditions, and Philip Stubbes's Anatomie of Abuses (1583) is a case in point:But their cheefest jewell they bring home from thence [the woods] is their Maie poole, whiche they bring home with greate veneration . . . this Maie poole (this stynckyng idoll rather) which is covered all over with flowers and hearbes, bounde rounde aboute with stringes, from the top to the bottome, and sometyme painted with variable colours . . .Nevertheless, maypoles had their supporters. They were specifically mentioned in KingJames I's *Book of Sports (1618), reissued by Charles I (1633), as a lawful pastime for the people on Sundays, after evening service, and poets and playwrights used the pole as a metaphorical rallying point for the old tolerant days of England. All over the country, however, maypoles were being suppressed or obstructed by a combination of local justices and clergy, and they were one of the first things to be banned once the Puritans gained control in the 1640s. After the Restoration, in 1660, maypoles rapidly came back into favour, again as the symbol of the return to the good old days. And so they continued to stand, taken for granted as a local landmark, but entering a slow but definite decline from around the turn of the 19th century, suffering this time from neglect rather than opposition. By the time the Victorians began reinventing May Day there were few old maypoles left, leaving the field conveniently clear for their reintroduction in modified form.Leaving aside the theories of maypoles as remnants of tree-worship, phallic symbols, and the like, for which there is no evidence, the pole seems to have had two essential qualities - first, it was a focal point for the celebrations, and second, it was a useful place to hang garlands and greenery. This greenery, flowers, flags, and gay striped paint are often mentioned as the main feature of the pole. People danced round it, but not plaiting ribbons as in the modern revival. In the earlier form, they either held hands in a ring, danced solo in the circle, or wove in and out of each other round the circle, and there are reports of people kissing each other as they met. The introduction and spread of the plaited maypole in England is detailed by Roy Judge (1987: 175-94). The earliest examples, from the 1830s, are included in stage performances, but the really influential development came when successive dancing-masters and choreographers deliberately introduced the form into other revived or invented customs such as *well-dressing, usually performed by young girls and boys - but usually girls - dressed in white. By the late 19th century, the plaited maypole had become accepted as the 'traditional' English form; a clear example of the *Merrie England process at work.A few places, such as *Padstow (Cornwall), and *Barwick in Elmet (West Yorkshire) still have the older style ribbonless pole. Some children's customs had hand-held 'maypoles', which may be a remnant of, or at least a reference to, the full-size ones (see *May, children's garlands and customs).■ Hutton, 1996: 233-7, 301-2; Hutton, 1994: 30, 56-7, 11416, 223-6; Judge, 1987; Roy Judge, 'Tradition and the Plaited Maypole', Traditional Dance 2 (1983), 1-21; Wright and Lones, 1938: ii. 217-28; Hazlitt, 1905: 402-6; Eleanor Prescott Hammond, 'The Chance of the Dice', Englishe Studien 59 (1925), 1-16.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.