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Happy May 1st! For most of us, today is not an official holiday, but given its long history, I think it ought to be. Who’s with me? Bonfires? Dancing? Flowers? What’s not to like? In medieval times it was a huge holiday. And while the celebration of it was not prevalent among the fashionable during Regency times, many of the traditions continued to be observed in the rural villages and pockets of England, and especially in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Maypole-MayDay girlI’m sure in individual families, observance or lack of it varied, depending on their family roots and location. I think it is more fun to talk about than say, the opening of Trout Fishing Season today, or that today (Friday before the 1st Monday in May) is also the traditional “private viewing day” before the start of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, even though that might matter more to our characters!

Celebrating this date, or the night before, has traditions in cultures and belief systems that date back into the mists of time, even before the Romans and their spring Floralia festival. The ancient Celts welcomed summer on the eve of May 1st (which is why “Midsummer” falls on the solstice in late June), with the festival of Beltane.  Early Irish texts relate that the Druids would build two fires, and that cattle would be driven between them to purify them and protect them before putting them out to summer pastures. The smoke from Beltane fires was supposed to have protective powers, so there are many traditions built around passing through the smoke, including jumping over the flames, and taking home embers or ashes to spread the luck. Beltane bonfire1The fires connect symbolically to the sun, an essential ingredient for a successful agricultural and pastoral season. Wiccans celebrate Beltane, so the night’s association with witches is understandable.

The night before May 1st in Germany is Walpurgisnacht, also called Hexennacht (literally “Witches’ Night”). Celebrations usually include bonfires and dancing. There is some evidence the “Witches Night” association in Germany may be of a much later date than the Christian St Walpurga for whom the festival is named: the German folk tradition of a meeting of sorcerers and witches on May Day eve is influenced by the descriptions of witches’ sabbaths in 15th and 16th century literature, and was embraced by authors such as Faust and Thomas Mann. But Walpurgisnacht actually dates back to the 8th century, and has more to do with us writers and fans of Regency England than you might think.

St Walpurga was English. Did you know that? She was born in Devonshire, of a family of the local aristocracy. Her father was St. Richard the Pilgrim, one of the under-kings of the West Saxons, and her mother was Winna, sister of St. Boniface, Apostle of Germany. Walpurga’s two brothers were saints, too! She was educated at Wimbourne Abbey in Dorset, before she ended up in Germany, where she and her brothers were sent to help their uncle working among the pagan Germans (who thought she was the Grain Mother come amongst them). She could read and write, and wrote a biography of her brother Winibald and also an account of his travels in Palestine. Because of these ancient works, she is often called the first female author of both England and Germany. A woman after our own hearts! Her festival is May 1st because that is the date she was canonized by the church.

Queen_of_the_May,_in_June_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1346819

Hawthorn, the traditional Queen of the May flower.

The most common pagan-derived May Day customs practiced in various parts of Europe involve various ways of “bringing in the May” –an excuse to spend as much of the day outdoors as possible. In medieval times, May Day was a true holiday, a day of rest from labor and a day for celebrations, with much time spent in the fields and woods, searching out blooms. (That might be why May 1st was chosen in more modern times for labor protests and International Workers Day?) The “May” meant any kind of tree or bush in bloom by May 1st. (This was easier before the calendar change of 1752, of course.) Hawthorn is the acknowledged favorite, but sycamore, birch, and rowan trees are in the running among others.

Druid at the 21 annual May Day Fairie Festival;, Spoutwood Farm, Glen Rock, PA

A “Green Man” Maypole dancer

Ways of bringing it in included bringing branches, used to decorate the homes or left on doorsteps, or an entire May Bush, or May Tree, decorated with ribbons and ornaments and displayed outside the home or in a public place. It could also mean bringing flowers, and weaving them into garlands to be displayed. In many places, especially in Germany and England, the crowning achievement was bringing a tall Maypole, to be erected as the focus for games & mummery, the selection of a May Queen, and ritualistic maypole dances honoring fertility.  Considered to be a vestige of tree-worship, the intention was to bring home, or bring to the village, the blessings of the tree-spirit. When the church was unsuccessful in banning these celebrations, they tried to make the custom connected to Easter. Did you know that those Easter egg trees people use as table centerpieces connect all the way back to pagan May Trees?

SCA- Maypole Dance

Maypole dance, SCA. Can you find me? Far right, holding onto my hat!

Here is a picture of my local SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) friends (and me) dancing around a maypole on a lovely (but windy) day in May a few years ago.  Did you ever do something like this in school? After declining in the 18th century, May Day customs were resurrected by the Victorians, and these “new” traditions are now revered as old and time-honored, very common all over England.

I just found Louise Allen’s lovely post about May Day with a Cruikshank cartoon of a London procession: http://janeaustenslondon.com/2015/05/01/may-day/
Milkmaids and chimneysweeps were two groups who continued to celebrate May Day even in the Regency. I admit that I am very curious to know, why those two groups and not others? I suppose the connections of milkmaids to their cattle, and chimneysweeps to the fires, might have something to do with it. Anyone else have a theory?

Although I’m American, my family background is English & German. When I was growing up, my sister and I used to make May baskets, decorated with real and/or paper flowers and containing candy, fudge or brownies, and we would deliver them to our grandparents who lived in town, or friends and neighbors. We’d leave it on the doorstep, ring the bell and hide. A vestige of the old blooming branches and flowers left on doorsteps in ancient days? Who knew? Adding chocolate was an admirable modern improvement, don’t you think?

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
Groweth sed
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode anu;
Sing, cuccu! (words from a 13th century song)

 

Historical fiction addicts –er, fans –like us love being swept back in time to the period of whatever story we are reading (or writing). At this blog, we focus on the English Regency primarily, but not exclusively. Sandy’s writing a series set in Roman times. Amanda’s been creating Elizabethan mysteries for a while now. Clearly, we all love history. Immersing ourselves in stories set in the past offers us a very satisfying way to “play in the past”, living it through the characters on the page. But have you ever felt that you wanted more of a direct experience than you could get by imagining yourself in a story? Have you ever tried participating in “living history” activities?Wanna Play-SCA

Confession time: I am a renegade medievalist. Yes, my historical stories are all set in the Regency, a period I love. But in my rare spare time, I sometimes play in a recreated “living history” medieval world as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I also occasionally do Regency, 18th century, or even Victorian.

The concept of “living history” as a hobby has had tremendous traction over the past forty-plus years. Back in 1966 when the SCA began as the result of a medieval-themed party in Berkeley, CA, there were nowhere near as many different groups recreating as many different time periods as there are today. If you Google “living history groups US” you get 332 million results!! (better specify time period and location!) Wikipedia offers a “historical reenactment groups” list with over 300 entries, still far from complete. Among those, the SCA, an international educational organization that covers “early medieval to early Renaissance” periods, is one of the largest, now in ten countries, but still not as widespread as Nova Roma (covering ancient Rome), found in 15 countries.

Pennsic War battlefield

SCA fighters on the battlefield at “The Pennsic War”, an annual event in held in Pennsylvania.

“Living History” has also become widely adopted as a teaching method in museums and at historical recreation sites, but that’s a little bit different. I can tell you it’s a great way to do research for stories, through the people you meet and the opportunities to learn. Do you want to know how it feels to wear a corset? Or how to load a flintlock rifle? How period food tastes? Or how heavy a “two-handed” sword might be? But be warned, doing it can be consuming and highly addictive because it’s such fun!

Coggshall Farm 1981

Gail (center) & friends in 18th century garb -in 1981!

“Living History” enthusiasts differ from re-enactors, although there is plenty of overlap. Most re-enactor groups are military, recreating specific units and/or specific events, especially battles. There’s going to be a reenactment of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the night before Waterloo, as part of the anniversary of that famous battle 10 days from now. (Wouldn’t you just LOVE to be there?) Despite differences, all these groups attempt at varying levels to capture the details of life and “portray the look and actions of” people from a particular time period –the clothes, the food, the day-to-day activities, the pastimes, the arts, crafts, science –in the effort to bring the time to life.

I can’t speak for other groups, but in the SCA the key to all of one’s participation is the creation of a persona, a character who is your medieval alter-ego, anchored in a specific time, place and culture within the range the SCA covers. Creating a persona gives you the entry point for the research and practice of whatever you are interested in doing. My persona (English, of course), Asenath Chamberly of Morrismount, slides around in time a bit, because my interests in costuming and dance expanded well beyond what would have fit her lifetime. But other SCAdians (and other groups) may follow a much stricter approach.

Pennsic War bannersThis interest in “recreating” the past as recreation isn’t just a modern idea. Queen Victoria was fond of giving costume balls themed to specific times in history, and the first Queen Elizabeth enjoyed tournaments that were intended to recreate the jousting feats of an earlier age.  Here is a link to a brief video of an “Assembly” I recently attended, held in a 1789 ballroom where George Washington may have danced. (I bet the floor was a lot more even back then!) I am standing in the back watching the dancers, as we were very hot and tired by then!

If you are interested in groups concentrating on the Regency, there are many to choose from, depending on where you are located. Some western U.S. ones include: Bay Area English Regency Society, the Oregon Regency Society, the Arizona Regency Society, and PEERS (the Period Events and Entertainments Re-Creation Society –not limited to Regency). There’s also the Regency Society of America, FOER (Friends of the English Regency), the Elegant Arts Society, and many more.

Do you “play in the past” beyond the pleasures of reading? If you were going to, what time periods would you most be interested in recreating?

 

Tipoos Tiger-pcard view      Are you familiar with this lovely item from the V&A Museum in London? I was not, until I recently received a postcard of this from a friend visiting London, who wrote “Look This Up Online” after his brief message. All of you who do research know what happened after that! Alice down the rabbit hole…. Ah, but there is so much more to what happened than that.

“Tippoo’s Tiger” is actually very famous and has been an object of curiosity ever since it was first displayed publicly in London in 1808. It is a nearly life-sized wooden sculpture, an automaton (the victim’s arm moves, and the tiger growls while the man cries out), a playable miniature organ with 18 pipes, and not least, a political statement by an Indian ruler whose hatred for the British is very clear.Close-up Tippoos Tiger-2

tipoos-tiger-organ view Tippoo was the sultan of Mysore, a power-and-territory-hungry thorn in the side of the East India Company and the cause of several wars. Tippoo’s Tiger was seized from Tippoo’s palace along with a great deal of treasure after the fall of Seringapatam ended both the 4th Anglo-Mysore War and Tippoo’s life in May, 1799. A few years after the Tiger was sent to England, it was put on display in the reading-room of the East India Company Museum and Library at East India House in Leadenhall Street. Did you know that the East India Company had a museum? In this picture, you can see Tippoo’s Tiger in the shadows at the left.East India Co Museum-Leadenhall_Street

The timing of my friend’s postcard was one of those Twilight Zone-ish coincidences that feel like messages. Synchronicities that happen during research never cease to thrill me. They feel like little gifts from the universe confirming that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. When his card arrived, I had just –I mean, literally days before –stumbled across some other East Indian-connected anecdotes in a most unlikely place, while I was researching something entirely unrelated. But I had jumped on them, because they tied in with a project I had moved to the “back burner” –revisions I’ve mapped out for the reissue of my 1998 Signet, The Magnificent Marquess, with a hero who spent most of his life in India. I had been reading Sarah Markham’s book, A Testimony of Her Times, Based on Penelope Hind’s Diaries and Correspondence 1787-1838. That’s research for the Christmas novella I am working on. But blessed Penelope repeated two tales of British subjects who survived tiger attacks in India. And then came the postcard! Message received –I’m back at work now on the TMM revisions. And my characters are definitely going to visit the museum, now that I have no length restraint on the story!

Pottery Figurine of H Munro & Tiger

Tippoo’s tiger figure may have been based on the same incident that inspired this Staffordshire pottery figurine (c. 1814) showing the 1792 death of British subject Hugh Munro in India (now in the British Army Museum).

The fact that stories about encounters with Indian tigers circulated all the way out into the country where a parson’s wife like Penelope Hind received them is a good reflection of how fascinated people were becoming with things East Indian during her lifetime. That fascination was multi-faceted; it included a kind of horror mixed with admiration, and for many, but not all, a growing sense of justification for the East India Company’s expanding domination. The tiger became not just Tippoo’s personal emblem, but a symbol of resistant India itself –a symbol used for the medals issued to the men who fought at SeringapatamSeringapatam_Medal_obv, and in political cartoons, and much more as the century advanced. I tried to give a sense of the variety of attitudes about India that existed during the Regency period in my novel.

The life and times of Tippoo (also spelled Tipu) inspired written accounts that I have not even begun to look into –most of this East Indian connection is just background for my story’s hero, at any rate. But besides the first published account about the final Mysore war, published in 1800 by James Salmon, Tipu's_Tiger_Salmond_1800Tippoo and his exploits figured prominently in art, literature and drama far into the 19th century. According to an article on the V&A’s website, “the Storming of Seringapatam unleashed a flood of prints and broadsheets. It inspired one of the largest paintings in the world, exhibited in London as a panorama. It was featured as a vast spectacular at Astley’s Amphitheatre, and cut down to size for the juvenile drama. As late as 1868 it set the scene for Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone.” I am also now aware that G. A. Henty wrote a fictional account, The Tiger of Mysore, and then there’s Bernard Cornwell’s offering in the Sharpe series, Sharpe’s Tiger (which I have not read yet, but now I want to!). Have you read any of these?

An end-note on Tippoo’s Tiger: Tippoo’s Tiger was on display at the East India Company until 1858, after which it was stored, then displayed in the new government India Office, and then in the India Museum. It became part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection in 1880. The musical and noise-making aspects of Tippoo’s Tiger suffered over the years from public exposure and use, and gradually fell into disrepair. Eventually the crank-handle that powered the bellows inside the tiger disappeared. Not everyone was disappointed in this, however, as was noted in The Athenaeum magazine in 1869: “These shrieks and growls were the constant plague of the student busy at work in the Library of the old India House, when the Leadenhall Street public, unremittingly, it appears, were bent on keeping up the performances of this barbarous machine. Luckily, a kind fate has deprived him of his handle, and stopped up, we are happy to think, some of his internal organs… and we do sincerely hope he will remain so, to be seen and admired, if necessary, but to be heard no more”.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. For more information about Tippoo, his tiger obsession and his mechanical tiger, check this article offered by the V&A, or google the topic to find lots more!

Did you already know about Tippoo’s Tiger? Do you like stories that have an East Indian connection? Do you get distracted by fascinating historical diversions when you are doing research? Or how about those research synchronicities? Have you had those happen to you? What happened and how did you feel?

 

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