Padstow May Day Song
DESCRIPTION: Ritual song, for a hobby-horse, in English or Cornish: "Unite and unite, and let us all unite"..."Rise up, Mrs. __ and gold be your ring/And give to us a cup of ale the merrier we shall sing"..."Where are these young men that now here should dance..."
EARLIEST DATE: 1860 (Baring Gould MS)
LONG DESCRIPTION: Ritual song, accompanying antics of a hobby-horse; sung in English or Cornish: "Unite and unite, and let us all unite"..."Rise up, Mrs. __ and gold be your ring/And give to us a cup of ale the merrier we shall sing"..."Where are these young men that now here should dance?/Some they are in England and some they are in France"..."Now we fare you well and we bid you all good cheer/We'll call no more unto your house before another year"
KEYWORDS: ritual drink foreignlanguage moniker nonballad animal horse
FOUND IN: Britain(England(South,North))
REFERENCES (5 citations):
Kennedy-FolksongsOfBritainAndIreland 86, "Can Cala Me [May Day Song]" (1 text, 1 tune; the notes give a related text and a version of "The Old May Song")
Reeves-TheEverlastingCircle 104, "Padstow May Song" (2 texts)
Gundry-CanowKernow-SongsDancesFromCornwall, pp. 15-17, "May Day Song" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
ADDITIONAL: Bob Stewart, _Where Is Saint George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong_, revised edition, Blandford, 1988, pp. 129-131, "The Padstow May Song" (1 text, divided into "Night Song," "Day Song," and "Dirge")
Blue Ribbon Hobby Horse Team, "May Day Song" (on FSB9)
People of Padstow, "Padstow May Day Song" (on Lomax41, LomaxCD1741)
cf. "May Day Carol" (subject) and references there
The Old May Song
Cornish May Carol
NOTES [2010 words]: Kennedy-FolksongsOfBritainAndIreland's Cornish words are a revivalist translation from the English. - PJS
Some versions of this ask, "O where is Saint George" or equivalent. (The answer being, "He's out in his longboat, all on the salt sea, O.") It's an interesting question: As Stewart notes (p. 62), George was not a natural English saint; Edward the Confessor was long considered England's national saint (indeed, King Edward I was given such an un-Norman name only because his father Henry III revered Edward the Confessor) -- and in Northumbria, Saint Cuthbert was long revered. Saint Dunstan was also popular. Stewart notes that various authors date George's adoption as England's Patron at diverse times from 1220 to 1415.
It should be noted, however, that the tale of "St. George for Merry England" (Briggs, pp. 474-476) makes George a son of the Earl of Coventry. (An odd claim, given that Coventry was not an ancient earldom.)
The best-known version of the legend of George in medieval England would be that in the so-called "Golden Legend." George is #58 in Ryan's edition (pp. 238-242). It calls him a military tribune from Cappadocia. His exploit with the dragon is said to have taken place by a lake near "Silena in the province of Lybia." The dragon demanded two animals -- sheep or humans -- per day, and George arrived when the king's daughter (a king? Inside the Roman Empire?) was to be sacrificed. George hits the dragon with his lance and orders the girl to bind it with her girdle as a leash. He then converts the whole town. (The legend admits that there are variants in the story.)
After that the "Legend" tells how, in the time of the Emperor Diocletian, a "prefect Dacian" started a persecution. (Diocletian's persecution of Christians was the most severe in Roman history.) George therefore quit the army and gave away his possessions. Dacian orders George tortured, and this makes no impression on him. So Dacian calls in a magician to poison him, but the poison fails. So does persuasion. Dacian's wife tells him it is pointless, whereupon the wife too is tortured -- and George tells her that her blood "will be both your baptism and your crown."
George is then sentenced to be dragged through the streets and beheaded. He is said to have prayed that all who asked for his help receive their requests, and a voice from heaven said it would be so. George is then executed -- and lightning strikes and kills Dacian.
Stewart remarks that the Catholic church in 1969 effectively de-sanctified George, demoting him to local status only. This is frankly logical, since the records of his works, and even of his existence, are slight. As early as 494 C.E., Pope Gelasius had declared that George was "one of those saints whose names are justly revered by men but whose works are known only to God" (Alexander, p. 253). Chadwick, p. 155, thinks "the" Saint George is George of Lydda, a soldier -- but also thinks that his history has been mixed up with that of the Arian Bishop George of Alexandria (martyred 360), and that much of the tale of Saint George comes from the martyrdom of this heretic! Benet, p. 970, declares this to have been disproved, however, and the revised fourth edition of Benet, which shortens the entry on George (p. 393) does not even mention it. Similarly Hole, p. 104, declares that this story "carries within it the seeds of its own refutation." The story apparently was popularized by Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Hole, p. 106).
OxfordCompanion, p. 412, says that George was martyred at Lydda in Palestine in the fourth century, with the first signs of reverence in the sixth century. It suggests that the story of George and the Dragon is "a reminiscence of Perseus and Theseus" -- a statement that seems very likely, since the story is that the dragon, which was terrorizing a kingdom, demanded the daughter of the king as a meal, and George killed the beast instead (Alexander, p. 253). Eventually this fight came to be associated with Dragon Hill in Berkshire (Alexander, p. 254). Hole, p. 110, confesses that we do not know when he came to be known as a dragon-fighter, but the two had certainly been linked by the twelfth century. It is only with the Golden Legend, however, that we see George actually fighting the dragon, as opposed to defeating it by prayer.
George was not the only victim of Diocletian's persecution -- in Britain, saints Alban, Aaron, and Julius of Caerlon were said to have suffered (Hole, p. 105). Alban's story was particularly interesting, in that he had to make a miraculous river crossing to reach his own place of execution, and his executioner went blind as he struck the fatal stroke (DictSaints, p. 6). But that wasn't enough to make him Britain's patron saint.
OxfordCompanion adds that George was the patron of the Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III in 1348. It has met on April 23, St. George's day, ever since, except for a brief interruption during the reign of Edward VI (Hole, p. 116, who thinks Edward disliked St. George. There were also orders devoted to George in Aragon and Prussia; Hole, p. 115). Simpson, p. 105, says that Edward III added St. George's name to the English battle cry during the siege of Calais at about the same time. This doubtless helped make him popular in England.
Hole, p. 115, says that he was certainly England's patron saint by the time of the Battle of Agincourt (1415). It is possible that his cult is older; a legend eventually arose that Richard I had called upon St. George during the siege of Acre in the Third Crusade (Saul, p. 93; Hole, p. 114). Hole, p. 115, says that several of his alleged relics were brought to Europe following the First Crusade. And Hole, p. 103, says that George's legend was known in the time of the Venerable Bede. But Saul, p. 171, says that the evidence of Richard introducing George's cult into England is weak.
Simpson, p. 105, says that George was celebrated by a guild in Norwich by 1389, and they had equipment for an elaborate pageant by 1408. George's feast day was made an official holiday in 1415 (reign of Henry V). Alexander, p. 253, suggests however that he gained his fame at the time of the Third Crusade, since a soldier-saint would appeal to the British crusaders. We know that Richard III supported his cult in the 1480s (Saul, p. 195).
According to Simpson, p. 106, by 1532 the girl George rescued was reputed to be St. Margaret -- i.e. St. Margaret of Antioch, whose dates are unknown but who was a pagan converted to Christianity who was oppressed by her father and who was swallowed by a dragon which later threw her up (DictSaints, p. 152). This is the only St. Margaret associated with a dragon, although the ties with George are at best tenuous (and Simpson maintains Margaret was fictitious, which makes it interesting that Jean Darc once claimed to have heard her...). Margaret, like George, was found in the famous Golden Legend (Simpson, p. 107), one of the earliest printed books in English, so that may have cemented the link.
Alternately, Simpson, p. 115 (and preceding pages) mentions a sort of a "hobby dragon" tradition parallel to the hobby horse. She hints that this would cause Saint George the Dragon Slayer to be attracted to hobby horse celebrations.
Stewart, p. 63, is of the opinion that George is based on a pagan deity. This is perhaps an elaboration of the link to Perseus. But on p. 68, Stewart rings in fertility deities such as the Green Man. This is somewhat more logical than the other -- the Greek name "George" means "farmer." So he is associated with agriculture -- but hardly as a fertility deity!
It is curious to note that Greene, p. 227, observes that only one early carol about George has been preserved for us (it is Greene's #62, p. 124, beginning "Enfors we us with all our might To love Seynt Georg, Owr Lady knyght"). But he is hardly more popular in recent folk song. Could he have been less popular with the folk than the nobility?
Englebert, pp. 28-29, declares, "St. George suffered martyrdom at Lydda in Palestine shortly before the accession of the Emperor Constantine. These words contain all we certainly know of him whom the Greeks call 'the great martyr....'" He supposedly was celebrated in the east by the fifth century, and his cult reach France by the sixth. Oxford was celebrating him in 1222.
As mentioned above, Benet, p. 970, calls George a soldier in Diocletian's army, killed in 304, and the revised edition cuts this. The explanation of George and the Dragon also changes; the first edition, pp. 970-971, links it to various tales of Christian heroes slaying dragons, including the account in the Revelation to John of the Dragon (Greek δρακων, drakon) who contests with God in chapter 12 and after, and who is cast out of heaven by Michael in 12:7. The revised edition, while mentioning this, also brings in (Perseus and) Andromeda.
Finally, both editions of Benet mention that the Red Cross Knight in Spenser's Fairie Queene is Saint George.
Adding all this up, I wonder if the reference in this song is not to Saint George the (mostly fictional) saint but to Saint George's Banner, one of the naval flags. This would explain why Saint George was "out in his longboat." Although Stewart has an explanation for that, too -- or, rather, two of them. On p. 66, he thinks Saint George is to be identified with the brother in the bottomless boat of "Edward" [Child 13]. On p. 67, he suggests that the bottomless boat that we have no actual reason to believe Saint George is in is in fact a sacrifice to the mother deep. I leave it to you to decide how to apply Occam's Razor to that.... Somewhat more likely is Kennedy's suggestion that it is associated with St. George's Well near Padstow.
Since we're talking ancient legends anyway, another thought I had is that St. George being in his longboat might somehow be a confusion with the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, plus some subset of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany floating to England after being driven out of the Holy Land.
Greene, pp. 9-10, would have us believe that the song must go back at least to the time of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, because of the lines, "Where are the French dogs that made so great a boast, O, They shall eat the grey goose feather, And we will eat the roast, O." The goose feathers do sound like clothyard arrows, of course -- but as far as beating the French goes, the Napoleonic Wars are much more recent.
GreeneEarliest, pp. xxxii-xxxiii, connects this with the original "carole" dances: "The processional dance which accompanies the singing of the Padstow 'May Song' keeps to the present day this association of burden with movement and stanza with standing. As long as the 'hobby horse' and his companion dancers advance along the street or whirl about in it, the crowd of villagers sings the burden over and over again. The instant the dancers pause for breath, the singers change without other signal to the stanza, at the conclusion of which the dance is resumed." On pp. xxxi-xxxii Greene proposes that carols are ring dances; during the stanzas (verses) sung by the leader, the dancers stepped left. Then they would stop and dance in place for the burden. The hobby horse makes the dance linear, but the alternation remains.
Alexander, p. 134, has what strikes me as the most likely explanation of all. "There can be little doubt that the 'Obby 'Oss goes back to some long-forgotten pagan ritual but over the years the locals grew frustrated at not knowing the reason for their great day and several explanations evolved. The most popular is that a French warship attempted to raid Padstow in the fourteenth century when most of the men of the town were away at the siege of Calais [i.e. 1346-1347]. Some quick-thinking person rushed a hobby horse to the harbour, where the French thought it was the Devil come to protect the Cornish and turned about with all speed."
With that sort of hypothesis floating around, is it any wonder that the song got a bit strange too? - RBW
Last updated in version 5.3
- Alexander: Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, Sutton Publishing, 2002
- Benet: William Rose Benet, editor, The Reader's Encyclopdedia, first edition, 1948 (I use the four-volume Crowell edition but usually check it against the single volume fourth edition edited by Bruce Murphy and published 1996 by Harper-Collins)
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, Part A: Folk Narratives, 1970 (I use the 1971 Routledge paperback that combines volumes A.1 and A.2)
- Chadwick: Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (being volume I of The Pelican History of the Church), Pelican, 1967
- DictSaints: Revd. Philip D. Noble, editor, The Watkins Dictionary of Saints, Watkins Publishing, 2007
- Englebert: Omar Englebert, The Lives of the Saints, translated by Christopher and Anne Fremantle, Penguin, 1995
- GreeneSelection: Richard Greene, editor, A Selection of English Carols, Clarendon Medieval and Tudor Series, Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1962
- GreeneEarliest: Richard Leighton Greene, editor, The Earliest English Carols, Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1935
- Hole: Christina Hole, English Folk Heroes: From King Arthur to Thomas a Becket, 1948? (I use the 1992? Dorset Press reprint)
- OxfordCompanion: John Cannon, editor, The Oxford Companion to British History, Oxford, 1997
- Ryan: Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, translated by William Granger Ryan, Volume I, Princeton University Press, 1993 (I use the 1995 Princeton paperback)
- Saul: Nigel Saul, The Three Richards: Richard I, Richard II and Richard III, Hambledon & London, 2005
- Simpson: Jacqueline Simpson, British Dragons, 1980; second edition with new introduction, Wordsworth/Folklore Society, 2000
- Stewart: Bob Stewart, Where Is Saint George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong, revised edition, Blandford, 1988
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