Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Edward VI’s revised prayer-book had made this much difference to the ceremony that now it is carried out entirely within the church. And it remains in this form today, except only that the promise to be bonere and buxum is now omitted, while the American reformed churches also omit the whole section concerning the use and abuse of marriage.

During the period, also, ceremonies directly derived from the worship of mother deities, which had lingered on in popular tradition, and had no doubt often been performed secretly, now came into the open, as we know from the scandalized protests of the Puritans. Chief of these were the Easter fertility festivals, the corresponding festivals at harvest time, and the solar festivals at Christmas, to which I have referred in an earlier place. We get a vivid picture of the scope and attraction of the May Games from Stubbes, and it is clear that they were very much more than an amusing survival from the past, as they would be considered in modern times.

Against Maie, Whitsondaie, or other time, every parishe, towne and village assemble themselves together, both men women and children, olde and yonge . . . they run gadding to the woods and groues, hils and mountaines, where they spende all the night in pleasaunt pastymes, and in the morning they return, bringing home birch bowes and braunches of trees…. Their cheapest jewell they bring home from thence is their Maiepoole, which they bring home with greate veneration. They haue twentie, or fortie, yoke of Oxen, every Oxe hauyng a sweete Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tippe of his hornes, and these Oxen drawe home this Mai pool [this stinckyng Idoll rather] which is covered all over with Flowers and Hearbes . . . and some time painted with variable colours, with twoo or three hundred Men and women, and children followyng it, vith great deuotion. And thus being reared up, with handkercheifs and flagges; streamyng on the toppe, they . . . sett up Sommer Haules, Bowers and Arbours hard by it. Then fall they to banquet and feaste, to leape and daunce about it, as ye Heathen people did at the dedication of their Idolles, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thyng it self.

What the “pleasaunt pastymes” were is made clear by the observation that, when they return about two-thirds of the “maides” have been “defiled“. Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities lists a number of local variations on this theme. In some places, for instance, there was a “sportful war” between two parties representing winter and spring.