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Medieval Summer Folk Traditions

Painting of Queen Guinevere's May progress by John Collier

The medieval summer time was an important time of year for common folk.  The weather was pleasant and, with the harvest not due in until August, it was an ideal time for social gatherings.  It was the best time of year for games, singing, dancing, sports, and, perhaps most significantly of all, storytelling.

Story Telling and Folk Tradition

Most medieval folk, outside of the ruling elite, were illiterate.  For the mass of common rural peasantry, books played no role in their lives.  Furthermore, aside from going to church, such people had relatively limited opportunities to gather with friends and family to share stories.

The typical medieval peasant lived in small, cramped accommodation.  There was no space to entertain many visitors in such houses.  And, unlike their lords, they had no access to halls in which to socialise when the weather was inclement (except when the social elite deigned to lay on community events for them).  The opportunity for significant communal gatherings was therefore often limited to outdoor activities.

In the summertime, the weather was ideal for larger outdoor events.  This was therefore the best time of year for fairs, summer games, plays, and sports.  It was a great time for the peasantry of medieval England to come together and share stories and folk traditions. 

But how can you share stories in a community with such low literacy levels as medieval England?  Sure, the literate elite could read.  They could also afford to employ minstrels to sing ballads and tell tales in their households.  And, if you are one of the lord’s servants, you might well get the chance to listen to your master’s minstrel sing a ballad or recite a rhyme.  But, otherwise, how might you encounter stories in your community?

Sharing Stories

Of course, the church recognised it had a duty to educate the laity in the Christian faith.  However, most peasants could not read, so ‘Bible study’ was clearly not an option.  Indeed, most rural churches did not even possess a copy of the Bible anyway.  Not only that but services were delivered in Latin, which most common parishioners could not understand!  Some priests might translate elements of the service into the local vernacular, but they were under no obligation to do so.  So, even the communication of religious stories was far from straightforward.

In the Middle Ages, when it came to the illiterate majority, stories were mostly shared via performance.  You might hear a story related in ballad form by a minstrel or recited in a rhyme.  A story might be performed in a play or a pageant.  You might learn a tale by singing a carol (not necessarily of the religious sort) whilst joining hands and dancing with your friends.  Or you might participate in the performance of folk traditions such as the Maying or a Midsummer festival.

Storytelling, for England’s rural peasantry, was therefore primarily about witnessing or participating in performance and folk tradition.  Dancing, singing, rhyming, acting and folk rituals were the basic mediums used to transmit stories.

May Day

May Day marked the start of summer and was therefore grounds for celebration.  If we consider the medieval calendar, festivals that fell in the early part of the year (most notably Easter) all had an ostensibly Christian theme.  Not so May Day.  May Day celebrations represented the first major festival of the year that had no Christian connection.

How May Day was celebrated depended on where you lived and the kind of farming prevalent in your region.  If you lived in the central and eastern parts of England, where arable farming tended to dominate, you would likely go a-Maying.  This tradition is described in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in which Queen Guinivere and her courtiers go out into the meadows and woods to gather flowers and fresh greenery.  These they use to make garlands to decorate themselves and their homes to celebrate the coming of summer. 

In the west, where pastoral farming is more prevalent, May Day was more likely to feature a bonfire or, occasionally, twin bonfires.  Some have suggested that this tradition had its roots in the Celtic past (since Celtic British culture persisted for longer in the west).  However, this practice has been observed all over Europe, including in areas of pastoral farming with no Celtic connections.  These pastoral bonfire traditions appear to be truly ancient, pre-dating even the Celts.

Summer Fairs

Community markets were good opportunities for socialising as well as trade.  These were held weekly and, as the weather improved, they attracted entertainments in the form of minstrels, players, games, and sports.  Some of the largest and most important of these became charter fairs, held annually on the feast day of a saint.  Those held over the summer and early autumn could host an array of outdoor entertainments, whether these might be itinerant minstrels, plays, wrestling contests or jousting tournaments.

As archery became more popular in England during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such events increasingly featured archery contests (such as those described in the popular ballads of Robin Hood from the period).

Medieval illustration of archery contest
Archery contests would have been a common sight in an English summer during the C14th and C15th

Fairs might also feature dancing and communal singing, both popular forms of entertainment in medieval England.  Especially popular was carolling.  Over the summer there would be May carols and summer carols to celebrate the season. When we think about carols these days, we think of Christmas carols.  However, in medieval times a carol was simply a song sung by a group of dancers holding hands in a circle.  These songs were only occasionally religious.  Indeed, they could quite easily be (and often were) quite bawdy.  Carolling was even banned from churches because it was considered too disruptive!  Even as late as 1497 carolling was still described as a ‘dissolute’ pastime.

Summer Games

Summer games were popular at communal events such as fairs.  Unfortunately, we don’t know the full details of what these games involved.  These were the traditions of the medieval English peasantry, and they had a dubious reputation with the clergy.  Since the chroniclers of the time were mostly clerics, summer games are little mentioned (except to denounce them).  In some cases, all we know of these traditions are their names, such as ‘illicit gild-ales’ or ‘ram raisings’.

Such games often (probably always) involved drinking, gambling with cards or dice, and sometimes play acting.  We know that some of these games were called ‘King and Queen’ games, where a young couple held court, having been elected as King and Queen of Summer.  What exactly these entailed we can only guess but some form of ad-lib play-acting, drinking, feasting, and dancing was almost certainly involved.

Such games were, in the view of the clergy, a cause of much licentiousness and shameful behaviour.  One rather po-faced early C14th cleric wrote:

‘Dances, cards, summer games,

Of many such come many shames’

Robert de Brunne, 1303

Plays

Summer provided the ideal opportunity to put on a play.  At the time plays for the general community were primarily enjoyed outdoors.  There was no such thing as a purpose-built indoor theatre.  Instead, a makeshift temporary stage might be erected specifically for the occasion.  More ad-hoc forms of drama might not even use a stage at all and were simply performed on the village green or in a churchyard.

Medieval illustration of travelling players staging a play
A hastily erected booth stage, such as that shown above, would have been an ideal vehicle to put on a play at a summer fair.  Alas, if the chroniclers of the time are to be believed, such events often attracted a bawdy element, cut-purses, drunkenness, and other ‘shameful’ behaviour

Junior members of the clergy frequently staged short, mostly ad-libbed, religious plays.  These were often put on for the locals in the church yard.  They were highly informal and performed in the local dialect.  They probably represented an important way in which commonfolk encountered religious stories.  The clerics who put them on tailored their performances specifically to have a common appeal.  It was a form of evangelism that was frowned upon by the local bishops, who much preferred these rustic clerics to stick to delivering their message from the pulpit.

From such informal beginnings more elaborate religious plays evolved.  By the late C14th you could see some spectacular religious mystery plays performed in places like York and Chester.

The York Mystery Plays

York was medieval England’s second largest city and, from the late C14th onwards, hosted the famous York Mystery Plays.  The event was held at the festival of Corpus Christi each year, which meant any time from late May to late June.  It took the form of a series of short plays telling the story of the Bible, from the creation through to the last judgement.

The nature of the performance was very unlike what we are used to seeing in modern theatre.

When the big day arrived, several streets in the centre of York were closed off to serve as a route for a spectacular pageant.  Crowds would line the route to witness the spectacle.  Then a series of pageant wagons would trundle by, each one carrying its own stage.  They’d stop at a designated station and a small cast of actors would perform a short story from the Bible.  Each ‘sketch’ would take about 10 or 20 minutes to perform.  When the performance was done, the wagon would trundle to the next station and perform the same play for a new audience.  Then the wagon behind it would roll up to take its place.

The first wagon in the pageant performed the creation story and the fall of Lucifer. The last wagon, number 48, performed Judgement Day.

Robin Hood and Dame Sirith

Not all medieval plays were religious by any means.  Secular plays were performed by troops of players at fairs throughout the summer.  Unfortunately, we know far less about these since virtually all complete surviving English medieval scripts relate to religious plays.

We have just a few fragments that shed light on what was clearly a popular (if often disreputable) form of entertainment.  One example is a script for a Robin Hood play from the C15th.  The entire script fits on a single piece of paper.  It consists of a basic list of scenes and points of action with limited dialogue.  The play features contests such as archery, a wrestling match and fight scenes.  It is hard to imagine how it could have been performed anywhere else than outdoors on a fine summer’s day.  The dialogue, such as it is, adds a little lyrical colour but plays little role beyond linking together the action scenes.

Another example is a bawdy play, written in verse, called Dame Sirith.  It was probably performed by two, maybe three players, delivering their lines in rhyming verse (or perhaps even singing them).  It tells the story of a lusty fellow who seduces a married woman with the aid of a cunning old woman’s wicked tricks.

Minstrels and Players

Minstrels and troops of players would have featured prominently in summer festivities.  The most talented minstrels would seek permanent employment at a lord’s manor.  However, there were many itinerant players who lacked permanent employment.  During the summer they would have travelled between various fairs plying their trade.

We think of minstrels as musicians.  However, in medieval times their craft encompassed all forms of performing arts.  A minstrel might perform anything from music, singing and dancing to juggling, acrobatics, performing animals, acting, mimicry and puppetry.  Of course, different minstrels had different specialisms, but many had more to their repertoire than simply singing or playing an instrument.

Colourful player troops would often dress in costume and wear bizarre masks.  They might run amuck at a summer fair, singing bawdy songs, and even exposing their backsides for the amusement of the audience (as one medieval illustration testifies)!  The troop might contain at least one member dressed as a wild man or woodwose.  The woodwose was thought to be a savage, lustful creature, which would have supplied the troop with an excuse for all sorts of bawdy mayhem!

Storytelling

Minstrels supplied the common populace with a key source of stories and folk tales.  Their ballads, and rhymes were a very popular form of common entertainment.  Amongst the most popular were tales of Robin Hood and other outlaws, spreading chaos at the expense of pompous abbots and corrupt local sheriffs.  In his original tales, Robin is always a rustic yeoman, a lowly commoner, cocking a snook at his (often corrupt) social betters.

Comedy and ribald tales also featured prominently.  A late C15th manuscript known as the Heege manuscript provides a rare insight into this poorly documented world of popular folk entertainment.  Amongst this collection can be found comedic stories of killer rabbits, jousting bears, drunken sermons, partying pigs, and obscenely gluttonous kings (looking at you, Edward IV).

The ballad of Earl Randolf (now sadly lost) was another example of a popular rhyme that drew the disapproval of the clerical class.  Alas, no copy survives, so we can only guess at its content.  One theory is that it may have told the story of how a raucous rabble of minstrels and paupers somehow defeated an invading Welsh army.

Sports

The fine summer weather provided the ideal opportunity both to watch and participate in sports.  For the social elite this would mean hunting and jousting tournaments.  Indeed, jousting would be a major attraction at some of the larger fairs and common folk would flock to witness such magnificent spectacles.  However, for all but the wealthy, jousting was strictly a spectator sport.  Only the richest members of society could possibly afford the equipment needed to participate.

Ordinary folk could, however, participate in other forms of sports.  Archery contests became very popular in the age of Crécy and Agincourt.  The longbowmen who fought these battles were, like Robin Hood himself, drawn from the ranks of the rustic yeomanry of England.

Another popular sport was wrestling.  Wrestling contests feature in outlaw ballads such as the tales of Robin Hood and Gamelyn.  It was a sport that was clearly more closely associated with the rustic peasantry than with lords and courtiers.

Of course, blood sports such as bear-baiting and cock-fighting remained popular throughout the Middle Ages, with people often betting on the bloody outcomes.  They were, as far as we can tell, very popular with women as well as men.  Indeed, cock-fighting was considered a most suitable entertainment for children!

Midsummer

Midsummer, like May Day, was another important seasonal festival with a very ancient heritage.  Much like May Day, it had no obvious Christian connection although, it was officially celebrated as the Feast of Saint John (as in the Baptist).

Medieval midsummer festivities featured fire and bonfires.  This included such communal activities as dancing around a bonfire, processions of fire-bearers and even rolling wheels of fire down hillsides. 

C19th painting illustrating medieval midsummer celebrations
This C19th painting gives a feel as to how midsummer was celebrated in medieval times.  The celebrants are shown joining hands to dance around the fire.  In the Middle Ages they would have been likely to sing a midsummer carol whilst doing this.  The man shown running around the fire with a torch was part of an old medieval folk tradition specifically attested to by the C13th writer, Jacobus de Voragine

Some of these events could get out of hand (representing, as they did, an obvious fire hazard).  Various municipalities attempted to regulate processions to minimize the potential for pyromania (probably with mixed results).

The fires obviously had little to do with Saint John the Baptist, although it was claimed that fire symbolised the bright light of the saint’s soul.  One C13th writer, however, tells us that in pagan times it was believed that if animal bones were burnt in midsummer fires, the fumes would ward off dragons.  This would, in turn, ward off pestilence (which medieval folk tradition held was spread by the poisonous breath of dragons).  In a way, of course, this old folk custom actually made sense.  Burning rotting animal remains at the height of summer would indeed have reduced the risk of disease for the community.

The Harvest

At the very start of August was Lammas Day, a day of celebration that goes back to Anglo-Saxon times.  It was marked by the baking (and eating) of loaves of bread made from the very first grains from the annual harvest.  Once the merriment of the day was done, medieval England turned its attention to the serious business of the harvest.

Summer merriment would have taken a pause during August, as the harvest was brought in.  It was a very busy time, and rural workers would have had limited opportunity for leisure.

By the end of the month, however, the harvest was in and there would be just enough time to celebrate at a late summer fair before the weather started to deteriorate.

Some of England’s largest annual charter fairs were held at around this time; in late August/early September.  These included the St. Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield, Winchester’s St. Giles Fair, and the Stourbridge Fair.  The Stourbridge Fair eventually grew to become the largest in all Europe.

As autumn closed in, the seasonal cycle of summer merriment would come to an end.  But, of course, it would return with the Maying in the following year.

Related articles

If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in reading some of our other articles concerning medieval folk traditions, myths, mysteries and legends:

Assassins and the Old Man of the Mountain

Father of Norse Mythology

Halloween the Middle Ages

King Arthur

Robin Hood:

King John’s Nemesis

Robin of Wakefield

A Rebel Turned Robber

The Real Robin Hood

Saint George in Medieval England

The Green Man – History and Origins

The Morrigan

Trial of the Templars

Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

Witch of Wookey Hole

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References and further reading

Medieval English Theatre, Beadle, R, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994)

The Bawdy Bard, Tom Almeroth-Williams, University of Cambridge, May 2023

The English Medieval Minstrel, Southworth, J, (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1989)

The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, Keen, M, (Routledge, Tailor & Frances Group, London & New York, 2000)

The Stations of the Sun, A history of the ritual year in Britain, R Hutton, Oxford, 2001

Images

Queen Guinevre’s Maying: Painting by John Collier (via wiki commons)

Archery contest: from the Geoffrey Luttrell psalter 1325  (via wiki commons)

Booth stage: Illustration from the songbook of Zeghere van Male, Cambrai ms 126 f53r, 1542 (via wiki Commons)

The Feast of Saint John: Portrait by Jules Breton 1875 (via wiki Commons)

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