In May, that moder is of monthes glade,
That fresshe floures, blew and white and rede,
Ben quike agayn, that wynter dede made,
And ful of bawme is fletyng euery mede...
(Troilus and Criseyde, II.50-4)
As Chaucer illustrates for us here, May is the month which receives more attention than any other from medieval poets. (Not to take anything away from April, with its 'shoures soote', its dew, and its nightingales.) As the month for lovers and for roaming abroad in the countryside, 'the mother of months glad' is a time when all kinds of things can happen, from trysts to dream-visions; so here's a collection of descriptions of May from a range of medieval English sources.
May (BL Yates Thompson 3, f.5)
It was in the later medieval period that poetic descriptions of May really began to blossom, but we can begin in Anglo-Saxon England with the Menologium, an Old English poem which catalogues the course of the year and the saints' feasts of each month. The section dealing with May (ll.75-95) uses the Old English name of the month, þrymilce, as well as Maius:
Swylce in burh raþe
embe siex niht þæs smicere on gearwum
wudum and wyrtum cymeð wlitig scriðan
þrymilce on tun, þearfe bringeð
Maius micle geond menigeo gehwær.
Swa þi ylcan dæge æþele geferan,
Philippus and Iacob, feorh agefan,
modige magoþegnas for meotudes lufan.
And þæs embe twa niht þætte tæhte god
Elenan eadigre æþelust beama,
on þam þrowode þeoden engla
for manna lufan, meotud on galgan
be fæder leafe. Swylce ymb fyrst wucan
butan anre niht þætte yldum bringð
sigelbeorhte dagas sumor to tune,
wearme gewyderu. Þænne wangas hraðe
blostmum blowað, swylce blis astihð
geond middangeard manigra hada
cwicera cynna, cyninge lof secgað
mænifealdlice, mærne bremað
[Six nights after this, gloriously adorned with woods and plants, þrymilce comes sweeping swiftly into the towns, radiant; mighty May brings blessings everywhere among the multitudes. On the same day those noble companions, Philip and James, brave thegns, gave their lives for love of the Lord, and two nights afterwards God showed blessed Helena the most glorious of trees, on which the Lord of the angels suffered for love of mankind, the Ruler on the gallows by his Father's will. Then after the space of a week, less one night, it brings to men sun-bright days, summer to town, with warm weather. Then the meadows quickly bloom with blossom, and joy mounts up throughout the earth among many kinds of living creatures, who in manifold ways speak the praise of the King, extol the glory of the Almighty.]
A translation of the whole poem can be found here. According to the system of reckoning followed in this poem, just as autumn begins on 7 August, winter on 7 November, and spring on 7 February, summer officially begins on 9 May. Each of the seasons gets a vivid little pen-portrait, and this is summer's, full of blossom, song and 'sun-bright days, with warm weather' (sigelbeorhte dagas... wearme gewyderu). I love how the last lines of this section evoke the voices of the creatures singing in their many different ways (mænifealdlice) - it's almost as noisy as the cacophony of birds and beasts in 'Sumer is icumen in'. The phrase blostmum blowað, too, could easily slip from the Old English poem to the Middle English song without seeming out of place. The coming of May is described with the verb scriðan, which seems to mean 'to move smoothly, to glide'; this verb is used in Old English for clouds, ships, heavenly bodies, and for the passage of time, which moves more smoothly than we can track.
Another May, in the opening of a poem from the early fourteenth century:
In May hit murgeþ when hit dawes:
In dounes wiþ þis dueres plawes,
Ant lef is lyht on lynde;
Blesmes bredeþ on þe bowes,
Al þis wylde wyhtes wowes
So wel ych vnderfynde.
Y not non so freoli flour
Ase ledies þat beþ bryht in bour,
Wiþ loue who mihte hem bynde.
So worly wymmen are by west
One of hem ich herie best
From Irlond into ynde
[In May it's merry when it dawns;
On the downs the animals play,
And leaf is light on linden-tree;
Blossom burgeons on the boughs;
All the wild creatures woo,
As I well perceive.
I know of no flower so fair
As ladies who are bright in their bowers,
If they may be bound with love.
So worthy women are in the west;
One of them I praise as best
From Ireland to India.]
The whole poem is here (it goes on to tell us that 'women are the best thing/which ever made our high heaven's king/- if many of them were not false'. Hmmm.) Again, the most interesting words here are the verbs, tokens of all the many things which are happening in May: dawes, plawes, wowes, bredeþ, and most of all murgeþ, which is from mirien, 'to make merry, to please'. You see that May has been 'merry' for a very long time!
The pleasures of a May dawn were also extolled by Chaucer, who tells us in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women that even he - the ultimate medieval bibliophile - abandons his books at the dawn of a May morning:
And as for me, though that I konne but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
And to hem yive I feyth and ful credence,
And in myn herte have hem in reverence
So hertely, that ther is game noon
That fro my bokes maketh me to goon,
But yt be seldom on the holyday,
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules synge,
And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
Farewel my bok and my devocioun!
Now have I thanne eek this condicioun,
That, of al the floures in the mede,
Thanne love I most thise floures white and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysyes in our toun.
To hem have I so gret affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whanne comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up and walkyng in the mede
To seen this flour ayein the sonne sprede,
Whan it upryseth erly by the morwe.
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe.
Daisies (BL Royal 15 E VI f. 2v)
Another May morning inspires one of the greatest dreams in all English literature, at the beginning (of course) of Piers Plowman:
In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.
Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly, of Fairye me thoghte.
I was wery forwandred and wente me to reste
Under a brood bank by a bourne syde;
And as I lay and lenede and loked on the watres,
I slombred into a slepyng, it sweyed so murye.
Thanne gan I meten a merveillous swevene--
That I was in a wildernesse, wiste I nevere where.
Ac as I biheeld into the eest an heigh to the sonne,
I seigh a tour on a toft trieliche ymaked,
A deep dale bynethe, a dongeon therinne,
With depe diches and derke and dredfulle of sighte.
A fair feeld ful of folk fond I ther bitwene--
Of alle manere of men, the meene and the riche,
Werchynge and wandrynge as the world asketh.
Somme putten hem to the plough, pleiden ful selde,
In settynge and sowynge swonken ful harde,
And wonnen that thise wastours with glotonye destruyeth.
'of Fairye me thoghte...' Sleeping out of doors on a May morning does indeed put you in danger of contact with Fairyland, as the heroine of the Middle English romance Sir Orfeo learns to her cost. Queen Herodis makes the mistake of falling asleep under a tree on a hot May day, at the perilous hour of noon:
Bifel so in the comessing of May
When miri and hot is the day,
And oway beth winter schours,
And everi feld is ful of flours,
And blosme breme on everi bough
Over al wexeth miri anought,
This ich quen, Dame Heurodis
Tok to maidens of priis,
And went in an undrentide
To play bi an orchardside,
To se the floures sprede and spring
And to here the foules sing.
Thai sett hem doun al thre
Under a fair ympe-tre,
And wel sone this fair quene
Fel on slepe opon the grene.
The maidens durst hir nought awake,
Bot lete hir ligge and rest take.
So sche slepe til after none,
That undertide was al y-done.
Ac, as sone as sche gan awake,
Sche crid, and lothli bere gan make;
Sche froted hir honden and hir fete,
And crached hir visage - it bled wete -
Hir riche robe hye al to-rett
And was reveyd out of hir wit.
She is driven nearly mad because she has fallen victim to fairies - more powerful in May than any other month - and, summoned by their king, she must go. The rest of the romance concerns her husband's attempts to bring her back, but nothing will ever be the same again.
A happier Maytime meeting occurs in William of Palerne (816-24), where the lovers are unwittingly brought together in a garden:
& whan þe gaye gerles were in-to þe gardin come,
Faire floures þei founde of fele maner hewes,
þat swete were of sauor & to þe si3t gode;
& eche busch ful of briddes þat bliþeliche song,
Boþe þe þrusch & þe þrustele bi xxxti of boþe,
Meleden ful merye in maner of here kinde.
& alle freliche foules þat on þat friþ songe,
For merþe of þat May time þei made moche noyce,
To glade wiþ uch gome þat here gle herde.
Because May is the month for lovers, as Sir Thomas Malory describes in Le Morte d'Arthur:
And thus it passed on from Candlemas until after Easter, that the month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in like wise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May, in something to constrain him to some manner of thing more in that month than in any other month, for divers causes.
For then all herbs and trees renew a man and woman, and likewise lovers call again to their mind old gentleness and old service, and many kind deeds that were forgotten by negligence. For like as winter rasure doth alway arase and deface green summer, so fareth it by unstable love in man and woman. For in many persons there is no stability; for we may see all day, for a little blast of winter's rasure, anon we shall deface and lay apart true love for little or nought, that cost much thing; this is no wisdom nor stability, but it is feebleness of nature and great disworship, whosomever useth this.
Therefore, like as May month flowereth and flourisheth in many gardens, so in like wise let every man of worship flourish his heart in this world, first unto God, and next unto the joy of them that he promised his faith unto; for there was never worshipful man or worshipful woman, but they loved one better than another; and worship in arms may never be foiled, but first reserve the honour to God, and secondly the quarrel must come of thy lady: and such love I call virtuous love.
But nowadays men can not love seven night but they must have all their desires: that love may not endure by reason; for where they be soon accorded and hasty heat, soon it cooleth. Right so fareth love nowadays, soon hot soon cold: this is no stability. But the old love was not so; men and women could love together seven years, and no licours lusts were between them, and then was love, truth, and faithfulness: and lo, in like wise was used love in King Arthur's days.
Wherefore I liken love nowadays unto summer and winter; for like as the one is hot and the other cold, so fareth love nowadays; therefore all ye that be lovers call unto your remembrance the month of May, like as did Queen Guenever, for whom I make here a little mention, that while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end.
Lovers in a garden (BL Harley 4431 f.376)