Above, from left to right: Calendar page for May, from The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Gemini. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
Riding or walking, in companies of green-clad couples like the courtiers of King Arthur or the Duke de Berry, or by twos, or all alone, like the Dreamer of the Roman de la Rose or the falconer of the Belles Heures, there are many variations on the medieval set piece of the May morning’s outing to the greenwood.
The aim of the outing is the bringing in of the May: the gathering of young green and growing things to adorn the person and to bless the season of renewed life and love. The custom, which appears both in courtly and folk contexts throughout medieval Europe, ultimately derives from pre-Christian traditions.
The name “May” is derived from Maia, a Roman goddess of growth (cf. maior, “bigger,” from magnus, “great, large”). Associated with fertility and vegetation, this Maia is not the same goddess as the mother of Hermes, although she has the same name. A pregnant sow was sacrificed to Maia on the first of May. Some Roman writers equated Maia with the Earth, and with the Bona Dea, or Good Goddess. The dedication feast of the Bona Dea’s temple on the Aventine was celebrated on the same day as the sacrifice to Maia (Blackburn & Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, 1999).
The month has given its name to many cuckoo plants and flowers (see “Summer Is Icumen In”) associated with sexuality and fertility—chief among them is the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), which is itself called “May.”
More on May plants to come.