Inspired by our seminar series earlier this year, MERL Curator, Isabel Hughes, reflects on a timely example of intangible heritage from her childhood.
Earlier this year, MERL hosted a series of seminars under the banner of Untouchable England. Inspired by the fact that the MERL collections may soon be packed away temporarily as part of the Our Country Lives project, we were exploring the less material facets of life in rural England. The series covered dance, craft skills, dialects, magic and folklore. Here is another example of intangible heritage from my childhood.
A few weeks ago I happened to meet my old primary school teacher. She came from Ireland and mine was the first class she taught on arriving at the school. Whenever we meet she tells me what marvellous children we were and this time she had a photograph to show me. It was of a group of girls crowning the Virgin Mary as Queen of the May. I can remember being the one who did the crowning with a garland of flowers. We all wore our white first Holy Communion dresses and one girl was a pillow bearer, carrying the garland destined for our statue of Mary.
I mentioned this to Ollie Douglas, Assistant Curator at MERL, as an example of old folk traditions maintained by Catholics. He was highly sceptical that this ceremony was any older than 19th century and produced Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore that described such “Merrie England” reinvented traditions as evidence. I was convinced that this crowning came from Catholic Europe and was much older. It seems we were both right and both wrong.
The English tradition of crowning the May Queen does indeed seem to have its roots in the 19th century and was fuelled by the popularity of Tennyson’s poem “The May Queen.” It seems to have evolved from a practice of selecting a “Lord and Lady” or “King and Queen” for a festival, carnival or just for the day. Gradually women and girls became the focus and the May Queen celebration, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, involved the coronation of a local girl or young woman who would preside over events with a group of “ladies’ to support her.
My ceremony at school was rather different. The focus here was to honour the Virgin Mary. She was the one to be crowned Queen of the May. The Virgin Mary has held a special place amongst Catholics from the early days of the Church and crowning ceremonies go back centuries in the Eastern Church with the decoration of icons. However, the May crowning from my photograph seems to go back to a rite first practised in 1837 by Pope Gregory XVI. Honouring the Virgin Mary during the month of May does seem to be more of a 19th century tradition too. Devotion to the Virgin has always been linked with keeping Catholics on the straight and narrow and I read that the May devotion to Mary was promoted by the Society of Jesus (or Jesuits) in Rome to discourage immorality amongst its students.
There is obviously some link here – different ceremonies with different roots but looking suspiciously alike. Growing up in West London it was certainly the closest I came to any sort of rural tradition.