Thursday, May 01, 2008

The lusty month of May

Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!
- John Milton

Last night being May Eve, or the beginning of Beltane, I fell asleep thinking about the traditional activities thereof. Everything from Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon to Lerner and Loewe's Camelot paints the occasion as a time of giggling young people disappearing into the shrubs to have sex. I lay thinking about the irony of a fertility festival in a day of birth control and women's careers. Fertility is the last thing most of us want - women spend an average of four years of their childbearing years actually willing to bear children. For the rest, pregnancy spells social or economic disaster. We don't want sex to be about fertility.

"Wait," I realized, "Historically, I can't be alone in this. There must have been lots of people who didn't want to get pregnant, even on May Day. And before birth control, the way to avoid babies was to avoid sex. Failure to copulate on May Eve can't be that anachronistic."

It's not so simple, of course, because not all sex requires birth control. In college I read a brilliant article by Henry Abelove about the population increase in England around the time of the industrial revolution. He argues that the higher birthrate is not explainable by higher marriage rates or earlier age of marriage, but that "sexual intercourse so-called became importantly more popular in late eighteenth century England." Before that, he figures, people were more often having sex in ways that didn't make babies. He links the rise in production of goods to the rise in reproduction, suggesting that the emphasis on production in one's work life may have also carried through to one's sex life. Foreplay as such was invented at this point, he says. Just as rest time that used to be lengthier - the English apparently had a three-day weekend until industrialization, when it all got crammed into Sunday - acts that used to be sex in themselves became precursors to "real sex". It's a theory that no one can test now, but I loved the paper.

Sex of any kind on May Day itself seems less likely among those dedicated to early-morning revelry. Round about dawn I was in a field with forty other Morris dancers, singing "We'll end the day as we begun, we'll end it all in pleasure." I have grave doubts about the veracity of the song. My day, for example, began with the alarm going off at 4:25.
"Nnnng. Wake up."
"Jeff, get up. Up."
"Not time yet."
"It is. Get up."

Any further welcoming in the May will have to wait until we're better rested.

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 likewise 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.

- Sir Thomas Malory

No comments: