The May-Pole At Merry Mount Essay, Research Paper
THE MAY-POLE AT MERRY MOUNTA MOST confusing thing in American History, as read it, is the nearly universal lack of scale. This parochialism is helped by such balanced statement as A. C. Adams’ preface to Thomas Morton’s The New English Dictionary in which the incident of the May-pole at Merry Mount is related. Adams has compared that “vulgar royalist libertine,” Morton, and the Puritans of the Plymouth Colony too closely. He has seen the time too near. He has accepted the mere chance presence of Morton in the neighborhood of Plymouth as the outstanding fact, letting his mind dwell upon that, trying one party against the other, as they quarreled in the flesh till both are worn, in our eyes, to some unrecognizable, indifferent proportion. The description, “a vulgar royalist libertine, thrown by accident into the midst of a Puritan Community, an extremely reckless but highly amusing debauchee and tippler,” is not adequate to describe a man living under the circumstances that surrounded Morton; its tone might do for a London clubman but not a New World pioneer taking his chances in the wilderness. It lacks scale. Adams’ pretty scholar humor can be very annoying. “Had Morton lived in Virginia or even in the vicinity of New York,” he says, “he would not have been noticed.” What of it? He did notlive in either Virginia or New York and he was noticed; so he was brought to write the Canaan, so he has come down to us and so we recognize him. Instead of quarreling with his luck, Adams should have given us a better picture. Not that one expects or should expect, in the preface to a book of slight importance, more than a simple exposition of the facts relating to it. But Thomas Morton was unique in our history and since Adams does attempt an evaluation of his book it is a pity he did not realize that, in history, to preserve thing of “little importance” may be more valuable as it is more difficult and more the business of a writer than to champion a winner. It is not so much good history to present Morton with sly amusement in mortal and unmannerly combat with his betters, as it would be to relieve him from that imposition of his time and seriously to show up that lightness, his essential character, which discloses the Puritans themselves as maimed, to their advantage, for survival, the converse of which in a crooked way, perhaps, but in a way Morton presented. No use, merely because he lived that way, to join Morton with the Puritans; comment upon him and his book should be laid mainly elsewhere, upon the more general scene of the New World, in his relationship with its natives to which the Puritans so violently objected. And they were dead right in that, Adams convinces us. Such a place as Morton kept at “Ma-re Mount,” the yearly rendezvous of a rough and law- less class of men, selling liquor and firearms to the savages “was a terror unto them, who lived stragglingly, and were of no strength in any place;” and it was unfair of Morton seeing how the Indians valued guns and liquor to use them for barter when the other settlers were not permitted to do so. This was the practical side of the desire to rid the colony of this man. But since the whites were armed guns and had liquor, was it in the eyes of history wrong for Morton to use them for his trade? Another side of Puritan disgust with this brazen fellow was the moral one of his consorting with the Indian girls. It was upon this count, not the first, that they chose finally to attack him. Lasses in beaver coats come away Ye shall be welcome to us night and day.Some of the earlier writers on the New England Indians have spoken of the modesty of the women; Wood, in his Prospect, for instance, and Josselyn, in the second of his “Two Voyages.” “Morton however is significantly silent on this point, and the idea of female chastity in the Indian mind, in the rare cases where it existed at all, seems to have been of the vaguest possible description. Morton was not a man likely to be fastidious, and his reference to the ‘lasses in beaver coats,’ is suggestive.” This is as near as Adams ever gets to a full statement of the facts. In Parkman, “Jesuits in North America,” (ch. iv) there is a very graphic account of the missionary Le Jeune’s ex-perience among the Algonquins, in which he describes the in-terior of a wigwam on a winter’s evening. “Heated to suffo-cation, the sorcerer, in the closest possible approach to nudity, lay on his back, with his right knee planted upright and his left leg crossed on it, discoursing volubly to the company, who, on their part, listened in positions scarcely less remote from decency.” Le Jeune says, “Les filles et les jeunes femmes sont l’exterieur tr s honnestement couvertes, mais entre elles leurs discours vent puants, commes des cloaques.” Parkman says that “chastity in women was recognized as a virtue by many tribes.” Of the New England Indians Wil-liams remarks, “Single fornications they count no sin, but after marriage they count it heinous for either of them to be false.” Judging by an incident mentioned by Morton, how-ever, adultery does not seem to have been looked upon as a very grave offense among the Indians of the vicinity in which he lived. “The colour of their eies being so generally black made a salvage, that had a young infant whose eies were gray, showed him to us, and said they were English mens eies; I tould the Father that his son was nan weeteo, which is a bastard; hee replied tita cheshetue squaa, which is, he could not tell, his wife might play the whore; and his childe the father desired might have an English name, because of the liteness of his eies, which his father had in admiration because of the novelty amongst their nation.” Strachey (Historic p. 65) says of the Virginians: “Their young women goe not shadowed (clothed) amongst their own companie, until they be nigh eleven or twelve returns of the leafe old, nor are they much ashamed thereof, and therefore would the before remembered Pocahuntas, a well featured, but wanton yong girle, Powhatan’s daughter, sometymes resorting to our fort, of the age of eleven or twelve years, get the boyes forth with her into the market place, and make them wheele, falling on their hands, turning up their heels upwards, whome she would followe, and wheele so her self, naked as she was, all the fort over; but being over twelve years, they put on a kind of semecinctum lethern apron before their bellies, and are very shamefaced to be seen bare.
” wantons before marriage and household drudges after, it is extremely questionable whether they had any conception of it.” (i. e. female chastity.) From conflicting reports from many sources the truth seems to be that the state of affairs with respect to this trait of female chastity was a matter largely of individual inclination. Some would be chaste and others wanton as the blood ruled them or the local fashion of the moment seemed to warrant. Were a wife too flagrantly adulterous no husband would want her; thus, the case would decide itself. And so “Morton’s inclination to boisterous revelry cul-minated at last in that proceeding which scandalized the Ply-mouth elders and passed into history.” Book III, Chapter 14, of “The New English Canaan” presents it as follows: “The Inhabitants of Pasonagessit having translated the name of their habitation from the ancient Salvage name to Ma-re Mount, and being resolved to have the new name confirmed for a memorial to after ages, did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemn maner, with Revels and merri-ment after the old English custome; (they) prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day of Philip and Jacob (1627), and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare and provided a case of bottles, to be spent, with other good cheare, for all commers of that day. And because they would have it in compleat forme, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. And upon May day they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drumes, gunnes, pis-tols and other fitting instruments, for the purpose; and there erected it with the help of Salvages, that came thether to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot longe was reared up, with a peare of buckshorns nayled one somewhat neare unto the top of it: where it stood, as a faire sea mark for directions how to finde out the way to mine Hoste of Ma-re Mount.” Bradford’s account was very different “They also set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days to-gether, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together, (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived and cele-brated the feasts of the Roman Goddes Flora, or the beastly practieses of the madd Bacchinalians. Morton likewise (to shew his poetrie) composed sundry rimes and verses, some tending to lasciviousnes, and others to the detraction and scan-dall of some persons, which he affixed to this idle or idoll May-polle.” This gambol on the green brought matters to a head with a vengeance. Although, as Adams says, it would not have been sufficient in itself to have caused the Puritan Elders to take action had there not been the graver matter of the sale of firearms behind it yet it was the direct cause of Miles Standish going with eight men to arrest Morton. He was taken, his plantation destroyed, after the good, round for-mula: “to please the Indians” and he himself put in the stocks, where the Indians came to look at him very much in amazement to know what it was all about. Morton was scandalously maltreated while in the care of his captors and, due to their failure to provide food, he nearly died on the vessel which transported him back to England for trial. But as Adams smilingly remarks, had it been later in our history and on a more westerly frontier, they would just have shot him. In England, an acquaintance of Ben Jonson and others at The Mermaid, Morton wrote his book. It was no great literary feat. It is, in a great measure, trivial and obscure, but as a piece from American History it has its savor which Adams dulls rather than heightens—which is too bad. It seems impossible for Adams to get clearly in mind what Morton means when he expostulates “this harmless mirth by younge men (that lived in hope to have wifes brought over to them, that would save them a laboure to make a voyage to fetch any over) was much distasted by the precise Separatists “those moles. . . But marriage and hanging, (they say) comes by destiny and Scogan’s choice, tis better (than) none at all. He that played Proteus (with the help of Priapus) put heir noses out of joynt, as the Proverb is ” Or: as Scogan, (famous court buffoon attached to the household of Edward IV) ordered to be hanged, but allowed the privilege of choosing the tree, escaped hanging by being unable to find a tree to his liking trying many; so Morton and his men, awaiting wives from England, escaped marriage by varying (Proteus) among (Priapus) the Indian girls they took to bed with them. This in its simplicity the Puritans lacked spirit to explain. But spiritless, thus without grounds on which to rest their judgments of this world, fearing to touch its bounties, a fis-sure takes place for the natural mouth and everything’s per-verse to them. Forced by Morton’s peccadillo they countered with fantastic violence and some duplicity having the trade in beaver skins in view. Then their own true perversions enter in; for “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” As Morton laid his hands, roughly perhaps but lovingly, upon the flesh of his Indian consorts, so the Puritans laid theirs with malice, with envy, insanely, not only upon him, but also one thing leading to another uponthe unoffending Quakers. Trustless of humane experience, not knowing what to think, they went mad, lost all direction. Mather defends the witchcraft persecutions.