Early Modern Times – Merrymount merriment

Early Modern Times - Merrymount merriment

Dear readers,

This past week saw millions of Americans travel during US Thanksgiving, contrary to the stern recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such disobedience of health guidelines would seem rather un-Puritan and thus contrary to the spirit of this traditional holiday. As noted in the Oct. 31 issue of Early Modern Times, however, the origin of Thanksgiving as a feast between Puritan settlers and Native Americans is a myth legitimising European settlement, while the notion that the Mayflower pilgrims were founders of America begins as a 19th-century justification of Protestant Anglo-Saxon dominance. In this recent article, moreover, Ed Simon fascinatingly describes an alternative historical moment in colonial America: the short-lived settlement of Merrymount, founded by Thomas Morton (1579–1647), devoted to feast, pagan dancing, cross-cultural mixing, and general revelry. Irresponsible holiday-goers during the pandemic may well be tapping into a spirit of Merrymount merriment.

Thomas Morton hailed from Devon in southeast England. Although his family was high Anglican, his high spirits exceeded the conservative religiosity of his roots. Nevertheless, he seems to have imbibed the Devonshire spirit of ‘merrie Olde Englande’, which was at odds with Puritan disapproval of the paganism of crypto-Catholic Anglicanism as well as of excessive ‘e’s in English spelling–and which would eventually lead to rebellion and civil war in Morton’s birth country. Furthermore, during his legal studies and practice in London, he was exposed to the libertinism of the metropolis and sought to use common law to protect Englishmen forced to migrate from rural areas to cities, towns, and life at sea. Subsequently, he became involved in projects to establish colonies in New England, and decided to head overseas himself after unsuccessful attempts to marry in 1618 as a result of Puritan interference. Morton’s background and early life, then, disposed him to Puritantagonism.

Morton’s sour experience in his initial trip led to Merrymount several years later. He landed in Massachusetts in 1622–as Ed Simon notes, only a couple of years following the Mayflower–but sailed back to England the following year in disgust at Puritan intolerance in the colony. He returned in 1624 along with a pirate captain named Wollaston who established the colony humbly named Mount Wollaston. The Mount Wollaston colonists broke from Puritan practice in trading liquor and firearms in exchange for food and fur provided by local Algonquians. Morton was horrified, however, when Wollaston sold his indentured servants into slavery, working on tobacco plantations in Virginia. He led an uprising against Wollaston in 1626, and renamed the colony ‘Merrymount’, in reference to mare (the sea), the mother of God, and of course merriment. This newfound colony of fun was thus intended to take out the ‘grim’ in ‘pilgrim’.

Morton’s vision of Merrymount as a utopia of freedom was expressed on its official founding on May 1, 1627. On this day, the colonists celebrated with ‘Revels and merriment after the old English custome’, i.e., the eccentric pagan ritual of dancing around a maypole, a ‘goodly pine tree of eighty feet long’. Such maypole dancing was, of course, accompanied with drink: for the occasion, the Merrymounters ‘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’. ‘Commers’ included not only the English settlers but also local indigenous peoples–as reflected by the 19th-century image above depicting Plymouth Captain Miles Standish and his regiment gazing disapprovingly at the maypole dancing in 1628. Thus, such pagan bacchanalia, along with mixing with Native Americans (which included the encouragement of intermarriage, though as a means of conversion) was the may-polar opposite of Puritans in America.

The ideas underlying the Merrymount colony are, among other things, reflected in Morton’s 1637 account of New England, A New English Canaan. The work, including its lyric poems, celebrates the spirit of festivity as epitomised by intoxicated maypole dancing, depicts America as a ‘paradise’ rather than the ‘howling wilderness’ for the Puritan pilgrims, and lauds the Native Americans as living in blissful harmony: ‘Plato’s Commonwealth is so much practiced by these people’. Although obviously tainted by European exoticisation of the ‘New World’, Morton’s account greatly angered Puritan settlers who would regard such reflections as Canaan-fodder. Indeed, Puritan outrage at the Babylon of Merrymount led the standoffish Standish to dismantle the colony in 1628. Morton was put in chains, briefly imprisoned in England, returned to New England, and died in Maine. The site of the colony in Quincy, Massachusetts is now ‘an industrial area across the road from a Dunkin’ Donuts’: ironic, given that Merrymount was denounced as un-holey; or fitting, since it was the beigne of the New England Puritans.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern ‘ain’t no Merrymount high enough’ Studies Program

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