With history being in fashion today, it is not surprising that many old traditions are revived or reinvented, attracting tourists and enriching the communities’ cultural lives. A good example of it is the Count of May festival in Riga, a revival of late medieval or early modern tradition, which is described already in Balthasar Russow’s Chronicle of Livonia.
Today’s festival is supported by the city authorities, but organized and run essentially by volunteers, who invest their imagination, finances and time to bring joy to Riga’s inhabitants and tourists. The festival, which has been run for about fifteen years, takes place in the beginning of May, on a Saturday, and precedes the museum night (where you can visit the participating museums and enjoy exhibitions and special events entirely for free). It takes place in the square in front of the reconstruct Blackheads’ House, around the statue of Roland, the very heart of social life in the medieval and renaissance Riga.
Alongside the market featuring local crafts and food, dances and songs are performed by local and foreign amateur groups, a competition of period costumes is run, and, most importantly, there are numerous free competitions for children and adults alike, all of them medievalist in inspiration. There is, for instance, the sword in the stone, reminding us that the Arthurian tradition was known even as far to the north of Europe as Livonia. Most importantly, there is the archery tournament, the winner of became a local hero for the year, as Russow documents. In the modern version of the festival, the winning archer also becomes the Count of May and elects the Countess.
This year, it was my husband Edgar who in a breathtaking final battle with another candidate won the title and selected me his Countess. I had been slightly wary of the entire thing from the very beginning, mindful of Russow’s disapproving description of Livonia’s festivity – though he seems to disapprove of Livonia’s way of life in general, as his scathing comments on the immorality of the old Livonians indicate (see my previous post). I soon got to understand that there is more than Russow’s disapproval; the original Count and Countess were, as Russow notes, selected among those who could host a rich feast for the spectators, and these people were probably used to public admiration. For me, whose spectatorship is more likely to consist of a class of slightly sleepy students, it was a real challenge to hold myself elegantly upright, balancing a slippery crown on my hand and a fidgety toddler on my hand, while making a round of the square to bless the craftsmen and tradesmen and wish them a prosperous year. The golden tree was luckily carried by the Count, out of the reach of the vice-count’s fingers. Then it was our turn to sit in the rigid chairs, smiling into the tourists’ cameras, and enjoy the performances that took place on the stage – in our honour! We didn’t endure till the fire show, for the vice-count grew impatient with crawling – undemurely – over my dress for an hour and tried to wander away on his own, but this hour as a Countess of May gave me some idea of the troubles and rewards the nobility, whose life was all about public performance, must have faced…
So the fairy-tale is over, at least till next year, when the Count and Countess shall return to deposit the crowns and the golden tree to wait for the coming of the next decorated pair. Having been part of the festival, I fail to understand the scathing coldness with which Russow described the festivities. But then he must have been fed up with the immorality and corruption, which eventually led to the disintegration of Livonia and its division into territories controlled, alternately by the Swedes, the Poles and the Russians.
This is what Russow writes about the archery competitions which led to the selection of the Count of May and which, famously, involved a silver bird. Apparently, the entertainment was held on 3 Sundays between the Easter and the Summer Festival and gathered crowds of spectators:
In summer, between the Easter and the Summer festival, the members of each guild separately engaged in “bird shooting”. This entertainment unfurled as follows. The previous year’s winner, the so-called “old king”, was seen by all members of the guild on a Sunday afternoon to the square, where stood a pillar with the bird. The “old king” walked in a great procession between two elders of the guild. A great crowd of people, young and old, was waiting at the square. This entertainment involved great perils, because it was shot with iron bolts, which occasionally injured the spectators. When after a whole day of shooting someone at last managed to “shoot” the bird, this new king was immediately hailed with great cheers by his friends and those who have placed their bets on him and won. The new king was taken to the guild hall, with the city music, in the same procession as the one in which the old one was brought to the square, and there he was met by a crowd of people, who cheered him. The king was holding a pole with the silver bird. His steel crossbow and bolts, his victorious weapons, were brought in front of him, held high. A feast was hosted at the guild hall, which was attended by the members’ wives and daughters as well. The most beautiful girl was selected as the queen for the king, and she had to sit next to her king all the time and dance with him, even if the king already had a wife. The “bird shooting” festival lasted 3 Sundays immediately after the Easter. There were no afternoon messes on these Sundays, for everyone would rather be at the “bird shooting” than in church.
Around the Summer Festival, the citizen and craftsmen held parties on the greens outside the town. For this occasion, a “May Count” was elected, an affluent man who could provide reach feasts. He was elected to this position with great ceremony. Similar outdoor festivals were celebrated by the simple folk through summer Sundays with even greater light-mindedness. Also “bird shooting” took place on these merry occasions, which gathered members of the Order, citizens, craftsmen and a large crowd of people, idling on Sundays.
Russow’s description might appear neutral on the first glance, but several remarks indicate that he did not belong to the crowd of admirers gathering on the occasion. In fact, he saw this and other festivals of the same nature as additional proofs of the Livonians’ debauchery. For instance, he is skeptical of the people’s martial prowess, as it would take them a ‘whole day of shooting’ to shoot the bird, and he does not appear to approve of the betting that attended such events. He is also less than happy about the fact that women – the wives and daughters of the guildsmen – attended the ensuing feast. To crown it all, a young, beautiful girl to be elected as the queen, would replace the “king’s” lawful spouse and would spend the whole evening with the winter. This makes her somewhat less than innocent as a consequence, even though he does not go as far as to suggest he followed the “king” out of the hall into the bedchamber – something Russow would relish to note, if such thing ever came to his knowledge.
Worst of all, such festivities distracted people from thinking about God or attending church services, for, as Russow comments “everyone would rather be at the “bird shooting” than in church.” It is in this light that the true sense of Russow’s characterization of the Summer Festival and bird shootings as “merry occasions” comes to light. These parties, which take place on Sundays when decent people should be in church, are at the heart of the Livonians’ immorality. According to the chronicler, those who are unmindful of God have to cause to fear His wrath, hence they are punished by the Russians, who become, unwittingly, the flail of God.
And to think it all began with a festival of May Count and with bird shooting!.. Well, today there are worse things than public festivals, gathering families and tourists at the heart of the Old Town. Let’s hope that Russow, watching from heaven – a strict Protestant as he was, a place in heaven seems to be ensured to him – is relieved to see that, at least this year, the King of the archery contest took his local spouse for his Queen. No debauchery.