Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

  • Archives

  • Pages

  • Subscribe

  • Meta

Never Cast A Clout Until May Is Out

Posted by Admin on March 30, 2010

Ne’er cast a clout till May be out is an English saying with a long and difficult history.  In 1855, F. K. Robertson’s Whitby Gazette published the following rhyme:

The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out

The earliest published version of the rhyme can be found in Dr. Thomas Fuller’s  “Gnomologia” published in 1732. 

Since at least the early 15th century ‘clout’ has been used to mean a fragment of cloth or clothing and was spelled as clowt, clowte, cloot, or clute.   It’s here that the saying took on two meanings rather than just the original.  The new meaning was a reminder not to be too quick to shuck the warmer winter clothes before cooler days during the month of May were most likely over.

That being said, English farm-workers working the fields in their winter clothes throughout the month of May could suffer from heat exhaustion if they kept all their winter layers on until the end of May!   The flowering of the hawthorne (May) tree was a more reliable guide to the state of the weather.

This means that the original meaning goes back even further than the 15th century and indeed, it can be traced back to the 12th century.  During Medieval times in Brittany, a man proposed to his beloved by leaving a hawthorne (also known as a Mayflower) branch at the door of his beloved on the first of May. By leaving the branch at the door she accepted his proposal.

Traditionally, it was taboo to bring hawthorne into the house in Medieval England because it was feared it would bring death with it.  This is because the hawthorne blossom has a distinctive fragrance and in medieval times, the blossom was said to carry the ‘stench of death’.  (This is due to the trimethylene that the flowers give off as they deteriorate.) 

The exception to that rule was during May-Day celebrations (for one day only) when it was permitted to bring flowers into the house for decoration.  No marriages were allowed during the month of May and it was considered unlucky to marry in the hawthorne month since most people during Medieval times rarely bathed, June was usually one of the months in which most people had baths.  The exception to the rule, of course, would be those who lived in castles. 

It would make sense for the general population to keep at least some (but not all) of their winter clothes on until they could bathe and be fresh for any wedding celebrations coming up during the month of June.  This is verified by another English saying:  “Marry in May and you’ll rue the day.”  What’s more, washing in May was not a favoured activity as evidenced by yet another English saying:  “Wash a blanket in May; wash a dear one away.”

14 Responses to “Never Cast A Clout Until May Is Out”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Midnight In Chicago . Midnight In Chicago said: Never cast a clout? What in the world is a clout? What has the month of May have to do with clout casting? http://tinyurl.com/yedr4gs […]

  2. […] Never Cast A Clout Until May Is Out March 2010 3 […]

  3. […] roughly corresponds to the old English proverb “Never cast a clout ‘till May be out”. In other words don’t put your winter clothes away until […]

  4. Derrick Halls said

    Did it mean the month of May I.e June or does it mean the May flower? Answers please

  5. […] Never Cast A Clout Until May Is Out « Historically Speaking. […]

  6. I always assumed it meant (approx), never take yer coat off, ‘cos there may well be rough weather in May, much as has been mentioned previously.

  7. reka14 said

    “Since most people during Medieval times rarely bathed, June was usually one of the months in which most people had baths” – when will people stop repeating this claptrap? It’s not true for any time or place in medieval Europe.

    • reka14 wrote: “”Since most people during Medieval times rarely bathed, June was usually one of the months in which most people had baths” – when will people stop repeating this claptrap? It’s not true for any time or place in medieval Europe.”

      The fact of the matter is that most people only had access to cold water for baths, and afterwards, the bath (which usually consisted of a barrel) had to be emptied but in such a way as to not cause problems for the household. It’s doubtful that during the very cold late autumn, cold winter, and early spring months, that anyone would be foolhardy enough to have — or even interested in having — a cold bath that was only going to get colder the longer the water sat in the barrel.

      Nobility had the luxury of servants which meant they did not have to haul or heat their own water for a bath and as such, bathed more frequently. During Medieval Times, simply designed bathrooms were added in Medieval Castle interiors, but bathtubs were still wooden barrels (and bathrooms were still drafty and cold during the cooler months).

      Yes, during the Middle Ages the crusaders brought soap back from the far East, but spoils of war were generally for the ruling class, and not for the rest of the population. That being said, Spanish-Moorish scholars recorded that prior to the Black Death, Europeans bathed only once a year. Obviously this was shocking to these scholar otherwise they would not have recorded this fact of European life.

      In fact, it was the Church that decreed long before the Middle Ages that an “excessive” indulgence in the habit of bathing was to be avoided because, in the Church’s opinion, it led to immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases. To this end, most people restricted their personal hygiene habits to occasionaly washing their hands, parts of the face, and rinsing their mouths. It was felt at the time that it was dangerous to what the entire face because they believed to cause catarrh and weaken the eyesight.

      History reports that a many in the upper class continued to avoid bathing. For example, King Louis XIV of France was advised by his physicians to bathe as infrequently as possible to maintain good health. He obviously heeded the warnings his physicians gave him, as one Russian ambassador to France noted in his diary that “His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal.”

      Instead of bathing, the use of scented rags to rub the body and heavy use of perfumes was popular among the upper class and merchants, while herb-scented rags were popular with the lower class.

      In other words, what you refer to as clap trap is actual fact, reka14.

      Thank you for visiting “Idiomation: Historically Speaking” and I hope you visit again soon.

      • Anthony Gee said

        I was aware of the history of personal hygiene or should I say the lack of and the reason for it. It was the origin of the old saying about casting a clout that I wanted interpreted. That has been satisfactorily explained. Having said enough about the awful personal hygiene of people. It must have been horrendous for people with sensitive noses during that period.

  8. Rosalind Cooper said

    cast ne’er a clout till May is out, change in June and you change too soon, change in July you’ll catch cold by and by, change in August if you must, but please remember to change back in September

  9. […] Bruce of the Historically Speaking Blog has an 1855 version of the rhyme from the Whitby Gazette and some more fascinating information on […]

  10. […] Bruce of the Historically Speaking Blog has an 1855 version of the rhyme from the Whitby Gazette and some more fascinating information on […]

  11. Hazel Ford said

    I always understood it was a country saying don’t turn the soil too early to sew crops as the weather can still change bringing snow, heavy frosts or rain. Bad weather could mean the seeds would be washed away or killed off by the cold.

    How wrong could I be!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: