Easter is full of odd traditions when you stop to think about them for a moment—why do chocolate eggs come from rabbits, and what do they have to do with the resurrection of Jesus?–and predictably, a good deal of that is just because they’re so old we long since stopped paying attention to where they come from. There are plenty of other places on the internet that will talk about eggs and ancient pre-Christian fertility rites, but I’m just going to focus on the Middle Ages for now because let’s face it, that’s where I live.
The three days before Easter—Maundy Thursday (named for the command Jesus gave his disciples, and not, as I thought when I was little, just an oddly-named ‘Monday Thursday’), Good Friday, and Holy Saturday were called the Triduum, and medieval people would, unsurprisingly, spend a lot of these days in church. Easter was, as now, the most important festival in the Christian calendar, which is presumably why it needed forty days of fasting and preparation to get ready for (which in turn is part of why people were so excited for it).
Services called Tenebrae (Latin for ‘darkness’) were held from Wednesday onward in Holy Week. Maundy Thursday would be a quiet, solemn service after which the altars were stripped down and covered in twigs and branches to symbolise the stripping and scourging of Jesus. Good Friday is a day of mourning, and generally speaking a day when nobody would use iron tools or nails. Many would begin by ‘creeping to the Cross’: just what it sounds like, approaching the cross barefoot and on their knees. There was no Eucharist on Friday, the Passion story was read from the Gospel of John, and the service was held almost completely in darkness, with one candleholder, called a Hearse, gradually put out to show that darkness was falling on the world—only the centremost candle remained lit, representing the light of Christ. Imagine for a moment the shadows stretching across the nave, the people kneeling on the stones as one by one the lights vanished, and the priest’s voice praying in the darkness:
Miserere mei Deus secundum misericordiam tuam iuxta multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitates meas multum lava me ab iniquitate mea et a peccato meo munda me. (Psalm 51:1-2)
Most of the congregation won’t have known Latin, but they were all pretty familiar with the story, what with it being the most important church day of the year and all. It even came illustrated, courtesy of the windows in the church (if the candles were strong enough, or the daylight long enough, to light them).
Easter Sunday services would begin at dawn, with the congregation gathering outside the church to sing hymns. Then the priest would lead them into the church, where the service would be joyful, the Eucharist would return, and the people would be dismissed in grace and forgiveness to go and enjoy a bloody big lunch.
After forty days of fasting and eating basically nothing but fish, it was time for a party. In some cases, the lord of the manor would give a feast for the servants—hearkening back to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and serving them, not because the biggest feast day of the year is the best timing for giving all the help a day off. Feasting was serious business in the Middle Ages, and no expense was spared in showing everybody a good time.
It was also a day when people wore, or received, new clothes. In medieval Wales, the terms of who got what when were explicitly laid out in the Cyfraith Hywel Dda. The king and queen gave livery or their own clothes to certain court officers every Easter, Christmas, and Whitsun—the three major festivals of the medieval Christian calendar—and those officers, in turn, handed theirs down to the next in line. The king gave clothing to the head of the warband, who gave a set to the steward, and so on down. This is a fairly normal show of generosity, of course, but also a political act all on its own, reinforcing (or, in some cases, shedding light on problems with) the bonds of loyalty between lord and vassal.
So what about those Easter eggs? This tradition stems from that mixture of pragmatism and whimsy that defines so many medieval practices. Eggs were one of the foods banned during Lent, so eggs that were laid during that season were boiled to preserve them. When Easter Sunday finally rolled around, eggs, like meat and some greens, were back on the menu. The practice of painting them seems to be old indeed. The Orthodox church used to paint them red to symbolise the blood of Christ, while in the Germanic areas they were painted green, sometimes blown and hung on trees. While they were sometimes only boiled with onions to give them a golden sheen, the nobility clearly had grander aspirations. In 1276, Eleanor and Simon de Montfort bought 3700 eggs for their celebration, and in 1290 Edward I’s accounts show that he paid to have 450 eggs decorated with gold leaf! Considering how keen the medievals were on food made to look like other things, a passion for decorating eggs may not seem especially surprising.
What with so many eggs rolling around, after having been saved up for the last forty days (and some, even having been boiled, had probably gone off by then), it’s also not that much of a stretch to see where they came to play a part in the day’s games. Adults would hide them for children to find, not only to keep the children busy but to teach them a valuable religious lesson: it was meant to represent the disciples finding the risen Christ in the tomb on Easter morning. The children, then, would have contests involving rolling them downhill, because this is what you do if you happen to be a child with a hill and a vaguely-round-shaped thing.
A holiday that took forty days to prepare deserved more than a one-day celebration, so the Monday and Tuesday following had their share of festivities as well. ‘Hock Monday‘ involved the young women of the village capturing the young men, to be released only on a payment of ransom (a donation to the church), which was followed by ‘Hock Tuesday’, in which the young men did the same to the women*. Edward I and II were both caught in bed on Hock Monday by their Queens' ladies. Whatever the Church officially thought of celebrating the salvation of the world by tying people up in bed, it seems to have remained relatively discreet on the subject. Maybe it's a tradition that ought to be revived?
If, however, capturing unsuspecting members of the opposite sex (or the same one, heck, we're a modern kind of medieval blog) isn't quite your thing, you can still recreate a medieval Easter by painting, hiding, or rolling eggs, buying a new outfit, and eating a lot of food! To get you started, here's a medieval recipe for eggs. Very odd eggs.
Pasg hapus (happy Easter)!
*There seems to be some disagreement about which happened Monday and which Tuesday, but based on the king of England being caught on Monday, I’ve decided to go with that way.