Medieval Easter Traditions

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).

The liturgy

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.

Easter celebrations

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. [n.b. It has been pointed out by at least one good reader that chickens don’t lay in winter, so it’s unlikely there was any great quantity of eggs to boil. If anyone knows a reason why medieval hens would be laying when it’s cold, let us know in the comments; otherwise we’ll assume there is some missing information here!]

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.

37 Replies to “Medieval Easter Traditions”

  1. 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?

    I’m all for a tradition, revived or newly instituted, in which the church remains quiet on the subject of what people do in bed.

  2. Much of the ‘True’ meaning of Easter is long gone. We’ve taken Christ out of Christmas and left Christ for ‘Dead’ at Easter. For those for whom ‘salvation’ still matters … ‘Happy Easter’ and God Bless.

    1. I don’t know, actually–if anybody else does (and who notices comments on an old post) it’d be interesting to hear! I expect there are some similarities at least, since things like the egg painting happened frequently in eastern Europe, but since my specialty is Britain I can’t say with certainty. Thanks for the question!

  3. Thanks for the wonderful detail and special insights into a medieval Easter experience. All this helps me better understand the deep roots and both remembered/forgotten aspects of Easter and its place in the church calendar. Much appreciated.

  4. Where did you get the information about the egg tradition? I ask because, at least in the vast majority of Europe during the winter (before the advent of electric lighting and heating), chickens would not lay eggs, therefore “boiling them to preserve them” would not be required.

    1. Good question! I don’t quite remember to be honest, since it was five years or so ago – it was a magazine article (rather than a journal) on the history of Easter eggs, but I don’t remember which one. I’ll see if I can dig it up. It is curious, isn’t it? I thought the boiling part unexpected at the time, but also interesting. Though perhaps during the Medieval Warm Period in the early middle ages the winters might have been just enough warmer that laying happened some places.

      1. Now I’m curious. Do you have a good source for probable temps during that time, in various parts of Europe? I know that chickens do not lay here (in Arkansas) during the winter without artificial heat and light. Even in central Florida (Ocala area), their laying subsides. I would doubt that anywhere in Europe was as warm as Central Florida is now, even during the Medieval Warm Period–but climate geography is very much not my bailiwick. What’s a trustworthy source for that kind of information?

      1. As with many onion-like questions, this just leads to more questions:
        — 1) Was the ban actually on “four-legged animals”? I’d never heard that; rather, the “old tradition” was generally related as “fish on Fridays,” because fish was not considered to be “meat,” while land animals were. This would be disconfirmatory to this “let’s make more chickens so we can eat them on Fridays/during Lent” hypothesis.
        — 2) As I said before, chickens still don’t lay during the winter in natural conditions, even in Florida. They CAN lay year-round, but only if you provide them artificial sources of heat and light. I can’t imagine medieval households keeping their chicken coops lit and warm in the winter (too expensive, and danger of fire). I certainly CAN imagine them killing and eating the chickens themselves (and other stock) over the winter, so wanting to raise more chickens makes sense, but I still am skeptical that chicken EGGS would be much available so early in the spring in much of Europe. But again–not an historical climate scholar. Willing to be educated regarding the return of warmth and relative length of days round Easter time there/then!
        — The selection pressures of urbanization, with people wanting to keep chickens in smaller spaces, surely would result in those chickens less likely to peck each other to death differentially surviving to pass on those genes. It is worth noting, though, that the horrific conditions of today’s “factory farms” require that young birds’ beaks be seared off to prevent them from doing just that. There are limits to how much overcrowding any species can tolerate. 😦
        Sorry for that awful thought–Happy Easter anyway! 😮

      2. Hi again! Thanks for this – alas it’s been so long I can’t remember all of the sources for things like the egg-laying, and honestly suspect I’m just wrong about it. (I mean, maybe down in the mediterranean they would lay earlier, especially during the medieval warm period, but I’m not sure at all, and you’re almost certainly right about the scarcity of eggs anywhere north of that.) I did find this, which was NOT my source as it was written years later and is just a magazine article, but they used some of the same sources I did and I expect we might have both run into the same information about boiling!:

        There is still the 13th-century egg-dyeing, which is attested; Hutton’s book (Stations of the Sun) does talk about more of the traditions associated – where all the eggs came from I really can’t say, but they seem to be there! I expect ‘boiling them to keep them around’ is probably just an error, whether on my part or whatever source I got it from, and that everything you’re saying about keeping chickens through winter is likely correct in most times and places. If I can remember how to go edit posts, I’ll fix that. 😉

        Things that may have affected some of it: the medieval warm period, as we talked about before – you still wouldn’t get laying through the winter, of course, but spring, and therefore eggs, may have happened a bit earlier. This changes by the 14th century, when there are droughts and famines to go with the climate shift, but by then if there’s a tradition it’s already established. Also, it’s a small difference, but using the Julian calendar pushes everything back about a week – with Easter being a moveable feast, there are surely times where it was relatively late in the season. Those are my best guesses at present, anyway.

        A morbid but interesting thought, the last – I mostly deal with the countryside, where a farmwife would keep some chickens and be able to make some extra money by selling the eggs; I’m not at all sure how many were likely to be kept by individual families in the cities!

        Thanks for coming back to comment and for sharing your chicken knowledge!

      3. Oh – and the ‘four-legged animals’ bit is from the Rule of Benedict (which takes it from Leviticus) – some other orders/traditions/areas could have their own take. The Cistercian orders, who were vegetarian most of the time, allowed ‘fish and fowl on feastdays’; there are some very interesting explanations by Church writers about what constitutes meat and what doesn’t! Some of it comes from older Jewish dietary restrictions (land animals/sea animals), some from Saint Paul (who distinguishes between beasts/birds/fish), some from people like Thomas Aquinas (‘meat will make you feel lust and probably give you gas so just stay away from it’). So chicken might have been a grey area, but dairy was on the Not For Lent list! Anyway the average medieval person would just be eating bread and porridge and the like during Lent so wouldn’t be making these decisions!

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