Piety, Pranks and Parties: Easter medieval style

In medieval times, life revolved around the church, and the year was marked out by a series of religious festivals, customs and holidays of which Christmas and Easter were the main events. But contrary to many a modern perception, people in the Middle Ages had more time off than we do today. And although there was a good deal of attending church and religious rituals and processions, these did bring the community together, and they also knew how to kick back and have fun.

The Easter period would start with Shrove Tuesday, a secular holiday involving boisterous games and sports. After this, the fun gave way to the fasting period of Lent, when churches were hung with veils and crosses shrouded. Little observed today, if anything we brace ourselves to give up chocolate or booze for the requisite 40 days, but they took it much more seriously in the Middle Ages. Several foods were forbidden, including meat and eggs, so the diet switched to fish. But 40 days of fish could turn into a long old slog, and some people got sick of it, as can be seen by a letter written by a 15th century schoolboy: “Thou wilt not believe how weary I am of fish, and how much I desire that flesh were come again, for I have ate none other than salt fish this Lent.” Poor lad.

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They ate a lot of fish in Lent!

Palm Sunday saw a procession of parishioners carrying yew or willow twigs following the Host and the Cross around the village, and on Good Friday the Cross was set on the altar, unveiled and the locals all ‘crept to the Cross’, bowing low, kneeling and kissing it, before it was placed along with the Host in a special ‘Easter Sepulchre’, surrounded by candles. These were extinguished on Easter Saturday, and a great Paschal candle was lit for an all-night vigil. Finally, on Easter morning the sepulchre was opened and the Cross and Host retrieved and taken to the altar for the Easter service. The formalities over, and customs observed, it was then time for the feasting and fun, and a holiday.

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Time to relax

Easter dinner was a lavish affair with no expense spared. As eggs were now back on the menu, they were a big part of the Easter celebrations. This was a time of exchanges between lord and tenant, with tenants giving eggs to their lord, while the lord gave his servants a slap-up meal. People also received new clothes which helped to secure social bonds between the lord, his staff and his tenants. It’s also thought that the custom of decorated eggs helped to celebrate the end of the Lenten fast, and a mention in the household accounts of Edward 1st in 1290 mentions some 450 eggs decorated with gold leaf or dyed, at a princely cost of 18 pence, being presented to the royal household at Easter. But unlike today, it wasn’t all over after the main event.

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Eggs were back on the menu, so they featured in the celebrations

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The big feast – no expense was spared for the Easter celebrations

After the big feast, the week that followed was a holiday for everyone, celebrated with fun and games, with some communities even messing about on the water. The 12th Century chronicler William Fitzstephen describes mock target practice with lances taking place in boats on the Thames in London while: “Upon the bridge, wharfs and houses by the river side stand great numbers to see and laugh thereat.”

The holiday rounded off with Hocktide, another raucous two-day festival, when the men of the parish would tie up the women and demand a kiss before releasing them. The next day would see a reversal, with the women tying up the men, this time demanding money for their release which went into parish funds.

So, all in all, the medieval people were good at marking the significant points in the year, and they knew how relax and enjoy themselves. When I think of the madness of our fast-paced modern lives and our perception of how hard things were in the distant past, it’s strange to think that they got more time off work than we do now. And it’s this sense of community and tradition, their love of fun and feasting that’s another reason why I’m so hooked on the Middle Ages. So this weekend, I’ll raise a glass of mead to all my blogging friends and followers, and wish you all a Happy Medieval Easter!

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Happy Easter!