Happy April Fool’s Day. I’m not sure I altogether like this ‘holiday’, having been on the receiving end of one too many pranks as a younger person (in case I haven’t revealed this already, I’m extremely gullible), but if you’re celebrating – and not making a fool out of somebody else – then have a ball.
It’s a Bank Holiday weekend here, craftily arranged by my husband and I in order to help us celebrate our anniversary (of course). It has nothing to do with the fact that most of the country is languishing in a chocolate-fuelled stupor this morning… We had a wonderful day yesterday for Easter Sunday; we spent it with two of our best friends and their young baby, where we all went on an Easter Egg Hunt. It was, of course, more fun for the adults than the child, and sadly, the adults ate all the chocolate, too. (In our defence, the baby isn’t able to eat solids yet. Honest!)
I’m not sure if it was our time with our friends that sparked today’s blog-thoughts off in my mind, or the TV programmes we watched when we got home (both dramas involving past eras), or some twisty combination of both, but in any case – today I’m thinking about human nature, and how people don’t really change over time.
We spent our day celebrating an ancient feast with our friends, a feast which most people would connect with Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus. But – as most people are aware – the feast of ‘Easter’ (named, even, after the goddess Eostre) is a lot older than the Christian faith. It has more to do with the time of year and the fecundity of the season, the return to earth of the flowers and creatures and crops that are necessary to sustain life, than it does with the much younger faith of Christianity. I am a Christian, but I am also a trained medievalist, so the feast of Easter has two layers of meaning for me. Our celebrations yesterday got me thinking about how people carry out rituals – the giving of chocolate, the symbolism of rabbits and ‘Easter bunnies’, the tradition of ‘April Fools’ – without really thinking about what they mean and where they come from, or even knowing how old the traditions are. It got me thinking about how people are the same from generation to generation. The things we do sometimes change, as do the circumstances in which we have to live our lives. But people – the essence of what makes us human beings – stays the same.
When I worked as a tutor, I was responsible for teaching my students about medieval language, literature and culture in Britain (mostly), but also in Ireland and Europe. I often started a class by asking the students to read a section of Chaucer, for instance, or an extract from Beowulf or one of the Old English elegies. Perhaps, if I was feeling particularly playful, I would give them a piece of poetry like this one (don’t worry, a translation follows!):
Mec feonda sum feore besnythede
Woruldstrenga binom waette sithan
dyfthe on waetra dyde eft thonan,
sette on sunan, thaer ic swithe beleas
herum tham the ic haefde.
(An enemy stole my life, and took away all my worldly strength; they wet me, dipping me in water, then took me out once more. I was left in the sun then, where I swiftly lost all the hair I had.)
My students would labour intensely over an extract of poetry like that, trying to work it out, looking at it like it had huge significance, doing their best to be intelligent. So, when I told them ‘it’s a joke’, they sometimes weren’t too impressed with me. The poem is an extract from Riddle 26 in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English joke-verses. Some of them are crude, some of them scandalous, some of them groan-worthy, and some of them are still mystifying. This one, the narrative voice of which goes on to tell us that a knife cut away all its impurities, and that it was folded and pierced through with holes and bedecked with brown dye before being guarded between boards, decorated with gold and trusted with the Word of God, is telling us that it’s a book – more specifically, a Bible. You have to know, of course, that in the Middle Ages books were made of animal hide, which would be soaked to soften and loosen the hair, dried in the sun, and scraped with a blade to make it perfectly smooth… and once you know the answer, the whole riddle begins to click into place.
Each of the riddles presents the reader (or listener) with confusing images designed to make something everyday seem completely alien – all in the name of a big punchline, giving everyone who’s been sweating to work it out an ‘Aha!’ moment, where they can slap their thighs, laugh with one another and pretend that they’d unravelled it long before their neighbour had. So, in a way, my students’ efforts to understand the words mirror exactly the reaction that the original authors would have wanted. My students would (hopefully) learn from this that even though the sense of humour had changed a bit, the need or desire to laugh, to exercise the brain, to get one over on your fellows, to play a trick, were as much a part of the Anglo-Saxon world as they are to our own.
Human art, from any era, depicts a number of big themes; Love is one. Death another. Nearly everything else can be constructed out of some combination of these. Regret, Betrayal, Loss, Passion, Devotion, Adventure (which can be seen as the pursuit of one and the simultaneous avoidance of the other.) We no longer joust, and our sons no longer get sent to fight with the King, but plenty of young men and women still get sent to fight our modern wars. We no longer scare ourselves with stories of giants and headless horsemen; instead we use zombies and vampires (when we’re not falling in love with them, of course.) We love our children and our families, we want to protect our homes, we want the dignity of earning our own living, we want the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. None of these things are new to us. All of these things were known to our forebears too, all the way back to our earliest beginnings.
The past can sometimes seem very far away, and people who lived in previous eras can often feel like creatures of another world. But they’re not, at all. We are lucky to have the conveniences we do, which make the things our ancestors wanted – safety for our young, security for our crops, warmth for our homes, good health as long as we can get it – so much easier. So, it makes me glad that we still celebrate some of the old feast days, even if we don’t know why any more. It’s a precious connection to those who’ve gone before us, and a vital expression of human nature.
Anyway, on that note: Happy Easter!