The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.
For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.
The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.
The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday. Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.
Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.
So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.
Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.
Or maybe you do know some of these things – but just in case:
Easter is a moveable feast that is always on the first Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon. However, the date of that full moon is determined by lunar dates established by the church in the past as opposed to what the moon is actually doing. Confused? Blame the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 which vexed over whether to use the solar or lunar calendars and came up with a messy compromise.
In the early church, Alexandria was often turned to for advice because its astronomers – in the Greek tradition of learning – were hugely respected. But bust ups over the date of Easter did occur between Rome and Alexandria.
Many early Christians observed Easter on the ‘fourteenth day of the moon’ irrespective of whether this was a Sunday. This practice took centuries of effort by the church to stamp out – continuing in England until the 7th century AD.
In 1583, the Vatican introduced the new Gregorian calendar to correct discrepancies in the older Julian calendar, dating back to the Roman Empire. This changed the date of Easter. But the Eastern Orthodox church has never accepted the amendments made by the pope to the calendar and stuck with the Julian version. So Easter in the east will be 13 days later this year.
It took until the year 1753 for Britain and its colonies (including America) to adopt the Gregorian calendar and so Easter then fell into line with the rest of western Europe.
Was the Last Supper a traditional Jewish passover meal? Mark, Matthew and Luke seemed to think so but John gave it the thumbs down. The John position is often attributed to Christians seeking to remove the Jewish influence from the story of Jesus. But some Jewish scholars think John may have had a point – Jesus could not have been put on trial and crucified during the Passover – it breaches Jewish religious laws.
There is a rather odd Easter story involving Mary Magdalene – popularly believed in the Eastern Orthodox church. One version has Mary Magdalene having dinner with the Roman emperor Tiberius (details of how such a dinner came to happen are a little scant). The emperor mocked the idea of a resurrection and said there was much chance of that happening as an egg (and he pointed to one conveniently located nearby) turning red. Whereupon said egg turned red! Why red? Because it represents the blood of Christ.
Easter bunnies appear as both hares and rabbits in medieval art – a symbol of fecundity. Hares are prolific breeders and produce litters at this time of year. The medieval mind loved ascribing values and virtues (and vices) to animals. So the Easter bunny was an appropriate symbol of re-birth.
In non-English speaking countries, Easter is known by variants of the word ‘Pasch’ dervied from the Jewish ‘Pesach’ meaning the Passover. The word Easter is often ascribed to an Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre and her feast was held during the month of April – something attested to by the Venerable Bede.
It’s claimed that Eleanor de Montfort provided an astonishing 3,700 eggs for her medieval Easter celebrations in the year 1265.
In 2012, I was in Jerusalem and visited the Holy Sepulchre – this is the spot revered by all Christian faiths as the place where Jesus was crucified. This church – which dates back to the Roman period though little of that building remains – was the model for all Templar churches.
Imagine you had no watch, no mobile phone….basically, no way of telling the time. Further imagine that you are in the middle of a field with your plough and oxen, working on the lord’s desmesne – then how do you know what time it is? Yep, you’re in the Middle Ages and who knows whether it is 2.30pm or 4.15pm. Who knows what day it is. And frankly, who even knows what year it is!
Such were the vagaries of timekeeping for a medieval serf – so how they did do it? Well, two things to bear in mind. Religion and the seasons. Peasants knew when it was a holy day because….that’s where we get “holiday” from….and you know always know when your holidays are. Then there were the seasons – a time to sow seeds and a time to harvest crops. A time when animals breed and a time to slaughter them and salt the meat for winter storage.
How does this all translate in to practical timekeeping. I’ve read some fun stuff online around this subject. I’m happy to be informed whether a lot of this is total garbage or true. This website claims peasants carved sundials in to the bottom of their clogs – which they took off and held up to the sun to tell the time. I have never heard of that before! This site says that the first mechanical clock was invented in the late 13th century – so within the Templar era. But peasants would have had no access to clocks in our era – not as if you could take one in to the fields.
So let’s look at how peasants told the time. Winter stretched from Michaelmas in late September to Christmastide. And you were out sowing at that time. November was known as the blood month because you slaughtered the animals to keep you in meat during the cold months ahead. Of course there were the 12 days of Christmas to cheer up the wintertime.
From the Epiphany to Easter Holy Week was the Spring when fields and gardens sprang back in to life and animals got down to some serious mating. Plough Monday was a strange ritual shortly after Epiphany where young lads dragged ploughs round the village asking for money. Candlemas in early February was when oats, barley and beans were sown.
Two weeks after Easter was Hocktide which stretched to Lammas in August. Hocktide was when the May Queen was crowned – undoubtedly a throwback to pre-Christian fertility rituals or worship of pagan goddesses that encouraged crops to grow. Midsummer was marked by the feast of St John the Baptist and on St John’s Eve in June, a wheel of fire might be rolled down the hill – another pagan hangover. Lammas to Michaelmas was harvest time.
Monks – and Templars – had a more precise form of timekeeping based around prayer. Lauds got you out of bed at the crack of dawn or before, Prime came in the early morn, Terce in mid-morning, Sext at midday, None in mid-afternoon, Vespers after dinner and Compline was just before bed, etc.