Easter is the most important time of year in the Christian calendar. Whilst our medieval forebears had Easter eggs and hot cross buns, there was no Easter bunny and (even more disappointingly) no chocolate. However, they did have ‘hocking’ which, according to the Bishop of Worcester, was a most disgraceful sport.
So, how exactly was Easter celebrated in the Middle Ages?
The bible does not tell us the time of year when Jesus was born. For this reason, the date for celebrating Christmas could have been set at any time. As it happened the early Church settled on late December for the festive period.
Easter is different. The bible clearly places the events of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection at the time of the Jewish Passover. Jesus and his disciples, we are told, ate the Last Supper during Passover, the day before his crucifixion. Hence, the date for Easter was set at this time of year from the very beginning.
However, this date was always a little problematic. Passover is calculated based on the Jewish calendar; a calendar not used in the wider Roman world. Many churches were not even familiar with the Jewish calendar. To simplify matters, many western churches simply picked 25th March as the date for the vernal equinox and held their Easter mass on the first Sunday after that. The further east you travelled in the empire, the more you were likely to find churches celebrating Easter in line with Passover.
Development of the festival
To impose a greater degree of uniformity, the council of Nicaea, in 325, de-coupled Easter from Passover. So, from this time on, Easter was set at the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox. This date would now be calculated using the Julian calendar.
In the earliest times, only Easter day itself was celebrated. But, over time, the Easter celebrations were expanded. Christ’s entry to Jerusalem, on the preceding Palm Sunday, was added to the religious calendar during the fourth century.
The day of the actual crucifixion (Good Friday) was increasingly observed during the early Middle Ages. In Anglo-Saxon England, this day was initially called ‘Long Friday’. In time, England adopted the term ‘Good Friday’ from the German churches.
The day before Good Friday was the day of the Last Supper. It too eventually found its way into the Easter calendar as Maundy Thursday during the high Middle Ages.
In 877, Alfred the Great decreed that the fortnight either side of Easter Sunday should be a national holiday. This lasted until the thirteenth century, when the first week was dropped. Instead, a further two days, known as ‘hocktide’ were tagged to the end of the holiday.
In northern Europe, the celebration became known as Easter (England) or Ostern (Germany). This was a uniquely Germanic naming convention, likely originating from a common old Proto-Germanic root word. Elsewhere in Europe, Easter is typically known by local variations on the old Greek word for the festival (Pascha). This was, itself, a variation on the Jewish reference to Passover.
This raises the question as to where the Anglo-Saxons and Germans derived the name Easter/Ostern from.
The only early written evidence we have for this comes from the Venerable Bede, writing in the eighth century. Bede lived in Anglo-Saxon England, around half a century after England had finished transitioning from paganism to Christianity.
Speaking of pagan English customs Bede tells us that Easter was…
“… called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.”Bede, The Reckoning of Time
The Old High German equivalent may have been Ôstara. Perhaps this was the name of the equivalent Germanic pagan goddess. It is suggested that both words stem from an ancient Proto-Germanic word Austrō(n). Whether this was the name of a goddess or not, the word clearly had a strong association with springtime.
The cult of Eostre
We have no real evidence, aside from Bede, of a pan-Germanic pagan cult based on a goddess named Eostre/Ostara. Nor do we have any real evidence (beyond supposition and speculation) as to the nature of this goddess aside from Bede’s passing reference.
Folklorist Ronald Hutton argues that we cannot even be sure that there was a goddess of this name. Bede may have got it wrong. He was, after all, writing about a religion that was dead by the time he set quill to parchment. Hutton and others have suggested that Eostre and Ostara may have simply meant something like ‘beginnings’ or ‘dawn’ – a suitable reference to springtime. So, these words might simply have signified springtime.
Some have pointed to archaeological finds from Morken-Harff in Germany from 1958 as evidence for a German version of this goddess. Several Roman period inscriptions were discovered relating to what appears to have been a local cult. These are referred to as the Matronae Austriahenae (‘the mothers of Austria’, very roughly translated). Could, perhaps ‘Austriahenae’ refer to a cult of the elusive Ostara? The link is at best tenuous (the words sound similar – that’s basically it). There is no real evidence to show that these fragments depict anything other than a local matron cult, unrelated to any goddess.
Another possible meaning for Eostre and Ostara could perhaps be the simplest one. ‘East’ and ‘Ost’ both relate to the same compass direction. The linguist PA Shaw points to this as the most likely underlying meaning in both cases.
If we follow this train of thought, there is one other supernatural being from north European pagan times we need to consider. This is the dwarf, Austi, who appears in the Scandinavian Prose Edda. In Norse mythology ‘Austi’ literally translates to ‘East’ and he is the guy tasked with holding up the eastern corner of the sky.
The significant thing about it, of course, is that the sun rises in the east. This has inherent associations with the dawn. The vernal equinox, with which Easter is linked, represents a turning point in the year – the point when day starts becoming longer than night. It therefore marks the start of the time of year when daytime and the rising eastern sun, have ascendence over the night and the setting western sun. Perhaps, the connection between the word ‘east’ and the time of year in pagan Anglo-Saxon England and Germany was as simple as that.
The concept of decorating eggs dates to ancient times. However, they only start appearing at Easter during the Middle Ages.
By the high Middle Ages, decorated Easter eggs formed an established part of the celebrations. In 1290, for example, Edward I had 450 eggs colourfully decorated for his household’s Easter festivities.
Eggs, of course, have an obvious association with springtime and new life. They therefore have a clear link to the time of year and the idea of re-birth. However, finding any links to earlier pagan customs requires a highly speculative stretch.
Easter eggs (as opposed to decorated eggs in general) were almost certainly a medieval Christian invention, designed to celebrate the end of Lent. Lent ran for a period of 40 days, ending on Maundy Thursday. During this period, the eating of meat, dairy products and eggs were prohibited. The Easter feast therefore represented a celebration at which eggs could be freely eaten for the first time in weeks.
The idea that eggs held some special significance in a pagan Eostre cult lacks any supporting evidence. It is purely a theory. A theory that dates back no further than Jacob Grimm, writing in the early nineteenth century.
The Easter Bunny
Unfortunately, there were no Easter Bunnies in medieval times. The only rabbits (or hares) associated with Easter at this time were most likely found on a dining table.
Of course, Easter coincides with the time of year where you are most likely to see hares boxing in the countryside. This, perhaps more than anything else, explains why the humble bunny became associated with Easter.
The earliest record we can find for any Easter Bunnies, dates to the late C17th in Germany. Indeed, at the time, it appears to have been a local custom present only in the western part of Germany. There is no evidence to show this custom pre-dated the C17th. Nor is there evidence to show it was followed elsewhere in Germany, let alone in England at this time. The idea spread across Germany and was exported, via German migrants to the United States. The Bunny did not finally arrive in England until much later.
In England, during the Middle Ages, bunnies at Easter time were essentially for hunting and eating.
Chocolate and buns
Unfortunately for our medieval forebears, chocolate was not available until it was brought back to Europe from the Americas. Since the Americas were not even discovered yet, there was no chance of any chocolate eggs for medieval children!
Hot cross buns were a different story. The earliest such buns were originally known as Alban buns, named after the place of their invention. The baker responsible for their creation was Brother Thomas Rocliffe, a monk at St Albans Abbey. In 1361 Brother Thomas began baking spiced buns and marking them with a cross to distribute to the poor on Good Friday each year. He also gave away free wine to wash them down with!
Holy Week began with Palm Sunday, which featured an especially elaborate religious service. The narrative of Christ’s entry to Jerusalem featured prominently. Tree branches (to represent palm fronds) were blessed and carried in a procession, headed by the local priest, carrying a cross. It was a ceremony that became longer and more elaborate as the Middle Ages wore on.
Maundy Thursday was colloquially known in late medieval England as ‘Sharp Thursday’. This reflected the custom that many people had their hair and beards cut on this day ready for Easter. Church alters were stripped of Lenten cloths and cleaned on this day. Confessions were often heard at this time, so that the faithful had a clear conscience during the Easter services.
Good Friday was marked with another important service in which the crucifixion was commemorated. It was a day of mourning. During the service, a cross was displayed and the congregation knelt before it barefoot. After the priest had reminded them how unworthy they all were enough times, they’d creep on their knees to the foot of the cross and kiss it. After this service the cross was solemnly taken away and placed within a sepulchre. There it remained until Easter Day.
Over the Easter weekend, any rushlights and candles used in the church were ceremonially extinguished and relit. This was to symbolise the death and resurrection of Christ. This was mainly done on the Saturday, although there are records of it being done on other days, such as Maundy Thursday.
The main Easter Day service featured incense and fumigations of herbs. The figures of Christ and the Saints, veiled since Ash Wednesday, were unveiled for the Easter mass. The cross was brought out of its sepulchre, symbolising the resurrected Christ emerging from his tomb.
The Easter service itself was a celebration of renewal and new beginnings. As a result, it was a very popular occasion for baptisms. So popular in fact that in 1279, Archbishop Peckham imposed a rule to the effect that only babies less than a week old would qualify to be baptised at Easter.
Once the Easter mass was completed, the festivities could begin in earnest. The following week was given over for holidays, feasting, mirth, dancing, and sports. Everyone from the king down to your local manorial lord hosted magnificent feasts for their households. Even their humblest servants could expect to eat well on Easter Day.
On Easter Monday, people visited the local fair for merry making and perhaps to participate in, or watch, local sports. Perhaps there were archery contests. Perhaps even jousting. The wealthier members of society might well go hunting.
Easter time was also important for commerce since it was the time for paying taxes and rents. It was, likewise, considered the right time to renegotiate or set new rates for rents and other annual contracts. Perhaps then, the week of festivities served as a useful distraction from the fact that your rent might be going up!
The Easter holidays extended over the entire week following Easter Sunday. It eventually extended beyond the following weekend to include the succeeding Monday and Tuesday.
These two days, the final days of the medieval holiday, were known as Hocktide. And it was the time for hocking!
Hocktide was a somewhat unruly couple of days by all accounts. It was very much in the spirit of the medieval concept of ‘misrule’ that tended to be tagged onto the end of holidays.
During Hocktide, single gender gangs attempted to kidnap locals of the opposite sex and ‘hock’ them (i.e., hold them for ransom). These could be either gangs of men or women, but gangs of women ‘hocking’ men appear to have been more common.
The ransoms so raised could be used for any purpose. For much of the Middle Ages hock money was mostly spent on such useful things as wine. However, to add a veneer of respectability to these boisterous japes, it became increasingly common to donate your hock money to the local parish.
The unruly nature of having gangs of young men and women chasing after each other did not meet with universal approval. The practice was banned in some places. The local bishop banned hocking in Worchester in 1450, denouncing it as a ‘disgraceful sport’.
The Holiday’s End
With Hocktide done, the holidays were over. If you were lucky, you might not have long to wait until the next major Christian feast on the medieval calendar (assuming it had not fallen within the Easter period that year). This was the Feast of Saint George on April 23rd.
So, have a happy Easter, and here’s hoping you don’t get hocked!
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References & further reading
Cover Image: Manuscript Illumination with Scenes of Easter in an Initial A, from an Antiphonary MET DT201102
The Venerable Bede: The Venerable Bede translates John by James Penrose 1902
Hunting scene: Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century)
Merry making: Master of the Dresden Prayer Book (Flemish, active about 1480 – 1515) – The Temperate and the Intemperate – Google Art Project