Easter season

By the week leading up to Easter, medieval people were certainly tired of the Lenten fast. Milk could be turned into cheese, but nobody was allowed to eat it; they only had butter if their region had a papal indulgence. It’s likely that they were hard-boiling their eggs for a few weeks ahead, if the hens were still laying. Near the start of Lent, there was no use for eggs if people weren’t cheating on the fast. But near the end, perhaps the eggs would stay fresh in a cold cellar. In the late Middle Ages, there’s some evidence that the surfeit of hard-boiled eggs were dyed or used in games on Easter day.

But although the Easter feast was among the grandest, the season was not about games or fun. It was a solemn week that used a lot of drama. The church was always aware that most of its members were illiterate; the earliest medieval churches had wall murals to teach Bible stories. Many Romanesque churches were covered with story paintings to rival Kat Von D’s back. But by the 11th century, churches also tried to act out some stories during the worship service.

Palm Sunday began with a procession of palm leaves to re-enact the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Most parts of Northern Europe had no palms, so they used local substitutes. They didn’t take the re-enactment literally, but rather liturgically. The priest led a procession into the church and there were special songs. While miracle and mystery plays (staged outside) tried to use costumes and dialogue to tell the story, church drama did not aim at realism.

There’s no doubt that, in parallel, the country people also had traditions about spring left from pagan times. Less is known, since we have only some written records of what they did. Although the church accepted some pagan customs blended into the Christmas feast, priests were strict about keeping them out of the Resurrection story. With one striking exception: the name “Easter” itself. Eostre was a pagan goddess whose special season was co-opted by Latin missionaries during the Dark Ages. By the Middle Ages proper, nobody remembered or cared.

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