Medieval Easter

On Saturday night before Easter, with all fires extinguished at the church, the priest started a new fire and the villagers came to light lamps and candles to take the holy flame home.

Medieval Easter began very early at the church, because a superstition had developed that if you could catch a glimpse of the sacristan taking the cross or carved figure of Jesus out of its “coffin” (box, niche, hole, whatever they use for a sepulcher), you would be sure not to die that year. The priests disliked this type of thing and tried to get the job done so early that nobody had time to sneak in. Any time after the midnight Mass or the 3 am. prayer hour might have been about right; the job was definitely done before dawn.

At dawn, the main contingent of priests, monks, nuns and choir boys (depending on what sort of church it was: monastic, cathedral, or country parish) came to the sepulcher, acting out the role of the women in the Gospels. They removed the host, the wafer of bread that had been placed into the sepulcher with the cross or figure. The wafer, now representing the risen Christ, was carried in procession back to the church.

Bells pealed, welcoming the lay people to come to the dawn Easter Mass. Again, many of these services including simple play-acting of the roles in the story: women (or monks) going to the sepulcher and finding it empty with only a cloth left behind; monks standing by as the angels singing “He is risen!” Sometimes, the choir sang a triumphal song while monks and nuns came pouring out of an inner room, symbolizing souls released from hell. Although the words were entirely in Latin, the people knew the general story and could follow the action.

Medieval Easter dinner was a feast of all the forbidden animal products that had been saved up for weeks: meat, eggs, cheese, milk, and eggs.

Easter eggs, dyed with herbal and vegetable dyes, were called Pace Eggs in English, after Pesach (Hebrew) and Pascha (Greek). Eggs were traded, used to pay feast performers, tapped against other eggs in greeting, and rolled in games. Seems hard to believe they didn’t also hide and find them, but the whole “bunny” part had not yet evolved.

In England, there was a traditional Easter cake flavored with the spring herb tansy. It was bitter, not sweet, but its flavor was enjoyed at that time. Do we have a similar bitter treat today, besides coffee? Maybe coffee has taken up that role in the palate, leaving tansy behind.

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