The Madmen of Gotham.
British folklore links April Fool's Day to the town of Gotham, the legendary town of fools located in Nottinghamshire. According to legend, it was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the King placed his foot upon to become public property. So when the citizens of Gotham heard that King John (1166-1216) planned to travel through their town, they refused him entry, not wishing to lose their main road. When the King heard this, he sent soldiers to the town. But when the soldiers arrived in Gotham, they found the town full of lunatics engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish or attempting to cage birds in roofless fences. Their foolery was all an act to make the King believe they were insane. The King fell for the ruse and declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment. Ever since then, according to legend, April Fool's Day has commemmorated their trickery. (The thumbnail shows a 1630 woodcut depicting a citizen of Gotham trying to trap a bird inside a roofless fence.)
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
In the Nun's Priest's Tale (written around 1392), Chaucer tells the story of the vain cock Chauntecler who falls for the tricks of a fox, and as a consequence is almost eaten. The narrator describes the tale as occurring:
When that the monthe in which the world bigan
That highte March, whan God first maked man,
Was complet, and passed were also
Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two
Some scholars have suggested this is a veiled reference to April 1st, since thirty-two days "Syn March bigan" (since March began) would be April 1. It is intriguing to think that Chaucer might have chosen this date purposefully, setting the tale on April 1st because of the tradition of tricks and foolery associated with the day. It would be appropriate for a story of a foolish cock and sly fox.
If it is a reference to April Fool's Day, then it would be the earliest recorded reference to the day. However, Chaucer's choice of words is extremely ambiguous, and most scholars think he meant May 3, since that would be "thritty dayes and two" after March "was complet."
In 1508 Eloy d'Amerval, a French choirmaster and composer, published a poem titled Le livre de la deablerie. It consisted of "a dialogue between Satan and Lucifer, in which their nefarious plotting of future evil deeds is interrupted periodically by the author, who among other accounts of earthly and divine virtue, records useful information on contemporary musical practice."
The poem would principally be of interest to historians of music, except that it includes the line, "maquereau infâme de maint homme et de mainte femme, poisson d'avril."
The phrase "poisson d'avril" (April Fish) is the French term for an April Fool, but it is unclear whether d'Amerval's use of the term referred to April 1st specifically. He might have intended the phrase simply to mean a foolish person.
French Calendar Reform.
In 1563 King Charles IX reformed the French calendar by moving the start of the year from Easter Day to January 1. His edict was passed into law by the French Parliament on Dec. 22, 1564. This aligned legal convention with what had long been the popular custom of celebrating the start of the year on January 1.
Later, in 1582, Pope Gregory issued a papal bull decreeing sweeping calendar reform, which included moving the start of the year to January 1, as well as creating a leap-year system and eliminating ten days from the month of October 1582 in order to correct the drift of the calendar. The Pope had no formal power to make governments accept this reform, but he urged Christian nations to do so. France immediately accepted the reform, since it had already instituted part of the reform (changing the start of the year) in 1564.
This sixteenth-century calendar reform is frequently cited as the origin of the custom of April Foolery. Supposedly the people who failed to realize the start of the year had been changed had pranks played on them on April 1st.
There are a number of problems with this theory. First, the start of the year was changed from Easter day, not April 1st. Second,
The Washing of the Lions.
The April 2, 1698 edition of Dawks’s News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” This is the first recorded instance of a popular April Fool's Day prank that involved sending people to the Tower of London to see the "washing of the lions." The joke was that there was no lion-washing ceremony. It was a fool's errand. (For more info, see the Hoaxipedia article: Washing The Lions)
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