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This sign appeared on a road in the town of Cambridge, UK on April 1st. There was some speculation that it might have been a joke, but the Cambridge News confirms that it actually was a genuine sign for a temporary road closure. Just a case of strange British road names. And pure coincidence that the sign went up on April 1.
Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 15, 2014
Comments (0)
The video of this April Fool's Day prank, played by students at Aquinas College on their Macroeconomics professor, now has over 25 millions views on YouTube, which has to make it one of the most popular April Fool pranks this year (if not the most popular). It's nice to see that a low-budget prank by amateurs still can overshadow all the April Fool marketing efforts of the advertising professionals.

The premise of the prank is that a female student receives a call on her cell phone during class. The professor has a rule that if a student has failed to turn their phone off, and it rings during class, they have to answer it in front of everyone. So the student proceeds to take the call, only to learn that it's from the "pregnancy resource center" informing her that she's pregnant. The look of horror on the professor's face as he hears this, and begins to imagine the repercussions of having forced the student to share this news with the class, is classic.


Fake pregnancy announcements are actually a fairly common prank on April Fool's Day. The typical set-up is that female employees will tell their boss on April 1 that they're pregnant and have to take time off. The prank works best if multiple female employees make the same announcement, leaving the boss to imagine the prospect of losing half his staff. I've recorded an example of this from 1963 in the April Fool Archive:

Categories: April Fools Day, Birth/Babies
Posted by Alex on Mon Apr 14, 2014
Comments (1)
HerCampus, a news site for women in college, recently posted that Beyoncé was looking for interns to help organize the "official Beyoncé archive." She wasn't offering any financial compensation, but she did promise "the opportunity to take three selfies with Beyoncé over the course of the internship."

Quite a few media outlets picked up on the story and reported it as news. It's also circulated widely on social media. But prospective applicants should note that HerCampus posted the announcement on April Fool's Day. In other words, it was a hoax.

It's definitely one of the more successful April Fool pranks this year, because it's completely believable not only that Beyoncé would make such an offer, but that a lot of people would take her up on it.

HerCampus seems to have taken down the announcement. But here's a screenshot of it:

Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Thu Apr 10, 2014
Comments (0)
This e-junkie author complains that April Fool's Day marketing has gotten out of hand. There definitely was a huge amount of it this year. But I don't see the trend going away anytime soon, since marketers aren't exactly known for restraint. And to be honest, I'm not really bothered by it like this author is.

Perhaps I'm just easily amused, but I kind of enjoy looking through all the weird stuff advertisers come up with every April 1. Though it is true that the advertisers don't make much of an effort to actually fool anyone. They're primarily aiming for being funny/cute/quirky.

Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Sat Apr 05, 2014
Comments (1)
NPR succeeded in pulling off one of the most successful April 1 pranks this year, in terms of number of people fooled.

It posted the article below to Facebook that asked in the headline, "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?"

The provocative question quickly generated hundreds of responses. Some people bemoaned falling standards of education. Others disagreed with the premise, insisting that people do read nowadays.



But what all the responses shared in common was that the people who posted them apparently hadn't bothered to click through and READ THE ARTICLE ITSELF!

If they had, they would have discovered this text:
Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools' Day!
We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven't actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let's see what people have to say about this "story."
Best wishes and have an enjoyable day,
Your friends at NPR

Of course, a lot of the people who were fooled subsequently deleted their comments. So now the thousand+ comments on the post are mostly from people laughing about the joke.
Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Fri Apr 04, 2014
Comments (2)
April 1, 1937 — The Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung ran a story about Siamese twins joined by their beard.

The story noted: "The brothers have solved all the problems of life joined together by means of their exemplary camaraderie. It is interesting that the phenomenon only manifested itself when the twins reached the age of 14."





Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 01, 2014
Comments (0)
It seems like the site's server isn't crashing, as it usually does on April 1! So that's good news.

I've been posting a bunch of today's April Fools over at the Hoax Museum Facebook page, since it's easier to post stuff quickly over there.

I'll add the best to the April Fool Archive later.
Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 01, 2014
Comments (0)
The New York Times does not participate in the custom of April Fool's Day. It's the paper that only publishes "news that's fit to print," and April fool absurdities don't make the cut.

Except for one time that maybe it did publish an April fool story. It was way back on April 1, 1906 when the following story appeared on the front page of the Times.


It's an odd story. It's not really laugh-out-loud funny. But anyone familiar with the climate around the Salton Sea would immediately realize that the idea that it had frozen solid was absurd. And ice skating on the Salton Sea? Never happened.

And six days later, on April 7, the Los Angeles Times called out the story, in a column headlined "A Masterpiece of Fooling".
A MASTERPIECE OF FOOLING
Under the caption "Nature's Packing Plant" and a special Washington date line, the conservative New York Times of April 1 prints on its first page this remarkable piece of news in all apparent seriousness...

[text of the NYT article]

It seems a pity to spoil an April Fool Day gem like that, but lest some of our visitors get out their skates and stampede to the Imperial country to have a frolic on the ice, it may be as well to mention the fact that the Salton sink is considerably below sea level and, next to Death Valley, the nearest to the infernal regions, in winter or summer, of any spot on the crust of the earth, with a climate appropriate to its location.

The day on which the story appeared in the New York paper, the first of April, is not without significance. It is a peach of a story, but it is no more fantastic than some of the yarns about the Salton Sea and the Imperial country, faked up as real news and published with fake illustrations by Hearst's Los Angeles paper.

Wonder who gave the New York Times that "fill!" Or did that journal deliberately pass it out to the readers of its telegraphic dispatches?

It's possible, as the LA Times speculated, that the NYT was fooled by someone else and didn't intend to publish a fake story. However, the NYT article said that the news was "special to The New York Times," which suggests to me that it was their own story.

The story later got picked up by a few other publications, such as the Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, Ky - Apr 19, 1906), which accepted the news uncritically.

However, The National Provisioner - Apr 28, 1906, noted that the story "may be taken with a liberal allowance of the salt he speaks of."
Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Mon Mar 31, 2014
Comments (0)
With April Fool's Day fast approaching, I've been working on the April Fool Archive, trying to add supplementary material, etc. In the course of which, I realized that I didn't have much information about the early history of April Fool's Day in Germany. Specifically, what is the earliest German reference to April Fool's Day? Knowing this would give us an idea of how long the Germans have been celebrating April first.

That question was harder to answer than I had anticipated.

The Diet of Augsburg, 1530
There's a German origin story about April Fool's Day that alleges the celebration started on account of a meeting of the Reichstag in Augsburg in 1530. The meeting was called to address a number of issues, such as trying to unify the Germans against the Turks, addressing religious disputes, and regulating coinage.


Augsburg, circa 1500

According to the story, a special meeting to address the coinage issue was scheduled for April 1, and in anticipation of it many speculators began to trade currency, hoping to profit by anticipating whatever new regulations would be enacted. But then the meeting was delayed. Not once, but several times, which caused a financial crisis among these speculators. A kind of 16th century stockmarket crash. And so these speculators were mocked and became the first April fools.

This origin story isn't very believable. Yes, the Reichstag did meet in Augsburg in 1530. It was scheduled to meet on April 8, but then it was delayed until May 1, and then delayed again until June 20. That much is true. But was there a special meeting to regulate coinage scheduled for April 1? I haven't been able to confirm that. But even if there was, and the speculators were mocked, why would this have inspired a custom of April 1st pranks in other parts of Europe? Because we know that by 1561 the custom of April 1 foolishness was already established in Belgium and the Netherlands. That timeline doesn't make any sense.

Also, there's no historical evidence that backs up this origin story. No literary references, or anything of that kind. The earliest references to it that I can find appear in the late 19th century. For instance, it's described (and dismissed as false) in the 1871 issue of the Dutch journal De Volksvermaken.

The First Reference?
So if we dismiss the Augsburg story as a fanciful tall tale (one of many fanciful tales about the origin of April Fool's Day), then what was the actual, first German reference to the custom of making fools on April 1?

According to the German version of Wikipedia, the earliest reference is the use of the phrase "in den April schicken" in Bavaria in 1618. This phrase is an idiomatic way of saying "to make an April fool". It translates literally as "to send someone in April". There are some regional variations in how the phrase is said, such as "zum April schicken", "um den April schicken", and "für den April schicken".

A lot of online sources repeat this claim. For instance, the magazine Stern says it, as do many other sites.

The problem is, none of these sites provide a citation specifying what text this phrase appeared in back in 1618. Scholarly articles about the history of April Fool's Day in Germany (the few such articles that exist) aren't any better about providing a citation to back up this claim.

But after a lot of searching, I finally found a German dictionary that provided a citation, Trübners Deutsches Wörterbuch (1939). It tells us (once you decode the old-fashioned font) that the phrase appeared in Wolfgang Schönsleder's German-Latin dictionary, Promptuarium Germanico-Latinum, published in Bavaria in 1618.


Trübners Deutsches Wörterbuch (1939), page 117

I thought I'd have to take Trübners' word for it, but when I checked online, I discovered (to my surprise) that Schönsleder's 1618 dictionary has been scanned and is available on Google Books. So I looked through it, but I couldn't find the phrase "in den April schicken" (or any variation of it) in there.


Then I noticed that there was more than one edition of Schönsleder's dictionary, and sure enough, in the 4th edition (published 1647) I found the phrase "in Aprillen schicken," which Schönsleder defined as "calendis Aprilibus circummittere" (i.e. to send around on the calends of April, or on the first of April).


So the editors of Trübners Deutsches Wörterbuch evidently had access to a later edition of the Promptuarium Germanico-Latinum. (If you look at their reference closely, you see that they cite the 5th edition specifically.) They saw that the phrase "in Aprillen schicken" appeared in it, and assumed that the same phrase must also have been in the first 1618 edition, without checking to see if it actually was.

And ever since then people have been repeating the claim that the first German reference to April Fool's Day appeared in 1618. But no, it didn't. If the Promptuarium Germanico-Latinum is the source we're using, we can only say that it listed the phrase 'in April schicken' in 1647.

So when was the actual first April Fool reference in German?
If you look around enough, you'll find a few sites that claim it was in 1631. Though again, they don't specify what text the reference appeared in.

But I repeated the process of looking in old German dictionaries and encyclopedias, and eventually came across the Handwörterbuch Des Deutschen Aberglaubens (1927), which listed 1631 as the earliest April Fool reference in Germany, and cited the Mecklenburgische Volksüberlieferungen (1906) by Richard Wossidlo as the source for that date.

And Wossidlo's Mecklenburgische Volksüberlieferungen, in turn, identified a 1631 leaflet titled "Eigentliche Contrafactur, Wie Kön. May. zu Schweden den alten Corporal Tyllen nach dem Aprill schicket" as being the text in which this April Fool reference appeared.

And yes, this leaflet verifiably exists!

A copy of it was sold last year by the Zisska & Schauer auction house for $900! The auction catalog describes the leaflet as an "Anti-Catholic lampoon, in which Count Tilly is depicted as a vagabond April fool on his way to Rome to seek refuge there from the Swedes." It also lists the publication date as 1632 (not 1631), and provides a small image (below) of the leaflet.


Who was this Count Tilly? He was Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly. Wikipedia tell us that he "commanded the Catholic League's forces in the Thirty Years' War. He had a string of important victories against the Protestants but was then defeated by forces led by the King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden."


Count Tilly


But wait, there's more!
The 1632 April fool reference is a good one, but there's an even older one.

Wossidlo, in his Mecklenburgische Volksüberlieferungen, also draws attention to an article titled "Notizen eines Strassburger Bürgers um 1625" (Notes of a Strasbourg citizen from 1625) in Volume 7 of the Jahrbuch für Geschichte, Sprache und Literatur Elsass-Lothringens (1888).

This article describes a "mess of documents" found in the Strasbourg City Archives. These documents were written by or for Lorenz Fritsch, a glazier (glass maker), in the first decades of the 17th century, up to 1625 (approximately).

The papers included a strange variety of writings: recipes for food and medicines, diary notes, sermons, songs, aphorisms, etc. The article then reproduces some of these writings. And in what appears to be a diary entry for April (year unnoted) we find this line:
Am ersten tag des Appril schickt man die Narren wohin man will.

This is an old German saying. It means, "On the first of April you send fools wherever you want." It's clearly an April Fool reference, and if it was written before 1625, this would make it the earliest known April Fool reference in German.

Of course, it would be nice to check these Strasbourg city archives to verify that these notes really were as old as the 1888 article claimed. But there's really no reason to doubt the veracity of the article in the Jahrbuch für Geschichte, Sprache und Literatur.

So there you have it. The answer to the question, 'What's the earliest German reference to April Fool's Day?" is that the first reference appears to be an entry in a Strasbourg glazier's diary written circa 1625.

What relevance does this have?
Well, apart from being interesting to history nerds like myself who enjoy chasing down obscure references, it tells us that the custom of April Fool's Day was established in Germany by the early seventeenth century. However, we find Dutch references to April Fool's Day that are about 50 years older, dating to the mid 16th century. This indicates that the custom of April Fool's Day was probably imported into Germany from the Netherlands.
Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Thu Mar 20, 2014
Comments (1)

On April 1, 2013, Internet commerce site Firebox.com released a new product — the 70s Hairy Chest Sweater.

From the product description:
What makes lumberjacks, 70s television stars and the giant Brown Bears of Alaska so irresistibly attractive to others? Simple. Their long, luxuriant chest hair.
Sadly, the recent 'man-scaping' trend has led to an epidemic of people pedantically plucking their pecs. Oh, the humanity.
Thankfully, we’ve found a solution (while you wait for your rug to regenerate). The 70s Hairy Chest Sweater. This 100% polyester sweater is almost guaranteed to increase your masculinity, virility and ability to chop wood.
Pull it on to cover that embarrassing hairless body, or add it to your existing rug for additional ‘70s style points.

Of course, it was an April Fool's Day hoax, but it's one of those April Fool hoaxes that continue to fool people well past April 1st. For instance, I saw it discussed recently on HomeAccentsToday.com.
Categories: April Fools Day, Fashion
Posted by Alex on Sun Mar 02, 2014
Comments (0)
One problem is that the planned hoax is too late in the day. According to the rules of April Fool's Day, pranks have to be done before noon! If you do it after noon, then you become the fool. (Does no one care about the rules any more???)

So it would be better to do this early in the morning on the 1st, rather than in the evening.

RC Group Plans UFO Hoax
A Group of RC enthusiasts plan a April Fools Day UFO hoax.

This group of RC enthusiasts seem to have a secret plan to create an apocalyptic UFO doomsday hoax on April Fools Day. I not sure how long this big secret can be kept seeing that the entire plan is posted on their public forum.
The group plans on getting as many people as than can to rig their flying RC quadracopters
(or anything else they can get in the air) with lights and release them to the skies on April 1st at 8 pm. The preferred color is blue but they say any color will do. The plan is to get them in the air while it is dark but early enough that people are still out and about.
Categories: April Fools Day, Extraterrestrial Life
Posted by Alex on Thu Feb 27, 2014
Comments (2)

The Nun's Priest's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales tells the story of a vain rooster, Chauntecleer, whose vanity leads him to drop his guard while showing off how splendidly he crows. As a result, he almost gets eaten by a fox. But Chauntecleer outwits the fox that carries him away in its mouth by taking advantage of the fox's own vanity. He persuades the fox to stop and mock his pursuers. As soon as the fox opens its mouth to do so, Chauntecleer flies to safety up into a tree.

The story is one of the most popular of Chaucer's tales, because of its playful humor involving talking barnyard animals, much like a Disney cartoon. But in recent years the story has acquired a different claim-to-fame, on account of an assertion that's circulated widely online stating that the tale contains a reference to April Fool's Day.

Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th Century, so if the reference to April Fool's Day checks out, it would be the first time the celebration was mentioned in any language. In fact, it would predate any other reference by about 170 years, thereby offering strong evidence that April Fool's Day originated in England.

But does the reference check out? Did Chaucer actually mention April Fool's Day?


Chauntecleer and the fox

The Case for the Reference
The possible reference occurs at around the mid-point of the Nun's Priest's Tale. The narrator pauses the story to mention when the events take place:

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

One way of reading this (and, as we shall see, not the only possible way) is that it's a roundabout, repetitive way of saying the story takes place on April 1, because this is the day you arrive at a) when March is complete, and b) when 32 days (thritty days and two) have passed since March began (i.e., April 1 = March 32).

However, it's also possible these lines indicate a date of April 2. After all, if 32 days have passed since March began, that would land us on the 2nd, not the 1st. The precise meaning is ambiguous.

But let's assume these lines are telling us the tale is set on April 1. If this is so, then it's reasonable to hypothesize that Chaucer chose this date because it's April Fool's Day. After all, the tale involves foolish pride and trickery. So what better day for such a story than the day of Fools? And as if to emphasize this point, Chaucer makes an explicit reference to folly at the end of the tale:

But ye that holden this tale a folly
As of a fox, or of a cock and hen,
Taketh the moralitee, good men.

The Problem
A lot of people have concluded that Chaucer did set the Nun's Priest's Tale on April 1, and that he intended this as an allusion to April Fool's Day. Wikipedia, for instance, cites the tale as "the earliest recorded association between 1 April and foolishness," although it concedes that the reference is "ambiguous."

Unfortunately, the issue isn't that simple, because most Chaucer scholars do not believe the tale is set on April 1 or 2. Instead, the majority of them (almost all) believe the tale is set on May 3.

How can this be? It's because the four lines that yield the April 1 (or 2) date are not the only calendrical information that Chaucer provides. If one continues reading the tale, the narrator proceeds to give (in the very same sentence) more details, as follows:

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
Bifell that Chauntecleer in all his pride,
His seven wives walking him beside,
Cast up his eyen to the brighte sunne
(That in the signe of Taurus had y-runne
Twenty degrees and one, and somewhat more),
And knew by kind, and by noon other lore,
That it was prime; and crew with blissful stevene.

In this passage, we're given some astronomical information. Or rather, astrological infomation. In Chaucer's time the two were one and the same. The narrator tells us that on the day the tale takes place the sun had run 21 degrees "and somewhat more" in the sign of Taurus. These details point us to a very specific date.


The sign of Taurus. From Dürer's Map of the Sky (1515)

The language of astrology is still popular enough that most people are aware that the signs of the Zodiac (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, etc.) refer to times of the year. So if you're born between March 20 and April 20, you're an Aries; April 20 to May 21, you're a Taurus; May 21 to June 21, a Gemini; etc.

The tradition of dividing the year into 12 equal periods, each assigned to a different Zodiac sign, dates back several thousand years to when ancient astronomers divided the annual path of the sun across the heavens (the ecliptic) into twelve equal parts, 30 degrees each. These astronomers named each division after the constellation that, at that time of year, was visible in the night sky nearest to the path of the ecliptic.


The signs of the zodiac encircling the earth.
A woodcut in the Astronomicum Caesarem of Peter Apianus (1540).

The zodiac year began with the vernal equinox in March. (And according to ancient belief, the creation of the world also took place at the vernal equinox, which is why Chaucer referred to March as "the monthe in which the world bigan".)

Nowadays the springtime vernal equinox occurs around March 20. So the Zodiac year begins with Aries on that day. However, in Chaucer's time, because of the Julian calendar, the vernal equinox fell on March 12, setting the zodiac calendar 12 days back from our perspective.

So for Chaucer the sign of Taurus began on April 12. But he tells us that the sun had run 21 degrees "and somewhat more" in the sign of Taurus. If one day corresponds approximately to one degree, and if we count 21 days and 'somewhat more' from April 12, we arrive at May 3. Or possibly, May 2. But most scholars reckon it's May 3.

And that's why these scholars believe that The Nun's Priest's Tale is set on May 3.

May 3: Chaucer's Favorite Date
As it turns out, the third of May crops up a number of times in Chaucer's work. The Knight's Tale is also set on that day (in the seventhe yer, of May / The thridde nyght". And in his work Troilus and Criseyde, the character Pandare is afflicted by love sickness "on Mayes day the thrydde".

May 3 is mentioned so often by Chaucer that scholars have taken to referring to it as his "favorite date".

Why did he like that day so much? John McCall, author of "Chaucer Among the Gods," has theorized it was because May 3, in Roman times, was the concluding day of the six-day Festival of Flora, the "ministress of Venus." It was a day to celebrate and be moved by carnal desires. So Chaucer may have felt it was a fitting day to portray the actions of characters moved by "the effects of irrational love or concupiscent desires."

McCall notes that in the Nun's Priest's Tale Chaucer makes an association between May 3 and flowers (i.e. Flora) when, a few lines after the astrological information that points us to May 3, Chauntecleer praises the "freshe flowres, how they springe" and tells how his heart is full of "revel and solas" (revelry and grace).

Madame Pertelote, my worldes blis,
Herkneth thise blisful briddes how they singe,
And see the freshe flowres, how they springe;
Full is mine hert of revel and solas!

The take-home point here is that not only does Chaucer provide the reader with specific astronomical information that places The Nun's Priest's Tale on May 3, but also, when we consider Chaucer's entire body of work and how often he mentioned the third of May, it makes sense that he would set the Nun's Priest's Tale on his "favorite date."

Resolving the Contradictory Dates
The theory that the Nun's Priest's Tale is set on May 3 has a lot going for it. In particular, it's hard to argue with the specific zodiac information that Chaucer provides. But how do we reconcile May 3 with those four earlier lines that seem to indicate April 1 or 2?

One thing is for sure. It's impossible to fit April 1 into the sign of Taurus. So Chaucer seems to provide conflicting dates within the same sentence.

Resolving this apparent paradox isn't easy. Derek Pearsall, editor of the Variorum edition of The Canterbury Tales, adds a footnote after the phrase "and passed were also / Syn March bigan" noting that, "The method of computing the date here has caused scribes and editors a good deal of trouble." He then proceeds, for the next two-and-a-half pages written in small print, to elaborate on the long history of editorial angst caused by this passage.

The strategy employed by most editors has been to assume that because both dates can't be correct, one of them has to be wrong. And then they decide that since the reference to the sun being in the sign of Taurus is unambiguous, the earlier phrase, about 32 days having passed since March began, must be a mistake — perhaps a typo made by a medieval scribe given the job of copying Chaucer's work.

Going with the mistake theory, many modern editions of Chaucer replace the phrase "Syn March began" with "Syn March was gon," assuming that this (or something like it) must have been what Chaucer either originally wrote, or intended to write. This resolves all the difficulties, because if we count 32 days from the end of March, we arrive at May 3rd.

A rival theory is that Chaucer intended to write "Syn March began," but that people are incorrectly interpreting the passage. For instance, the English philologist Walter Skeat argued that the phrase "since March began" is parenthetical. In other words, that the reader should essentially skip over it when reading the text. He wrote:
"The date, May 3, is playfully denoted by saying that March was complete and also (since March began) thirty-two days more had passed. The words 'since March began' are parenthetical; and we are, in fact, told that the whole of March, the whole of April, and two days of May were done with."

Perhaps Chaucer didn't mean to make sense
The historian Peter Travis has suggested a third possibility. He argues that Chaucer didn't intend to provide a precise date at all, but instead purposefully used confusing language in order to parody the language of Medieval philosophy.

In late Medieval England, a genre of logic problems known as "incipit/desinit" problems had become popular. Hundreds of examples of them can be found. These problems always took a similar form. They posited a beginning condition (incipit, it begins) as well as an ending condition (desinit, it ceases) and challenged the reader to use logic to understand the condition of the subject at the instant of change. The popularity of these incipit/desinit problems grew out of the Medieval scholastic interest in motion, change, and limits.

For example, take the following problem written by Chaucer's contemporary William Heytesbury:
Assume that Socrates is now one foot tall, Plato two feet tall; and let each of them grow uniformly throughout the next hour, Socrates twice as fast as Plato, stipulating further that three feet is the smallest size that neither of them will have, since both cease to exist at the end of the hour at which moment both would have been three feet tall had they then existed.

In the passage from the Nun's Priest's Tale that begins with "When that the monthe," we find the same language of beginning, ceasing, and passage of time ("monthe in which the world bigan… Was complet, and passed were also / Syn March bigan"). Travis argues that Chaucer's contemporaries would have recognized this as the language of an incipit/desinit problem. However, whereas Medieval philosophers considered such problems to be extremely serious matters, Chaucer poked fun at them by placing his mock puzzle in a tale about talking barnyard animals.

Travis also notes that incipit/desinit problems very often had no solution. The idea was to force students to show how they would go about solving the problem, rather than to actually solve it:
"time and again students discovered that a final and correct answer had been thwarted or immobilized by a logical impasse... the unresolvable sophism is designed to force the reader into further and deeper rumination both upon linguistic and logical issues at hand, as well as upon phenomenological matters dealing with beginnings, endings, motion, change, and time."

In which case, it would make sense that if Chaucer intended to parody Medieval philosophy, he would provide the reader with a word puzzle that yielded no definitive solution, just as incipit/desinit paradoxes often had no solution. Travis explains:
It is irresolution, paradox, ambiguity, and confusion that are the most important consequences of the heuristic strategies of Chaucer's brilliant incipit/desinit sophism. It is very doubtful, therefore, that Chaucer ever expected his careful reader to determine the sophism's "right" day — April 1 or April 2 — and it is just as doubtful that Chauver ever expected that date to be successfully harmonized with the later date the remainder of the chronographia points toward — May 2 or May 3.

In other words, if we accept Travis's argument, the Nun's Priest's Tale isn't set on any specific date at all.

The Larger Picture
From all the above, it should be clear that it's problematic to claim that The Nun's Priest Tale takes place on April 1. It's far more likely the tale is set on May 3. Or perhaps on no date.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Chaucer did intend for The Nun's Priest's Tale to be set on April 1. What would be the significance of this? Could we really assume this was a reference to April Fool's Day?

That would be quite a stretch of logic, to put it charitably.

The reason it would be such a stretch is that all other evidence suggests that the tradition of April Foolery most likely originated in Holland and Germany during the sixteenth century, and that the celebration only made its way to England in the late seventeenth century.

For instance, the earliest explicit reference to April Fool's Day is found in a Dutch poem published in 1561. It refers to April 1 as "Fool's errand day."

But in English literature of that period, we find absolutely no references to any kind of April 1 celebration. Not even in Shakespeare. As Charles Dickens, Jr. (writing in 1869) observed:
Shakespeare, who photographs all the customs of his time with strict fidelity, nowhere mentions April Fools, although he delights in fools in general; there can be little doubt that had the custom existed, Shakespeare would have somewhere alluded to it.


Shakespeare: he never mentioned April Fool's Day

It's not until the second half of the 17th century that we come across the first English-language references to April Fool's Day. In Francis Osborne's "Deductions from the History of the Earl of Essex," written around 1659, we find mention of "impertinent errands, as the Dutch youth do [put upon] fools on the second of April"

And John Aubrey, in his Remains of Gentilism and Judaism published in 1686, included the following note: "Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere."

Both these writers associated the tradition of April Fool's Day with foreign countries (Netherlands and Germany). And Osborne didn't even seem very familiar with the tradition, given that he placed it on the second, not the first.

So if English writers of the late seventeenth century weren't very familiar with April Fool's Day (and they thought it was a foreign custom), how could we possibly conclude that Chaucer, writing almost 300 years before, was familiar with an April 1 tradition?

That wouldn't make much sense, especially given the extreme vagueness of Chaucer's reference. Remember that he didn't mention April Fool's Day itself, only April 1. And actually, he probably didn't even do that.

Conclusion
To make a long story short: No, Chaucer didn't mention April Fool's Day.

My guess is that the claim that he did probably got started when some English literature students noticed the possible April 1 reference in the Nun's Priest's Tale, and because they were familiar with April Fool's Day, they assumed Chaucer must have been also. And so the claim started to circulate online.

But it's a claim that dissolves upon investigation.

So, sorry England. It looks like you were not the birthplace of April Fool's Day.

References
  • Dickens, Charles, Jr. (1869). "All Fools' Day." The Gentleman's Magazine: 543-548.
  • Osborn, Marijane. (2002). Time and the Astrolabe in The Canterbury Tales. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Pearsall, Derek. (1984). The Nun's Priest's Tale: A Variorum Edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Travis, Peter. (1997). "Chaucer's Chronographiae, the Confounded Reader, and Fourteenth-Century Measurements of Time." in Constructions of Time in the Late Middle Ages. Poster, C. & Utz, R.J. (eds.) Northwestern University Press: 1-34.
Categories: April Fools Day
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 17, 2014
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