Monday, April 1, 2013

The Origin of April Fool's Day

Been fooled today?  C'mon, most of us have.  Go ahead and raise your hand if somebody got a practical joke in on you in the name of April the First.

It is, after all, the day for it.  April 1, April Fool's Day.

Kind of a silly tradition, isn't it?  It's not like I'd have come up with it.  "Hey, let's pick a day of every year to make complete idiots out of each other, just for the fun of it."  Does that sound like fun to you?

That brings up an important question, then: where did this grand festival of foolishness get its start?

Having waxed historical lately, I took on the challenge, and what I found might surprise you.

Remember William the Conqueror, of, um, conquering fame?  He's the guy who brought the Saxon part north into Anglo-Saxon heritage.  He sailed his army over to Britain from Normandy and--well, conquered.  The Battle of 1066 was his great claim to fame.

He wasn't always called William the Conqueror, though.  I mean, he was especially not so before 1066 AD (the year in which the Battle of 1066 was fought, believe it or not).  But even occasionally after that shining example of conqueror-ship, he was often referred to, by people far away or who could run faster than he, as William the Bastard, a name that not-so-gently alluded to his birth being a result of an affair between the Duke of Normandy and a tanner's daughter.

The name really pissed William off, by the way.  He loved his mother, and he's said to have had the hands and feet cut off of a group of townspeople at a town he was conquering because they'd hung animal hides over the walls as an insult to him as the grandson of a tanner.

Can you blame him?

He also could neither read, write, nor speak English.  Heck, a huge majority of the natives at the time couldn't read or write the language, but he and many of his men couldn't even carry on a basic conversation in it.  That was why the English court formalities were (and continued to be, years after his passing) carried out in French.

It also led to some embarrassment.  Frivolity, as some might say.

See, on the first day of April in 1070, William sat in his throne room and received his daily intel from the coast-watchers.  In English, the fairly boring news of the day was meant to inform The Conqueror that the weather had lightened up enough to send out fishing fleets.  But his advisors were in a punky mood, and so they convinced the French-speaking ruler that the words actually meant that the weather had lightened up enough to sight the ships of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was known for not liking his (fellow Frenchman) Norman Bastard neighbor much.

Furious, William cried out for the army to be raised as he rushed to the top battlements of his castle.  When he got there, though, he only saw calm waters--and several giggling advisors.

He had all the advisors he could catch punished, of course, but most of them still lived long enough to spread the word of the grand new April Fool's tradition.

And if you believed all that, you've just been Fooled again.  The history of April Fool's Day actually goes way, way back in time, much farther than 1066. 

Charlemagne predated William by a few hundred years. Most of the rest of what I wrote was true, though.  I'll leave it as an exercise for the gentle reader to determine which. 

Happy April Fools Day!


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