In 1708 a correspondent in a British magazine asked, “Whence proceeds the making of April Fools?”
At that time the custom of April Fool’s Day was well established in northern Europe. However there had been few comments in written records about its origin. References as early as the 1500s were infrequent and often vague. Shakespeare in the 16 and 17th centuries made no mention of April Fool’s Day despite being, as Dickens described, a writer “who delights in fools.”
The popularity of Elizabethan jesters is shown in the plays of the time. Shakespeare characters included a Fool in Timon of Athens, the Clown in Othello, Costard in Love’s Labours Lost, Touchstone in As You Like It and Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Despite many suggestions the making of April Fools remains a mystery. A popular theory about the origin of April Fool’s day involves the reform of the French calendar in 1564 when the start of the year was moved from the end of March to January 1st. Those who clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate New Year in the week between March 25th and April 1st had jokes played on them. Paper fish would be stuck surreptitiously to their back. The victims of the prank were called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish. This is still the French term for April Fools.
It has been suggested that the first reference to April Fool’s Day can be found in Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Chanticleer, a vain cock, falls for the tricks of a sly fox and as a result is almost eaten. It has been argued that the wording meant that the event took place thirty-two days since March began, i.e., on April 1st. But other translations have placed the day as May 3rd.
It appears that the April Fool’s Day dates back to at least the 16th century and that it originated in continental Europe before spreading to Britain.
D’Amerval’s 1508 French poem uses the phrase “poisson d’avril” the French term for April Fool. However he may have just intended to use the term for a foolish person.
In 1539 a comical poem by a Flemish writer tells of a nobleman who plans to send his servant back and forth on absurd errands on April 1st. The medieval Dutch title roughly translates to, “Refrain on Errand Day/ which is first of April.” The last line of each stanza has the servant saying, “I am afraid… that you are trying to make me run a fool’s errand.”
In 1686 John Aubrey, an English antiquarian, researched popular customs and superstitions and wrote, “Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April.” By 1698 it was a popular prank to send gullible people to see the lions being washed at the Tower of London. It became traditional for this prank to be played on the first of April; it was referenced as late as the mid-nineteenth century.
In British folklore April Fool’s Day is linked to the town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire. It was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the King placed his foot on to become public property. Hearing that King John planned to travel through the town, the people of Gotham refused him entry. When soldiers send by King John arrived they found the town full of apparent lunatics drowning fish or attempting to cage birds in roofless fence. Although their foolery was an act, the King declared the town too foolish to be punished. Since then, according to legend, April Fool’s Day has commemorated their trickery.
A 1630 woodcut shows a citizen of Gotham trying to trap a cuckoo inside a roofless fence. In Scotland a “gowk” is a cuckoo or a foolish person and April’s Fool’s Day was once called Hunt-the-Gowk Day. A traditional prank was to ask someone to deliver a sealed message requesting help. The message read, “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” The recipient would then explain he could only help by contacting someone else. The unsuspecting victim was then sent onwards with an identical message.
If you decide to play a joke on someone on April Fool’s Day, just remember that April 1st is the day on which we are reminded of what we are on the other three-hundred and sixty-four.
Politicians seem to think we are fools. They should remember the words of Lincoln when he said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Be careful where you put your X at the forthcoming election and remember that the trouble with practical jokers is that they often get elected.