By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
I hear this and immediately think of Joe Strummer howling at the start of the Clash’s song of the same name. While that was about the smoke and exhaust of the metropolitan road systems and gridlock, three hundred and fifty years ago it meant something far different. From the second to the fifth of September, 1666, London did indeed burn. A huge swath of the old medieval city of London, north of the Thames, was nothing but ash.
The great fire of 1666 was not a terrorist plot like the abortive attempt to destroy parliament from sixty some years before with Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot. It did not have anything to do with the English Civil War and the return of the monarchy six years prior with the coronation of Charles II. It didn’t even directly tie to the plague outbreak the year prior, although that did lend some contributing factors. No, while Great Britain in the 17th century was a tumultuous place, the fire began in a most mundane way. It started with a stray spark from a bakery oven.
Just after midnight on 2 September 1666, the bakery of Thomas Farriner caught fire. Farriner, baker to King Charles II, lived above the bakery with his three children and a servant. The Family was unable to get to the street but did manage to get into the next house through an upstairs window. The serving woman, terrified by the situation refused and became the first victim of the fire. By the end of the day on Sunday the fire had spread almost half way to the far city wall.
Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist, lived in the environs of the fire and was able to view it from a tower and from a boat on the river. As a senior official in the Navy Office he was called to the King and reported on what he saw.
“everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them onto lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.”
His report led to the Duke of York, the future James II, and King Charles himself going to the Thames to view the situation. The King ordered all buildings adjacent to the burning to be torn down. The Duke of York offered the life guards to assist in fighting the blaze. It was, however, a bit too late. The fire itself had created a chimney effect. A vacuum existed from the air being heated and pulled up through the fire. This in turn caused more air to rush into the area of the fire close to the ground. Anyone familiar with the principles of a blast furnace will tell you that this is a great recipe for extreme heat. The temperature was so high (approximately 1700°C) that pottery actually melted. From a position across the river, Pepys noticed the “one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it”
Over the following days the fire spread until it was finally contained and on Tuesday and brought to an end the following day. Gunpowder was used for wholesale destruction of houses to create fire breaks. That and the dying down of what had been a very stiff east wind finally allowed for control and an extinguishing. The damage included the destruction of 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches, and 44 Company (guild) Halls and the final total was accessed at £10,000,000 (more than a billion pounds in today’s money) Only eight people were reported to have died but this number is heavily suspect because the temperatures reached would have melted steel and certainly would have cremated the remains of any of London’s poor unfortunate enough to not be reported missing.
Why the fire happened was an interesting thing. At first foreigners and papists were blamed. This was proven false, but the prejudice lasted for many years. Because the fire started on Pudding Lane and ended at Pye corner, many people suggested the fire was God’s punishment for the gluttony of the city. In actuality it was a combination of cheap buildings, poor design and planning, and poor management on the account of the Lord Mayor. Buildings in London were supposed to have been made of stone to prevent just such a thing. Stone was too costly and everyone went to wood as the next best choice. Also, in order to maximize available space, each successive floor was slightly larger than the ground level floor, jutting out over the street. The close proximity of such dwellings caused the fire to spread very rapidly. Finally, Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth refused to act. Within an hour of the start he was called to Pudding Lane and asked to give the order to demolish surrounding houses to form a break. He declined initially and eventually left the scene, but not before declining the help of the Lifeguards and untruly telling representatives of the king demolitions were under way. That did not actually start until well into Monday.
The Great Fire of London changed the face of London. The rebuilding was similar to the prior plan and avoided the radical changes suggested by some like John Evelyn, but there were still changes. Regulations to avoid fire were more strictly enforced and fire companies better trained. To this day you can still see the monuments, the Great Fire monument near the start and the Golden boy of Pye where it finally was brought to a halt.
You can learn more about the 1666 Great Fire of London at the library:
- The Great Fire of London by Pam Robson (J 942.1 ROB)
- Fire Cat by Pippa Goodhart (J E GOO)
- By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London by Adrian Tinniswood (942.1 TIN)
- The Great Fire of London by Stephen Porter (942.1066 POR)
- The Mammoth Book of How it Happened in Britain by Jon E. Lewis (eBook through TotalBoox)
- In Ashes Lie by Marie Brennan (F BRE)
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Heraldry, the word brings up ideas of knights and tournaments, royalty and television dramas. To most people it’s a stuffy, old fashion anachronism. To a very small few, it is an art form. What it really is falls under the modern concept of branding. If you were in the know in the 14th and 15th centuries you could look at the heralds list at a tournament and recognize knights from their coats of arms. If you had not met the knight personally, you could judge his character based on his arms. Knights of the same family had similar elements and you could see that sir Thomas was a younger brother or cousin or nephew of Sir William and make a value judgment based on what you knew of Sir William. This is the same way we make a judgment of the quality on a restaurant based on whether we see two arches or on a field gules, or woman gardant argent on a field noir. While these terms are in the language of heraldry the images they describe are not. No one would mistake Starbucks or McDonalds as knightly.
While the decoration of a shield or garment goes back for thousands of years, heraldry as we know it is documented back to the time of Charlemagne. It started as a way to differentiate between people on the battlefield. In the eras before military uniform, you had to know exactly who was on your side so you did not attack, or be attacked by, one of your fellows. As armor became more comprehensive and helmets began to cover the entire head, a new means of identification became necessary. The natural thing to do was to make sure you used the same design on all your shields and that what you used was different from other people. As more people began to use this new system, someone had to keep track of designs to make sure that repetition did not occur and that designs were recorded and differentiated between sons and cousins etcetera. This led to the creation of Heraldic authorities that kept (and still keep) roles of arms and titles and control who is granted what arms and how close to the original familial arms they can be.
The initial designs were simple ones. Shapes of one color, or tincture, were placed on fields of another. The only real rule of early heraldry was that you did not place a color on another color. If the field was red, the symbol had to be silver or gold. Black was occasionally acceptable for either tincture or metal. Simple designs were quickly used up and more complex symbols began to be used. As families grew and armigerous , or arms bearing, families intermarried and carried both arms going forward through processes called impaling or quartering, designs got more and more elaborate. This could be taken to the extreme such as the case of the Grenville Armorial, with its 719 quarterings. This is an exceptional example though. Most Arms only had 16 quartering at most and they were often repeated. The other issue was differencing arms from father to son. A father had arms of a saltire noir on a field argent, a black X on a silver shield. He also had six sons. They couldn’t all take his arms, only the eldest could and he had to bear a label on his until his father had passed. The system of cadency was created. This varied from country to country but usually consisted of a label applied to the father’s arms and each point of that label carried a specific type of symbol depending on birth order. Some countries varied this. Scotland for instance used a system of borders to delineate the same thing.
In modern times heraldry has fallen in importance amongst the general population. It has not, however disappeared completely. The family of Kate Middleton was granted a coat of arms before her marriage to Prince William, showing the continued importance of the institution of heraldry to the elites of the United Kingdom. In Scotland the “family” coat of arms does not exist, regardless of what those online family history services tell you. The arms of the family are actually the arms of the chief of the clan of that name and only that person can claim them as their own. It is actually a crime to claim them without a certification of the Lord Lyon, the Scottish heraldic authority. You might think that an egalitarian nation like the United States is beyond such trappings of nobility, but you would be mistaken. There are a few heraldic authorities in the United States, but none who have governmental status. The American College of Heraldry, a private non-profit organization will register your arms giving them some protection from use by others. The only official governmental organization concerned with heraldry is one that goes back to the military roots of heraldry. The Army Institute of Heraldry keeps track of all the coats of arms of all branches of the service and designs, or commissions designs, for new units, ships and awards. The symbolism and association of heraldry continues to be relevant today even beyond the days of using them as a very colorful My Name Is … badge.
For More Information on Heraldry:
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Muhammad Ali is a legend. Even though he has passed on he will forever be a legend in the present tense. That is because he was so many things to so many people. Boxer, philanthropist, spokesman, Olympian, activist, father, author; all these words have been used to describe him. So have words like arrogant, controversial, polarizing and confrontational. Who he is to you is entirely dependent upon who and what age you are.
I don’t actually remember a time where I didn’t know who Ali was. One of my first comic books was a DC Comics Collector’s, Muhammad Ali versus Superman. The story was ridiculous, but here was the greatest hero out there and he was working with Superman. At the end he even figured out Clark Kent was Superman. So much for being the “greatest, not the smartest.” I can remember sitting in front of the big Curtis Mathis console TV and watching him fight. My dad was a boxing fan of a sort and even my mom had gotten a bit of the bug from my grandfather. I had seen heavyweights fight before, but nobody fought like Ali. Float like a butterfly wasn’t bravado or a catchphrase, it was his style. Most of the big guys took five or six shots and then hung all over each other until the ref separated them. Ali, however, was amazing. He danced, skipped, and swayed. Even in still photos of his fights you still feel the movement. His hits were spectacular. Those good shots that dropped guys like Frazier and Liston were so quick and so short that it looked like nothing, but the fall said it all. Quick jab and a big man go down to the mat. No other boxer ever captured my attention like that.
As I grew older, I learned more about the man. My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Katko, held him up as one of the great men of our time. This was not because of his boxing, Mr. Katko couldn’t have cared less about sports, it was because of the example he set for inner city kids. I went back and learned more on my own. The young Cassius Clay, Olympic boxer from Louisville, struggling to learn and striving to be the best at what he did. The man of faith who converted to Islam did not care if it was popular, just that it was his faith. The thing that impressed me the most was the draft incident. I grew up surrounded by World War 2 and Vietnam vets. Draft dodger was a term I was very familiar with, but I never heard any of them apply it to Ali. Here is a man who stood up to the authority of his day and said:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?.” Muhammad Ali, March 1967
He knew it was controversial. He was told what it could mean to his career and his freedom. He just didn’t care. Ali stood up for his beliefs in defiance of imprisonment and professional loss. He had no way of knowing he would be saved by a Supreme Court ruling or that he would fight his way back to be a champ. He just knew that he was in a position to take a stand that would make people take notice. As a teen, that was the most awesome thing about him.
That’s not to say that I no longer cared about the boxer. I had tried my hand at boxing, fighting as a middleweight. I looked up to the great middleweight of the day, Sugar Ray Leonard, but I wanted to fight like Ali. I fought three bouts, knocked down three times. The third time, I decided that I would not be a punching bag again. The experience made me think even more of Ali, Leonard and all boxers. They persevered in a way I knew I never could, and that demanded respect, the respect of knowing what they did, not just assuming you couldn’t do it.
Finally as a young man I remember watching Muhammed Ali at the 1996 Olympic opening ceremonies. The Parkinson’s that had taken a large part of his life had not stopped him. He’d become a spokesman for the disease, funding research centers and once again using his struggle to highlight the fight of millions. He’d gone to Iraq during the first gulf war, and negotiated the return of 15 hostages. It didn’t stop him from climbing the steps and, hands shaking, light the Olympic torch over Atlanta. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a tear in my eye watching that.
Muhammed Ali has not passed away. He has transcended this world and moved into the realm of American heroes. He is now of the same stuff as Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crocket. Real and hyperbole. A thousand years from now people may not know Tyson, Foreman, Holyfield or Mayweather but Muhammad Ali will still be taught in schools.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Seventy years ago this year, a young Bedouin shepherd went wandering through the Qumran hills looking for a lost animal. Whether he actually found the animal or not does not seem to be recorded. The story, possibly apocryphal, is that in order to scare the lost sheep out of a small cave he found, Muhammed edh-Dhib hurled a stone in. He did not hear the bleating of a sheep (or goat, sources differ). What he did hear was the sound of pottery being smashed. Being a sixteen year old boy, he had to crawl in to see where the noise was coming from. He found scrolls lying amongst pottery shards. He took the scrolls home and after a while they passed into the hands of cousins who knew a thing or two about antiquities. From there, it was a time of moving from one collector to another until they came in to the hands of Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in Jerusalem. He recognized what he had found as being very old indeed and took them to experts, including Drs. Ovid Sellers and John C. Trever, at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem. After comparing them to the Nash Papyrus, the then oldest known biblical text, they were able to determine the scrolls found in Qumran were very old.
After an announcement made in early 1948, the biblical archaeological community began to wonder what else lay out there in caves in the desert on the shores of the Dead Sea. Plans were made, expeditions formulated, but there was an issue getting back out to the area where the first scrolls were discovered. At the same time the scrolls were being authenticated, tempers were running high between the Arab League and the new state of Israel. By May this had erupted into the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After hostilities ebbed the Arab Legion began searching for the caves. The first cave where the original find was made was finally located by United Nations observer Captain Phillipe Lip pens and Arab Legion Captain Akkash el-Zebn at the end of January, 1949. Ten more caves were found in the decade after Muhammed edh-Dhib first hurled the stone, with the final cave to contain anything, Cave Eleven, being found in 1956. In all, 972 manuscripts in scrolls or fragments were discovered. They are mostly written on animal skin parchment, with some fewer on papyrus and one scroll on copper.
Contrary to popular belief, the scrolls did not contain an entire old testament. In fact many of the scrolls, up to thirty percent, were copies of books that were not included in the bible as we know it and a further thirty percent were rules for the Essene community and comments on biblical passages. The scrolls do contain at least fragments from every single book of the Tanakh, or the Old Testament if you prefer, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It should be noted that the Book of Esther is the last book to be made cannon by the sages of the Great assembly and is the only book in the bible that does not mention God explicitly. There are also books of religious origin that do not show up in the Tanakh or the Christian Old Testament, although some are found in Apocrypha and the Catholic Bible. The majority of the scrolls actually deal with rules of daily and religious life, and with the beliefs and practices of the makers.
The same site that yielded the scrolls also contained coins from approximately 135 BCE to 73 CE. While it’s not the strongest dating procedure it does give you a very narrow, 208 year time window for these caves use. And when you consider how often you run into a coin minted during the Jefferson administration in the library today, you have to admit that it gives a likely date for their initial placement in the Qumran caves. However scientific dating techniques have gone on to prove these dates to be with in the margin for error. However, there are older materials present amongst the scrolls. The oldest is a fragment called MUR 17 and it dates from the 8th century BCE.
Who wrote them?
While the general consensus is that the scrolls were written by the Essenes that lived nearby, many scholars have other theories. There is a theory that the scrolls were actually prepared in Jerusalem and then stashed in the caves as the city’s inhabitants fled during the Jewish revolts against Roman rule. There is a fairly debunked theory that the scrolls are actually the work of very early Christian writers. This is based upon a tenuous identification of the scroll named 7Q5 as the text from Mark 6:52-53. This would make it the earliest known evidence of the New Testament. The majority of the people believe that these scrolls were the work of locals, either Essenes or otherwise. That they were locally produced is bolstered by the jars they were found in. The style of container is particular to Qumran and the caves alone. The best evidence linking the scrolls to the Essenes are the scrolls themselves. The scroll known as the Community Rule Scroll contains many references to practices and strictures that match contemporary descriptions of the rites of the Essenes.
The texts contained in the Dead Sea scrolls are the oldest ever found in such completion. The next oldest are the Masoretic texts that come from a thousand years later (approx. 900-1000 CE). Because of this they provide a look into scripture at some of its earliest moments. What little change there is between the scrolls version of the many of the books and the Masoretic texts or even the texts used in synagogues today, some books like Exodus and Samuel show great differences. This is a great way to see how scripture has changed and what has remained constant. These travelers from the past have come to tell us how Jewish and by extension Christian beliefs have evolved.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
People amass stuff. We are all hoarders of one type or another; we just prefer to be called collectors or connoisseurs. We tuck our prized collections away in corners of closets, in attics, in garages and occasionally in storage facilities because we cherish these items. We want to keep them as mementos, memories or keepsakes to show our descendants and maybe have those people love them the same. The question is: are we storing them properly? We want to save these pieces of who we are for the future, but are they going to make it to the future? Libraries have been worrying about this for ages and there are many great places to find information on preserving your collections. Actually, there is too much information out there so here we will pull together the most important as well as the easiest steps for preserving your materials such as books, newspapers, magazines, comic books, film, slides, negatives, magnetic tape (both audio and video), records and even a little on documents and art.
Once again, cleanliness is essential. Clean hands, or even archivist gloves, and a clean workspace are ideal for going through your old photographs. Ideally, photos should be stored at 40 degrees or less in a location with 30 to 40% humidity. This is very specific because the stability of modern color photos degrades with heat and according to the preservation department of the Library of Congress, “Relative humidity is the single most important factor in preserving most photographic prints.” Never let adhesives come in contact with photographic prints and only mount them on acid free cardstock.
If you are dealing with a photo that has deteriorated or if you are working with an older format like tin or daguerreotypes you will probably want to consult a professional. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has an online directory of conservators to help you find one in your area.
Films, Slides and Negatives
Film and slides contain cellulose, an organic substance, and as such are subject to decay. Temperature and humidity are mentioned here time and again, but here it is most important. The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) recommends storage at 40-50° and 20-40% relative humidity. They also suggest freezing film, but this is for long term storage and should be done in the proper manner, starting in a middle to low humidity environment, packaging the material and freezing them for very long term. This is not a thing you want to do if you are planning on getting these items out next week or even next month. These materials are the best case for digital transfer. There are many services out there that can help you get these materials digitized for future use and reproduction.
Magnetic Tape Recordings (reel to reel, 8-Track, cassette and Video Tape)
When you are working with magnetic recordings storage should be considered. While demagnetization is unlikely, it can happen so avoid storing your material near large machinery and electrical transformers. Handle reel to reel tapes from the edge and center hole only. Grasping the reel itself to hard can break the reel or crush the delicate tape. Any kind of cassette should only be handled by the outside edges. Do not touch the spools. Store them in a cool place with lower to mid-level humidity.
Other Audio Sources (Records, Wax Cylinders, CDs)
Never mess with the groove. When handling any of these older recordings keep your fingers confined to the label for records, the center hole for CDs, and for the truly old cylinders, just the edges. The grooves are where the recorded material is read by the needle or laser and damage will come from your fingerprints and any dirt on your hands. They should also be stored upright with dividers every six inches to support them in cool dry places. Always allow these materials to reach room temperature in the room where they are to be played before using them if they are stored at a low temperature. Always store like sized material together. Make sure manufacturers cleaning instructions are followed for all playback devices.
Most people do not have a Monet in their house or a painting from the Dutch masters in their office waiting room, but with art there is no telling what will become valuable. For forty years the Jesuit house in Dublin, Ireland had a painting hanging in their parlor. In the 1990s it was determined to be a lost Caravaggio. You never know what may come of the paintings on your walls, so it never hurts to take care of them properly.
As with every other type of material, cleanliness is the first and easiest step. Make sure that you handle paintings by the sides of the frame, not the painting itself, and have enough people for the job. Dust your paintings with “a clean, soft, natural-hair artists’ brush (3.5cm to 5cm tip)” in one direction if there is no peeling or cracking evident in the paint according to the Smithsonian Institution. Display your art where there is a little exposure to UV light and as little fluctuation in temperature and humidity as possible and avoid extremes in both. Finally, make sure art is hung with the proper hardware and check those hooks, wires and brackets periodically to make sure they are in good condition.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
People amass stuff. We are all hoarders of one type or another; we just prefer to be called collectors or connoisseurs. We tuck our prized collections away in corners of closets, in attics, in garages and occasionally in storage facilities because we cherish these items. We want to keep them as mementos, memories or keepsakes to show our descendants and maybe have those people love them the same. The question is: are we storing them properly? We want to save these pieces of who we are for the future, but are they going to make it to the future? Libraries have been worrying about this for ages and there are many great places to find Information on preserving your collections. Actually, there is too much information out there so here we will pull together the most important as well as the easiest steps for preserving your materials such as books, newspapers, magazines, comic books, film, slides, negatives, magnetic tape (both audio and video), records and even a little on documents and art.
This is a library blog so books come first. The easiest and first step in preservation is careful use. Make sure your hands are clean, that you are reading in a clean area free of food or drink and that you are not forcing the book open to 180°. Never use glues, rubber bands or adhesive tape on books. Never dog ear the pages or mark you place with paperclips or acidic inserts. When storing your books, try to put upright books of similar size together so that they support each other and don’t allow them to lean at an angle. Books should be kept in a cool room with low humidity (<35%) and as little exposure to direct, harsh light as possible. Avoid vents and registers as well as rooms like attics which experience extreme temperature changes. Clean your books and cases regularly. Finally when you remove a book from the shelf, grab the book on both sides of the spine at the midpoint. Do not grab it from the top.
Saving the newspaper is a great way to remember a great moment in your, or humanity’s, history. Whether it is a paper from your child’s birth, VE Day, the moon landing or the election of the first African American president, newspapers show a segment of time contemporary to the event. Once again, the rules of cleanliness are paramount. No dirty hands or coffee cups here. Newspapers to be preserved should be opened flat on a surface large enough to support the entire paper. Do not fold the paper against any existing folds. When folding the newspaper back to store it always use the existing folds and keep the edges aligned as much as possible. Newspapers should be stored flat and in protected boxes with some kind of supporting material. Like comics and magazines, these boxes and boards should be acid and lignin free. Storage space should have the same conditions as that needed for books.
For the most part the documents that we have now that we want to preserve are those that have already come down to us from generations past. Many of these are already preserved, but even more are not and have already begun to deteriorate. Think about these things and what they are and represent. Discharge papers from the civil war or world war two, your great grandparent’s marriage license, an ancestor’s immigration papers. These are great things to have, but remember that someday, you may be someone’s great grandparent. Now is the time to preserve your documents, before they start to degrade. The basic rules for books still apply to documents (as well as manuscripts, drawings, prints, posters, and maps). In addition, you want to make sure any marks or inscriptions that you make are done in pencil only and on a clean surface to avoid pressing dirt or other contaminants into the paper. Paper items should be stored flat and supported like periodicals, unless the size of the object makes this prohibitive. At that point rolled in an archival tube is the safest storage option.
MAGAZINES & COMICS
One of the reasons that those Superman, Batman and Captain America comics from the 1930s and 40s are so valuable is that there are not many surviving. Everyone has heard the old, “I’d be a millionaire if my Mom hadn’t thrown away my comic collection” shtick, but this is far from true. These were comics. They cost 10₵, because they were made cheaply. No one expected them to be kept for seventy or eighty years. Modern comics are better, but still need preserving. The rules for books apply here as well, with a little modification. Never bend a comic back upon itself. It weakens the spine and you may be beaten by nerds. Comics should be stored in supportive enclosures. That means polybags, backing boards and archive boxes. You want to make sure the boards and boxes are ph. neutral and lignin free. Otherwise the very things protecting you comics can be causing their slow disintegration. Magazines should be treated in exactly the same way although those with glued bindings (similar to what you see on National Geographic) should be treated like books for the purpose of reading them. Do not open these to a flat position.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
With the coming of April the First we are all reminded of the jokes and pranks of years past, but very few people are reminded of the actual origin of this humorous day.
The tradition of April Fool’s Day can be traced back to the days of the early Christian church. Like St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day is yet another church Holy Day that has become a secular holiday.
The tradition dates back to the late fourth century CE, and St. Hilary of Poitiers. Hilary was an extremely well educated man of a pagan family in the Poitiers region of what is now France. He converted to Christianity and was baptized in his early adulthood along with his wife and young daughter, the future St. Abra. Hilary was well liked and soon was elected Bishop of Poitiers. He was a serious man but had a well-documented jovial streak. There are documented incidents of his being reprimanded by the archbishops and cardinals of France at the time for once having replaced the water in the holy font with “the juice of the apple, the fruit that brought the fall of Eve.” And on another occasion adding a well-loved local sheep to the list of priests to be elevated to the level of monsignor, claiming “no purer lamb of god than he.”
Unfortunately, Hilary, also known as the Hammer of the Arians, was a very prominent detractor of the heretical sect of Christianity known as Arianism. This led him into conflict with some Church Leaders as well as the Emperor Constantius II, and resulted in his exile. When the Emperor’s centurion delivered the notice of exile, Hilary tweaked the man’s nose and immediately decamped for Phrygia. He spent the four years of his exile defending the Roman Catholic ideal and was eventually allowed to return to Poitiers and to the Church’s good favor. After his death in 367, Hilary was Beatified and Canonized very quickly as a defender of the faith with the church of Sant Ilario at Casale Monferrato being named in his honor as early as 380. This dedicated church father and his japery are remembered to this day on the first of April, what we know as April Fool’s Day, but what was once remembered as the Feast of St. Hilary or as he was known in Latin Sanctus Hilarius.
Here’s the (more or less) true history of April Fool’s Day:
Okay, so the real history of April Fool’s Day is quite a bit different from that. The actual origin is uncertain. The earliest written reference connecting foolishness and the First of April is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale Chanticleer the egotistical rooster is tricked by the fox. The tale is set “Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two” or the First of April. This however may be a mistake in transcription and refer to 32 days from the end of March, May Second, the anniversary of the engagement of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1381.
Some believe that the practice of playing pranks on fools goes back to the advent of the Gregorian calendar. Before Pope Gregory’s modification to the calendar as we know it, the New Year was celebrated with a week-long festival that started on the Twenty-fifth of March and ended on April first. The new calendar changed that to the January first date we’re all familiar with. It is believed that it was common to send people who continued to hold to the April first date on fool’s errands, making them look the fools they were thought to be. The biggest problem with this likely apocryphal story is that the Gregorian calendar was not introduced until 1582, well after the Chaucer reference as well as several other historical allusions to the holiday.
The most likely origin is that it is a descent from earlier holidays like the roman festival of Hilaria, the Hindu religious festival of Holi, the Jewish Purim holiday and the medieval Feast of Fools. All of these holidays, except for the Feast of Fools, traditionally take place between March and April and are celebrations of joy and mirth. There is a distinct connection with the end of winter and the beginning of spring, a resurgence of joy from the dormancy and doldrums of winter.
Traditions vary across the world when it comes to the type of pranks played. In the United Kingdom, and many of its former possessions, it is common to give someone a letter to take to another person who will then read something akin to “send the fool further” and direct them to another person with the same letter. This is supposed to end by noon or else it is the sender rather than the messenger that will be the April fool. In Poland, the tradition of pranks and silliness is so rampant that in 1683 Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II refused to sign a treaty involving Poland unless it was backdated to March 31st. The Scandinavian countries have a tradition where the newspapers will publish exactly one false front page news item, but it is never the main headline. Finally, in French speaking areas and Italy as well you find the April fish (poissons d’avril in French or pesce d’aprile in Italian). This is a practice of attempting to hang a paper fish on the back of someone’s shirt on the first of April.
So now while you are on the lookout for the next person trying to prank you or enjoying the schadenfreude of your own April fools jokes you can now know you are just continuing a centuries old tradition.