A Brief History of April Fools Day

Have you been pranked today?  Historically, today is the only day of the year we acknowledge as a time when it’s perfectly acceptable to prank family and friends.  But why?  Why the first of April?  Popular opinion holds that it’s from when the Romans changed the calendar and made January 1st the start of the New Year, referring to those who celebrated on April 1st as April Fools.  But is that true?  We dug deep, peeled back the layers, and exposed the real story that almost nobody knows.

William Hogarth’s “Spring Fools and Winter Dumbasses.”

The first genuine mention of April Fool’s comes to us from France, in the year 1234.  The French King Louis IX was said to have had a remarkable lust for Mme Avril de Champignon, the wife of a lowly turdsmith from just outside Paris.  Now at the time it was not unheard of for any King to have a mistress but the idea of it would still be scandalous, especially if she was of a lowly station and already married herself.  The King devised a plan therefore to have her husband killed, thereby making Avril a widow and freeing her up, at least in the eyes of God, for a dalliance with the King.

Avril’s husband, Renard de Champignon, was out on a truffle hunt when he vanished and poor Avril was said to mourn for thirty days and thirty nights before finally accepting an invitation to the palace whereupon King Louis discovered that Renard de Champignon was actually what the French called “Le Poof” at the time (it was another era) and Avril de Champignon was actually Avery de Champignon.  King Louis had been fooled by a false April, and the name stuck.

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English boys preparing the classic prank “Bugger the Old Bastard on a Street Corner.”

Elsewhere in history, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the author writes of a raucous and hilarious good time enjoyed by The Wife of Bath, the Knight and the Squire which includes this hilarious passage;

Suete lyf syn it neyhit hys esse have you put reuthe upon myne anus

Prek my derling, sayid Shye, taket myne styckyer thin you?

To bindet me to sone Fool drapest aryund weyake laybia, for Ayprul.

Ha ha ha!  Isn’t that great? 

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From the Canterbury Tales; The Miler explains what the hell that gibberish means.

As we can see, the origins of April Fools are for more complex than the popular story of a simple calendar change would have us believe.  And of course, there is also the matter of the Roman festival of prankery known as a Gotyanalia that is believed to have taken place at the oncoming of Spring and during which young Romans could be expected to pull any number of jokes and hoaxes on their friends ranging from replacing rabbit in stews with rat meat to the classic pushing someone from a coliseum wall into the lion pit.

As with most traditions, there isn’t one single, simple answer. April Fool’s draws its origins from a range of sources that, over time, have melded together into the modern observance we’re all familiar with.  Enjoy some pranks today!