Tales from the Vaults: April

Dear readers of The Book and Paper Gathering, 

We meet again in April, the month of fools, returning this time with the colour blue.

As the seasons turn and the nights grow shorter, our sources lead us this time to 1920s Germany, where an astonishing discovery had come to light. In the course of our research, we have unearthed a fascinating story contained in one graphic publication, Uhu, centering around Gainsborough’s famous painting The Blue Boy’.

 Published monthly between 1924 and 1934, Uhu was a pioneering publication of the era. Its wit, quality of authorship and innovative printing contributed to its popularity and success. A closer examination of the April 1927 edition shows remarkable evidence of an underlayer to the painting, proving that the infamous blue boy is, in fact, a girl.

Uhu’s miraculous claim was of course not true. It’s just one of many pranks played in the long tradition of April Fools. Though it has been celebrated for centuries by numerous cultures across the world, the origins of April Fools’ Day still remain shrouded in mystery. Our sources have linked the tradition to festivals such as the Hilaria of ancient Rome, celebrated by followers of Cybele-Attis and Isis-Osiris cults. In a spirit of merriment and mischief, Hilaria was a day when followers would dress up in disguises and make fun of their fellow citizens.

Sources also point to the Hindu celebration of Holi, a day where all rankings of caste, gender and status are permitted to be reversed. Participants throw water and pigments, enjoying riotous celebrations of colour in the streets to exalt the divine love of Radha Krishna. 

The vernal equinox has also been tied to April Fools’, being a time when people could easily be fooled by changing and unpredictable weather. A further tradition takes us back to France, to the year 1582, when the Julian calendar was swapped for the Gregorian calendar. This meant that instead of beginning on the 1st April, the new year began on the 1st January.  People slow to recognise this became targets of jokes and hoaxes, being mocked as April fools. Pranksters would mark them as ‘poissons d’avril’, placing a paper fish on their backs to symbolise their gullibility, being so easily caught. 

Regardless of its origins, the tradition has thrived, and has borne many amusing manifestations throughout the years and regions. Some examples of interest may be these:

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-10-best-art-pranks_n_1388512

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/150331-april-fools-day-hoax-prank-history-holiday

And in contrast, here are some seemingly unbelievable occurrences from the world of art last year, which had actually happened.

‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ (Touchstone, As You Like It)

For the sake of our bookish readers, it would hardly seem right to let the month pass without recognising the Day of the Bard on April 23rd. In contrast with our friend Gainsborough’s affinity for blue, Shakespeare and the Tudors associated the colour with the devil. Even blue flowers were thought to be omens of misfortune, with violets, which blossom in the spring and fade before the summer, being seen as signs of early death.

‘A violet in the youth of primy nature, forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting, the perfume and suppliance of a minute. No more.’ (Laertes, Hamlet)

Long before the gender identity of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy was ever called into question, Shakespeare was making merry chaos with with his androgynous characters, as well as wise fools. In aristocratic courts across Europe, the jester played an important and changing role in entertaining audiences through versatile and varied methods of storytelling. Moving forward from Mediaeval courts, audiences in Shakespeare’s time would have also valued clowning highly and would have appreciated the fool’s many onstage manifestations. Shakespeare made use of this fact, and drew heavily on the multi-talented figure of the jester to create his much-loved fools. Capable of many feats beyond mere comic relief, Shakespeare’s fools are imbued with wise insight and wit surpassing those of characters of higher social standing. This contributed significantly to the rethinking of this jester tradition.

By: Thomas Davidson (fl.1863–1903),
Via: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15742657

The Gathering’s book of puzzles

And here again we must end our tales with another riddle to ruminate on. But not without first revealing the answer to February’s challenge, which was of course iron gall ink

Until next time we meet…

I am blue like the sea and in darkness I was made. Return me to darkness or watch me fade. 

What am I…?


All images sourced from https://unsplash.com/license unless otherwise noted.

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