Dombibliothek Hildesheim, J 29, fol. 4r

Hello Mr Easterday! Celebrating Easter in the Medingen prayer books

This yellow bunny might resemble the gold foil chocolate Easter treats that pop up in supermarkets way too early before Easter – but this little fellow was drawn in a prayer book more than five hundred years ago, when nuns from the Cistercian convent Medingen near Lüneburg in Northern Germany were eagerly awaiting Easter day.

Woodland creatures joining the Easter Vigil: Dombibliothek Hildesheim, J 29, fol. 4r

The nuns’ joyful anticipation of this day symbolized their anticipation of the coming of Christ. A way to express their anticipation was to picture this most important feast as a dramatic figure, personifying it. Welcoming this day, or rather welcoming ‘Mr Easterday’, became a colourful expression that could be integrated into the prayer structure which follows the church year as it unfolds in the nun’s prayer books. Two of more than twenty surviving examples of prayer books from Medingen Abbey are part of the Polonsky German project: Dombibliothek Hildesheim Ms. J 29 (written 1478 by the nun Winheid) and Bodleian Library Oxford MS. Lat. liturg. f. 4.

Multilingualism in the cloister

One of the most frequent ways to personify Easter is a form of directly addressing the day – both in Latin and in Middle Low German, reflecting the prayer book’s bilingual status, sometimes even within the same prayer:

Hello Easter: Dombibliothek Hildesheim, J 29, fol. 52r

The sentiment of the Latin welcome ‘Salue, o rutilantissima et excellentissima dies Paschalis’ (‘Hello, O shining and outstanding Easter day’, fol. 52r) is shortly after that repeated in the German:

Willekome sistu
aller vrouden
rikest Oster
dach. du aller
schoneste vnde
wunniclikeste hemmelsche Paschedach

Be welcome most joyful Easter Day, you most beautiful and wonderful heavenly Easter Day (fol. 53v)

This shows that such personifications are not exclusive for one language, but can be found in both.

Willekome: Dombibliothek Hildesheim, J 29, fol. 53v

These direct addresses often correspond with detailed description of Easter day using the familiar ‘du’ form, frequently culminating in praises for Easter day, which on many occasions reflect its uniqueness.

Mother Easter

Personifying Easter day as a way of praising this special feast leads to personification beyond addressing Easter Day: it is really the ‘omnium dierum mater et speculum’, the ‘mother and mirror of all days’ (fol. 119r).

The mother and mirror of all days: Dombibliothek Hildesheim, J 29, fol. 119r

The personification of Easter Day in the role of a mother underline its important role within the church year, especially if it is understood as a reference to Virgin Mary.

One of the main ways to personify the night is by addressing and welcoming it as well as describing it very positively: ‘Salue nox Paschalis aurea luce rutilans’ (‘Hello, golden Easter night, shining in the light’, cf. O1 40v). Here, the common description as ‘shining’ is even used the dark hours of the night.

A night full of light: Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 4, fol. 40v

But – why using these personifications? In short, using personifications by welcoming Easter Day, addressing it as ‘you’, creates an intimate relationship between the devotee and the event. The very positive descriptions intensify the experience. The more complex personifications of Easter Day underline the great significance of Easter by actually visualizing its importance through the personifications and simultaneously making it easier to comprehend.

Boys delivering treats: Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 4, fol. 148v

In the prayer books, little boys are shown doing what is now traditionally the Easter bunny’s job (returning to our little friend from the beginning) – bringing along Easter eggs. Nowadays many children go to bed on Holy Saturday excitedly waiting for the annual Easter egg hunt in the morning. And since the nuns drew this little scene of boys swinging baskets full of treats for the Easter breakfast in their prayer books used for Easter, maybe, between all the religious aspects of this feast, that was something they were excited for as well – just like kids more than five hundred years later.

About the author

Marlene Schilling is completing an MSt in Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford, working with Henrike Lähnemann on the Medingen manuscripts. She was previously a research assistant with Sandra Linden, part of a project on the aesthetic concept of personification at the University of Tübingen.