April Fool's Day started on the Indian sub-continent as a day set aside for people to escape from their caste restrictions, but it was quickly taken over by the princes as a state occasion, a time for princes to play state jokes on other princes. The classic example, according to George Summers in his book 'April Fool', is the story of Prince Jehawar, who massed his entire army outside the city of a rival prince at dawn. As the sun rose and the frightened citizens watched, Jehawar's army charged, passed by the city without so much as a sidelong glance and vanished into the distance.
The tradition percolated through the Middle East into Europe, re-emerging in medieval times alive and flourishing. An example of the commercialised April Fool joke is that of the butcher of Shrewsbury, England,who ran through the town, early one April 1, yelling that the Welsh were coming down from the hills in force. The entire citizenry gathered on the walls overlooking the River Severn, waiting to repulse attackers. For half an hour nothing happened. Then the butcher floated downriver in a boat which sported a large sign: "Apryl fooles - buye your sausages from Richard Harris in ye Highe Streete."
Tudor jokes tended to the sophisticated - Ben Jonson presented a sonnet to one of his patrons on April 1 with a faulty rhyme that almost drove him demented - but under the Stuarts the custom grew cruder, more physical. Once the Earl of Rochester disguised himself as Charles II and burst into Nell Gwynne's bedroom very early one April 1. No doubt he would speedily have attained his purpose, had not the real monarch already been lying in bed with her.
By 1800 this valuable and creative tradition had started to wilt, with occasional flashes of ingenuity here and there. The Prince of Wales, one April 1, persuaded all his cronies to snigger at Beau Nash whenever he appeared; the celebrated dandy, after enduring five hours of snickering at what he thought was a perfect costume, went home and replaced his entire wardrobe.
And so to today, and to a sad feeling that we have lost the knack for irreverence on a large scale. I for one have not much hope of being spoofed on April Fool's Day, of having the wool pulled over my eyes, my leg pulled or my hood winked. I can't talk, I suppose. After all, this could be a completely fictitious article...