The Easter Bunny was born in 1682, in a scientific publication no less, so we are celebrating its 335th birthday this year. The Bunny’s godfather was a Heidelberg-based physician named Georg Franck von Franckenau, one of the first scientists to become both a member of the Academia Naturae Curiosorum (nowadays known as the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina) and a Fellow of the Royal Society. This is the short story; the longer version one is a striking example of how, in the early modern era, European collaboration contributed to the progress of knowledge.
Georg Franck von Franckenau was born towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1644, in the town of Naumburg, coincidentally rather close to Halle, the place where the Leopoldina is now located. Naumburg is still famous for its cathedral; less well known is a small sculpture in the cathedral probably showing a rabbit and a wolf.
Franck soon became famous in the then closely-related fields of anatomy, chemistry, botany and medicine. Having studied in Jena, Leipzig and Strasbourg (Alsace), he became a member of the Leopoldina as early as 1672, when he was still in his twenties and working in Strasbourg, on the recommendation of Georg Wolfgang Wedel, professor of medicine at Jena University. Franck went to Heidelberg soon after that to serve as a professor of medicine.
The archives of the Academia Naturae Curiosorum record that Franck promised two books, one on the microcosm and the other on the medical impact of amulets. These do not appear to have materialised – there are no records of them in current libraries – but Franck did contribute a number of observations on medical, botanical and biological topics to the Leopoldina’s journal Miscellanea Curiosa.
Twenty-one years later, in 1693, Franck became a fellow of the Royal Society, proposed by the British physician and chemist Frederick Slare. Once again, the traces lead us back to the European dimensions of a scientific network: Slare happened to be in close contact with several Germans, among them August Hermann Francke, founder of the Francke Foundations and Orphanage in Halle, and a suitable subject for a future blog post.
But back from Halle to Heidelberg, and back to 1682, when Franck published a series of medical dissertations entitled ‘Satyrae medicae’. And here we find our Bunny, cautiously jumping out of the shrubbery: number 18 of these ‘satyres’ included a piece on Easter eggs (‘De ovis paschalibus’) written by Johannes Richier and supervised by Franck. If we are identifying Franck as the Easter Bunny’s godfather, we should therefore consider the father to be Richier, a young physician and, as the dedication in his dissertation shows, the son of a French reformist clergyman who served in Frankfurt (Main) not very far from Heidelberg.
We do not know much about Richier, but his father’s theological background may have shaped his interest in a topic (Easter eggs) that brought together popular, semi-religious rituals and medical considerations. Richier’s dissertation is far more than a medical text – it functions as a kind of interdisciplinary study which also includes religious and ethnological observations, and is comparable to similar 17th century works such as Christian Friedrich Garmann’s ‘Oologia curiosa’ or ‘Knowledge of eggs’ (1691).
So where is the Easter Bunny? It hops into one passage of Richier’s 16-page dissertation, in which he mentions the Bunny as a regional phenomenon located in ‘Upper Germany’, the Palatine, Alsace and Westphalia. He notes that it is common practice for people in these regions to search for ‘Easter eggs’ or ‘Hare eggs’, and that the local children (and more gullible adults) are told that these were hatched and brought by the ‘Osterhase’ or Easter Hare, who hides the eggs in the garden, in the grass and shrubs. Children are then sent to look for these eggs – described by Richier as being purple, red, yellow, green, multicoloured and even painted with pictures – to the joy and amusement of their elders.
However, as a practising physician, Richier’s main concern was to warn his readers of the consequences of this popular ritual. ‘The young people’, he says, ‘often lose their health with these Easter eggs because they avidly swallow up the eggs without salt, butter or any other flavouring’, which obviously causes much pain in the stomach. I am not sure that masses of Easter eggs with butter would be less painful, however – and wolfing down modern chocolate eggs would potentially be even worse – so maybe the main piece of international scientific advice we can draw from Franck and Richier is this: Beware of the Easter Bunny!