When one thinks about Halloween generally they think about candy, kids in costumes (or adults in delightfully inappropriate costumes), spooky decorations, haunted houses, witches and bubbling brew… and jack-o’-lanterns. Most try to look scary, many turn out looking cute and goofy, but the smell of pumpkin guts and the unique squishy feeling of that stringy, seedy stuff are inexorably entwined with my memories of Halloween. I don’t think I’m alone. However, there’s something else that should immediately come to mind when you’re thinking about your next carved Halloween decoration…
You guessed it. The turnip.
As it is obvious to those who study medieval European history, and completely baffling to others, there are many things that are ubiquitous to modern life that were completely non-existent in 14th century England. There are the obvious ones, like iPhones and M1 Abrams tanks, but that orange, be-lobed vine fruit of October is a new world plant. The pumpkin, king of the jack-o’-lantern, was completely unheard of in pre-colonial Europe. Just like potatoes, and corn, and vanilla, and allspice: they didn’t exist in the historical context of the 14th and 15th century.
That doesn’t mean people waited until they were bored at Jamestown to start carving though. Humans have been carving wood, stone, fruit, and vegetables from time immemorial. Plants were selected for carving at least from the point when people began cultivating crops for domestic and agricultural purposes. Gourds, for instance, were a go-to thing carved by various primitive societies and used for everything from water jugs, to food containers, to instruments, to decoration. I suspect gourds were probably used in these ways long before people were growing them on purpose. Apples skinned and carved will dehydrate into funny little “shrunken heads” type things. Tropical cultures shaved and carved coconuts into sculptures, idols, and figurines. If it’s a plant you could carve, someone has probably carved it.
So plant carving being “a thing” long before western civilization had access to large, cavernous pumpkins; root vegetables, namely the turnip (and rutabagas,) were used instead. Turnips were, in addition to being a nutritional staple, also purported to have connections with the other-world and spirits. Pre-historic Celtic and Gaulish cultures held, so I hear, a deep association between things that came from the ground and spiritualism. Something that came from the ground (like root vegetables) were thought to be able to invoke supernatural forces or spiritual beings that would help ward off evil. Culturally fear of evil spirits was a regular and accepted reality and there was genuine held beliefs that the Samhain/Halloween time frame posed a legitimate risk to the health and safety of body and soul. Because of this the turnip developed a unique niche in the carving world as a jack-o’-lantern.
Back to turnips. Prior to the pumpkin when the turnip was the jack-o-lantern of choice you have a number of things going for you. The turnip is naturally associated with spirits and the other world. It white skin and semi-head like shape makes it very easy to simulate the look of a skull. Being considerably smaller than most pumpkins a turnip is easily carried in hand or hung from a small pole. If you’re walking through the inky blackness of the country side in genuine concern for your safety from evil spirits, it benefited you to lighting your way with a powerful defensive totem in place of your standard lantern. The jack-o-lantern was born.
Besides adding neat ambiance to your yard, have you ever really thought at all why you set fire to the inside of your pumpkin on Halloween? Unless you use a battery operated tea-light, you really can only light your jack-o’-lantern once – maaaaaaybe twice. Afterwards the pumpkin is sort of ruined, scorched on the inside, it smells gross, and the walls probably are soggy from being partially cooked. Why do we collectively destroy our creations on the same night and at the same time? The whole purpose of the jack-o’-lantern is that it can scare away evil spirits. The light of the fire and grotesque visages traditionally carved into them drive away the evil. It’s the same idea behind those gargoyles with intentionally hideous faces. I’m not entirely certain why the monsters under your bed are scared of scary faces… do the things that go bump in the night prey on each other? I suppose the cat fears the hawk as much as the mouse fears the cat; though my pride likes to put me higher on the food chain than a rodent.
Here’s the turnip I carved for fun out at Days of Knights. Though it was the beginning of October, it still felt historically appropriate. While I’m not suggesting you give up on pumpkin, I still carve pumpkins, maybe give a turnip or two a try. They’re more difficult to carve, but can create a very different look and supplement any well decorated porch. Their heady aroma lends a very earthy note to the season and their long tradition should tickle the history nerd bone in every reenactor. Happy Halloween everyone.