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The History of Shrovetide and Lent

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Shrovetide consists of the three days before the start of lent, where Christians prepare for the coming of Easter. Each day has significance; Shrove Sunday involved the confession of sins, on Collop Monday people would finish up any leftover meat (collops of bacon) and on Shrove Tuesday (colloquially known as Pancake Day) people would use up all their eggs and other restricted foods before the start of lent.

The origins of Shrovetide go back to the Middle Ages. In medieval times, Shrovetide marked the end of the chain of cold season celebrations, which started with the Twelve Days of Christmas and continued until Candlemass on the 2 February.

Traditionally, Shrove Tuesday was the last opportunity to have fun before the recreational and sexual restrictions of lent. As well as using up food stocks (which would have often been low by this point anyway) festivities would have included: jousting, plays, music and masques as well as games such as football.

BAYLEAF MEALThe custom of Christians eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday dates back to the 16th century, and whilst over the years the things people gave up for lent have changed, many people still enjoy feasting on pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

Following Shrovetide is Ash Wednesday – the first day of the period of Lent which ends with Maundy Thursday. The name originates from the Christian tradition of burning palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations (Palm Sunday is a day which honours Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem before his crucifixion on Good Friday). The ash is mixed with holy water and used to mark the cross on the forehead to signal their repentance to God, “Remember man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”.

Lent comes from the Middle English word lente, meaning “springtime,” which is itself descended from the Old English lencten which refers to the lengthening of days. From the earliest records in Anglo Saxon texts, Lent had the dual meaning of marking the season of spring, where days started to get longer, as well as the annual Christian feast. This was a time of year when flowers, foliage, warmth and light were all increasing, but food and fuel supplies would be at their shortest after the long winter months. Historically, this was the season during which most of the ploughing and sowing was done, people were hard at work and did not have time for celebrations – nor the supplies to celebrate with.

The restrictions on food for Lent were first standardised by the church by Pope Gregory during the 6th century, and included meat, milk, cheese, butter and eggs. By the late middle-ages the fast was fixed to exclude meat, eggs, cheese and the prohibition of social and sexual activity. In 1538, partly due to his break with Rome, Henry VIII relaxed the rule on dairy – this may also have been in part due to a shortage of fishermen in England (and therefore fish, so dairy was needed!). Though it is unclear if people would have actually followed the relaxation of the dairy rules or kept to their original traditions.