A short history of Lent (and how to survive it)

A short history of Lent (and how to survive it)

This first appeared in the March 2019 issue of The Field

For millions of people around the world March 6 this year marks the start of a rather daunting six weeks of self-denial. To Christians Lent symbolises the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert after being baptised, where according to the Gospel of St Matthew he was ‘led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil’. And so it is a time for self-sacrifice, and the struggle we all face against temptation and darkness, of following strict rules laid down by the Church – although there are always ways to bend the rules.

The 40-day period – Quadragesima in Latin – begins on Ash Wednesday with Mass and Confession, but historically Christians would be encouraged to make this sacrament the day preceding. This therefore became known as ‘absolution’ or ‘Shrove’ Tuesday, and around the year 1000 a chronicler called Elfric the Grammarian recalled that before Lent ‘everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him’. The Shriving Bell was rang at midday, calling Christians to prepare for Confession, after which they would put all the forbidden foods – eggs, milk, cheese and butter – into the pan for one final feast.

At what point pancakes became a staple of Shrove Tuesday we cannot be sure but it must have been well established by 1445 when a woman in Olney in Buckingham, having already started cooking hers, heard the Shriving Bell and panicked. She ran to church while still dressed in her apron and holding her frying pan, and so was born the first pancake race – still held in the village every Shrove Tuesday.

The following morning would mark the start of lencten, as the season became known in our language, after the Old English word for spring. Ash Wednesday was a time for ‘reflecting on our morality’ through penance, as Elfric suggested, and while today Christians have just one, meatless, meal that day, traditionally it was one of two ‘Black Fasts’ when no food at all could be eaten. For the next six weeks Christians were expected to abstain from animal meats and fats, as well as dairy products, and sometimes to eat nothing until 3PM, the time of Jesus’s death. One schoolboy in the 15thcentury recorded: ‘Thou will not believe how weary I am of fish, and how much I desire that flesh were come in again. For I have eat none other than salt fish this Lent, and it has engendered so much phlegm within me that it stops my pipes that I can scarcely speak nor breathe.’ 

St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the high medieval period, gave two theological reasons for abstaining from meat, one being that Christ gave up his flesh and so we must do likewise. The second was the connection between meat and desire, so that, as he wrote in Summa Theologica, meat affords ‘greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.’ He wasn’t wrong, in that red meat consumption does seem to affect the male sex drive.

And so Lenten abstinence extended to marital relations, although drunkenness was regarded as mitigating circumstances as far as penance was concerned. Indeed, although the most common form of self-denial today is alcohol, watered-down beer and wine were permitted in the Middle Ages, although the former would have been very weak indeed, well below 2 per cent. And Robert Ripon, a 14thcentury Benedictine monk in Durham, wrote that ‘very few people abstain from excessive drinking: On the contrary, they go to the taverns and some imbibe and get drunk more than they do out of Lent.’ Later, when tea and coffee entered the European diet in the 17th century, these were allowed too.

There were lots of other things to make life just that little bit bleaker, such as statues and crucifixes being veiled, our eyes denied just as our stomachs were. Marriages were not permitted either, but then a wedding where everyone was forced to fast would not be huge fun. The Church also banned another activity beloved of medieval men almost as much as sex and alcohol – war – although it wasn’t always observed. The largest and bloodiest battle in British history, Towton in 1461, was fought on Palm Sunday, when as many as 28,000 died fighting for the Yorkist Edward IV or the Lancastrian Henry VI, which meant plenty of meat for the birds.

Because people were restricted in what they could eat, they innovated. In Germany faithful Christians baked snacks consisting only of flour, salt and water, and shaped like arms crossed in prayer, the Latin term for ‘little arms’ – bracellae – becoming bretzel in German and pretzel in English. A more recent Lenten innovation is McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish burger, which originated in Cincinnati in 1960s where the local franchise owner noticed a huge seasonal downturn in business in a city with large German, Irish, Italian and Polish Catholic communities. Today one-quarter of the burgers are sold during Lent. 

Others tried to keep their spirits up by using their imagination, among the delights being the Mock Egg, an empty shell filled with almond milk jelly and an almond, dyed yellow to make it look more like an egg. With these options available, the ‘Black Fast’ does not seem so daunting after all.

But there were ways of avoiding Lent: pregnant women were excused, and most women in the Middle Ages spent a great deal of their adult lives in this condition, although this was scant comfort for the gruelling and dangerous business of pre-modern pregnancy. The sick were also let off, since it was – correctly – believed that meat-eating aided recovery, and it was not unknown for a corrupt priest to take a bribe from a rich man who didn’t fancy 40 days of medieval veganism.

There were also loopholes. Fish was permitted but some people had a pretty wide definition of ‘fish’ to include frogs, puffins or even barnacle geese, a type of black goose that was mistakenly believed to hatch from barnacles. In 1698 some Benedictine monks at Le Tréport in Normandy were found by the local bishop to have been regularly eating puffins during Lent, which they argued were basically fish because they spent all their time in the water. Around this same period, Francois de Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, had sent word to Paris asking whether it was permissible to eat beaver, for a similar reason, and received the thumbs up.

Similarly, the Church in South American allowed the faithful to eat the semiaquatic capybara, the world’s largest rodent which sometimes grows as much as a metre and a half long, while in Louisiana the alligator continues to be classified as fish, as do other reptiles and amphibians, if that’s your sort of thing. In Michigan the bishop has traditionally allowed the faithful to eat the muskrat, a large rodent, a right the diocese reaffirmed as late as 2002 as an ‘immemorial custom’. The rodent does not make the most flavoursome of meals and the bishop added that ‘anyone who could eat muskrat was doing penance worthy of the greatest saints’. 

From the early Middle Ages Christians in Germany could also get away with eating some dairy in return for good works or contributions, with a number of church-building projects funded by this Butterbriefe (butter letter). The practise spread and a later addition to Rouen Cathedral is still called ‘the Butter Tower’ because of how it came to be built.

There are were also certain feast days which can count as dispensations, depending on the diocese and bishop – chiefly St Patrick’s Day on March 17, followed two days later by St Joseph’s Day, and the Annunciation on March 25. Today Christians who abstain from alcohol during Lent often give themselves these days off and St Patrick’s in particular has become a festival of hedonism, a result of the large and homesick Irish diaspora and clever marketing by a certain brewery; according to one estimate it is the seventh most common day of the year for conceptions, just ahead of Mardi Gras (as Shrove Tuesday is called in the Americas). However in Ireland itself it was traditionally more austere and pubs were shut on March 17 until the 1970s. The Feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, was also known as Lady Day and the start of the year until 1752, which is why the tax year still starts around that time.

Those who broke the fast would be subject to public shaming and acts of contrition such as wearing sackcloth’s and ashes, although it could also lead to accusations of being a heretic, which towards the later Middle Ages became increasingly dangerous. This was an improvement on the brutal early medieval period, however, when under the forced Christianisation of the Emperor Charlemagne (768-814) eating meat during the period was a capital offence in Germany. Likewise, in newly Christian Poland in the 11th century authorities encouraged people to follow in Our Lord’s example during Lent by having all their teeth knocked out if they didn’t.

And yet medieval Lent was also easier for the simple reason that most people’s diets were meagre and food stores were starting to run low at this time of year, ahead of the ‘starving time’ of June and July. One in five years in the early medieval period saw serious food shortages, while deaths from hunger were common until the 15th century; 10 per cent of Europe starved to death in 1315-1317 during the worst of all famines. Most peasant families would subsist on pottage and porridge, made from grain, beans and root vegetables, while up to 90 per cent of calories depended on crops – the Normans received 80 per cent from just one type of bread, a grim diet which perhaps explains their restless hunger for conquest. Indeed, for many people Lent must have been hardly more of an ordeal than the other 320 days of the year.

And it would culminate with the most trying time of all, the Triduum, the 40-hour fast lasting from sundown on Maundy (‘commandment’) Thursday all through to midday on Holy Saturday, after which the Easter Vigil would begin. And so, the following day, Christians would awake to celebrate Christ’s final victory over death with a feast of meat and eggs, and many invalids, no doubt, miraculously recovered their health once again.




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