Tuesday, March 12, 2013

English historical customs of Lent - by Deborah Swift

Still life with Stag Beetle, Flegel 1635
The thing we most often associate with Lent is fasting, or the giving up of something we enjoy. Rules of fasting for the forty days of Lent were very strict prior to the Middle Ages. One meal a day, no flesh or fish, no eggs, butter or cheese.

In England, Lent was a season when fruit and vegetables were scarce (no supermarkets!) so the fast must have been more of a deprivation than it was in later years.

As time went by, these laws were relaxed so that by the Middle Ages fish made a return to the fast, and by the fifteenth century, milk products had been re-introduced so that effectively Lent had come to mean meals without meat, and most Lenten meals were fish and vegetables.

Fish was usually salted, dried or cured, because fish goes off quickly without refrigeration..The onset of Lent was marked by street traders who 'beare about a herringe on a staffe, and loude doe roare, Herrings, herrings, stinckinge herrings, puddings now no more...' (Neogeorgus), puddings of course, being like black pudding, made of meat.

After the reformation James I encouraged the eating of fish so that the fish and shipping trades might benefit and Fish on a Friday became an English custom, and is still favoured by schools, hospitals and other institutions. In his diary 10th March 1661, Pepys says he 'dined at home on a poor Lenten dinner of colewarts (cabbage) and bacon.' Not sure whether he is really sticking to the letter of the law with his bacon!

In Lent entertainments of all kinds were curtailed, horse-racing, dancing and even the telling of jokes were frowned upon. Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that the players will give him 'Lenten entertainment' meaning poor or meagre, and the word Lenten came to mean anything grim or dismal, and 'lenten-chaps' a man of dour or sober countenance.

In the 17th century men would leave the powder off their wigs, and even as late as 1816 it was still the custom with some old people to wear black during Lent.
Picture from Michael Hartley's blog

But it was not all doom and gloom.

At the beginning of the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday a straw figure of Jack O'Lent would be paraded through the streets and people would throw things at it, kick it, and eventually, when Easter came, set fire to it. The image was said to represent Judas Iscariot, but common sense tells me this is probably the remnants of an earlier more pagan rite, or more likely something borrowed from the German tradition where a figure of Carnival is sentenced to death just before Lent, and burned on Ash Wednesday to mark the transition into a more reflective time of year.

The Battle Between Carnival And Lent - Pieter The Younger Brueghel
The Battle between Carnival and Lent by Brueghel (the Younger)
Ben Jonson seems to think that instead of a straw figure, in London this role could be taken on by someone short of money :

'that when last thou wert put out of service, 
Travell'd to Hampstead Heath on an Ash Wednesday 
where thou didst stand six weeks the Jack of Lent, 
For boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee 
To make thee a purse.'

This sounds like the equivalent of an 'Aunt Sally' and is not a job I'd like to take on if I was short of money, I have to say!

For many poorer people in the 17th century Lent probably made little difference as they were not in a position to eat meat often anyway. This is certainly the case for  Ella and Sadie Appleby, two wide-eyed country girls who seek fame and fortune and to better their lot in fashionable Restoration London.


If you'd like to read more about Ella and Sadie, and the rich mansions and dark alleys of 17th century London, THE GILDED LILY is now on special offer in the UK for only £1.32 on Kindle, published by Pan Macmillan, and it is also available in the US in all formats published by St Martin's Press.

Read more about traditions of Lent: http://www.answers.com/topic/lent#ixzz2NEwkl9cS


  1. Thanks for the schoolin', Deborah. Interesting article. Most of the people I'm writing about, Puritans and Quakers in the 17th century, didn't "do" holidays, feasts and fasts that were of Catholic or Anglican origin. The American Puritans (as distinguished from the Pilgrims) held fast days around the calendar for confession, repentance, and prayer, and "thanksgiving" days which were also confession, repentance, and prayer! I guess they spread their Advent and Lenten fasts around to really savor them. :)

  2. Very interesting post. I tweeted.

  3. Thanks Ella and Christy. Yes, the early Quakers were really interesting.I looked into them a lot for my book, The Lady's Slipper, which is based near where I live where the Quaker movement began. There is a great collection of Quaker books, papers etc at Lancaster University called The Quaker Collection.They may have documents online by now if you want to check them out.

  4. Heh, interesting about the no fish as well.. and no cheese etc! What DID they eat? Grass. (or cheated with bacon, yes he did!)
    I have given up beef for lent, and it has been a small challenge. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have given up all meat, it's everywhere, especially chicken. And Friday's, well, it's fish day of course!

  5. A lot of those traditions carried on right into the 19th century even if your were brought up in North America by English parents who belonged to the Church of England (Anglican). Lent was a serious thing to follow. We followed the tradition of of eating Fish and then rejoicing at Easter when things changed and we could eat other things. Amazing how things change but actually stay the same quite a bit. Wonderful article, thank you.


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