Friday, March 27, 2015

Lenten Fare in English History

by Lauren Gilbert

As Easter approaches and the season of Lent winds down, it’s interesting to think about the differences between how Lent is observed now and Lenten traditions of earlier time.

Nowadays it is less a time of mandatory fasting than voluntary self-denial, a personal challenge, for many. People give up chocolate, alcohol, a favorite activity. The observance of Lent today could be considered an inconvenience or a test of personal resolve, rather than a spiritual issue, for many.

In earlier times, Lent was a period during which individuals abstained from eating certain foods or drinking certain beverages more or less completely, a voluntary sacrifice for spiritual growth. The 40-day time frame for the Lenten fast was fixed after the Council of Nicea, possibly as a purification rite or a time of preparation for baptism. (It’s also worth noting that the timing is also practical: winter stores were low, it was too early for spring crops, and animals were not yet producing young in quantity.) Initially, the fast only allowed for one meal a day, although that was modified. Some traditions allowed for a relaxation of the fast for Sundays; some included Saturdays as well. For some individuals, the Lenten fast could represent a situation of total denial. For others, maybe not so much… Throughout history, man has shown a talent for finding a way around a situation he (or she) did not like.

Prior to the Reformation, Catholic tradition prevailed in England. It’s important to remember that the fast was an experience shared by all. The farther back in history one looks, the stricter were the rules. In early Britain, fasting was literally (in many cases) bread and water, with maybe a few vegetables. Thanks to Thomas Aquinas, fish became allowable; it was available to all, harkened back to Jesus (the loaves and fishes) and had no particular taint or association with sin. In medieval times, meat was not to be eaten. “Meat” was defined as red or white meat (beef, pork, and poultry) and included eggs, dairy, etc. Interestingly, certain birds and mammals were not considered “meat” and were allowed during fast times, including Lent. These exceptions included quail, partridges, pheasant, red deer and porpoise. Clarissa Dickson Wright mentioned that during medieval times, almond milk was a popular beverage during fast times, as well as used for medicinal purposes.

During Tudor times, some root vegetables were not eaten during the Lenten fast as they were considered too much of the earth (or even further down). Also in Tudor times, pregnant women, soldiers in a garrison, children and the elderly were not required to fast, and it was possible to obtain a dispensation on an individual basis (dispensations were generally not free and not readily available to all. Although Henry VIII separated the Church of England from Rome, he did not change many of the liturgy or traditional observances, including the Lenten fast. After Henry VIII’s death, Cranmer ordered abstention from meat during Lent. (This did not apply to the white meats, including eggs and dairy.) Throughout this period there was rigid enforcement, to the extent of spies laying information resulting in fines and imprisonment. By Elizabeth’s time, the eating of fish was encouraged to support the fishing fleet; consumption of eggs, cheese and milk was allowed. This resulted a dwindling of the use of almond milk.

As Protestantism became established and settled, the fasting rules loosened. During Cromwell’s era, fasting was actually considered a Popish superstition if not a heresy. With the Restoration of Charles II, many of the old traditions were revived to a degree. However, by this time, Protestantism was firmly rooted, and anything that smacked too heavily of Catholicism was viewed with suspicion. Within the Church of England, there were variations between High Church and Low Church which translated to more, or less, traditional observance.

By the Georgian era, Jane Austen’s time, the traditions of the Church of England had relaxed somewhat. Eggs and dairy were allowed, which resulted in the waning popularity and use of almond milk as a beverage, although still used medicinally. Hannah Glasse offered a recipe for almond milk for a wash:
Take five ounces of bitter almonds, blanch them and beat them in a marble mortar very fine. You may put in a spoonful of sack when you beat them; then take the whites of three new-laid eggs, three pints of spring water, and one pint of sack. Mix them all very well together; then strain it through a fine cloth, and put into a bottle, and keep it for use. You may put in lemon, or powder of pearl, when you make use of it.”(1)
It was also possible to get an exemption from fasting in general because of health issues. There were by this time a variety of Protestant sects, many of which did not consider the traditional fasts necessary. Even within the Church of England, a certain amount of secularization had resulted in a falling away of the devotion to the old traditions.

Sources include:
Dickson Wright, Clarissa. A History of British Food. 2011: Random House, London.
Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. A new EDITION, with modern Improvements. 1805: Cottom & Stewart, Alexandria. (Facsimile copy released by Applewood Books, Bedford, MA). Footnote 1: page 248.
British Food: A History on line. “Lenten fodder” posted February 22, 2012.
HistoryExtra. “A Guide to Food and Status in the Sixteenth Century” by Emma McFarnon. Posted December 8, 2014. “Jane Austen’s Easter” by Laura Boyle. Posted 6/20/2011.
“Recreating Medieval Lent,” Tournaments Illuminated, #145. Winter, 2003. By Agnes DeLanvallei and Kathy Keeler.


Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband.  A new novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is due out later in 2015.


  1. Very interesting for me writing about the early reformation. I always think it's ironic that the Puritans didn't believe in fasting! I wonder if only wealthy people had access to almond milk - it must have been expensive.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Marie! The Puritans may have felt fasting was unnecessary-they had already eliminated so many customs and foods that were pleasurable! I feel sure cost did restrict availability of almonds.

  2. I have a student in my literacy class who told me recently that she was fasting - real, Ramadan-style fasting, where you don't eat till after sunset. I thought it a bit early for Ramadan, but said nothing. I eventually found out that she was Eastern Orthodox and was fasting for Lent.

    I've never heard of that, but I imagine it wouldn't have gone over well back in the Middle Ages. ;-)

    Well, thanks to Lent we have Shrove Tuesday, when they had to use up all their forbidden stuff, hence the pancakes. Any excuse to eat pancakes! It was also a day for playing football and another of my students, a Catholic boy, tells me they still do that at his church, though not in the streets, of course. Fascinating customs!

    1. I appreciate your comment, Sue. Your student's fast sounds like some of the earliest customs, where 1 meal a day was the norm. I think it makes sense to have it in the evening-you have it to look forward to!

    2. Hadn't thought of that, but she wasn't drinking either, which is why I thought it sounded like Ramadan.

  3. Football and Shrove Tuesday have a history found in the fenlands of East England:
    In the East Anglian Fenlands the young men enjoyed a game called "Fenland football" on Holy Days. This was the original form of football when crowds of young men chased across the countryside kicking an inflated pig's bladder. In the the course of chasing the ball, the young men often destroyed every drainage ditch they passed.
    These actions often took place upon festival days. The Midlands Rising in 1607 started on May Day.
    Shrove Tuesday in Lent was another popular date for protesting the draining of the fens. These Holy Days provided time for village games, which often involved inversion rituals (turning the world upside down for a day).
    Another popular occasion was Rogation Day, the day on which people perambulated the boundaries of the parish to note the parish boundaries.
    Agrarian risings of this kind rarely involved violence against people. The crowds might appear threatening. There were rarely any injuries to individuals. Those against whom the crowd were protesting usually stayed out of the way.


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