Shrove Tuesday and the Perils of Being Male

It’s Shrove Tuesday – or “Pancake Day” as we used to call it back in Lancashire – and as people across the country skip their diets in favor of eating fat flat crepes overflowing with carbohydrates and lipids, I thought I’d offer some non-fattening intellectual sustenance regarding the origins of the phrase itself.

Blueberry pancakes Shrove Tuesday

As you might guess, the reason there’s a specified day is because it’s just one of three days that make up something called Shrovetide, a period running from Quinquagesima Sunday [1] through Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday up until Ash Wednesday.

The word shrove comes from the Old English scrifan meaning “to impose penance upon” or “to hear a confession.” It includes the notion of “making things right” as a result of self-examination and recognizing one’s sins. Shrovetide is the beginning of the period known to Christians as Lent, which includes the requirement to undertake some sort of fast or privation [2] as a run up to the celebration of Easter Sunday. Hence the relationship to a penance during this time. This in turn is thought to derive from the Latin scribere meaning “to write.”

The practice of making pancakes seems to have originated in the need to use up all the rich foods such as milk, butter, cream etc. prior to observance of  weeks of fasting for Lent. Hence the other name of “Fat Tuesday” and “Mardi Gras” [3].

Another old custom was the gift of the “Shrovetide hen,” which is mentioned in Bishop Hall’s 16th century work Virgidemiarum where he says, “A Shroftide Hen, Which bought to giue, he takes to sell agen.” Sadly most of these hens ended up on a table and not as a re-gift!

But consider the male of the species and the fate of the “Shrovetide Cock.” This hapless clucker was taken out on Shrove Tuesday and beaten with sticks or hit with stones until it was dead. The “winner” was the person who actually killed it. Sure, both males and females ultimately provided supper but the manner of the cock’s demise seems a little harsh.

So enjoy your Mardi Gras celebrations. Eat, drink, and be merry. And offer at least one toast to the poor Shrovetide Cock.

Notes
[1] Quinquagesima is Latin for “fiftieth day” and marks the Sunday that’s 50 days before Easter Sunday, and derives from quinquaginta meaning “fifty.” Breaking this down just a little more, quinque means “five” and the suffix ginta is used to mark cardinal numbers between thirty and ninety. Cunning folks these Latins.

[2] My wife is a theist and attends a local Episcopalian church where the vicar has asked her parishioners to consider giving up plastic for Lent. My wife is OK with the idea of avoiding  packing all her shopping at the supermarket into free plastics bags but is undergoing a severe moral dilemma as regards her daily Starbucks, which has a plastic lid! I suppose she can ask for her drive-through drink to be served without the lid but that’s a potential law suit I’m guessing Howard Schultz is keen to avoid.

[3] For those of us who remember our schoolboy French, Mardi is the French word for “Tuesday” and gras is the word for “fat.” And yes, the French gras and the English grease both come from the same source; the Latin crassus.

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