Carnival Countdown: Season of Love, Lust & Marriage

The next day being Shroue-tuesday, a day of pleasure, and jollitie by custome, but farre more delightfull by reason of this magnificent mariage, which moued many occasions of mirth in his Highnes court…

The mariage of Prince Fredericke, and the Kings daughter, the Lady Elizabeth, vpon Shrouesunday last (1613)

Princess Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V, Elector Palatine married on 14th February 1613 (pictured above), staging their diplomatic pairing during the communal celebrations of St Valentine’s Day and Shrovetide. The choice of occasion was strategic, but also rooted in tradition, as Shrovetide and the ‘coupling month’ of February were strongly associated with love and marriage.

Indeed, Shrovetide was perhaps the most popular festival for weddings during the early modern period. It was the last chance before Lent, when marriage was strictly forbidden, and the season’s competing themes of lust and chastity could be resolved in a ceremony of mutual love.

Technically, however, marriage was forbidden during Shrovetide as well. Without special ecclesiastical dispensation, weddings could not be celebrated from Septuagesima Sunday, the ninth Sunday before Easter,  until eight days after Easter. This did not seem to stop the eager betrothed: statistical evidence from marriage registers shows that the Shrovetide ban was frequently ignored or circumvented, while the Lenten ban was closely observed. Princess Elizabeth Stuart’s grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, hosted court weddings during four out of the six Shrovetides of her short personal rule (1561-1567). A letter written by Sir W. Knox in 1685 likewise conveys the association with acerbic wit:

Thy dear Sister is to be Married on Shrove-Tuesday, and at Night to be laid upon her back as flat as a Pancake, and no doubt will give and receive a curious time on’t.

With births and weddings abounding, Valentines exchanged, and the Lenten ban on marriage and conjugal relations looming, fertility stood front and center during the Shrovetide season. But this went beyond simple association, or vague fertility rites. Many early moderns believed they could pair festive time and custom to actively influence their own lives. This verse from Poor Robin’s Almanac (1682), although comical in tone, illustrates the medicinal purposes to which Shrovetide foods were put to use:

The Month with Shrove-tide out doth go,
When as the Boys at Cocks do throw,
The Broth of whom (the flesh being boild)
For them can’t get their wives with Child,
Physicians say is very good
To raise new viogour in their blood,
And so by using of this trade
Keep them from being Cuckolds made


Read more on Shrovetide customs here, and stay tuned for more anecdotes of Mardi Gras history.

Carnival Countdown is a series of brief blog posts sharing stories from the medieval and early history of Carnival, as we count down the final days of the season.


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