The History of Shrove Tuesday and Carnival in Britain
For our medieval and early modern forebears, Shrove Tuesday was about more than just pancakes. While these fried treats were an essential ingredient of the British holiday (and have been since as early as the 13th century), pre-modern Brits also marked this last festival before the fasting season of Lent with customs ranging from feasting and football, to revelry and riot. Looking closer at some of these customs and traditions allows us to explore what the festival meant to our ancestors, and how customs were used to express ideas or even bring about change in their day-to-day lives.
With its placement on the eve of the dietary restrictions of Lent, Shrove Tuesday was first and foremost a feasting holiday. The day before Lent was the finale of a festive series of days known collectively as Shrovetide, and all levels of society, from kings and queens to lowly apprentices, partook in the savoury pleasures of Egg Saturday, Collop Monday (collop meaning a cooked cut of meat) and Pancake Tuesday. From the first extant household dietary accounts in the thirteenth century on through the early modern period, records show that elite and royal expenditures on Shrovetide food and drink typically ranked only behind the expenses for the Twelve Days of Christmas. At these banquets, all manner of dairy, meat and poultry graced the tables, and the wine, beer and ale flowed in vast quantities. Beyond hospitality, nourishment, and fun, the feasts provided opportunities for socializing, political posturing, and fundraising.
The image above is of a manuscript account originally compiled in the early 13th century for the household of Bristol Castle. It records the daily dietary expenses of the resident nobles, and can reveal what they were eating on Pancake Day nearly 800 years ago. On 3 March, 1226 (Shrove Tuesday), the household of Eleanor of Brittany, a noblewoman being held prisoner in Bristol Castle at the time, dined on beer, bread, poultry, eggs, bacon, beef, and goat. While all of these were fairly typical provisions for an elite medieval diet, the household also purchased pastelli (pastries) and sagimen (fat) on the day, presumably to mark the occasion of Fat Tuesday.
Shrove Tuesday was also the most-favoured day of the year to play football. Young people and workers were traditionally given a half or whole day free from school or work to celebrate and let off steam before Lent began. People took advantage of the holiday to engage in sports and games. We have records from as early as 12th century London of Shrove Tuesday football in the fields outside the city walls. But this was not just popular in the capital: cities, towns and villages throughout the British Isles organised Shrove Tuesday matches. These weren’t your ordinary kick-abouts; they involved dozens if not hundreds of participants running, kicking and fighting over the football in the streets and fields of the community. Teams for this communal game (or mob football as it was sometimes known) usually pitted opposites against each other- townspeople versus country folk, married men versus bachelors, upriver versus downriver, or village vs village. Although it was viewed as a masculine game by contemporaries, the whole community would show up to watch and in some areas the young women would play their own game of stool-ball instead. Due to the large crowds and violent nature of mob football, it was not always a favourite of authorities and magistrates. During the 19th century most Shrove Tuesday football matches were outlawed and suppressed by officials, while football itself was organised and codified into the modern sports of rugby and association football. Today, communal football matches only survive in a handful of small towns in England and Scotland, but in their survival these centuries-old traditions preserve Shrove Tuesday as a true National Day of Football.
While Shrovetide football could be a violent sport, it was nothing compared to the brutal animal blood-sports which were traditionally pursued during the festival. These included cock-fighting, bear and bull-baiting, and more outlandish games like dog tossing, ‘hen threshing’ or ‘cock throwing’. This last involved tying a cockerel or hen to a stake in the ground and taking turns throwing sticks and cudgels at it until it was killed. The victor won the poor poultry and sometimes a monetary reward. We have records from Bristol of attempts to ban these sports in the mid 17th century. One precept issued by the Lord Mayor of Bristol on Shrove Tuesday, 6 March 1660 ordered revelers not to ‘throw at any cock or hen or tosse any doggs or play at footeball within this Citty…’ The young men of Bristol did not take kindly to this prohibition of their ‘ancient privileges and pastimes’, as the section below on Shrovetide rioting explains.
Shrove Tuesday was not just a festival of food and football. It was also a time for revels, such as spectacles, pageants, banquets, plays, dances, and martial displays. The wide variety of entertainment fell under the umbrella term of ‘revelry’, but all of it could be considered performance to some degree. This aspect of ‘performance’ was especially significant in elite society, where every action taken or word spoken was calculated and could gain or lose one power and position. While all levels of society enjoyed revelry during festivals like Shrovetide, nowhere was the scale larger, or the political and social stakes higher, than at the royal court. By jousting in tournaments, staging allegorical masques, or selectively inviting ambassadors to banquets, courtiers could exchange social, religious, and political ideas while remaining under the guise of holiday entertainment.
While Shrovetide was a prime time for revelry, over the course of the seventeenth century it also became associated with violent riot and insurrection. Between 1598 and 1695 there were over 50 instances of Shrovetide riot or the threat of such in various cities throughout England. In early Stuart London (1603-1642) the riots became an almost annual tradition as rioters attacked brothels, playhouses, prisons and other targets in the suburbs of the city. Shrovetide riots later developed into tools of protest, especially in Bristol during the turbulent years of the Republic and Protectorate. See the early modern map of Bristol below to explore these Bristolian bouts of festive insurrection.