Since we’ve just entered Lent, I thought we’d have a look at what happened during this period in the Middle Ages. When we think about Lent as it was experienced seven hundred years ago, we tend to focus on the fasting aspect. Meat, milk (cream and butter), and eggs were banned, which, as I’ve said in other posts, probably wasn’t much of a change for most people who struggled to get meat much of the time. What we rarely think about is what Lent meant to a medieval person. Today many people think that Lent is just about giving up chocolate or television or something else that’s reasonably important to them, but people in the Middle Ages knew that giving up things was to help them to reflect on the meaning of Lent.
So, what was, and is, Lent? It’s the forty days before Easter and is a very sombre time in the church calendar. It leads to the despair of the Crucifixion and, ultimately, to the joy of Easter Day. Like Easter, it doesn’t have fixed dates. It takes as its model the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and is a time of sacrifice and deprivation. It lasts from Ash Wednesday until the end of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday.
Before Ash Wednesday, there is Shrove Tuesday. In the Middle Ages this wasn’t a single day but a longer period known as Shrovetide, when people confessed their sins so that they could begin the Lenten fast having repented, received absolution and done penance. This is the meaning of the word ‘shrive’ from which ‘shrove’ is derived. Even in a small village it would probably have taken the priest longer than one day to hear everyone’s confession. Shrove Tuesday was the last day on which meat, milk and eggs could be consumed and in some countries it turned into a bit of a party – Carnival. That’s not the case in England, where it was a fairly serious day until the Reformation. That’s when the tradition of making pancakes to use the last of the eggs and the butter began.
The other thing they were supposed to abstain from during Lent was sex. Who knows now how strictly that particular injunction was observed? Since most people, even married couples, had no privacy, I suspect that it was … for the most part. No one could get married in Lent and it’s still something that many churches aren’t keen on. These days, though, it’s more for practical reasons than spiritual ones. Lent is an austere time and churches can’t be decorated as some couples might wish.
This many centuries later, it’s really hard to know what people thought about Lent, but they wouldn’t have thought it was just about what they couldn’t eat, or couldn’t do. The church was the centre of everyone’s life and everyone grew up going to church on Sundays and feast days. The parish priest was always there and there was probably a monastery or convent not far away. Mendicant friars might have visited the parish and preached. Parishioners heard sermons and, even if their priest didn’t have access to a Bible, they learned enough about the cycle of the church year to understand the meaning of Lent. They would have understood that it was a time of reflection and preparation. Fasting was only something that would aid this; it was not the most important aspect of Lent.