Lent in the Middle Ages–name three things people of the day associated with Lent: food, mummers, and… cockfighting?
If you write fantasy or anything even remotely close, you can benefit from knowing about the resource of All Things Medieval by Ruth Johnston. Ruth Johnston wrote the textbook All Things Medieval, which appears on Amazon as a very expensive textbook. However, the author has made the whole thing available online. This website is a remarkable and entertaining resource of, well, all things Medieval and truly worth checking out.
One topic covered at All Things Medieval, which turned out to be far more fascinating than one might have expected, is Lent. Below are some excerpts showcasing some fascinating details about this Lenten season.
The beginning of Lent
Shrove Tuesday, ca. 1200 meant three things: food, cockfighting, and mummers.
Food, obviously. A forty-day fast was about to begin. Chiefly, they would eat no animal products, so any and all animal products, especially meat, had to be eaten. The pre-fast feast came to last three days. By the end of the medieval period, it had developed its French name, Mardi Gras; it was the Carnival because they ate meat (cf chili con carne).
Schoolboys made it the season to hold cockfights. Medieval people didn’t think cockfights were cruel; roosters were the knights of the bird world, and they were merely letting the knights hold a feathered tournament.
The fast season of Lent was not nearly as unique in the medieval year as it is in the modern. Fast days punctuated the year, and the entire four weeks before Christmas was also a fast. Lent was merely the longest fast.
When I was young, I used to hear Catholic friends talk about choosing something to give up for Lent. In the Middle Ages, there were no such choices; they always gave up the same thing: animal products. You might think “meat,” but that only annoyed the rich. The poor never had meat anyway, and their chickpea or lentil porridges were “fast food” for every day year round. But the real problem was butter.
Butter and cheese were sheep, not cow, products, usually. In much of northern Europe, butter was the main cooking oil, not counting lard, which of course was out for Lent. Zones of Europe that depended on walnut or olive oil were less deprived, but butter regions had no solutions. Over time, their rulers bought indulgences from Popes that gave automatic forgiveness for using butter during Lent. Some cathedrals were funded by butter indulgences.
The wealthy didn’t have to give up anything except products from mammals and birds. Wine and sweets were still just fine. In theory, they ate less. In reality, their cooks just substituted almond milk for dairy and spiced the fish to match venison dishes. Fresh fish sold for a premium during Lent. By the middle of the 14th century, inland parts of Europe were so covered with fish farms (mostly for carp, a big meaty roaster of a fish) that they were getting malaria.
I’ll do another entry on Lent and fasting. It’s worth just talking about fish.
Some fish came from ponds and were probably fresh.
Monasteries knew in advance that they’d be fasting for every possible fast day year round, so they put a lot of effort into growing fish. Some monasteries figured out that letting their sewage flush into the fish pond was actually good for the fish. (They tried to build over a stream that could carry water in and sewage out, and then they dammed it for the fish.) Mill ponds were great for eels, too. The miller’s landlord often asked for eels as part of the rent. Eels could be found in streams and lakes, too. Peasants could spear or trap them. But they rarely ate eels; the cash value was too great. The cash value of a five-foot carp was so great that many entrepreneurs invested in long-term fish ponds to raise these Danube River invaders. It took about five years for a carp to grow to table length, but then the Abbot or Baron would pay a lot.
There you have it, a taste of All Things Medieval. Take a look. Go exploring. You’ll enjoy it!