As we approach the end of Lent we asked Matthew, one of our Visitor Services team, to research and write about what Lent would have been like in medieval times:
Even at the best of times, Lent can be a bit of challenge. These days it is a form of voluntary masochism rather than something that society and the church expect of you, with most of us giving something up for Lent.
For Lent this year I have decided to give up fizzy drinks. There have been hard days where I have nearly given in to the temptation of my cravings, thankfully my willpower has remained strong and I have nearly seen it through to the end. This made me wonder what the experience was like for our medieval ancestors.
As you might imagine Lent was taken much more seriously by our forebears. Back then the Church was an incredibly dominant force in society. Lent was the most important period of fasting in the Christian calendar, as well as the longest. In imitation of Jesus’s fasting in the wilderness people had to give up meat and dairy produce for six weeks. This meant no beef, pork, chicken, lamb etc. as well as no eggs, butter and milk. If that doesn’t sound terrible enough already this was to be compounded by only eating one meal a day compared to the usual two (or three if you ate breakfast). It makes me hungry just thinking about it!
The church encouraged the whole of society to observe this fast, although there were exemptions for the very old, the very young and the very sick. Ideally this fast was a long prayer for forgiveness of sin and a begging for God’s grace. In reality it was a long and dreary stretch of time to be endured as a penance. It represented a considerable sacrifice for many; especially if you consider that they also had to give a tenth of their harvest to their lord or parish priest.
How did our medieval ancestors cope with this?
A gruelling aspect for many was being reduced to having just one meal a day. To begin with this meal would not have been eaten until the evening just after Vespers, mercifully this was pushed back to noon in later years. However it would remain as the only meal of the day although a small snack before bedtime was allowed. This limitation did not come with an increase in the amount of food you could have in one meal.
Meat was greatly missed, but its place was taken by fish. What fish you ate depended on your social status and where you lived. Those less fortunate mostly spent these six weeks eating more red herrings than there are in an Agatha Christie novel. Red herring was cheap and plentiful but absolutely loathed by our medieval forebears; they could not wait to see the back of it when Lent was over and Easter had arrived. One medieval schoolboy writes in his private notebook that he had eaten so much salted fish during that Lent that he could now scarcely speak or breathe.
An occasional meal of eels or pike may be a small relief from the terrors of the red herring. A noble could very easily move to one of their estates which was closer to the rivers, where a variety of different freshwater fish may have been available for them to eat. The luckiest people lived beside the sea. They didn’t have to chew their way through six weeks of red herrings. Instead good weather could bring a glorious variety of fresh saltwater fish to their tables.
Having to munch through a lot of salted fish made for thirsty work and breweries did quite well out of Lent. Drinking was not prohibited during the fast and many made the most of this. A fifteenth century sermon comments on how people don’t give up excessive drinking during Lent and observed that if anything they drink more than they do when it isn’t Lent.
Out of desperation many tried blotting out the taste of herring by covering it in mustard; another boon for the breweries. Those that could afford it could satisfy their sweet tooth by rolling a spice berry around their mouth or by chewing on a piece of crystallised ginger. Almond butter made from crushed almonds bound together with sugar and rosewater was also another small treat that didn’t go against the rules. Figs, dates and pistachio nuts were devoured so much so that some miserable fellow commented that it went against the spirit of the fast.
Whilst some of the clergy took the fast incredibly seriously, others allowed their more mercantile interests come to the fore. One of the towers of the Cathedral at Rouen is known as the Butter Tower because its building was funded by money paid to the priests by people desperate to get a dispensation so they could eat butter during the fast.
So, if you find it tough during Lent, remember that it isn’t nearly as hard as it was for our medieval ancestors.
This is such a delightful, well-written, and informative article. I’m researching religious practices in medieval and Tudor England for a novel and you answered almost all of my questions about Lent. I say “almost” because I’m both inquiring and greedy by nature and can’t help but wonder if you could answer a few more? Please, do you happen to know if there were any other special restrictions associated with Lent? Asking not only because of the character traits but because I read in Barbara Hanawalt’s book “Peasant Families in Medieval England” that weddings were frowned upon by the Church during the 40 days of Lent (also during Advent, Christmas, and Rogationtide). But did people, half-fed as they were, still made pilgrimages to shrines during Lent (maybe, at this especially holy time, they made even more pilgrimages?). Did they go to see relatives, take a special trip up to London or, if they were noble, even to Court, to see Bluff King Hal celebrate Easter with his latest wifey? I’d appreciate any help you have to offer, but know you are probably busy with your own research and job. Meanwhile, thank you so much for the article.
I will have a chat with the team and see if we can find out for you!
Thank you for this information. I am in the U. S., and have Muslim friends from Libya, it was interesting to learn of their very beautiful pre-dawn and post-sunset feasts during Ramadan.
I may try the one meal per day. I’ve known others in the Buddhist tradition, (Thich Nhat Hahn’s monastery), who only have breakfast & lunch.
I love food, all the tastes, smells, and textures, and yet I think it’s become an overrated bourgeois obsession.
I pray that the starving may eat wholesome food, and drink clean water. 🙏🌿🕊