Wednesday, 9 March 2011

On the Origins of Pancake Day

But hark, I hear the pancake bell,
And fritters make a gallant bell,
The cooks are baking, frying, boyling,
Stewing, mincing, cutting, broyling,
Carving, gormandizing, roasting,
Carbonating, cracking, slashing, toasting.
(Poor Robin's Almanack for 1684 )

Did you have pancakes yesterday evening? It was Shrove Tuesday. But where does the custom of pancakes come from? And what associated folk-beliefs have grown up about it?

If on pancake day, a pancake is thrown to a cock, and he eats it himself, bad luck will follow the household. If he pecks at it, and leaves it for his hens to finish, it is a sign of good luck.--Horncastle district.

Eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and grey peas on Ash Wednesday, and you will have money in your pocket all the year round.--General.

Shrove Tuesday takes its name from the term 'shriving' (from the Old English "scrifan" for ""assign, decree, impose penance)"; it was the time for confession of sins and receipt of absolution, so that the congregations went into Lent with clean consciences. But where does the English custom of "pancake day" come from? The 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions suggests two explanations:

The origin of the pancake tradition for Shrove Tuesday has two sources. The authors incline to the idea that it was prepared to sustain the unfortunate people who on Shrove Tuesday had long waits at the church (Roman Catholic in those days, of course), and took the pancake for sustenance while waiting their turn to be shriven of their sins. The other suggestion is that the making of pancakes was a convenient way for the housewife to get rid of all the fats she possessed in the house, and which she must not use during the season of Lent, which began the following day. Meat, and all appertaining to it or coming from it, was, of course, forbidden by the Church during Lent. (1)

I've never come across the first explanation before, and I'd tend to disagree with the authors, and go for the second explanation. The 2003 Dictionary of food certainly thinks so:

PANCAKE TUESDAY: (Or Pancake Day.) The day before Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar.
Source: PANCAKE. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: 14th cent. Pancake Tuesday was once an alternative name for "Shrove Tuesday" (MWCD: 15th cent.), the equivalent of Fr. Mardi Gras "Fat Tuesday" . It was the last day before the beginning of Lent, the last chance to "load up" before forty days-and nights-of fasting. Pancakes may have been selected for this purpose because though they were fried in fat, they contained no meat and were a transition from excess to denial. Each ingredient of the batter-eggs, flour, milk, and salt-was regarded as a symbol of Christianity. (2)

The 14th century certainly seems to have been the time it originated; I can find no earlier sources for the occasion. The custom of eating pancakes seems to have developed from the liturgical calendar in much the same way as, later, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer Collect in Advent which begins "Stir Up, O Lord" gave its name to "Stir Up Sunday", the day for the preparation of Christmas puddings.

Linked to the custom of pancake making, almost from the start, is the bell, tolling for services, which became known as the "Pancake bell". The Yearbook of English festivals notes that this came from "the great bell which, in pre-Reformation times, summoned villagers to confession and shriving by the parish priest"(3)

But there were other customs, now lost in the transition from a rural economy to an urban one, such as this one, which is analogous to the modern "Trick or Treat", and shows, I think, that children have always been ready to seize opportunities to go round asking for treats:

In some places it is still customary for bands of children to go about the villages, singing ditties and asking (or rather, demanding) something for Shrovetide!

Nicky, Nicky, Nan,
Give me some pancakes and then I'll be gone,
But if you give me none,
I'll throw a great stone
And down your house will come

is the threat generations of Polperro lads have sung, to persuade housewives to give them a gift. In olden times the youngsters emphasized the words, at appropriate intervals, with smart blows of the club.(3)

A study of Blackpool in the 1930s shows that the same kind of children's custom was still in evidence there:

Lent actually kicks off with two boys and two girls swinging down Settle Street early on the morning of 1 March, singing at a high screech:

Pancake Tuesday is a very happy day.
If you don't give us a holiday we'll aw run away
Eating tawfy, cracking nuts,
Stuffing pancakes deawn awr guts.

All Worktown kids know this, sing it, only on this day-the only survival of the old custom of door-to-door singing for gifts. (4)

The study of Blackpool shows the start of the modern trend to making pancakes easier by using a ready-made mix, although nowadays the supermarket shelves are full of micro-wave pancakes, which take less than three minutes to heat up 3 pancakes, although sales of fresh lemons are still popular:

Sales of eggs go up, but shopkeepers complain that nowadays people buy pancake powder which is cheaper...Two-thirds of the families have pancakes, predominantly those with children in the home. As a typical pair of parents put it: 'We wouldn't miss our pancake for anything. We think it's a great treat, just to watch the daughter enjoy them. Well, we can't say why we fancy them, but we suppose it's because of the old custom.'(4)

What is also interesting are the folklore beliefs associated with pancakes in Blackpool, which involves snow, and the use of holly and mistletoe:

If it snows on Shrove Tuesday, custom decrees that you must mix the snow with the batter; if you can get the pancake to rise, that's very lucky...But of belief, all that survives in Worktown is that it is unlucky not to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and (decreasingly) that you must eat one pancake before the next one is finished and turned. Strong still is the custom of leaving the Christmas holly and mistletoe up until Shrove Tuesday, and then burning them, though in most homes the resultant fire is no longer used for cooking the pancakes-owing to gas. But the next day is the big day for ashes. Ash Wednesday marks the replacement of feasting by fasting.(4)

It is interesting that while the more Puritan elements of the Reformation in England frowned at the merry-making associated with Shrove Tuesday, that the custom of pancakes survived into the Reformation. Ronald Hutton, in his "Stations of the Sun", notes that:

Other medieval and early modern sources illustrate activities especially associated with the festival. One, naturally enough, was the consumption of the foodstuffs soon to be forbidden -- and meat salted down for the winter and batter or fritter dishes would also require a proportionate amount of drinking. A Protestant preacher in 1571 characterized Shrovetide as a time of 'great gluttony, surfeiting and drunkenness' (5)

He also cites the famous early description of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday by the London satirist, John Taylor, in 1621:

at whose entrance in the morning all the whole kingdom is in quiet, but by that time that the clock strikes eleven, which (by the help of a knavish sexton) is commonly before nine, then there is a bell rung, called the Pancake-bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful either of manners or of humanity; then there is a thing called wheaten flour, which the sulphury Necromantic cooks do mingle with water, eggs, spice and other tragical, magical, enchantments, and then they put it by little and little into a frying-pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused dismal hissing (like the Lemean snakes in the reeds of Acheron, Styx or Phlegeton) until at last, by the skill of the cooks it is transformed into the form of a Flap-Jack, which in our translation is called a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people do devour very greedily. (5)

When did the custom of the Pancake bell largely die away? It was still going strong in 1897, but note that the record here says "still", indicating a custom in decline:

In 1897, Alfred Heneage Cocks noted the performance schedule demanded of the Marsh Gibbon ringers: The Pancake Bell is still rung on Shrove Tuesday, on the fourth bell, from 11.30 a.m. to noon. (6)

That transition in Elizabethan left the festivity as one of those untouched by the Reformation is noted in Stephenson's book on "Elizabethan Period", which leaves no doubt that it was still very much a time of licentiousness, and the modern pancakes feast is very much a minor affair in comparison. What is also interesting was that, at this time, the three day nature of the feast was kept:

The Protestant Elizabethans seized upon the carnival element of the Roman Catholic celebration and made the period before Lent one of the jolliest of the year. Collop, Monday followed Shrove Sunday; and was so-called as being the period when the people reluctantly bade good-bye to slices of meat called in some parts of the country collops. The next day was Pancake Tuesday, commemorating an article of diet that has not yet passed out of fashion as distinctively associated with the observation of Shrove-Tuesday.(7)

The bawdy nature of Elizabethan England can be seen in the poem of Thomas Tusser:

Thomas Tusser, a chorister of St. Paul's, later joined the court as musician to William Paget, first baron Paget. He farmed, wrote poetry, and in 1557 (expanded in 1570 and 1573), published Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie. One of his stanzas concerning Shrove-Tide is worth quoting: --

"At Shroftide to shroving, go thresh the fat hen, If blindfold can kill her, then give it thy men: Maids, fritters, and pancakes, now see ye make, Let slut have one pancake, for company sake:"(7)

And the literature of Elizabethan England is replete with references to pancakes:

There are numerous allusions to the pancake diet in the Elizabethan dramas, and of course Shakespeare has mention of them. In the play "All's Well That Ends Well" there is the phrase "as fit as a pancake for Shrove-Tuesday;" and in his "Pericles" there is mention of a "flap-jack", which is an alternative term used:

Shrovetide was, in times; gone by, a season of such mirth that shroving, or to shrove, signified to be merry. Hence, in 2 Henry IV." (v. 3), Justice Silence says:

"Be merry, be merry, my wife has all;
For women are shrews, both short and tall;
'Tis merry in hall, when beards wag all,
And welcome merry shrove-tide.
Be merry, be merry."

It was a holiday and a day of license for apprentices, laboring persons, and others.(8)

When I was researching this, I little thought that there would be a mention of Royalty. But pancakes crop up with poor Prince Andrew, who has been getting into scrapes again recently. Back in 2001, the Sunday Mirror was critical of him for being demanding and asking for "six flavours" of pancakes:

Fun-loving Prince Andrew marked Shrove Tuesday with his third party in a week...and demanded six flavours of pancakes for his guests. He rejected a spread of canapés laid on by Buckingham Palace servants and had kitchen staff rushing around after he made it clear that lemon and sugar pancakes would not be enough. His demands surprised staff because an impressive spread had already been laid on, and there had been no mention of pancakes. The Prince had already held two parties the previous Thursday - one for lunch and one for dinner - as late celebrations for his 41st birthday earlier in the week.... A source said: "At the last minute he thought it would be fun to host a pancake party on top of the meal that had already been prepared. He demanded that servants came up with six different flavours."(9)

So pancakes are still making the news even this century, and perhaps Andrew is not so far from his Elizabethan forbears. I wonder if he had any pancakes this year, or if he decided instead to eat humble pie!

(1) Encyclopedia of Superstitions. M. A. Radford, E. Radford, 1949
(2) Food: A Dictionary of Literal and Nonliteral Terms, Robert A. Palmatier, 2000
(3) Yearbook of English Festivals, Dorothy Gladys Spicer, 1954
(4) Worktowners at Blackpool: Mass-Observation and Popular Leisure in the 1930s, Gary Cross, 1990
(5) Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton, 1996
(6) Popular Culture in Microcosm: The Manuscript Diaries of Richard Heritage of Marsh Gibbon, Buckinghamshire, Keith Chandler,Folk Music Journal. , 2006
(7) The Elizabethan People., Henry Thew Stephenson, 1910
(8) Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, T. F. Thiselton Dyer, 1884
(9) Party Prince Andrew Flips Over Pancakes, Sunday Mirror, March 4, 2001


Zuzu's Blog said...

also, a well known Pagan spring festival to celebrate the end of a long harsh and hungry winter. the old food that had sustained the community over the winter was becoming stale and so a feast to use it up was prepared. as it pre-dated the use of yeast, only unleavened breads (flat breads) were made. these flat breads (or pancakes) were eaten on the holiday in march long before Christianity. I suspect, there in lie the true origins. like most pagan festivals, it was taken and incorporated into the Christian calendar in order to make the transition into Christianity a little more palatable.

TonyTheProf said...

Can you supply any sources for that? Most Christian festivals (as Hutton shows in Stations of the Sun) are actually from the Middle Ages rather than Pagan.

The 14th century certainly seems to have been the time pancakes originated; I can find no earlier sources for the occasion. If you can, please cite them.

And no, it does not derive from "Pan's Cakes" as some wit suggested!

Derek Bradley said...

The Anglo-Saxon conversion in particular was a gradual process that necessarily included many compromises and syncretism. A famous letter from Pope Gregory to Mellitus in June 601, for example, is quoted encouraging the use of pagan temples by converts to Christianity, though festivals should be held on significant Christian dates.

Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds.

— Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (1.30)