Custom survived: Eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday

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A few years back I was invited to be involved in a Shrove Tuesday live radio broadcast from the Nottinghamshire village of Linby. The aim was to discuss why we ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and I’ll explain why in a moment.

The association of pancakes with Shrove Tuesday is unlike perhaps any food associated with a calendar day – Christmas has cakes, mince pies and puddings (and much else I would add), Easter – hot cross buns, biscuits and Simnel cakes – but Shrove Tuesday is really only associated with one type of food. This association having become so great that the actual day is slowly morphing into Pancake day, divorced from its Christian origin and in a way devoid of any sense (or lacking not making any sense) of why it would be so associated.

Of course this metamorphosis is purely a commercial enterprise – which appears to have almost completed its aim. When the Pancake day stamp arose is difficult to work out but certainly by the 1980s adverts,  in the main associated with lemon juice, the secularisation was becoming well established.

But why Pancakes in the first place?

Tossing up the origin

Well this brings us back to why I was in Linby where it is said that the custom begun. However, the earliest reference I can find is by a H. E. P. Stuffynwood, near Mansfield in Notes & Queries 2nd S. vol. vii. 1859:

“There is a curious tradition existing in Mansfield, Woodhouse, Bulwell, and several other villages near Sherwood Forest, as to the origin of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. The inhabitants of any of the villages will inform the questioner that when the Danes got to Linby all the Saxon men of the neighbouring villages ran off into the forest, and the Danes took the Saxon women to keep house for them. This happened just before Lent, and the Saxon women, encouraged by their fugitive lords, resolved to massacre their Danish masters on Ash Wednesday. Every woman who agreed to do this was to bake pancakes for this meal on Shrove Tuesday as a kind of pledge to fulfil her vow. This was done, and that the massacre of the Danes did take place on Ash Wednesday is a well-known historical fact. In addition, the villagers will tell you that in this part of the country there were no red haired people before the Danes came; that all were either fair, or black haired before that time. Thinking this tradition as to the origin of pancakes sufficiently curious to be worth preserving, I venture to send it to ” N. & Q.” in the hopes that it may find a place somewhere in the pages of your valuable journal.”

In sort it seems very unlikely even if there was some veracity in the claim that the Linby legend spawned our long association between pancakes and Shrove Tuesday least of all that it cannot be proved it was on the said day.

A race for the origins

What is more evident is that making a pancake would use up the staples which were not part of the fast – namely dairy, eggs, fat and flour.

Certainly the name of Pancake Day for Shrove Tuesday was nothing new. Pancakes features in children’s rhymes at Shrove Tuesday from Skegby Stanton Hill Girl’s school. Nottinghamshire, the local children had a rhyme in the 1900s:

“Pancake day, pancake day if you don’t give us a holiday we’ll all run away. Where shell we run? Down Skegby Lane, here comes the teacher with the big fat cane”

To 1842 in Cornwall:

“Nicka, nicka nan ; Give me some pancake, and then I’ll be gone.”

In 1849 in Devonshire

“Lent Crock, give a pancake, Or a fritter, for my labour.”

And ad nauseum. Similarly, an interesting lost Shrove Tuesday tradition is recorded at Aspley Hall, which may have been more common countrywide. It is noted that the Lord and Lady of the manor would:                                

“provide batter and lard, fire, and frying pans, for all the poor families of Wollaton, Trowell and Cossall, who chose to come and eat their pancakes at his honour’s mansion, The only conditions attached to the feast were, that no quarrelling should take place, and that each wife and mother should fry for her own family, and that when the cake needed turning in the pan, the act should be performed by tossing it in the air and catching it again in the pan with the uncooked side downwards…”

One early origin is in Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry from 1620 which refers to the separate custom of feeding the first pancake to the hen. However custom magpie Thistleton-Dwyer again comes up with a solution to when it arose. Firstly he states that:

“In connection with the custom of eating pancakes on this day, Fosbroke in his Encyclopaedia of Antiquities (vol. ii. p. 572) says that ” Pancakes, the ” Pancakes, the Norman Crispellae,, are taken from the Fornacalia, on Feb. 18th, in memory of the practice in use before the goddess Fornax invented ovens.”

More significantly perhaps for Linby’s claims he then states:

“The Saxons called February ‘Solmonath,’ which Dr. F. Sayers, in his Disquisitions, says is explained by Bede’s ‘Mensis Placentarum,’ and rendered by Spelman, in an inedited MS., ‘Pancake month’ because in the course of it cakes were offered by the Pagan Saxons to the Sun.”

Whilst it does not mention the Linby story it does place the origins in the same period of time. However, in Robert Thompson Hampson’s  1841 Medii Ævi Kalendarium: Or, Dates, Charters, and Customs of the Middle Ages, Volume 1 is originally Swedish pankaka, an omelette but it has been absurdly derived from the Greek words for all bad in reference to the penitents at confession. If it does have such an origin I am sure that those originators would be amazed to see how the pancake has blossomed and continues to bear fruit in the 20th and 21st century and take over the day.

So in all it is difficult when to exactly to say why when pancakes became a staple all I know is that every year I think to myself I enjoyed those why don’t I have more often than once a year!?

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