Most of you will know that, in the Christian calendar, the forty days preceding Easter is known as “Lent”. Though the stringency of requirements and restrictions associated with Lent in our present day have been relaxed greatly by Church authorities, some people can still be heard saying that they are “giving up chocolate/alcohol/coffee” in acknowledgment of the tradition that dates back to the earliest Middle Ages. The broad idea of eschewing something enjoyable for Lent is that the awareness is drawn away from self-gratification and directed towards a more spiritual focus. Sometimes, the money saved in effecting the self-denial is redirected towards a deserving cause, thereby adding a social dimension to the season.
Forgoing chocolate or coffee, however, is nothing when compared to the privations that accompanied Lent in medieval times. For our medieval ancestors, Lent didn’t mean just giving up something enjoyable; it meant a full fast, forty days (or more) on little more than scant amounts of the most basic foods – no meat, few vegetables, barely even a piece of daily bread. But this wasn’t because our ancestors were more strong-willed about abstinence than we are today. The word “lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon len(c)ten meaning “Spring season” and herein lies the clue to the origins of fasting as a Lenten practice.
The fact is that there was actually very little left to eat by the time the medieval people came to the spring season. Summer was their growing season, autumn was the season of harvest when the barns and granaries could be filled (depending on the fruitfulness of the fields). With limited means of keeping food fresh, by the time winter came around any stockpiles of food were starting to dwindle. By spring they would be all but gone unless carefully conserved. Wisely, then, the church refashioned the unavoidable hunger and scarcity into a purposeful (if not positive) experience. People were assured that “going without” in the material world today would ensure abundance in the heavenly world to come. Material disadvantage worked to spiritual advantage. And, by the time Easter morning arrived – along with the return of the growing season – feasting was the order of the day. Of course, feasting for the poor of the Middle Ages was quite different to feasting for the wealthy but, overall, the majority of the populace could at least enjoy eggs (and egg flans and custards), milk, butter, cheese, seasonal vegetables, fish (eels came under this category), bread, and some preserved fruits like figs and raisins.
And beer, plenty of beer (which, by the way, was a staple and so never given up for Lent).