The season of Lent, which stretches over the forty days from
Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, was a time of penance and fasting in the
Christian medieval world. Fasting saw a prohibition on the eating of many
foods, with meat, fat, milk and eggs being particularly forbidden. This may
seem harsh to us now but, in fact, the Church had cleverly imposed the
restrictions on a time of the year when the food reserves were most scarce
anyway. That is, in Spring, the food stocks from the previous autumn’s harvests
were at their lowest level after the long, cold winter. Thus, a social
disadvantage was refashioned into a spiritual benefit.
The scarcity, however did not stop people from thinking
about their favourite foods and, as the chickens did not stop laying
completely, there sprang up the practice of preserving the eggs – by boiling –
over the Lenten period, and often painting and decorating them in preparation
for the celebration of Easter Sunday morning. Resourceful medieval folk also
found ways to make mock, or substitute, eggs (at least as far as the outward appearance
of the egg went) by blowing out egg shells and then filling them with an almond
paste mixture, or even fish roe.
The prohibition on eggs also worked towards making them seem special, both as a food and a symbol and, unsurprisingly, various superstitions arose in relation to eggs at Easter. One such superstition was that an egg laid on Good Friday and kept for one hundred years, would turn into a diamond. Another was that eggs cooked on Good Friday and eaten on Easter Sunday would increase fertility (and the fertility belief also attached itself to the symbol of the rabbit/bunny – for obvious reasons!). And, if you were fortunate enough to bite into a double-yolked egg, future wealth was assured.
Of course, the religious significance of the egg at Easter was not overlooked, with adults hiding brightly coloured eggs for children to find in a symbolic reflection of the women finding Jesus’ tomb empty after his resurrection.
Happy Easter – eggs and all!
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).