The Politics of Pancakes

In England, Shrove Tuesday has not just symbolised feasting, fasting and family, but riot and rebellion, too. 

The Pancake Bakery, 1560, by Pieter Aertsen © Bridgeman Images.

On Shrove Tuesday 1270, the monks of Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest rewarded their lay manorial workers with pancakes, with the youngest employees also receiving a feast of beef, cheese and ale in the great hall of the abbey’s infirmary. This is the earliest known evidence of Shrove Tuesday pancakes in England.

The general origins of this tradition are familiar: medieval Europeans used up their meat and dairy in anticipation of the Lenten fast and its many prohibitions, gradually developing a festival of joy and raucous play, known by various food-related names like Carnivale (leaving off meat), and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). 

Yet the practices of medieval Beaulieu Abbey hint at another layer of meaning baked into the foods of Shrove Tuesday: a power to inform social relations, convey privileges to certain members of premodern society and even symbolise radical action. 

Accounts from other institutions in medieval England point to similar Shrove Tuesday customs. In the 14th century, the lords of Sherborne Manor in Dorset afforded their ploughmen dishes of meat, while the 15th-century staff of London Bridge received a drinking party. The youngest students of Merton College, Oxford were given cockerels to stage cockfights on Shrove Tuesday, a privilege (combining food preparation and blood sport) repeated in grammar schools and households throughout the country. 

While all levels of society, the lower ranks in particular, enjoyed Shrove Tuesday to some degree, these examples suggest giving was not indiscriminate during the festival. Rather, the main beneficiaries were chiefly youths or stipendiary workers (i.e. employees on long-term contracts). There is little evidence that serfs and day labourers, for example, received the same. At least in England, Shrove Tuesday gifts usually flowed downwards, but specifically to those connected to a household, in its extended premodern sense as a familial and economic institution. 

This pattern of giving set the festival apart from Christmas, Easter or the harvest, when gifts flowed up, down and across all levels of medieval society. In the early 13th century, Gervase of Tilbury wrote that the festival was a test of good hospitality and household management. The Augustinian canon John Mirk wrote similarly in a late 14th-century homily that it was a season for ‘full charity without feigning’, likened to the biblical jubilee, when all those ‘set with service and bondage … were made free in great joy and mirth’.

Householders granted food gifts and general liberty to those below them, theoretically in return for continued household cohesion and perhaps spiritual benefit. This social contract was maintained into the early modern period, with the humble pancake emerging as its ultimate symbol. 

The Tudor poet and gentleman farmer Thomas Tusser, for example, called Shrove Tuesday one of a handful of seasonal feasts ‘belonging’ to the ploughman. He warned that a good housewife should ‘forget not’ to provide the serving men and maids of the farmstead with enough ‘fritters & pancakes …for company [good fellowship’s] sake’. 

A similar imperative underlay Thomas Dekker’s late Elizabethan play The Shoemaker’s Holiday. It celebrates Shrove Tuesday as the quintessential holiday of London apprentices, featuring a pancake banquet hosted by the lord mayor. Yet here the pancake went beyond a simple treat for the servile, becoming emblematic of the greater liberty to which they felt entitled. As an apprentice proclaims in one scene, echoing John Mirk’s biblical analogy:

Every Shrovetuesday is our yeere of Jubile: and when the pancake bel rings, we are as free as my lord Maior, we may shut up our shops, and make holiday.

Even as Dekker’s play was written and performed, these Shrove Tuesday privileges were coming under threat in London. Fearing rowdy crowds, reform-minded authorities ordered householders to ‘suffer not any of their servants or apprentices to wander or go abroad [on] Shrove Tuesday’. Such orders seemingly had the opposite effect. During the 17th century, rioting became an annual Shrove Tuesday tradition, particularly in London. Crowds of craftsmen, servants and apprentices staked their age-old claims to the streets during the holiday, their targets and motives ranging from petty evictions of unwanted tenants to political plots against Parliament. Satirists and pamphleteers were quick to link this extreme manifestation of Shrove Tuesday liberty with the holiday’s most popular dish. John Taylor wrote in 1620, with tongue firmly in cheek, of ‘Necromanticke Cookes’ mixing pancakes with ‘tragicall magicall inchantments’, which made people ‘runne starke mad, assembling in routs and throngs numberlesse of ungouerned numbers’. During the tumultuous decades which followed, parliamentarian and royalist propagandists alike evoked the Shrove Tuesday pancake as a symbol of plebeian political power. 

Although such analogies were laced with humour, they spoke to genuine fears (sometimes realised) of Shrove Tuesday insurrection. 

By the end of the 17th century Shrove Tuesday rioting had faded as a distinct tradition, but other customs arose which menacingly enforced the privilege of pancakes. From the 18th century into the 20th, ‘Lent-crockers’ went door to door in communities of western England during Shrovetide, chanting demands like the following from mid-19th-century Somerset: ‘Flitter me, flatter me floor, if you don’t give me pancakes, I’ll beat down your door.’ 

Of course, not all Shrove Tuesday food-giving customs devolved into such unpleasantness. During the 19th century some farmers continued feasting on pancakes with their labourers, while apprentices in certain towns retained the privileges of the pancake bell. Yet the economic and social changes begun during this period would ultimately divest the Shrove Tuesday pancake of its deeper connections to social privilege and liberty. 

For, while Shrove Tuesday remains essentially an occasion for the household in England, that institution has fundamentally changed. It is now a private sphere, separate from the workplace and built around the nuclear family. No longer is it a public amalgam of family and industry populated with master and dame, children, servants, journeymen and apprentices, all temporarily bound together by a feast of pancakes.

 

Taylor Aucoin is a research fellow in History at the University of Exeter.