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From ‘liquid flesh’ to chocolate – a brief history of Easter Eggs

by Elly Barnett – @eleanorrbarnett

Elly is an MPhil student in Early Modern History. Her current research focusses on the links between food and the English Reformation.

For most of us, the long Easter weekend was filled with family, drink, and an excessive amount of chocolate. Of course, Easter Sunday is the principal Christian feast in the liturgical calendar, a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Recent historians of the medieval and early modern period have recognised that religious identity is linked to the physical self rather than just the intellectual mind, involving taste, smell and touch.[1] With that last piece of chocolate egg remaining, then, I offer some thoughts on the history of Easter eggs in England and their importance to the religious experience of medieval and early-modern Christians.

Across medieval Europe, Easter Sunday was the first time that dairy products had been eaten since Shrove Tuesday, when remaining stocks of eggs and other foods were consumed (sometimes in the form of pancakes) in preparation for the forty-day Lenten fast that recalled the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Dairy, or “white meats”, were banned on Christian fast days, in extension of the ban on meat, since, as Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74), wrote, ‘they originate from animals that provide us with flesh’.[2] At the fall of Adam God cursed the Earth and its creatures. Christian fasting therefore involved abstinence from earthly animals, and an increase in the consumption of fish, which had escaped God’s curse from the protection of the water. In fact, eggs and milk were understood, according to Elizabethan Protestant Thomas Twyne, as ‘liquid flesh’ and white blood, respectively. It follows that eggs stored up over the period of Lent were consumed on Easter Sunday.

The association of eggs with Easter extended beyond the cycles of fast and feast. Eggs had long been pagan symbols of fertility and birth, and this symbolism took on new depths to Christians in remembrance of Christ’s rebirth. Hard-boiled eggs were brought to Church on Easter Day and blessed with holy water, along with the Pascal lamb and herbs.[3] Eggs, then, were imbued with specific religious significance, physically and symbolically. The physical consumption of eggs was thought to translate into a real spiritual benefit, whilst the consumer contemplated Christ’s resurrection.

Finally, the consumption of eggs at Easter was a ritual of social significance. Following the blessing of eggs at church, the laity consumed them together. They were also given as presents at Easter. During Edward I’s reign, orders were given that 400 eggs be boiled and distributed to the royal household on Easter Sunday.[4] Henry VIII, before his break with Rome, received an egg enclosed in a silver case as a present form the Vatican.[5] Moreover since tithes were often presented in food, it is unsurprising that the laity often presented eggs to the church at Easter. At Wycombe, for instance, in 1221 the vicar received the right to a tenth of the eggs and cheese presented at Easter.[6] As at other religious festivities like Christmas, food was central to rituals of gift-giving and accordingly in the maintenance of social bonds and hierarchies.[7]

With the Reformation came a deep-set unease about ritual, bodily excess, and the relationship between spirituality and materiality. Henry VIII removed the ban on “white meats” during Lent, so that the taste of egg was no longer desperately desired on Easter Day.[8] Protestant authors mocked those the ‘papist fast’ that would not even allow a poor man an egg on a fast day.[9] Countless Protestant treaties undermined the ritual significance of eggs through the rejection of holy water blessings, and of other foods, like holy bread, which had been consumed in the church space. As the Eucharist bread was now understood as a symbol of the blood of Christ, the physical consumption of eggs or other foods could no longer directly impact a person’s spirituality. Although it seems that eggs continued to be associated with Easter time, their religious significance was altered during the Reformation.

Easter eggs were an important part of religious and social experience in medieval and early-modern England. Perhaps, in mass-produced chocolate form, eggs continue to speak of the society that consumes them today.

[1] See, Matthew Milner, The Senses and the English Reformation (Farnham, 2011).

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, online http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.SS_Q147_A8.html (29 March 2016).

[3] Anon., the doctrine of the Masse book, co[n]cerning the making of holye water, salt, breade, candels, ashes, fyre, insence, pascal, pascal lambe, Egges, and herbes (1554) STC 6934.5

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford, 1996), p.198

[6] Bridget Ann Henisch, Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (London, 1976), p.54.

[7] See, Felicity Heal, ‘Gifts and gift-exchange in the great household: 1500-1650’, Past and Present (2008).

[8] Henry VIII, ‘A Proclamation concerning eatyng of white meates’ (London, 1542), STC 7798.

[9] For example, William Alley, Ptochomuseion= tHe poore mans librarie Rapsodiae… (1565), STC 1163:08.

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