Fritter-filled Paunches: Pancake day in Reformation England

By Elly Barnett – @eleanorrbarnett

On the Monday before Lent, wrote comedic poet John Taylor in 1639, a farmer returned home to his wife ‘busily making Pancakes for him and his family’. After he criticised the quality of the fare – ‘the coursenesse of the flower, the taste of the Suite [suet- fat], the thicknesse of the Batter’ –  the farmer’s wife decided to teach her husband a lesson, ‘knowing he was better experienced in the Plough, than the Panne, and to eate Pancakes better than to make them’! Telling him to wait outside with his back to the door and the plate outstretched in front of him, she promised to toss the pancake through the chimney from which it would land merrily onto his dish. Instead, in retribution for his snide comments, the wife ‘came suddenly behinde him, & with the pan and all clapt the Pancake upon his head’. With his hair ‘well basted with the fat of the Panne’, the ridiculed husband scorned his wife as ‘an arrant Shrew’ and named the day ‘Shrewes Munday’ and the next ‘Shrews Tuesday’ in her honour.[1]

In reality, Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the more sober expectation that Christians attend confession before embarking on the forty-day Lenten fast which begins the day after on Ash Wednesday; ‘shrove’ from the word ‘shrive’, which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins. As Taylor’s tale attests, Shrovetide (starting from the 7th Sunday before Easter and culminating on the next Tuesday) was also associated with the consumption of pancakes. Although from the time of Henry VIII the Lenten ban on so-called ‘whitemeats’ (dairy products) had been lifted, pancakes became associated with Shrovetide as a way of using up eggs and fat before the fast. Similarly, the day before Shrove Tuesday was known as ‘Collop Monday’, when people feasted on collops, or cuts of meat, for the last time until Easter. The ringing of the church ‘Shriving Bell’, called English Christians to begin frying pancakes as well as to go to church.

In the changing religious climate of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ‘pancake day’ became a source of controversy. Whilst the Reformation slowly weakened the severity of the Lenten fast, Protestant reformers also sought to limit the Shrovetide festivities. To Protestant polemicist and preacher William Kethe, Shrove Tuesday was ‘a day of great gluttonie, suffeting, and dronkennes’, sins which he scorned Catholics for imagining were admonished after just one day of fasting ‘by Ashe Wensday at night’.[2] More generally, the Elizabethan Church, in the Second Tome of Homilies of 1571, rallied against gluttony, drunkenness, and idleness as unacceptable to a well-ordered and godly society.[3] The theatre, sports,  and musical entertainment that often took place at this time of festivity were equally seen as counter to the new kind of pious Christian sociability imagined by the so-called Puritan ‘reformation of manners’ effort, as an outpouring of sermons and printed polemic attests.

Despite these pressures, the pancake remained central to the conception of Shrove Tuesday in early modern England. One author’s nostalgic account from 1619 suggests that the flipping of pancakes offered as much joy then as it does to us today:

‘It was the day…
When euery Paunch till it can hold no more,
Is Fritter-fild, as well as heart can wish,
And euery man and maide doe take their turne,
And tosse their Pancakes vp for feare they burne,
And all the Kitchin doth with laughter sound,
To see the Pancakes fall vpon the ground.’[4]

Gervase Markham’s 1615 Pancake Recipe:

“To make the best Pancake, take two or three egges, and breake them into a dish, and beate them well: Then adde vnto them a pretty quantity of faire running water, and beate all well together: Then put in cloues, mace, cinamon, and a nutmegge, and season it with salt; which doue make it thicke as you thinke good with fine wheate flower: Then frie the cakes as thinne as may bee with sweete butter, or sweete seame, and make them brown, and so serue them vp with sugar strowed vpon them. There be some which mixe Pancakes with new milke or creame, but that makes them tough, cloying, and not so crispe, pleasant and sauoruy, as running water” [5]



[1] John Taylor, Divers crabtree lectures expressing the severall languages that shrews read to their husbands (London, 1639), pp. 3- 9.

[2]William Kethe, A sermon made at Blanford Forum in the countie of Dorset on Wensday 17. of Ianuarii last past (London, 1571), pp. 18v – 19r.

[3] For instance, ‘An homile against gluttony and drunkenness’, pp. 197-212.

[4] Anon., Pasquils palinodia, and his progresse to the tauerne where after the suruey of the sellar, you are presented with a pleasant pynte of poeticall sherry (London, 1619), D1V.

[5] Gervase Markham, Countrey contentments, in two bookes (London, 1615), p. 45.

Image: ‘The Pancake Bakery’ by Pieter Aertsen, public domain via Wikimedia commons:

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