This coming week, we will enter the season of Lent. Thinking about the history of this time tells us a lot about the church’s changing attitudes to those very Biblical ideas of fasting and penance.
To understand where this time came from, it’s helpful – oddly – to look first at Muslim practice. Muslims today have a month-long-season called Ramadan that looks quite ferocious to most Christians. Between the hours of dawn and dusk, Muslims can eat or drink absolutely nothing. This is very demanding in a hot climate, but they take this fasting very seriously indeed.
Christians looking at that example may wonder where on earth Muslims got this bizarre idea, but the answer is simple. When Islam arose in the seventh century, members of the new faith just took over the older Christian practice of Lent. In those times, the Christian Lent did not mean anything as simple as giving up chocolate or luxuries. It meant really demanding fasting, exactly like the modern Ramadan, a scale of self-denial that seems unimaginable to most Western believers today.
To see just what Lent meant in earlier times – between about 500 and 1600 – we can also look at some ancient churches around the world, like in Christian Ethiopia: “This fast follows the old law, for they do not eat at midday, and when the sun is setting they go to church and confess and communicate and then go to supper.” Even when allowed to eat, “they eat nothing that has suffered death, nor milk, nor cheese, nor eggs, nor butter, nor honey, nor drink wine. Thus during the fast days they eat only bread of millet, wheat and pulse, all mixed together, spinach and herbs cooked with oil.” A Western observer noted that “The severity of their fasts is equal to that of the primitive church. In Lent they never eat till after sunset.” They kept that up for forty tough days.
In medieval times, European Christians also behaved much like that. Some accounts suggest that, especially in Holy Week, Christians were expected to get by on two or three meals in the entire week, never mind in any given day.
People needed serious preparation to face such rigors.
Incidentally, and something we don’t hear so much these days, churches imposed strict prohibitions on people’s sexual behavior during Lent. Church courts took serious notice of babies born at dates that suggested conception during the forbidden time.
Medieval Christians got ready for Lent in the weeks before Ash Wednesday, when they would go to Confession to be absolved of their sins. The old English word for absolve is “shrive” – and that is why we have Shrove Tuesday. It fell in a season that the English called Shrovetide, “Confession Season.”
Lent in medieval times involved an absolute ban on meat. In Latin, it was the time of the “taking away of flesh” (carne levare), which produced our word Carnival. Some people think the word might stem from “Farewell, Meat!” (Carne vale!), but the underlying idea is the same.
Strict prohibitions extended not just to meat but also to dairy products, as well as fat and eggs. People ransacked their houses for these items and made sure to eat them up on a special day, while they still could. Pancakes were a great way of using up everything in the larder.
This day of last possible opportunity had different names. For French-speaking countries, it was Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras. Germans had the same name, as fetter Dienstag. Depending on where you lived, that pre-Lent time ranged far beyond the immediate Tuesday, and sometimes extended for weeks beforehand. Then as now, Mardi Gras and Shrovetide were times for partying, merrymaking, sports, and carnival, before the season of renunciation and fasting began in earnest.
Just imagine if a modern church tried to enforce those Lenten rules anything like as severely as in the Middle Ages. We would think we were dealing with some fanatical cult. Once upon a time, though, that was absolutely the Christian norm. What a radically different attitude this all suggests to the human body and the physical world. And also to the degree of devotion that could be expected of ordinary lay believers.
I am adapting this column from an earlier offering at this site some years ago.