Shrove Tuesday, or as we know it to-day, "Pancake Tuesday" seems in the olden times to have been a season of merriment, horseplay, and cruelty, as if the participants were determined to have their fling ere Lent set in with its sombre feelings and proscription of joy. Prostitutes were hounded out of their dwellings with a view to segregation during the Lenten term; "cock-throwing" was indulged in, a cock being tied to a stake and pelted by the onlookers; and all kinds of rough games were played, the women and the men joining in the "fun." The frying and eating of pancakes is apparently the only item left to us of this rather choice list of festivities. Taylor in his Jack-a-Lent (1630) gives the following curious account of the custom:--
"Shrove-Tuesday, at whose entrance in the morning all the whole kingdom is inquiet, but by that time the clocke strikes eleven, which (by the help of a knavish sexton) is commonly before nine, then there is a bell rung, cal'd the Pancake-bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful either of manners or humanitie; then there is a thing called wheaten floure, which the cookes do mingle with water, eggs, spice, and other tragical, magical inchantments, and then they put it by little and little into a frying pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused dismal hissing, (like the Lernean Snakes in the reeds of Acheron, Stix, or Phlegeton) until at last, by the skill of the Cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a Flip-Jack, cal'd a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very greedily."
The piety of such people would seem to have gone sadly astray, for Shrove is a word derived from shrive which means, to confess; and there was apparently little of that element in the humour of the day, although possibly in the earlier days of the Church such festivities were not so pronounced. Still, they could never have been entirely absent, for Brand informs us that the luxury and intemperance which prevailed were vestiges of the Roman Carnival. The modern pancake, translated from the history of the past, seems to suggest the old saying, "Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die."
The custom of tossing the pancake on Shrove Tuesday is still kept up at Westminster School. It is interesting to compare the difference in details between the celebration in 1790 and 1910. Thus a writer in The Gentleman's Magazine 1790 says:--"The under clerk in the College enters the school, and, preceded by the beadle and other officers, throws a large pancake over the bar which divides the upper from the under school.
A gentleman, who was formerly one of the masters of that school, confirmed the ancedote to me, with this alteration, that the cook of the seminary brought it into the school, and threw it over the curtain which separated the forms of the upper from those of the under scholars. I have heard of a similar custom at Eton school."
In Sir Benjamin Stone's Pictures of National Life and History we read:--"The ceremony on Shrove Tuesday, though it has been modified slightly from time to time, has remained substantially unaltered for centuries. In the morning one of the vergers from the Abbey, bearing a silver mace, conducts the cook, who carries the pancake in a frying pan, into the great hall where all the boys are assembled. When the room was divided by a curtain, this was then drawn aside, and the cook threw the pancake over the bar towards the door, whereupon all the boys scrambled for it. Of late years only a few--one representing each form chosen by the scholars themselves--have taken part in the scramble. Going forward, the cook hurls the pancake aloft in the direction of the bar. If it goes clean over, the selected boys make a wild rush for it in an endeavour to catch it whole, and usually failing, then struggle for it on the floor. The one who secures it, or the biggest portion, is entitled to a guinea. The scrimmage is known as the 'greeze.'" To all appearance there is no great difference in the ceremony as contrasted with that of 1790, but the advent of an Abbey functionary is somewhat peculiar. The Eton custom is thus referred to by Sir Henry Ellis:--"The manuscript in the British Museum, 'Status Scholae Etonensis, A.D. 1560,' mentions a custom of that school on Shrove Tuesday, of the boys being allowed to play from eight o'clock for the whole day; and of the cook's coming in and fastening a pancake to a crow, which the young crows are calling upon, near it, at the school door. 'Die Martis Carnis-privii luditur ad horam octavam in totum diem: venit Coquus, affigit laganum Cornici, juxta illud pullis Corvorum invocantibus eum, ad ostium scholae.' The crows generally have hatched their young at this season."
A modern writer claims that pancakes as a food were first made in Catholic days to use up the eggs and lard that were interdicted during Lent; and because pancakes were an excellent stay to the appetite while the faithful had to wait long hours in church to be shrived by the priest in the confessional. Food made from stale eggs and interdicted lard was no doubt of a quality more useful for sport than digestion, but we shall have to look elsewhere for the origin of the throwing. Is it not to be found in the other sports which marked the old-time Pancake Tuesday?--the cock-throwing, the chasing, the general horse play? Here is a picture of the festivities over 170 years ago:--
"Battering with massive weapons a cock tied to a stake, is an annual diversion," says an essayist in The Gentleman's Magazine (1737), "that for time immemorial has prevailed in this island." A cock has the misfortune to be called in Latin by the same word which signifies a Frenchman. "In our wars with France, in former ages, our ingenious forefathers," says he, "invented this emblematical way of expressing their derision of, and resentment towards that nation; and poor Monsieur at the stake was pelted by men and boys in a very rough and hostile manner." He instances the same thought at Blenheim House, where, over the portals, is finely carved in stone the figure of a monstrous lion tearing to pieces a harmless cock, which may be justly called a pun in architecture. "Considering the many ill consequences," the essayist goes on to observe, "that attend this sport, I wonder it has so long subsisted among us. How many warm disputes and bloody quarrels has it occasioned among the surrounding mob! Numbers of arms, legs, and skulls have been broken by the missive weapons designed as destruction to the sufferer in the string. It is dangerous in some places to pass the streets on Shrove Tuesday; 'tis risking life and limbs to appear abroad that day. It was first introduced by way of contempt to the French, and to exasperate the minds of the people against that nation. 'Tis a low, mean expression of our rage, even in time of war."
One part of this extract is singularly corroborated by a passage in the Newcastle Courant for March 15th, 1783. "Leeds, March 11th, 1783: Tuesday se'nnight, being Shrove-tide, as a person was amusing himself, along with several others, with the barbarous custom of throwing a cock, at Howdon Clough, near Birstall, the stick pitched upon the head of Jonathan Speight, a youth about thirteen years of age, and killed him on the spot. The man was committed to York Castle on Friday."
The following from an old London newspaper shews that the sport of cock-throwing was then declining. The London Daily Advertiser, Wednesday, March 7th, 1759, says: "Yesterday being Shrove Tuesday, the orders of the justices in the City and Liberty of Westminster were so well observed that few cocks were seen to be thrown at, so that it is hoped this barbarous custom will be left off."
Now "throwing" was thus the spirit of the day in the old period; if they had not had enough fun from throwing at cocks, they pelted prostitutes and hounded them round the town. We can only conclude that throwing the pancake was a sort of kitchen expression of the "sport" of the season.