Monday, February 04, 2008

Traditions Under Threat

Shrove Tuesday isn't what it used to be. You may have spotted several hundred media outlets lamenting the fact that people aren't so bothered with making pancakes these days. It seems that the fact no one is making a cheap but enjoyable snack is a sad mark of a country in irretrivable decline.

Since the story is based on a poll conducted by a flour manufacturer (and what's their methodology, hey? Does it use the proper psephological techniques? I rather doubt it) we might just dismiss it as a PR puff lazily lifted by news desks trying to fill their pages on the cheap. The trouble is that the pancake is just about last the last vestige of what was once a rich tradition of Shrove Tuesday festivities – mostly revolving around random acts of violence and cruelty to vulnerable people or animals.

Some villages do still enjoy the traditional football matches – the sort of violent, disorganised mêlée in which scoring a goal is regarded as unsporting and which even people who have an enduring hatred of all team sports would pay good money to see David Beckham pitched into.
The villagers of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, for instance, still enjoy nothing better than hours of wrestling and stamping each other into the mire but there is now an aura of quaintness about these events.

For in the past

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 Cornish used to enjoy a more utilitarian form of cruelty.

It was customary in Cornwall to take any one which had not laid eggs before Shrove-Tuesday, and lay it on a barn-floor to be thrashed to death. A man hit at her with a flail; and if he succeeded in killing her therewith, he got her for his pains. It was customary for a fellow to get a hen tied to his back, with some horse-bells hung beside it.

Of course, the true devotee of pointless acts of violence dressed in a veneer of tradition will always look to the oldest public schools of England to set the tone. The young gentlemen of Westminster School, for instance, have elevated the of tossing the pancake into an excuse for a good bit of character-building violence by fighting over a pancake which is hurled into a mass of boys. Wimpishly, the ritual has been sanitised somewhat "Due to the number of deaths, the ritual now only involves boys (and girls) selected from each house."

Other schools preferred to concentrate on the aforementioned cock throwing and were one of the last places to mark the start of day by ritually stoning a tethered fowl to death. As the Gentleman's Magazine noted, killing the bird with a carefully aimed broomstick is not as easy as it sounds and it could be dangerous to get too close to the bird. Lord Tebbit would, I'm sure, approve of the discipline and skill a revival of this custom would instill in youngsters.

But these Shrove Tuesday traditions are properly brought together by, inevitably, Eton College where a crow was wrapped in a pancake and nailed to the college door.

"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."

If those lamenting the loss of ancient traditions are sincere in their concerns, I hope they will be agitating to revive these, and other related customs. After all, the start of Lent is far too solemn a matter to be given over solely to cheap and tasty snacks.

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Blogger Quink said...

I think I could reinvent Throwing At Cocks to suit the inmates today's public schools.

Anyway, I'm making pancakes later. Are you?

2:25 pm  
Blogger Quink said...

inmates of, I should have typed

2:25 pm  

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