le carnaval de la mi-carême, Nantes (France) – photograph: MaxPPP/France-Soir
Shrovetide is the period comprising Quinquagesima Sunday, or Shrove Sunday, and the two following days, Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday. It immediately precedes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
(Quinquagesima is short for ecclesiastical Latin quinquagesima dies, fiftieth day, because, counting inclusively, Quinquagesima Sunday is the fiftieth day before Easter Sunday.)
It was formerly customary, in preparation for Lent, to attend confession during Shrovetide. The element shrove is from the verb to shrive, which meant, of a priest, to hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve, from Old English scrífan, to prescribe penance. (In Shrovetide, the use of the past shrove is anomalous but can perhaps be compared to that of spoke, past of to speak, in spokesman.)
To shrive is related to Dutch schrijven and German schreiben, which both mean to write. These three verbs are based on Latin scribere, meaning literally to scratch, engrave with a sharp point, hence to write (cf. script and scribe). To mean to form by carving, to write, Germanic languages such as Dutch and German replaced their native verbs by those based on the Latin scribere, whereas English has retained the native to write and uses to shrive in a specialised sense.
In Shrovetide, tide has the sense of a festival of the Church, as in Yuletide for example. The primary meaning of tide, which is related to time, is portion of time. The use of the word to mean the alternate rising and falling of the sea arose from a particular application of the sense fixed time.
Though named for their religious significance, Shrovetide, and Shrove Tuesday in particular, were marked by feasting and celebration traditionally preceding the observance of the Lenten fast. This is why, from the element Shrove-, the verb to shrove was coined to mean to make merry, especially in to go a-shroving. For example, in a letter dated 12th February 1620, John Chamberlain (1553-1628) wrote to Sir Dudley Carleton (1573-1632), English ambassador to the United Provinces (the Netherlands):
We hear the king will be here within this fortnight, and spend all the Lent hereabout. They pass the time merrily at Newmarket, and the running masque reigns all over the country, where there be fit subjects to entertain it; as lately they have been at Sir John Crofton’s, near Bury; and, in requital, those ladies have invited them to a masque of their own invention, all those fair sisters being summoned for the purpose; so that on Thursday next, the king, prince, and all the court, go thither a shroving.
The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction of 28th February 1829 described humbler festivities:
Collop Monday is the day before Shrove Tuesday, and in many parts is made a day of great feasting on account of the approaching Lent. It is so called, because it was the last day allowed for eating animal food before Lent; and our ancestors cut up their fresh meat into collops, or steaks, for salting or hanging up until Lent was over; and even now in many places it is still a custom to have eggs and collops, or slices of bacon, for dinner on this day.
In Westmoreland, and particularly at Brough, where I have witnessed it many times, the good people kill a great many pigs about a week or two previous to Lent, which have been carefully fattened up for the occasion. The good housewife is busily occupied in salting the flitches and ham to hang up in the “pantry”, and in cutting the fattest parts of the pig for collops on this day. The most luscious cuts are baked in a pot in an oven, and the fat poured out into a bladder, as it runs out of the meat, for hog’s-lard. When all the lard has been drained off, the remains (which are called ‘cracklings’, being then baked quite crisp) resemble the crackling on a leg of pork, are eaten with potatoes, and from the quantity of salt previously added to them, to preserve the lard, are unpalatable to many mouths. The rough farmers’ men, however, devour them as a savoury dish, and every time “lard” is being made, ‘cracklings’ are served up for the servants’ dinner. Indeed, even the more respectable classes partake of this dish.
Pig-fry. This is a Collop Monday dish, and is a necessary appendage to ‘cracklings’. It consists of the fattest parts of the entrails of the pig, broiled in an oven. Numerous herbs, spices, &c. are added to it; and upon the whole, it is a more sightly “course” at table than fat cracklings. Sometimes the good wife indulges her house with a pancake, as an assurance that she has not forgotten to provide for Shrove Tuesday. The servants are also treated with “a drop of something good” on this occasion; and are allowed (if they have nothing of importance to require their immediate attention) to spend the afternoon in conviviality.
In French, Shrove Tuesday is le Mardi gras, in which the adjective gras is not used in its usual sense of fat. Traditionally, un jour gras was a day on which consumption of flesh, of meat, was allowed by the Roman Catholic Church, and faire (or manger) gras meant to eat meat. This is why Shrovetide is les jours gras in French. Conversely, un jour maigre (cf. English meagre) was a day on which abstinence from meat was ordered and faire maigre was to abstain from meat.
Similarly, a dish known as choux gras was made of cabbage prepared in meat gravy. The familiar French phrase faire ses choux gras (de quelque chose), literally to make one’s ‘choux gras’ (out of something), means to use (something) to one’s advantage.
The carnival is an annual festival before Lent in Roman Catholic countries, involving processions, music, dancing and the use of masquerade. The word is from Italian carnevalo, carnevale, (whence French carnaval), an alteration of Medieval Latin carnelevare, literally the putting away of flesh (as food), from Latin caro/carn-, flesh, and levare, to put away. The name was originally proper to the eve of Ash Wednesday, but was commonly extended to the last three days or the whole week before Lent. In France it comprised le Jeudi gras, le Dimanche gras, le Lundi gras and le Mardi gras, i.e. Thursday before Quinquagesima, Quinquagesima Sunday, Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday; in a still wider sense it included the time of entertainments intervening between Twelfth-day, or Boxing Day, and Ash Wednesday. In France, le carnaval de la mi-carême, Mid-Lent carnival, is still a festivity held on the middle Thursday of Lent, from the tradition of celebrating, on this day-long respite from Lenten fasting, the fact that the first half of that season was at an end.
The French noun carême, meaning Lent, is from an unattested Late Latin quaresima, alteration of ecclesiastical Latin quadragesima (dies), fortieth (day) (before Easter Sunday). In English, Quadragesima (Sunday) denotes the first Sunday in Lent.
—Lent runs from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, and so includes forty weekdays: Ash Wednesday, the Thursday, Friday and Saturday that follow it, and six days in each of the following six full weeks (all Sundays, and not simply Easter Sunday, being days to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, it was forbidden to fast or do other forms of penance on those days).