Shrovetide is the English equivalent of what is known in the greater part of Southern
Europe as the "Carnival", a word which, in spite of wild suggestions to the
contrary, is undoubtedly to be derived from the "taking away of flesh" (camera
levare) which marked the beginning of Lent.
The English term "shrovetide" (from "to shrive", or hear confessions)
is sufficiently explained by a sentence in the Anglo-Saxon "Ecclesiastical
Institutes" translated from Theodulphus by Abbot Aelfric (q.v.) about A.D. 1000:
"In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess
his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then my hear by his deeds what he is
to do [in the way of penance]".
In this name shrovetide the religious idea is uppermost, and the same is true of the
German Fastnacht (the eve of the fast).
It is intelligible enough that before a long period of deprivations human nature should
allow itself some exceptional licence in the way of frolic and good cheer. No appeal to
vague and often inconsistent traces of earlier pagan customs seems needed to explain the
general observance of a carnival celebration.
The Church repeatedly made efforts to check the excesses of the carnival, especially in
Italy. During the sixteenth century in particular a special form of the Forty Hours Prayer
was instituted in many places on the Monday and Tuesday of Shrovetide, partly to draw the
people away from these dangerous occasions of sin, partly to make expiation for the
(fragment from Catholic Encyclopedia)
SHROVETIDE, last three day before the Lenten fast which begins on Ash Wensday. The
Lithuanian name for Shrovedite, Uzgavenes, lays stress on the third day, Shrove Tuesday.
The verb uzgaveti means "to eat well and heartily before beginning the fast."
Earlier the Lenten fast was struck, or as people used to say, "dry', i.e., without
meat or dairy products. One was also supposed to abstain from all merrymaking. Before that
long seven-week fast, the last day for merrymaking and excessive indulgence in food and
drink was Shrove Tuesday. On that day one would eat richly, often and to satiety.
In the Shrovetide customs, there are elements which are kindred to different nations. They
reach back to pre-Christian times when, to celebrate the coming of spring and the rebirth
of vegetation, fertility rites were solemnised. Under the influence of Christianity, the
pagan festivals of spring coalesced with merry-making of Shrovetide, and some have
remained to this day in the shape of carnivals and masquerades.
Shrovetide earlier was considered a semi-holiday. Some kind of work were continued,
others were avoided in the belief that success or misfortune depended on the choose.
Particularly characteristic of Shrovetide were the various masquerades and pranks which
are mentioned in historical sources from the beginning of the 15th century. At duck from
house to house went the masked men disguised in strange garments, transformed into animals
(a horse, a bear, a goat, a crane), demon with pitchforks, figures of death and other evil
spirits. As especially common practice was to parity local types: the Jewish peddler, the
tramp and the cunning gypsy, the pretended beggar, the doctor who was rarely seen in the
village, the uniformed soldier, etc. The maskers would make speeches, sing derisive songs,
act out the story of the decrepit old bachelor trying to woo a fair young maiden, splash
and spatter single men and women because they had not found mates. In Samogitia the groups
of makers would haul around on a sled an effigy in woman's clothing called More or Kotre.
After midnight she would be set on a mound and burned, or drowned; this meant the end of
winter. Related to the coming fast which was heralded by Shrovetide, there took place
impromptu battle between Lasininis (Bacon) and Kanapinis (Hempt); the latter, of course,
would win because in Lent oil of hemp was used. The stuffed effigy of Bacon was also
either burned or drowned. The amusements of Shrovetide were distinctive, improvised,
popular expressions whose original symbolism is lost in antiquity.
(fragment from Catholik Postilla)
(back to The Arousing of Thought)