Hannah Moore

Why did Shakespeare find pancakes so funny?

The English have been eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for a very long time. Originally it was a way of using up eggs before the Lenten fast: the Saturday before Ash Wednesday was called Festum Ovorum or Egg Saturday, when all the eggs would be collected in preparation for the pancake making.

Shrovetide in early modern England was a time for mischief and merriment, a chance to indulge. Feasting, games and blood sports featured – especially cockerel throwing, whereby boys would charge passers-by to try to land a hit on a pinioned bird with a cudgel.

On Shrove Tuesday the church bells rang out, calling parishioners to confess their sins and receive penance – to be ‘shriven’. The bells rang while wives and cooks were making pancakes in the kitchen. Eventually pancakes had their own bell in churches all over England. Thomas Hearne writes in the 18th century: ‘It hath been a custom in Oxford for the scholars of all houses, on Shrove Tuesday, to go to dinner at 10 clock, at which time the little bell call’d Pan-cake Bell rings.’ A few of these bells remain intact: there is the Fritter bell in Maidstone and the Old Pancake Bell in Northamptonshire.

Because of the association with mischief and indulgence, pancakes aroused resentment in some Protestant hearts. A poet named John Taylor wrote in 1620 that the sound of the Pancake Bell ‘makes thousands of people distracted and forgetful either of manners or of humanitie’. His suspicion of pancakes is almost superstitious: he believed the batter was made not just with eggs and flour, but with ‘tragical magical inchantments’, concoted by ‘sulphory necromanticke cookes’.

The Elizabethans’ Shrove pancakes were made with beef and dipped in mustard.

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