by Heather Elvidge
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day in Lent. The name derives from the medieval custom of marking parishioners’ foreheads with a dab of ash, as a reminder of mortality.
Nowadays we certainly don’t follow the medieval regime of fasting for 40 days — one meal a day in the evening, prepared without eggs, cheese, meat, or cooking fat.
Lent was a lean time for butchers, who could be fined or imprisoned for killing a beast or preparing a carcass. Their customers could only eat vegetable stew, bread, and fish. In the medieval mind, fish was a broad category that embraced anything living in water — beaver included — although mostly it meant salted herring.
For people who did hard, physical work the fast must have been a real trial, although local exceptions were allowed when alternative foods weren’t available. Sunday brought some relief, because it wasn’t a fasting day.
Add to the diet the social prohibitions on sex, marriage, and fighting, and it’s no wonder that Lent was unpopular. Some vented their frustration by making a Jack-a-Lent, a straw effigy that was hung up in public to be pelted with fish skins and other rubbish.
Relaxations of the Lenten code began in 1538 when Henry VIII, as Supreme Head of the new Church of England, permitted the consumption of dairy produce because fish had become so expensive. Catholic Mary restored the ban on dairy; Elizabeth I allowed it. The Puritans, naturally, abolished all Lent observances. Charles II restored the Lent fast in 1664, but there were fewer prosecutions for breaches, so eventually observance became a private matter. And so it remains to this day.
This month looks set to be cold to its end, with trees and shrubs staying sensibly dormant. But as the days rapidly grow longer, developments in the natural world will quicken pace.
According to folklore, sap starts rising in the trees on February 24, St Matthias’ Day. While that implies milder weather, the saint has a trick up his sleeve: “Matthias will break the ice when he finds any, and he will make some when he finds none.” So winter’s chill may not be gone after all. Fortunately, old Matty isn’t the most reliable weather prophet.
Happily, nature does respond quickly when conditions allow. February allowed us one truly spring-like day, and it brought out little clouds of winter gnats to dance alongside shrubs and hedges. In the crowd of tiny, milling bodies were some determined bungee jumpers — male gnats, attempting to impress the females with their bouncing prowess.
The month came clad in white, with frost and snowdrops; hopefully it will end in yellow with primroses, celandines and early daffs. Among this February gold will be winter aconites, often seen in the company of snowdrops. These relatives of the buttercup, with green ruffs under their yellow flowers, keep their buds firmly closed until the temperature tops 10C.