Nostalgia: Ban on selling meat during Lent

In the heart of what was once the old town of Scarborough, appropriately on a site now occupied by the Victorian covered market hall, were two buildings vital to the welfare and income of local people: they were the flesh shambles and the fish shambles.

Tuesday, 15th March 2016, 7:00 am
Globe Street in Scarborough was once known as Greyfriargate and previously Fleshergate.

Nowadays, we associate the word “shambles” with a narrow shopping street in York or, colloquially, with “mess” or “muddle”, but its original meaning was a butchers’ slaughter-house where animals were killed and dismembered. Scarborians also applied the same name to the place where fish were gutted and prepared for the market. And Scarborough’s two open, street markets, held on Thursdays in Newborough and Saturdays in Low Conduit (Princess Square), were on either side of the two shambles. What has become Globe Street was once Greyfriargate and previously Fleshergate and the upper end of Merchant Row was once Flesher Row. Surprisingly, it seems that medieval Scarborough never had a Fishergate.

The medieval Catholic church restricted the eating of meat. At different times and places meat was forbidden on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, during Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and at Lent, the 40 days before Easter, and on the eves of certain saints’ feast days.

At the Reformation most of these religious fasts were abandoned in England, but then revived partly under Protestant regimes, not as devotional observances, but to encourage the eating of fish and support the country’s fishing industry. In 1549, Fridays and Saturdays were declared non-meat days; in 1563, Wednesday was added to the list. However, by 1600, communities were keeping some and ignoring other fast days. In Scarborough, only Friday and Lenten fasting were still enforced.

In January 1623, a royal proclamation required “victuallers and butchers” to enter bonds or recognizances of ten pounds each against killing, preparing, selling or even eating meat in their homes during the period of Lent. They were also forbidden to provide Friday night suppers for themselves, their families or strangers throughout the whole year. As a result, at Scarborough, the following month 26 brewers and victuallers, five butchers and two victuallers and taverners each entered their ten pounds, supported by two guarantors of five pounds each. From then on, a similar list occurs every year in the Common Hall minute book.

Yet a brief note dated May 1605 in the Corporation records suggests that in Scarborough at least the Lenten meat fast had never ended. It records that William Sheming had informed against Thomas Woodall, the butcher, “for killing calves during the tyme of lent”; and nearly half a century later, in 1648, Scarborough’s eight butchers were warned “not to kill any meat duringe the tyme of Lent nor to doe anything by themselves or servants contrary to the lawes”. Only one butcher, Christopher Steele, was permitted to “kill two calves in a weeke for sicke & weake persons”.

Scarborough’s master butchers, who usually numbered about half a dozen, were naturally reluctant to see “strangers” displaying their meat for sale. In October 1639, James Johnson, a “butcher of Seamer”, was brought before the sessions “for bringinge meate to oure markeitt and sellinge itt, itt beinge nott holesume for mans bodye and beinge forbidden by the trayde”. As was the custom then, Johnson’s unwholesome meat was burned in public near to the market cross, no doubt to the delight of Scarborough’s butchers.

In fact, 400 years ago, most people could not afford to buy meat in the open market. The more fortunate families kept a pig or a few chickens, usually in their own homes or yards. Indeed, at this time, Scarborough was so overrun with straying pigs in the streets, the markets and even in the cemetery that the bailiffs finally ordered that all of them should be kept in the Holms in the care of the town’s swineherd. Since owners would have to pay rent to the four tenants of the Holms, it seems likely that they would have preferred to hide their pigs at home. If the town pindar put your pig in his pinfold you would have to pay a fine for its release at the rate of 2d a foot. During times of plague in the town pigs were slaughtered without compensation to their owners.

Sometimes desperate, poor Scarborians resorted to poaching or stealing for meat. Reference was made earlier to the case of the two men and their wives who were caught in November 1624 stealing two dead sheep from Seamer’s fields and pleaded “necessity & hunger”. But this was an exceptional time of plague when normal trade and employment were interrupted. The penalty for such an act of felony would have been death by hanging.

It seems that Scarborians had a particular taste for pigeon pie. At the April sessions in 1627, Robert Heslegrave was said to have shot down pigeons and this offence by others was reported again in 1630 and 1632, the last in Falsgrave. Francis Sheppard, a sailor, went out with his gun for something bigger. He was brought before the court for shooting a goose flying over Throxenby Mere. He said it was an accident but no one believed him.

Hunting hares and rabbits with dogs was another illegal means of acquiring precious meat for the table. “Contrary to the statute”, Sam Wetherill was accused of keeping a greyhound to kill hares in the grounds of Scarborough castle. However, dogs seem to have been more of a menace to humans than animals. Residents who kept mastiffs were required by law to have them muzzled when they went abroad, which indicates that they were kept as house guards rather than as hunters. The fine for not muzzling a mastiff dog was one shilling. Only the official town warrener was permitted to keep hares and rabbits and they probably ended up on the bailiffs’ dinner table.

In Scarborough it was more sensible to kill the inedible. St Mary’s churchwardens paid a shilling for every fox head and fourpence for a foumart’s (pine marten).

[to be continued
next week]