Parliaments, politics and people seminar: Chris Kyle, ‘A Dog, a Butcher and a Puritan’: The Politics of Lent in Early Modern England

At our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar, Chris Kyle, of Syracuse University, spoke on  ‘‘A Dog, a Butcher and a Puritan’: The Politics of Lent in Early Modern England’. Here he gives an overview of his paper…

John Taylor, the Water Poet, named three Lenten enemies – a dog, a butcher and a Puritan. Taylor was no doubt correct but the the truth of the matter is that Lent found few friends in early modern England. In 1538, in the midst of the Reformation in England, Henry VIII, now Supreme Head of the Church, decided to intervene in the ecclesiastical calendar and provide new Lenten regulations. His intervention which relaxed some of the more stringent dietary prohibitions was not hastened by any religious change of heart but born out of a socio-economic problem – the skyrocketing price of fish during Lent and the consequent starvation of the poor. From here on in, until the last Lenten proclamation of 1664, the matter of Lent became a battleground of warring economic and regional factions, disruptive religious ideologues, exasperated government officials, and parliamentary intervention. Adding to the problem was the widespread evasion of the regulations both by the lower classes priced out of the Lenten market and the wealthier segment of society able to buy their way out. The paper traced the changing nature of Lenten proclamations, privy council orders and local regulations. In doing so it highlighted the inability of the state to enforce its will on a reluctant population despite incessant cajoling, the evolving severity of Lenten punishments, failed attempts to devolve authority to the localities and the clash between the remnants of ‘Popish’ rituals and the new Protestant emphasis on state-sanctioned fast days.

These proclamations on Lent quickly became a deeply resented intrusion into the daily lives of citizens for the forty days of abstinence from flesh and a matter of sustained parliamentary protest throughout the 1620s. Until 1619 the Jacobean government regulated Lent through a rote series of Privy Council orders which while obeyed in theory were largely ignored in practice. That year two strict proclamations were issued that quickly changed the game. Now partaking of flesh, killing or serving meat became a matter subject to an appearance in Star Chamber and punitive sureties were required of all victuallers, poulterers and butchers. These proclamations were now promulgated annually and draconian attempts at enforcement were made. The purpose of this state regulated Lenten fast was to ensure that people consumed fish during Lent. This would, according to the government, increase the number involved in the fishing industry and thus help to maintain the navy in times of crisis. But it failed in part due to the problems of supply and demand. There simply was not enough fish to feed the population. Furthermore, fish was widely regarded as having no nutritional value whatsoever, and in the case of the staple English foodstuff, salted red herrings, of tasting like chewing old leather.

In 1664 the Restoration government abandoned the 126 year-old tradition of Lenten proclamations. It was simply unenforceable, deeply unpopular, and came with a heavy administrative burden. The experiment of state regulation of the Lenten fast had failed.


Join us tonight for the next in our Parliaments, politics and people seminar – our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, will speak on ‘Mr Marvell goes to Westminster: the poet as parliament-man.’  Full details here.

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