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Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Jack O' Lent: The Traditions and Customs of Ash Wednesday and Lent Tide

After the fun and frolics of Shrove Tide comes the solemnities of ‘Lent Tide’; the period of time which runs from ‘Ash Wednesday’ to ‘Good Friday’. The word ‘Lent’ derives from an old name for March, ‘Lenten Tide’, meaning the time when the days lengthen. During Lent Christians traditionally observe forty days of fasting to imitate Christ’s miraculous abstinence in the wilderness. In the past the rules of Lent were faithfully observed with only one proper meal allowed per day, yet eggs, dairy produce and wine were strictly forbidden. Sex too, was forbidden during Lent therefore Lent marriages were rare. As one old proverb says: ‘Marry in Lent and you’ll live to repent!’

Weather Lore

‘Wherever the wind lies on Ash Wednesday, It continues during all Lent’.

Jack-a-Lent

Jack-a- lent
One now defunct custom was the beating up of a ‘Jack-a-Lent’ or ‘Jack-O-Lent’. A Jack-a-Lent was a straw stuffed human effigy which would be dragged and beaten through the streets at the start of Lent and was then hanged from a tree until ‘Palm Sunday’, when it would be shot to pieces.

The Jack-a-Lent was said to represent Judas but this custom is more likely to have its roots in an age-old ritual of driving out winter. He is mentioned in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Lent in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-

LENT

I have already mentioned (p. 21, Pancakes and Football customs) the custom of " Lent-crocking ", but I can find no trace existing in Dorsetshire of the old Lenten custom or pastime of throwing cudgels at "jack-o'-lents ",—puppets usually stuffed with straw.
Barnes, indeed, in his Glossary (1863), p. 65, defines them as "a scarecrow of old clothes, sometimes stuffed ", and refers to Fielding,—" who was sometime in Dorset,' — as using the name in his Joseph Andrews (chapter ii). Barnes's reference here would appear to indicate that he knew of the word being used only as a scarecrow, and not as a pastime; for Fielding in this passage, in which he alludes to "Jack-o'-Lent" being the modern appellation of the god Priapus, can scarcely have used it as referring to any of that deity's attributes other than an agricultural one, — in this instance that of a " bird-keeper ", (See also Barnes's observations in his Fore-say (ante) as to " Jack-a-lent", p. 3.)
That the pastime, however, must at one time have prevailed in Dorsetshire is clear from an extract which the late Mr. Thomas Wainwright has given from the '" Cofferers' Accounts " for the year 1574-5 in his Bridport Borough Records (1898), p. 33 :— " Itm paid to Owyn for the making of Jack-a-lent and his hors hire — 4.s."

Brand, too, gives references to this practice from various Elizabethan and later dramatists. 
One of these, from Quarles' Shepheards' Oracles (1646), p. 88, gives the word as used in both senses :—
"How like a Jack a Lent
He stands, for Boys to spend their Shrovetide throws,
Or like a puppit made to frighten cows."
I have no evidence as to how this pastime was carried out in those days; though it is not improbable that it was the direct ancestor of our own modern, and still universally indulged in, amusement of " Aunt Sally ".
Extract below taken from the Chambers Book of Days February 10th 1864, details the tradition of Ash Wednesday.
LENT - ASH WEDNESDAY

It is an ancient custom of the Christian church to hold as a period of fasting and solemnity the forty days preceding Easter, in commemoration of the miraculous abstinence of Jesus when under temptation. From leaglen-tide, a Saxon term for spring (as being the time of the lengthening of the day), came the familiar word for this period—LENT. Originally, the period began on what is now the first Sunday in Lent; but, it being found that, when Sundays, as improper for fasting, were omitted, there remained only thirty-six days, the period was made by Pope Gregory to commence four days earlier namely, on what has since been called Ash Wednesday. This name was derived from the notable ceremony of the day in the Romish church. It being thought proper to remind the faithful, at commencement of the great penitential season, that they were but dust and ashes, the priests took a quantity of ashes, blessed them, and sprinkled them with holy water.

The worshipper then approaching in sack-cloth, the priest took up some of the ashes on the end of his fingers, and made with them the mark of the cross on the worshipper's forehead, saying, Memento, hemo, quia cinis es, et in pulverem reverleris (Remember, man, that you are of ashes, and into dust will return). The ashes used were commonly made of the palms consecrated on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In England, soon after the Reformation, the use of ashes was discontinued, as 'a vain show,' and Ash Wednesday thence became only a day of marked solemnity, with a memorial of its original character in a reading of the curses denounced against impenitent sinners.

The popular observances on Ash Wednesday are not of much account. The cocks being now dispatched, a thin scare-crow-like figure or puppet was set up, and shied at with sticks, in imitation of one of the sports of the preceding day. The figure was called a Jake-a-lent, a term which is often met with in old literature, as expressive of a small and insignificant person. Beaumont and Fletcher, in one of their plays, make a character say:

If I forfeit, Make me a Jack o' Lent and break my shins

For untamed points and counters.'

Boys used to go about clacking at doors, to get eggs or bits of bacon wherewith to make up a feast among themselves; and when refused, would stop the keyhole with dirt, and depart with a rhymed denunciation. In some parts of Germany, the young men gathered the girls into a cart, and drove them into a river or pool, and there 'washed them favouredly,'—a process which shews that abstinence from merriment was not there held as one of the proprieties of the day.

'Among the ancient customs of this country which have sunk into disuse, was a singularly absurd one, continued even to so late a period as the reign of George I. During the Lenten season, an officer denominated the 'King's Cock Crones' crowed the hour each night, within the precincts of the Palace, instead of proclaiming it in the ordinary manner of watchmen.' On the first Ash, Wednesday after the accession of the House of Hanover, as the Prince of Wales, afterwards George II, sat down to supper, this officer abruptly entered the apartment, and according to accustomed usage, proclaimed in a sound resembling the shrill pipe of a cock, that it was "past ten o'clock." Taken by surprise, and imperfectly acquainted with the English language, the astonished prince naturally mistook the tremulation of the assumed crow, as some mockery intended to insult him, and instantly rose to resent the affront: nor was it without difficulty that the interpreter explained the nature of the custom, and satisfied him, that a compliment was designed, according to the court etiquette of the time. From that period we find no further account of the exertion of the imitative powers of this important officer: but the court has been left to the voice of reason and conscience, to remind them of their errors, and not to that of the cock, whose clarion called back Peter to repentance, which this fantastical and silly ceremony was meant to typify.'—Brady


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