Shrovetide is the English equivalent of what is known in the greater part of Southern Europe as the “Carnival”, a word which, in spite of wild suggestions to the contrary, is undoubtedly to be derived from the “taking away of flesh” (carne levare) which marked the beginning of Lent. The English term “shrovetide” (from “to shrive”, or hear confessions) is sufficiently explained by a sentence in the Anglo-Saxon “Ecclesiastical Institutes” translated from Theodulphus by Abbot Aelfric about A.D. 1000: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance]”. In this name shrovetide the religious idea is uppermost, and the same is true of the German Fastnacht (the eve of the fast). It is intelligible enough that before a long period of deprivations human nature should allow itself some exceptional licence in the way of frolic and good cheer. No appeal to vague and often inconsistent traces of earlier pagan customs seems needed to explain the general observance of a carnival celebration. The only clear fact which does not seem to be adequately accounted for is the widespread tendency to include the preceding Thursday (called in French Jeudi gras and in German fetter Donnerstag — just as Shrove Tuesday is respectively called Mardi gras and fetter Dienstag) with the Monday and Tuesday which follow Quinquagesima. The English custom of eating pancakes was undoubtedly suggested by the need of using up the eggs and fat which were, originally at least, prohibited articles of diet during the forty days of Lent. The same prohibition is, of course, mainly responsible for the association of eggs with the Easter festival at the other end of Lent. Although the observance of Shrovetide in England never ran to the wild excesses which often marked this period of licence in southern climes, still various sports and especially games of football were common in almost all parts of the country, and in the households of the great it was customary to celebrate the evening of Shrove Tuesday by the performance of plays and masques. One form of cruel sport peculiarly prevalent at this season was the throwing at cocks, neither does it seem to have been confined to England. The festive observance of Shrovetide had become far too much a part of the life of the people to be summarily discarded at the Reformation. In Dekker’s “Seven Deadly Sins of London”, 1606, we read: “they presently, like prentices upon Shrove-Tuesday, take the game into their own hands and do what they list”; and we learn from contemporary writers that the day was almost everywhere kept as a holiday, while many kinds of horseplay seem to have been tolerated or winked at in the universities and public schools.
The Church repeatedly made efforts to check the excesses of the carnival, especially in Italy. During the sixteenth century in particular a special form of the Forty Hours Prayer was instituted in many places on the Monday and Tuesday of Shrovetide, partly to draw the people away from these dangerous occasions of sin, partly to make expiation for the excesses committed. By a special constitution addressed by Benedict XIV to the archbishops and bishops of the Papal States, and headed “Super Bacchanalibus”, a plenary indulgence was granted in 1747 to those who took part in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament which was to be carried out daily for three days during the carnival season.