Graduate student contribution


In the English-speaking Christian world, Lent is the term for [t]he period including 40 weekdays (Mondays to Saturdays) extending from Ash-Wednesday to Easter-eve, observed as a time of fasting and penitence, in commemoration of Our Lord’s fasting in the wilderness (OED Lent, n.1). The word is derived from the Old English word Lencten, spring (Dalmais), a sense in which it is now obsolete. It has been used since Anglo-Saxon times to translate the Latin term quadragesima, forty days (lit. the fortieth day), from which most other European languages derive their word for Lent (Thurston).
Dalmais suggests that Lent may have originated in the late third century in the ascetic practices of Egyptian monasteries (Dalmais). However, how and when Lent was first instituted is a matter of conjecture. Twentieth-century Church scholars rejected an Apostolic origin for the custom (Thurston). Lent was—and, in the Roman Catholic Church, still is—related to the final period of preparation of adult candidates for baptism and to the congregation’s preparation for the Easter duty of reconciliation, as the sacrament of penance or confession is now known. While Lent recalls Jesus’ forty days fast in the desert, similar periods of fasting and wandering were undergone by Moses and the prophet Elijah. All of these occasions are commemorated in the Catholic liturgy during Lent.
Sundays are not fast days, so the Lenten period actually stretches over more than forty days. Since the sixth century, Lent has begun on the Wednesday preceding the first Sunday of the fast period. This day has been known as Ash Wednesday since about the tenth century, when the custom began of marking the forehead with ashes (Thurston).
In earlier times, only one meal a day was allowed, and all meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products were forbidden (Lent). During the Middle Ages, all forty weekdays of Lent were fast days. Exceptions to medieval Church laws on the subject were permitted on the payment of a fee, and relaxations, including a second light meal, were introduced from the tenth century onward (Thurston). The medieval prohibition on eggs and milk during Lent led to the popular customs of making gifts of eggs at Easter and making and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent began. This custom is dramatized in the final scenes of Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, in which the Lord Mayor Simon Eyre hosts a pancake feast for all the apprentices of London on Shrove Tuesday.
The observance of Lent continued in the Church of England after the Reformation. R.C. Bald notes that Lent in England was governed by the Privy Council, and that regulations prescribing the fast had existed in Queen Elizabeth’s time (Bald 40). During the time of James I, there appear to have been increasing efforts to enforce the fast. The Calendar of State Papers Domestic reveals that on 22 January 1608, a statement was made to James I’s Privy Council of the abuses of the butchers, in private selling of meat during Lent, with proposals for rectification of the same (James I 397). This led to Orders in Council, recorded in the Calendar on the same day and page, for restraint of killing and eating flesh in Lent, and for regulations to be observed by the butchers thereupon.
Bald indicates that royal proclamations of Orders in Council regarding Lent were made annually, and that they increased in severity until 1614. The regulations appear to have been frequently flouted, as indicated in a 1612/1613 letter from the Privy Council to the Lord Mayor of London (qtd. in Bald 40). Their enforcement may have created conflict between the Court and the City. The proclamations restricted the Lord Mayor’s authority, and he was required to collect bonds from innkeepers and butchers at the beginning of Lent as surety for its observance.1 As seen in 2.2 of Middleton’s play Chaste Maid of Cheapside, the regulations were enforced by promoters, or watchmen empowered to confiscate unauthorized foods and arrest their carriers. Penalties appear to have been financial, in the main.
Lenten observances are no longer legally regulated in England. The season is now observed in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches by abstention from festivities, acts of charity, and prayer, rather than by fasting and abstinence from meat, except, in most locations, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (Lent).


Cite this page

MLA citation

Devine, Marina. Lent. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Devine, Marina. Lent. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Devine, M. 2022. Lent. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Devine, Marina
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Lent
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#DEVI2"><surname>Devine</surname>, <forename>Marina</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Lent</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, Edition <edition>7.0</edition>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2022-05-05">05 May 2022</date>, <ref target=""></ref>.</bibl>