Pens, penance, and pancakes: the origin of shrove

tShrove, as in Shrove Tuesday, and the related word shrift, as in short shrift, ultimately derive from the Latin scrībere, “to write.”

For Francophones and many speakers of American English, today is Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” a day of gorging and gamboling before the solemn and abstemious Christian season of Lent. But a lot of other Anglophones will know today as Shrove Tuesday.  What is this rare and unusual word shrove, and where does it come from?

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Can my penance be pancakes? Image from pixabay.com.

Shrive dive

Shrove comes from an archaic verb shrive, “to hear or take confession.” It only survives, largely, in Shrove Tuesday, when Christians historically took a break from their merrymaking to confess their sins to a priest before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. In addition to Shrove Tuesday, some observers still mark Shrove Sunday and Shrove Monday, among other names, in their pre-Lenten mix of self-indulgence and self-examination. Together, these three days form Shrovetide, a time or season (“tide”) for shrift,  another form of shrive meaning “confession” or “penance.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates Shrovetide to around 1425 and Shrove Tuesday to about 1500, finding it “remarkable” that the form shrove doesn’t appear in the written record until the 15th century. For the root of shrove is very old. It comes from the Old English scrífan, “allot,” “decree,” “sentence,” or “impose a penance.” The verb is an early Germanic borrowing of the Latin scrībere, “to write,” re-borrowed in a host of words from scribe and script to description and manuscript.

Shifty shrift

But how do we go from writing to confession? The record is helpful here. The OED first attests scrífan in the late 8th-century writings of Egbert of York, a cleric who composed a penitential handbook (or scriftboc, “shrift book”). Such handbooks codified for priests different sins and prescribed their penances. Scrífan had the original sense of “drawing up a law” and “imposing a penalty,” as etymologist Walter Skeat provides, for its infraction – in writing. Ecclesiastically,  then, such penalties were penances. While scrībere was borrowed throughout the Germanic languages, the sense development from “write” to “impose penance” is peculiar to English and the Scandinavian languages.

Thrifty shrift

Shrift, meanwhile, really only survives in the expression short shrift. Today, to give (something ) short shrift is to give it little or no attention, while to make short shrift of something is to make quick work of it, Merriam-Webster explains. But back in the 16th century, short shrift referred to a small window of time a criminal had to make confession before execution. The earliest known use appears in Shakespeare’s Richard III, when Richard’s henchman Sir Ratcliffe bids a treason-charged Lord Hastings to “Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.”

We owe the modern meaning of short shrift  to another great writer: Sir Walter Scott. He used it in his 1815 poem The Lord of the Isles about the conflict between the Lord of Lorn and Robert the Bruce:

Short were his shrift in that debate,
That hour of fury and fate,
If Lorn encounter’d Bruce! 

Scott was known for re-popularizing archaic, Anglo-Saxony words, as we saw with the word henchman.

Speaking of Shakespeare, shrift occurs five times (and shrived once) in Romeo and Juliet, as Friar Laurence secretly marries the star-crossed lovers when the Capulets think Juliet is simply off at the chapel taking shrift – which she actually does, as Christians historically took confession before matrimony. Shrive also appears in a famous rhyme in The Merchant of Venice, when Portia jeeringly wishes of the courting Prince of Morocco: “I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.” 

Shrove itself appears once in all of Shakespeare – and in the very phrase Shrove Tuesday. In the comedy All’s Well That Ends Well, the Countess is questioning her clown, Lavatch. She asks him, “Will your answer fit all questions?” and he answers:

As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney, as your French crown for your taffeta punk, as Tib’s rush for Tom’s forefinger, as a pancake for Shrove Tuesday, a morris for May Day, as the nail to his hole, the cuckold to his horn, as a scolding quean to a wrangling knave, as the nun’s lip to the friar’s mouth, nay as the pudding to his skin.

There’s a lot to unpack in Lavatch’s banter, but a pancake for Shrove Tuesday? As many in the UK, Ireland, and Commonwealth countries know, Shrove Tuesday is Pancake Day or Pancake Tuesday, when it’s customary to eat pancakes. As Lent is a time of sacrifice, it’s said, households historically used up all their rich and tempting eggs, butter, and sugar before Lent by making pancakes. In some towns, as Scarborough continues today, churches rang a pancake bell, signaling to stop the work – and start the pancakes. That’s one custom that definitely doesn’t deserve short shrift.

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2 thoughts on “Pens, penance, and pancakes: the origin of shrove

  1. There is no mention of the shrove. A story of a large maggot that is caught by its mating call by a highly trained small dog. The shrove is baked and served with pees pudding. The skins fed to the dogs as a prize for there hunting.
    A gypsy tale told to traveller children throughout Europe.

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