In 2017 the moveable feast of Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent, is known almost entirely for the consumption of pancakes. Historically matters, in certain periods, particularly the early C17th were a bit more exciting.
Shrovetide was the occasion for ball games, what Ronald Hutton in the definitive volume on British folk customs, Stations of the Sun, notes as ‘licensed misrule’.
By 1598 the ball games had started to develop into something wider. There were, Hutton records, riots on 24 out of the 29 Shrove Tuesdays in the early Stuart period (1600s). The riots took place mainly it seems in the northern areas of London and involved centrally apprentices but also craftsmen.
As ever the riots were not random but aimed at particular targets, in particular brothels and playhouses. Hutton records that between 1612-14 on Shrove Tuesday a Shoreditch brothel was attacked each year until it shut. On Shrove Tuesday 1617 a new Drury Lane playhouse was destroyed and prisoners freed from Finsbury prison by rioters.
Hutton notes that, while the targets may at least seem odd to modern eyes, they ‘fitted into a much older tradition of cleansing a community before Lent’. In other words the Shrove Tuesday crowd, in rioting, was seeking to destroy what it saw as the less moral parts of the early C17th economy.
The tradition of rioting died out only slowly and the mass playing of football on Shrove Tuesday still goes on in some place as a distant echo of earlier times/