Custom demised: Jack O’ Lent

Standard

jack of lent

“you little Jack-a-Lent, have you been true to us;”

Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor

Aside the obvious Christian observation of the day, Ash Wednesday, is little else noted. However certainly from the Tudor period onwards, and possibly earlier, a curious custom was widespread across the country. For at the beginning of Lent, communities would make a straw figure called Jack O Lent which was paraded through the streets and abused. Often made up of straw and castoff clothes, he would be burnt, shot at, or thrown down a chimney to much merriment and pleasure.

By Tudor and Elizabethan times it was well known, as noted by Shakespeare who quotes it twice, for Falstaff remark later in the Merry Wives states:

“how wit may be made a Jack-a-Lent, when ’tis upon ill employment!”

Beaumont and Fletcher’s A Tamer Tam’d  in 1606-7 state:

“If I forfeit, Make me a Jack o Lent and break my shins, For Boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee.”

And in the Coxcomb 1608-10:

“Come, I’ll lead you in by your Jack a lent hair, go quietly, or I’ll make your crupper crack.”

A Shakespearian actor, Elderton, even recalled the custom in a ballad called Lenton Stuff:

“When Jakke a’ Lent comes justlynge in,
With the hedpeece of a herynge,
And saythe, repent yowe of yower syn,
For shame, syrs, leve yowre swerynge:
And to Palme Sonday doethe he ryde,
With sprots and herryngs by his syde,
And makes an end of Lenton tyde”

Who was Jack?

Generally it is thought that the image was said to be Judas Iscariot, but it may have an older and deeper meaning. Considering the time of year it may be a pagan figure who’s ritual abuse would record the turn of the year, a Winter god who dies when Spring is reborn. Sadly, as Ronald Hutton (1996) in his Stations of the Sun notes there does not appear any pre-Tudor note but its widespread discussion suggests an older origin. What is particularly interesting is the prevalence of the custom in the city of London and indeed he was seen in pageants. Such as pageant of Easter 1553 had him on his death bed, with a priest shriving him of sin and a wife begging a doctor to save his life for a thousand pounds, as a Lord of Misrule, representing the feasting of Easter looked on. Certainly, this is a symbolism that supports the Winter-Spring iconography. When Henrietta Maria made her entry into London, on June 16th 1625, a ballade called ‘Jack of Lent’s Ballad’ was constructed recalling such rich pageantry. Indeed, Jack O Lent figures highly through Jacobean to Restoration times if his numerous literary references are to be believed as a figure of worthlessness and ridicule. In 1611 John Crooke’s Greene’s Tu quoque notes of it

“for if a Boy, that is throwing at his Jack o’ Lent chance it hit me on the shins.”

Ben Jonson, in his 1633 Tale of a Tub, makes light of someone in need of begging by stating:

Thou cam’st but half a thing into the world,

And wast made up of patches, parings, shreds;                                                      

that when last thou wert put out of service, 

Travell’d to Hampstead Heath on an Ash Wednesday 

where thou didst stand six weeks the Jack of Lent, 

For boys to hurl three throws a penny at thee 

To make thee a purse.”

In Francis Quarles Shepherd’s Oracles dating from 1646

“How like a Jack a Lent, He stands for Boys to spend their Shrove-tide throws, Or like a puppit made to frighten crows.”

Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene note in the Old Comedy of Lady Alimony of 1659:

“Throwing cudgels, At Jack a lents or Shrove Cocks”

However, as figure of ridicule and pageantry it appears to disappear, certainly from London, probably as a result of Puritanism’s effect on Lent. However, it appears to survive elsewhere in name and occasionally in physical form until recent times. In Oxfordshire children would cry at least until the 17th century:

“Harings, harings white and red,

Ten a penny Lent’s dead,

Rise dame and give an egg,

Or else a piece of bacon,

One for Peter two for Paul

Three for Jack a Lents all,

Away Lent throw away.”

Elsewhere, mention is made of shying a Jack O Lent at Minehead by Palmer in Folklore of Somerset (1976). Oddly, in one case a permanent Jack O Lent existed. This was at Midsomer Norton, where a church effigy of the Gourney family was the subject of local egg and rock throwing when he ended up in the vicarage garden after the old church was demolished.  Whether in any cases it was paraded as such is unclear.  However, such parades may have been widespread. A mention is made of him in supposedly a similar procession at Worcester according to Chamberlain accounts of 1653. More significantly on Nickanan night in Cornwall and a parade of a Jack O Lent is noted in Polperro Cornwall as late as 1876. Indeed, in Lincolnshire the custom survived until the 1920s, when a Swineshead man in recalls perhaps the last Jack of Lent:

When I was about 15 years old, 70 years ago, they used to make an effigy of Judas from straw and hang it up on Boston market place near the old stocks. The idea was for folks to throw a clod of muck at it for betraying Jesus. If any of it was left at the end of Lent it was torn down or set on fire to: that was to make sure it got finished properly.”

This may not be strictly true of course, as the last although again not perhaps called as such burned away in Liverpool in the incendiary custom of Burning Judas, although Steve Roud (2008) in his The English Year believes this association to be a latter one…probably the Liverpool custom has the same origin but were not related. Perhaps we will never know…

copyright Pixyledpublications

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