I recently came across an interesting and unexpected note in the Plympton St. Mary parish BMD register. It was penned by the vicar in 1660 and had to do with a prohibition against eating meat during lent and read:
Whereas I sertainly know that Alice Parker
the wife of Edmond Parker Esq. of Burington
in the pish of Plympton St. Marie is under such
a distemper of bodie that she is not fitt to eat any salt
flesh or fish whatsoever therefore I think it fit as
Minister of the said pish to licence hir to eat flesh
during the time of hir sickness according to the laws
and statutes of this Realme made in that Behalfe
Given under my hand – March the 4th 1660
Note from Plympton St. Mary parish baptism register #414/1
The rules concerning what could be eaten during Lent originated with the Roman Catholic Church. And they came out of the practice of fasting by the Jews in ancient times. The types of banned foods changed over the years with considerable diversity in the practice in different parts of the world. Commonly, meat, dairy products, oil and wine were forbidden.
In Britain, the laws were retained even after the Reformation. Enforcement waxed and waned as the monarchy itself shifted from Protestant to Roman Catholic and back again. Forbidding the eating of flesh was not done altogether for religious reasons. Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) issued a number of edicts, mostly to support English food-producing activities. She was instrumental in the establishment of meat-free Fridays, a move done to protect the fishing industry. In 1562, Wednesday was added to the days for eating only fish. Charles II (1630-1685), in 1660, issued a proclamation “for restraint of killing, dressing, and eating of flesh in lent or on fish-days appointed by the law to be observed”. James II (1633-1701), a Catholic, reinforced the rule of eating no meat in 1687. After the Glorious Revolution, which brought Protestants, William and Mary to power in England, the laws were basically ignored. They were finally repealed in 1863. And excellent article on the subject appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of March 9, 1935 and can be read online here.
Individuals could seek relief from the laws about which foods could be consumed from the ecclesiastical authorities. This was generally done for reasons of health and with the support of a physician. That seems to be the case for Alice Parker in Plympton St. Mary. Her delicate condition obviously gave her serious problems with the consumption of certain types of foods and she was forgiven for eating any of them by the local minister. As an aside, Alice and “the Right Worshipful Edmond Parker Esquire” had seven children baptized in the parish. She was buried on April 11, 1664. The cause of her death was not listed.
Notes of this nature are not found often in old parish records, especially in BMD registers. So finding this one while browsing through, and transcribing the information was a surprise. On further investigation, it turned out to have some historical significance as well.
The image reproduced here is used with the kind permission of the rightsholder, Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.