“Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh … Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption.” Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74)
Writing in the middle ages, Aquinas had made a logical connection between the fast of Lent (40 days leading up to Easter) and the practice of not eating eggs and milk. This may seem strange when most hens come into lay in late January or early February, and most ducks are laying by March. Eggs don’t store for terribly long (though they can do when pickled) so in a time before refrigeration why not eat eggs during the period of their most prolific availability?
The answer lies in the breeding cycle of poultry. Eating spring eggs would be eating next year’s hens and ducks. This helps to explain why not eating eggs in spring continued after the Reformation in Scotland in 1560,even though the reformers gave up the ideas behind the Christian Year, they still needed to refrain from eating eggs in lent so that they would have continued poultry.
Pancake day, therefore did not ‘use up the last of the eggs’ but rather it was a time to mark the end of egg eating until the broody hens had brought out their young. This secured next year’s hens and ducks, for some people this was a part of their rent. In Peeblesshire, on 5 March 1650, Mr Andrew Hay, let out the steading of Newbie for three years. The rent includes 600 merks per annum (each merk was 13s and 4d Scots, so this adds up to a fair amount of money for the time), plus 2 stones of cheese, 1 stone of butter & 12 fowls (half capons, half hens). Each bird was valued at 10s. This would be a lot of potential profit to lose if the family ate the hatching eggs in spring.
So, enjoy pancake day with an outdoor free-range egg this year! And remember, that through lent, up and down Scotland, poultry keepers are tending the chicks which will be next year’s egg laying hens.