A few years back the inimitable Fr Hunwicke offered us a brilliant post which about the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, nicknamed the “Festa ovorum”. THERE He is back for an updated crack it this year. HERE
Here’s his offering from 2015.
Well, that’s how they describe the Saturday before Quinquagesima year by year in the very inferior-quality modern Oxford University Diary with its cheapo imitation-leather cover which – since the University Diary starts with the penultimate week of August – is already looking rather tatty by now.
The origin and purpose of Festum Ovorum is pretty certainly exactly what each one of you will have guessed from first principles: as on Shrove Tuesday, to have a binge before Lent. It has stayed on the University Calendar since the Middle Ages … just as, in this University, All Soul’s Day and Corpus Christi and the Assumption survived the ‘Reformation’. We know that this was not just a custom in alma academia, but flourished throughout the neighbouring country areas, where, in their illiterate vernacular way, the worthy yokels just called it Egge Satterday. However, purely by coincidence, it became, in this University, linked with an academic deadline: the last day on which bachelors were allowed to ‘determine’; that is, to complete the exercises for the degree of MA. And academics had a ‘Determination Feast’ to celebrate this, which goes back at least to the time of Lord Richard Holland (nephew of Richard II) who had his Determination Feast on the 21st and 22nd of February, 1395 (yes, I have checked that in Cheney). As late as 1603, “all the bachelors that were presented to determine did after their presentation go to every college where they were determining and there make a feast for the senior bachelors, videlicet, of muscadine and eggs; figs; raisons; almonds; sack; [It’s difficult to get true sack these days and my inner Falstaff mourns.] and such like”.
I suppose all this was quite a luxury spread in those days. Now we could buy most of it in Sainsbury’s [grocery store chain] and carry it home in those little orange bags. Except for the muscadines, which (look it up in the OED if you don’t believe me) are sweetmeats (North Americans might say ‘candies’) made from a pod near the fundament (check that as well, if you like, in the OED) of an asiatic deer (its secretion may have been a sexual attractant) and regarded as an aphrodisiac since the days when the trade routes brought both it, and its Sanskrit name, from India to Byzantiuum. It is now vastly expensive since the poor things have been hunted nearly to extinction – ah, the compulsions of homo sapiens, the so-called animal rationale. But I gather that chemists produce a synthetic version, probably every bit as authentic as the ‘leather’ covers of the University Diary. [ROFL!] The English sweetmeats made from musk were called ‘kissing cakes’ or … um …. er … ‘rising cakes’ … I bet the synthetic musk has less potent Rising Qualities than the Real Thing.
And, this year,  by a neat coincidence, Festum Ovorum coincides with the Solemnity of S Valentinus! Dies bis potens!
Fr. Z kudos.
Let’s hear the Sack Speech: