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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 May 2011

Win a flitch of bacon!


Back in the Middle Ages, between the time of King John, when knights were going on crusade, and the Reformation, a curious custom arose in the flats of Essex. At the priory of Dunmow, devoted monks conducted an exercise aimed at showing the comic side of human nature and perhaps thumbing their holy noses at the idea of matrimonial bliss.

To prove that harmony between married people for any length of time was impossible, they proclaimed that if any couple could come forward after a year of marriage and make an oath at Dunmow that they had (1) never had a quarrel, (2) never regretted their marriage, and (3) would make exactly the same choice again, then that couple would be rewarded with a flitch (side of cured pork) of bacon.

In 1455, Richard Wright, a laborer from Bradbury, made a claim with his wife in the presence of the convent and a number of neighbors, and he won his flitch. In 1467, Stephen Samuel, a husbandman in Essex, also made the proper oath and won his bacon. And a third couple, Thomas le Fuller of Essex and his spouse made good his claim and also carried off the bacon.

Dunmow was one of the religious houses suppressed by Henry VIII, as Defender of the Faith; one wonders if Henry suppressed the house because none of his marriages could qualify for the prize.

Later, in 1701, one William Parsley, a butcher, and his wife Jane presented a claim for their “quiet, peaceable, tender, and loving cohabitation” and swore to the court they were entitled to the bacon. Parsley and Jane had been married 3 years. Another couple won the flitch in 1763, after which the custom was discountenanced by the lord of the manor and the swearing stones removed from the churchyard.

The next couple, John Gilder and his wife, came in 1772 to claim the bacon but found the priory gates locked and they went away empty-handed.

One wonders how many 21st century couples would qualify.

Source: The English Year, by Roy Strong and Julia Trevelyan Oman, 1982.

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