This Sunday is, according to the Christian Calendar, the fifth Sunday in Lent, which is called Passion Sunday or Care Sunday, and is the Sunday before Palm Sunday. It is the tradition in the north-eastern parts of Britain to eat a form of grey peas called carlin peas or carlings on this day. They are also traditionally eaten in the same part of the world on the fifth of November, Guy Fawkes Night (Bonfire Night) – which is when I remember eating them as a child.
The reason for the eating of these particular peas on these particular days is obscure. It seems probable that there is no religious significance at all, given there does not seem to be any connection between Passion Sunday and Guy Fawkes and the Gunfire Plot – and the fact that dried peas of one sort or another were basic fare for peasants for centuries, and for all classes in Lent. Several theories as to the tradition invoke the pease as being the cargo of a ship (usually Spanish) wrecked off the north-east coast of Britain and washed ashore at just the right time to save starving inhabitants or it being discovered and planted by curious gardeners. Other theories that I know of involve supplies of the pease saving besieged soldiers, and of it being a leftover of a pagan ritual of some sort - but there are likely many more ideas out there in history-space.
First, what, exactly, is the carlin pea? It is a type of field pea, grown specifically for drying, as distinct from a garden pea, which is grown to be eaten fresh. Other common local names include Pigeon Peas (because they were and are still commonly grown to feed those birds), Parching Peas, Black Peas, Grey peas, Maple Peas, and Black, Brown, or Grey Badgers. There is considerable confusion as to the exact species of pea indicated by the common names across the centuries, and it is likely that different varieties have been used at different times in different regions.
The dried peas are prepared by soaking overnight and then boiling till soft, after which their preparation can take several directions, depending on regional tradition. They may be dried (parched) again, and eaten as one would eat peanuts, out of a paper bag (which is how I remember them), with salt and/or vinegar, or they may be fried in butter, and sweetened, or not, and have rum added, or not. Sometimes the soft boiled ‘mushy’ peas are mixed with other ingredients and made into patties or pancakes.
The word carlin, or carling itself is extremely interesting. Nineteenth century dictionaries reference a Gy-carling or Gyre-carling, and give various explanations:
An etymological dictionary of the Scottish language (1808) has a lengthy entry on
Gyre-Carling, of which the relevant points to this discussion are that the name may represent
- The Queen of Fairies, who might carry off any unspun flax remaining on the last day of the year – causing the women of Fife into a fury of spinning before nightfall.
- “Or may be allied to Geira, the name of one of the Valkyriur or Fates of the Gothic nations … they received their name from … val, slaughter, and kior, lots …
A Glossary of North Country Words, by John and William (1846) gives:
Gy-carling, a sort of mischievous elf; It was formerly a common instruction, on the Borders that on Carling Sunday a person must eat carlings till he was so full that the gy-carling could not get a “grip of his waim”.
The Scottish Dictionary and Supplement (1843) by John Jamieson has:
Carlin, Carling: an old woman … A contemptuous term for a woman, although not far advanced in life; a witch …. The name given to the last handful of corn which is cut down in the harvest-filed, when it is not shorn before Hallowmass; when the harvest is finished about the ordinary time, it is called the Maiden …
Other sources describe the carlin or gy-carlin as a Hob-goblin, or as Hecate, the mother-witch of the peasants.
The Oxford English Dictionary has surprisingly little on the topic, giving the etymology of ‘carline, carling’ as arising from the Old Norse kerling = woman, especially old woman, and gives its meaning as:
Carline, Carling: A woman, esp. an old one; often implying contempt or disparagement…
There is clearly much more to discover on the history and folklore of carling peas. In the meantime, please enjoy the following recipe:
Pea Fritters or Cakes.
Cook a pint or three cups more peas than you need for dinner. Mash while hot with a wooden spoon, seasoning with pepper, salt, and butter. Put by until morning. Make a batter of two whipped eggs, a cupful of milk, quarter teaspoonful soda, a half teaspoonful cream tartar, and half a cup of flour. Stir the pea-mixture into this, beating very hard, and cook as you would ordinary griddle-cakes.
I can testify, from experience, that they make a delightful morning dish, and hereby return thanks to the unknown friend to whom I am indebted for the receipt.
Common Sense in the Household (New York, 1874) Marion Harland.