When I was a child, I became confused when adults started talking about Monday Thursday. What were they on about now? Which was it? Was it a Monday or was it a Thursday? It was obvious that they were talking about the day that came after a Wednesday, so that meant that it should be a Thursday, then why on earth were they calling it Monday? It didn’t make any sense.
Of course, I’d misheard. They were talking about Maundy Thursday, the day that comes before Good Friday, which was interesting to the younger me because it meant that Lent was almost over and we could all get back to eating normally and there was always a chance of chocolate in the immediate future too. Maundy was just another of those strange words that adults used when they were talking about ‘Church’, words like Assumption or Ascension, words that you didn’t know what they meant, apart from them being something to do with ‘Church’ and you didn’t ask too many questions about that unless you wanted to attract the attention of the nuns. And nobody in their right mind wanted anything like that to happen.
It’s still a strange word, even now, and as with many strange words there are conflicting accounts of the word’s origin. The ‘Church’ version, what you might call the official version, is that Maundy is a corruption of the word ‘Mandate’, the day being designated Dies Mandati in the old prayer books. This comes from the first word of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13, verse 34,
“A New Commandment I give to you, Love one another,”in Latin,“Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem.”
|Christ Washing the Feet|
Immediately before this, Christ washes the feet of his disciples, and this action was taken up as a form of penance and outward show of humility in the early church.
In the Voyage of St Brendan, (who lived c. 484 to c. 577), which was written in about 1000 CE, is this account of his landing on the Isle of Sheppey,
“The Procurator came to meet them and welcomed them anon,And kissed St. Brendan's feet, and the monks, each one;And set them to supper, for the day it would so.And then he washed their feet all, the Maundy for to do.They held there their Maundy, and there they stayed,On Good Friday all the long day, until Easter Eve.”
|The Voyage of St Brendan|
In addition to the washing of the feet, it became to custom for Kings, Princes and nobles to distribute food, drinks, money and other gifts to the deserving poor. In 1327, there is a record of Edward II washing the feet of fifty poor men, and the tradition grew that the number of supplicants would be equal to the number of years that the monarch had reigned, (Queen Elizabeth I did this at Greenwich in 1572), although the last ruler to wash the feet of the poor was James II, in 1685, after which the ceremony was performed by the Lord Almoner.
The ruling monarch also gave alms in the form of money, commonly called Maundy Money, a custom that began during the reign of King John when he gave thirteen pennies to thirteen poor men at Rochester in 1213. The small sums of money were given in red or white leather purses, and from Charles II day, special Maundy coins were minted, although the annual minting did not begin until 1822. Maundy money is made up of one, two, three and four-penny coins, the amount and the numbers of recipients equal to the number of years that the monarch has ruled, with two other purses containing money in lieu of the allowances once made for food and clothing.
The other supposed etymology of the word Maundy is, in my opinion, due to a coincidence and something of a folk- or back-etymology. An old Saxon word for a basket was maund, and to maunder was another term for begging. Shakespeare uses the word in his poem A Lover’s Complaint, where he writes,
“A thousand favours from a maund she drewOf amber, crystal, and of beaded jet.”
It comes through the French mand, basket, and follows a set precedent of /an/ in foreign words transforming to /au/ in English (French branse or bransle, a limb-shaking dance, is the root of the English braul – now brawl – and the German dandle, play or loiter, became the English dawdle).
In the rhymed life of St Brendan mentioned above, the term for the day is scher-thursdai, and a similar term is found in the rhymed life of St Cuthbert, where the lines are,
“To Skyre thuresday þan walde he his fete waschyn and clensed be.”
|The Life of St Cuthbert|
In more modern English, this is Shere Thursday, the older name for the day, and has links to the Icelandic skíri-þórsdagr – 'cleansing or washing Thursday', reflecting the washing of the feet by Christ. In the north, the Nordic /k/ was retained, whereas in the south it moved to a /h/ sound. With another example of back-etymology, the shere became shear, as the story grew that this was the day that monks and friars had their heads sheared (or their hair cut).
“For that in old Fathers days the people would that day shere theyr hedes and clypp theyr berdes, and pool theyr heedes, and so make them honest ayenst Easter day.”[Festival, 1511, quoted in John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities, Vol 1, 1813]