It is said that Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was wearing a hair shirt when he was murdered by Henry II’s knights in 1170. Hair shirts were made from goat hair, their inherent itchiness occasionally enhanced by the addition of twigs, so that their unpleasantness might be a perpetual penance for their wearer. Mortifications of the flesh were curiously popular among the pious of the middle ages, when life in general had its share of painful experiences. The hair shirt, for example, carried with it a living cargo of lice that can only have added to the prickly sensation.
To wear a hair shirt has entered the lexicon as being the action of a martyr. Becket, canonized as a Saint since his gory death, became the object of pilgrimage at the site of his demise, Canterbury Cathedral.
|Saint Thomas Becket having his brains spilled|
Eating one of these delightful shirt cakes also requires a kind of martyrdom. Imagine, if you will, the rictus of a smile one might adopt upon receiving the gift of such a cake. It’s the same one Becket wore, no doubt, upon seeing the assassins approaching him with evil intent in their eyes. “Why hello good sirs,” he probably said, scratching his chest. “What brings you to church at this ungodly hour?”
How different history might have been if instead of slicing the top of his head of by means of reply, they’d simply said “Ta-da! Cake!”