“Great Dunmow: historic flitch town” reads the road sign on the A120 as it passes the town in question. After years of very occasionally driving by, I finally remembered to look up the word on returning home, expecting that it would be of some architectural or mining term. But no. In the Great Dunmow sense, a flitch is a side of bacon, a preserved half of a pig.

The Great Dunmow Flitch Trials test the happiness of married couples, who must convince a jury that they have never once wished themselves not married. The competition has been around at least since the fourteenth century, when Chaucer referred to it in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. (lines 217-8: “The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe, / That som men han in essex at dunmowe.” ) Once yearly, they now take place every four years. The next one will be in July of 2012. The prize, awardable to multiple couples in a given trial, is a flitch.

A form of it, flicci, was used in Old English (c. 700) and “flitch” was regularly found in Middle English inventories, wills, and other lists of possessions. (From a York will in 1462: “iiij. bakon-fliks, ij. beffe-fliks”) In his Ovid-inspired parodic poem, Baucis and Philemon (1710), Jonathan Swift used it:

And then the hospitable Sire
Bid goody Baucis mend the fire;
While he from out the chimney took
A flitch of bacon off the hook,
And freely from the fattest side
Cut out large slices to be fried;

Its use continued at least through the nineteenth century when a George Elliot character from Adam Bede (1859), weighted with local accent, observes,

“But what’s th’ matter wi’ th’ lad? Thee’t hardly atin’ a bit o’ supper. Dostna mean to ha’ no more nor that bit o’ oat-cake? An’ thee lookst as white as a flick o’ new bacon. What’s th’ matter wi’ thee?”

A Derbyshire stalactite is named, analogously, the Flitch of Bacon.

“Flitch” was not used exclusively to refer to pork. Originally, it could refer to any side of meat (see the “beffe” mentioned above). In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was also used to refer to cuts of whale and halibut. Knight’s Mechanical Dictionary (1884, IV.348) defines “flitching knives” as “for slicing halibut into steaks or flitches.”

So. Great Dunmow: historic flitch town. No whale, no halibut, no beef, no stalactites. The winners of the trials, instead, bring home the bacon.

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*© S. Worthen 2009