Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Medieval Monks' Meals

By E.M. Powell

The medievals were well acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, one of which was/is gluttony—the vice of excessive eating and drinking.


It is therefore no surprise that it was one of the vices that Saint Benedict, a key figure in starting the monastic movement in the early Christian Church, wanted to avoid. Benedict was a Roman nobleman who in around 500 AD, chose to leave Rome and worship Christ in an isolated setting. His popularity grew and he founded his own monastery, writing his famous Benedictine Rule. The Rule is a set of regulations for those in the monastic life and shaped almost every aspect of that life in the medieval period.

Saint Benedict

Saint Benedict did not approve of personal possessions and he prescribed how many hours a monk should sleep. And the Rule also laid down what monks should eat and the quantities of food that should be eaten. Benedict forbade the eating of meat from four legged animals. He was a fan of black bread, plain water, greens and vegetables.

He believed that monks should eat once a day in winter and have a second lighter meal in summer, in the evenings when days were longer. His plan was that monks should have a choice of two cooked meals, vegetable or cereal based and which could include a modest amount of fish or some egg. Meat was only for those who were ill. On feast days, monks could be allowed a supplementary treat known as a 'pittance'. A pittance might be better quality bread or wine instead of beer.

The rationale behind Benedict's Rule was to support one of the three monastic vows: chastity. There was a belief that a rich diets inflamed the senses, incited greed and lust. A full monk was a sleepy monk, and so would not be in a fit state to pray for hours at a time. Benedict did acknowledge that monks needed to have extra treats every now and then. Brothers were allowed to eat more if they were invited to the Abbot's table.

But as with all good intentions, the Rule was adapted over the centuries. A special room called the misericord was built for infirm monks. This was separate to the main refectory (dining room), so meat could be eaten here. Yet monks in full health would retire there to consume meat. By 1336, Pope Benedict XII (yes, another Benedict) permitted meat on four days outside of fast days. And what meat: records show the consumption of beef, mutton, pork, veal and suckling pig. Poultry and game were also popular: monks consumed swan, cygnet, chicken, duck and goose.

Another way in which the Rule was adapted was with regard to communication. It was stipulated that monks’ meals should be eaten in silence. However, no-one mentioned sign language. Or whistling. The monks adopted a practical solution to the extent that twelfth century chronicler Gerald of Wales complained of dining monks behaving like ‘jesters’ after one visit to Canterbury.

It has been calculated that some monks could have been consuming up to 7000 calories a day. Astonishing when you think that today, the recommended calorie intake for an adult male is 2500 calories. This level of consumption is certainly not what Benedict would have had in mind. His rule on gluttony did not just cover quantity but also quality. Monks should eat only at allotted times and consume whatever was presented. Food should be fuel for the body and nothing more.

What is also of note is that as much as one fifth of monks’ enormous calorie intake could have come from alcohol. Monks had access to beer (as did the rest of the population: it was safer to drink than water) but also wine, the bulk of which was imported from Gascony. One could argue that the monks practised restraint by only drinking wine on saints’ days—of which there were about seventy in the year.


Fish was also popular, especially as no-one was allowed to eat meat on a Friday. In the days before effective refrigeration, fish would come from the fresh waters of rivers, lakes and managed fish ponds. Coastal communities would eat fresh sea fish. For those further inland, this fish was eaten salted, smoked, dried or pickled.

Earlier in the medieval period, Wednesdays and Saturdays were also non-meat days, as well as the dietary restrictions imposed for Lent and Advent. That didn't stop the monks. With another bit of monastic Rule tweaking, certain types of geese and puffins were deemed to be fish because of their close association with water. A monastic feast day could consist of a couple of dozen dishes.

The monks were fans of toe-to-tail eating. Umbles, for instance, were sheep’s entrails cooked in ale with breadcrumbs and spices. Deer entrails might also be on offer, as would tongue and mutton in sauce. Dowcet sounds far more appealing, certainly for this writer: a sweet custard made of milk, cream, sugar, dried fruits and eggs. It is unlikely such dishes were a rare treat. Archaeological remains from a medieval hospital in London found evidence of monks with worse teeth than their patients. Others from priories and abbeys have found skeletal remains with obesity-related joint disease.


But these huge levels of consumption were taking place in a society where the vast majority of people were at the brink of starvation or were actually starving. Ordinary people began to deeply resent the excesses of the privileged religious. By the fourteenth century there were poems and ballads mocking the monastic life and the over-privileged monks. The stereotype of the overfed monk, portly in his robes, immune from poverty, became one focus for discontent with the established church—and a very visible one.
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All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
References:
Jones, Terry & Eriera, Alan: Medieval Lives, London, BBC Books (2004)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Livingstone, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, about John’s failed campaign in Ireland was published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016.

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. As well as blogging and editing for EHFA, she is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting www.empowell.com.
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2 comments:

  1. So much for the modest Brother Cadfael. ;-) I think that monks were sent up quite a lot in the literature of the Middle Ages... Thanks for an entertaining post!

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    1. You're welcome, Sue- really kind of you to say so!

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