The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Thirty-Nine and Forty, Food and Drink in a Monastery

If there is absolutely something all living beings need, it’s sustenance. And monks are no exception! Chapters Thirty-Nine and Forty of The Rule of Saint Benedict are dedicated to what types of food and drink a monastery should serve to the brethren. I say ‘should’ because in the years following the distribution of The Rule monks got extremely good at finding loopholes concerning their diets. But that is a post for tomorrow! (And I quite literally mean for tomorrow. However, once that post is published, I’ll link it here.)

Chapter Thirty-Nine is titled “Of the Measure of Food” (pg. 55). Saint Benedict starts off this part of the text by saying the daily meal can be eaten at either “the sixth or the ninth hour” (pg. 55). Or in other words, noon or 3pm. However, the length of a medieval hour fluctuates depending on the time of year, so summer hours will be longer than winter ones. Thus what may have been considered the ninth hour/3pm back then may be completely different now.

There should be “two dishes of cooked food” (pg. 55) served to the monks, no matter the time of year. Saint Benedict recommends this due to “the weakness of different people” (pg. 55). He goes on to explain that if a monk can’t eat one of the dishes, then at the very least he can eat the other. This prevents the monks with food intolerances/allergies from getting sick. Two different dishes of food should be enough to give everyone enough options. A third type of food can be added “if there be any fruit or young vegetables” (pg. 55) for the two original dishes.

In addition to this, monks should be given “one pound weight of bread…for the day” (pg. 55). They should get this amount of bread “whether there be but one meal, or both dinner and supper” (pg. 55). (Saint Benedict goes into more detail concerning how many daily meals brethren should have in Chapter Forty-One.) If monks are eating two meals the Cellarer will split up the bread. So “a third part of the pound” (pg. 55) is given to them at supper.

Now only eating one meal a day may seem a bit extreme to our modern three meals a day culture. (At least if you are a well off enough American. I’m not sure how often others eat in other countries.) And I’m sure those who do intense workouts/sports/athletics/etc. may be concerned for our medieval monks. So what happens if it’s harvest time or if the monks are doing a lot of physical labor? Then what? Never fear, for Saint Benedict has taken that into consideration:

“If, however, their work chance to have been hard, it shall be in the Abbot’s power, if he think fit, to make some addition, avoiding above everything, all surfeiting, that the monks be not overtaken by indigestion.” (pg. 55)

Once again Saint Benedict gives his abbots the ability to change and alter The Rule. As long as the monks don’t get too gluttonous, they are allowed to have extra food if their bodies require it. That being said, it seems Saint Benedict was concerned this may be taken too far as he spends the next few sentences warning his monkish readers about the dangers of gluttony. Like many of his other warnings, it includes a bible quote.

Finally, this chapter ends with Saint Benedict saying that different ages should get different amounts of food (after all, you wouldn’t give a five-year-old the same portion you would give a thirty-year-old) and that no one should eat “the flesh of four-footed animals” (pg. 55). Unless you are “very weak” or “sick” (pg. 55). The weak and the sick are allowed to have meat from four-footed animals. (More on how monks got around this rule in tomorrow’s post!) 

 

Monk_sneaking_a_drink
A Monk Sneaking a Drink | BL Sloane 2435, f. 44v | Source: Wikipedia

 

Chapter Forty is titled “Of the Measure of Drink” (pg. 56). In this chapter, Saint Benedict discusses how much wine a monk is allowed. He gets rather sassy about it too.

This part of the text begins with Saint Benedict admitting that he has some doubt when it comes to saying how much nourishment each individual should consume. While this is wise, it’s also a bit ironic seeing as the whole purpose of The Rule of Saint Benedict is to tell others how they should live. But I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere and for Saint Benedict, that line is at booze.

Despite his hesitations, Saint Benedict still decides “one pint of wine a day” (pg. 56) is enough for each monk. Like with meat, exceptions will be given to the sick. Exceptions will also be given depending on other external factors such as where the monastery is located, what type of work the monks are doing, and how hot it is during the summer (pg. 56). The “Superior” (pg. 56) of the monastery can give monks extra wine as long as no one drinks too much or gets drunk. The text goes on to remind the monkish reader that “God gives the endurance of abstinence” and those who can abstain “shall have their proper reward” (pg. 56).

If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict may have spent a lot of time listening to his monks complain about not having enough wine. Saint Benedict also did not seem that fond of monks drinking wine because in the last third of the chapter he gets very sassy about it:

“And although we read that wine ought by no means to be the drink of monks, yet since in our times monks cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree not to drink to satiety, but sparingly: because ‘wine maketh even the wise to fall away.'” (pg. 56).

If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict realized he was fighting a losing battle when it came to getting his monks to stop drinking wine. This quote has the same energy as an exhausted parent saying ‘well if you’re going to drink I would prefer that you do it in the house.’ Like that exhausted parent, Saint Benedict knows forbidding wine is never going to actually work. And if monks won’t listen to an outright ban, there is a possibility they will listen to a request for moderation instead.

Finally, the chapter ends with Saint Benedict saying if a monastery is too poor for the amount of wine he recommends, or can’t afford wine at all, “let those who dwell there bless God and not murmur” (pg. 56). So basically, don’t complain about not having enough wine. For the love of God, stop complaining about the wine.

 

 

Main Source:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

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