What Medieval Monks Ate: The Basic Monastic Diet and Special Treats

Yesterday I analyzed Chapters Thirty-Nine and Forty of The Rule of Saint Benedict. If your only knowledge of monastic diets comes from The Rule, you might assume that medieval monks always ate healthily and had really boring meals. However, historically speaking that isn’t accurate. It’s not accurate at all. Like modern dieters, monks certainly had cheat days. In fact, in the centuries following The Rule of Saint Benedict being written, cheat days became the norm! In my next post, I will discuss how monks justified this, but today I want to focus on what exactly monks ate.

 

Harley MS 1526 f. 24v priests and king eating
Priests and a King with Dinner | Harley MS 1526 f. 24v | Source: The British Library

 

A basic monastic diet consisted of grains, legumes, bread, seasonal fruits and vegetables. The most common seasoning used was salt. Depending on where a monastery was located their basic diet may be a bit different. For example, at Cluny Abbey, their basic diet included boiled beans flavored with fat. Also depending on a monastery’s location was what their main drink was. It could be either ale or wine. To use Cluny Abbey again, their beverage of choice was wine. This was due in part to ale not being very common in this region of France. Ale was very common in England.

However, if there is a basic monastic diet, that implies there were non-basic diets as well.  And there certainly were! Over the centuries supplementary foods, or pittances as they are also called, were included at mealtimes. These special foods were served on special occasions such as feast days, holidays, anniversaries, and even whenever the abbot returned after a trip. Eventually from the twelfth century onwards, Benedictine pittances were served so often they just became a way for the cooks to introduce new foods to their brethren!

Pittances could simply be higher quality foods (like fine white bread instead of grainy black bread) or they could be delicacies. Because there were a lot of different types of pittances, I’ve decided to make them all into a categorized list. I will note that this is not a comprehensive list, nor were all things served at every monastery. Instead, it is just to give you a general idea of how varied a medieval monk’s diet could be.

 

Regularly Included Pittances:

  1. Eggs
  2. Cheese

Pastries:

  1. Dumplings
  2. Pancakes
  3. Cakes
  4. Other Special Bread Based Food

Seafood:

  1. Eel
  2. Lamprey
  3. Salmon
  4. Pike
  5. Trout
  6. Herring
  7. Mackerel
  8. Cod
  9. Whiting
  10. Cockle
  11. Mussels
  12. Oyster

Seasonings:

  1. Honey
  2. Pepper
  3. Mustard
  4. Cumin
  5. Saffron

Even though The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade meat, eventually some monastic orders started eating it regularly. Because humanity has not changed in the past couple of centuries, people had strong feelings about this. Carthusians were on a strict diet to the point not even their sick were allowed to consume meat. This angered other orders and they even accused the Carthusians of being inhumane! It even got to the point where one fourteenth-century Carthusian monk went out of his way to write a treatise saying how Carthusians were healthier than Benedictines.

Finally, for orders that ate meat, how much and what kinds they ate was also up for scrutiny. Peter the Venerable of Cluny had very strong feelings. Even though this isn’t an analytical blog post, I’m going to end this with a quote I found by him just so you can see how frustrated the man became over this issue. If I attempted to paraphrase it, you would lose out on all the sass. (And there is a lot of sass!)

“Beans, cheese, eggs, and even fish have become loathsome….Roast or boiled pork, a plump heifer, rabbit, and hare, a goose selected from the flock, chicken, in fact every kind of meat and fowl cover the table of these holy monks. But now even these things lose their appeal. It has come to… royal and imported luxuries. Now a monk cannot be satisfied but on wild goats, stags, boars, or bears. The forests must be searched, we have need of huntsmen! Pheas- ants, partridges, and pigeons must be caught by the fowler’s cunning, lest the servant of God should die of hunger!” (pg. 156 of Daily Life in Medieval Europe)

 

 

Sources:

  • Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170.

(This book can be found here on Google Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)