Despite The Rule of Saint Benedict’s strict guidelines on a monastic diet, over time people started tweaking the rules. Or if they weren’t outright changing them, then they were finding loopholes. Similar to other religious rules, laxity developed over time. Of course, there were some monks, nuns, and religious orders who were strict about what a person can and cannot do, but much like people today, a good majority were deliberately creating ways to get around the rules.
The Rule specifically says only the sick and infirm are allowed to consume the meat of four-legged animals. (And I will note that birds only have two legs, so I assume poultry was fair game.) So instead of eating in the refectory with everyone else, they would eat the meat in a separate room. As mentioned in my last post, the Carthusian order banned even the sick from meat-eating. This was due to concerns about monks faking illnesses just to get some bacon (or beef, lamb, mutton, etc.). If an entire order forbade meat because they were worried about monks pretending to be sick, that implies it was an ongoing problem in other orders.
Also in my last post, I mentioned how a fourteenth-century Carthusian monk wrote a treatise defending these practices. However, I didn’t mention his claim that Carthusians recovered quicker than Benedictines. According to him, if monks weren’t outright faking illnesses then they would delay their recovery time just so they could keep getting treats. Whether or not this is actually true is certainly up for debate. Again, it implies that this was an ongoing issue. And even if it wasn’t, it means people were worried enough to write this all down!
Despite their reputation, there is a case where a Carthusian ate meat while sick. Hugh of Lincoln was documented to have done this. However, he didn’t do it because his doctor insisted. Hugh had to be talked into it by the archbishop of Canterbury and other important, respected men before he agreed. That being said, when Hugh finally tried some pig’s feet (because that’s what the Holy Fathers recommended), he could barely swallow it thanks to his years of abstinence. Hugh was given some small birds to try instead and had similar problems. The main point here is that even some Carthusians were willing to adjust their diets if it came to that.
The Rule of Saint Benedict is clear regarding what a monk’s diet should be, but eating meat when monks weren’t sick slowly became a common practice. (That’s one reason why the Carthusians were so strict about it!) In 1336, Pope Benedict XII’s papal sanction allowed Benedictines to eat meat four days of the week as long as it wasn’t fasting season and they weren’t doing it in the refectory. Monks were to eat meat in the misericord. Additionally, at least half the community had to have their meals in the refectory so no one took advantage of the new rules. Allowing such laxity implies that the pope knew he was fighting a losing battle. Similar Saint Benedict and wine, sometimes it’s best to try to limit things instead of outright banning them.
They also had a tendency to bend The Rule. One way monks did this regarded what part of the animal you were eating. So a monk could eat the offal and entrails, but not actual muscle tissue. Benedictine and Cluniac monks decided that twice-cooked meat didn’t count as actual meat either. So you could eat stuff like meatballs or rissoles in the refectory but not a steak. Apparently, during the late twelfth century the monks at Christ Church, Canterbury decided that soup made from meat was fine too.
But that wasn’t the only mental gymnastics the religious were doing. Saint Thomas Aquinas decided that chickens were originally aquatic, thus they were fish. And because chickens were fish, they were okay to consume on fast days. There’s also a story that rabbit embryos weren’t meat either, but this just seems to be a myth.
If monks weren’t bending the rules, then they were ignoring them altogether. Walter Map claimed that while Cistercian monasteries sold bacon, they didn’t sell or throw out the rest of the pig. He cheekily wrote, “What becomes of them [the rest of the pig], God knows.” That being said, there is documentation of Cistercian monks being officially reprimanded for eating meat in the 1220s, so Walter Map wasn’t just speculating. And as mentioned in the last post, Peter the Venerable had much to say about how often monks ignored the rules and how they did so with luxury game.
All in all, monks (at least in larger monasteries) had a pretty rich diet. It was better than the majority of the medieval population, so it’s no wonder imagery of the fat, gluttonous monk became such a common theme in medieval satire!
- 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.
- Snowden, David. Flans and Wine: A Benedictine Recipe Book from Evesham Abbey. Lulu.com, 2015.
(This book can be purchased here.)
- Trynoski , Danielle. “Fish on Friday II: Monastic Meals.” Medievalists.net, www.medievalists.net/2017/04/fish-on-friday-monastic-meals/.