The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-One, What Time a Medieval Monk Ate

Chapter Forty-One of The Rule of Saint Benedict sets out the basic schedule for when monks are supposed to eat during the day. Depending on the season monks will eat at different times as well as different amounts.

The text starts off by suggesting the monks have dinner “at the sixth hour, and sup in the evening” (Saint Benedict pg. 56) between Easter and Pentecost. According to Terrence Kardong, the reason for Saint Benedict’s specificity with the Easter season (instead of just spring in general) is due to “the festal season [being] fundamental to his thinking” (pg. 333). As Easter is the most important religious celebration to Christians (or at least Catholics) it makes sense Saint Benedict would focus on it. 

Harley MS 5431 f.68v beginning of chap41 of Rule of Saint Benedict
The Beginning of Chapter Forty-One in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.68v | Source: The British Library

After Pentecost, the meal schedule changes. Throughout the summer monks are to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays “until the ninth hour” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) or until about 3pm. During the rest of the week, monks get to eat at around noon. It’s important to note that for Saint Benedict fasting isn’t necessarily not eating the entire day, but instead eating later than usual (Kardong pg. 333). However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. If the monks are “to work in the fields or are harassed by excessive heat” (Saint Benedict pg. 56) then the abbot can allow some wiggle room. In fact, it’s another one of the abbot’s duties to make sure the monks can do their tasks “without just cause for murmuring” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Saint Benedict explicitly writes this rule in case there is any confusion about what to do:

“Should they [the monks] have field labor, or should the heat of the summer be very great, they must always take their dinner at the sixth hour.”

(Saint Benedict pg. 57)

While it may seem that Saint Benedict is obsessing over the weather, it’s important to keep in mind where he is writing this. The where being southern Italy. As Kardong eloquently puts it:

The heat of summer in south Italy can be extremely oppressive and require careful marshaling of bodily energy.”

(Kardong pg. 334)

Monks’ mealtime schedule changes again “from the fourteenth of September until the beginning of Lent” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Monks are now to eat at 3pm. Because the days are shorter during the fall and winter, it’s not necessarily fasting.

However, monks do fast from “Lent, until Easter” when they get to eat “in the evening” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). While just saying ‘the evening’ is incredibly vague, Kardong suggests that Saint Benedict “could…mean ‘after Vespers'” (pg. 337). The text gives us a few more context clues regarding exactly what time in the next few sentences:

“And let the hour of the evening meal be so ordered that they have no need of a lamp while eating, but let all be over while it is yet daylight. At all times, whether of dinner or supper, let the hour be so arranged that everything be done by daylight.”

(Saint Benedict, pg. 57)

So whatever Saint Benedict considered evening, it wouldn’t be before dusk. It also makes sense that Saint Benedict would want to ensure mealtimes are over before sunset. In an age without electric lightbulbs, “artificial lighting was of poor quality and costly in ancient times” (Kardong, pg. 337). It would be much more practical to just eat by the light of the sun. 

 

 

Main Sources:

  • 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.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

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