Eating Meat: How Medieval Monks Found Loopholes Concerning Their Diets

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.

 

Add MS 42130 f.206v two fellows roasting meat
Two People Roasting Meat | Add MS 42130 f.206v | Source: The British Library

 

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!

 

 

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.)

 

  • Snowden, David. Flans and Wine: A Benedictine Recipe Book from Evesham Abbey. Lulu.com, 2015.

(This book can be purchased here.)

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

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.)