Saturday, July 5, 2014

Shifts in fasting in medieval France

Knotker the Stammerer tells how Charlemagne visited a bishop on a Friday and the bishop having no other fast day food offered him cheese (and possibly, in one reading, fat). Yet in the fifteenth century, a diarist said that people were eating cheese “as in meat-eating time”, showing that it was not normally a fast day food. By that later date, too, a “fish day” and a “fast day” were virtually the same thing. Yet in earlier centuries, not only did fish not have a special status, it was forbidden to some religious communities.

These were not the only changes in Catholic fasting in France in the medieval period, and even after. A number of factors joined to modify this fundamental practice over the centuries and have continued to do so in more recent times.

Father Thomassin, one of the great authorities on the subject of Church fasting, goes so far as to see in such variations a kind of poetry:
There is no harm in saying that the Apostles established different practices in different Churches, so that this variety makes up a part of the beauty of the dress of the Church, which is this Queen Spouse of Eternal Wisdom, which has inside her quite other beauties in the unity of her faith and her mysteries.
Any reader of French with a deep interest in this subject will want to consult his work, whose chapter headings alone give some idea of the daunting complexity of the subject. Mercifully, the focus here is only on medieval France – a sufficiently complex period in regard to fasting.

Early variations

When the Franks took over Gaul, Christianity was still only a few centuries old. Fasting had begun in the most extreme way:
In the primitive ages, Christians used no other food on fasting days than herbs, pulse, roots or fruit, with bread: some added a small quantity of little fishes; but had nothing of this dressed nicely, or with much preparation.... Some allowed themselves no other food than what was eat raw, without any dressing by fire; and this was called by the Greek name Homophagic: Those who observed the most severe, and what was called the true fast, confined their meal to Xerophagie, that is, to dry food, such as nuts, almonds, and such like fruits with bread: some took only bread and water.
Even then, it seems, people could (as French nobles later would) make restricted meals luxurious; St. Jerome inveighs against those who brought the finest, most luxurious fruits to their table when fasting.

By the fourth century, as the belief moved beyond a small core of believers, fasting practices began to vary. St. Epiphanius [c. 315-403] wrote:
The Catholic Faithful follow, in their way of living, several commendable regimes; because some abstain not only from the flesh of quadrupeds, of birds, and of fish, but also from eggs and cheese; others give up only quadrupeds, and allow themselves birds and all other foods. Some eat no flying creatures; but they eat eggs, and fish. Others forbid themselves eggs. There are those who only use fish; there are those who, abstaining from fish, eat cheese, of which others deprive themselves. Finally, some reject bread; and others, the fruits of trees, as well as all cooked foods.
Another historian of the period, named (like the ancient philosopher) Socrates [born c. 380] made similar observations:
Some abstain generally from all animals; others, of all types of animals, eat only fish; others join to fish flying creatures, and think them born of water as Moses says... There are those who, when they have fasted until the ninth hour, then allow themselves various foods. Different nations have their different ways of fasting, and this diversity has an infinity of causes. Because, since no one can show in the Holy Books anything precise on this subject, it is obvious that the Apostles have left to each of the Faithful the liberty of doing in this Realm what he pleases; and that is, in my opinion, the reason for the difference in fasts which exist in the various churches.
Socrates makes an important point: the Bible did not, for Christians, define dietary details, even for fasting. It is not surprising then that over time the Church was obliged to “fine-tune” the concept. This did not only involve defining the appropriate foods; Thomassin outlines various early disagreements about which days should be fast days, whether Christians should fast on Saturdays during Lent (which the Greeks did not), etc.

Two major concerns in earlier centuries were heresies and “Judaizing”; that is, adopting any practice which might seem to reflect or preserve Jewish influence. It has been suggested, for instance, that Wednesday and Friday were preferred for fasts because of an idea that Jews fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. The idea of fasting on the Lord's Day, recommended by some heretics, was rejected, as at the fourth council of Carthage of 398: “Who intentionally fasts on the Lord's Day, is not considered Catholic” (Qui Dominico die studiose jejunat, non credatur Catholicus).

A Council of Gangres [c. 340] condemned the idea of Eustatus [Eustathius, 4th c.] that eating meat itself was criminal. A later council at Ancyre [325?] obliged priests or deacons who abstained from meat to try some before abstaining after if they wanted. But anyone who would not eat vegetables cooked with meat was to leave the orders. (Hi qui in clero sunt, Prebyteri vel Diaconi, et a carnibus abstinent, placuit eas quidam attingere, et sic, si voluerint, abstinere. Si autem noluerint olera quae cum carnibus coquntar comedere, et canoni non cedant, ab Ordine cessare,) The Council of Toledo of 400 anathemized those who rejected meat or fowl not out of self-mortification but because of considering them execrable.

Lingering paganism was also a concern: one fast was set on the Calends of January primarily to counter pagan celebrations of Janus.

Even before Roman Gaul began to become France, then, the details of fasting were far from settled. The full history of Catholic fasting was from the start, and would remain, shifting and complex.

Early French Catholicism

The Council of Orleans of 511 was the first under the Franks and was in fact organized by Clovis himself. In regard to fasting, Church councils above all addressed Lent. This one set that Lent should last forty, not fifty, days, an issue which was still debated at this time. It also, unusually, addresses Rogation, saying that the three days of fasting for it should end on Ascension and that during the fast, Lenten foods (quadragesimalibus cibis) should be used. But it does not define these.

The next Council of Orleans, in 541, set the limits of Lent precisely and forbid healthy people from breaking the fast on Saturdays (as the Greeks then did); they were only allowed to have dinner (that is, a midday meal) on Sundays. (The exact time when one could break a Lenten fast itself was a subject of much discussion.) The 567 Council of Tours laid out detailed fasting requirements for monks, including the fact that they should dine (that is, not fast) between Christmas and Epiphany, since these are feast days. But its canons say nothing of lay people.

Friday and Saturday fasting

Note that these first councils addressed fasting on Lent. In fact, except where the canons from councils lay out detailed calendars for fasting for monks (as several do), when they address fasting, it is in regard to Lent. Yet the story of Charlemagne's cheese shows that, by his time, Friday was already set as a fast day. The first Church council to specify this seems to have come later, at Coyoac (in Spain) in 1050: “that Christians fast every Friday” (ut Christiani per omnes sextas ferias jejunent). The idea however had been discussed since the time of Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225).
These fasts or half-fasts of the Fourth [Wednesday] and Sixth [Friday] day are certainly very ancient in the one and the other Church, though with this difference, principally that in the Latin Church these were fasts of devotion and in the Orient there was a law on this.... The Church claimed that the Apostles had only ordered the Lenten fast, while they left other fasts to the choice and the devotion of the faithful...
St. Augustine (354 – 430) wrote that Romans “often” fasted on Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays; since he says elsewhere that people fasted every Saturday, it seems that fasting on Fridays, as on Wednesdays, was still essentially optional.

Innocent I (pope 401 – 417) wrote only that “we do not oppose fasting on Fridays”. But he was more definite about fasting on Saturdays, which Thomassin says was standard at this time in Rome, though not necessarily elsewhere. Yet, “this Pope does not let a single word escape his plume which tends to condemn other Churches, where this Saturday fast was not observed.” (Innocent by the way associated Friday and Saturday fasts with the sadness of the Apostles before Easter Sunday; this is an unusual justification for fasting which more typically is described as serving to rein in carnal urges.)

Thomassin says a great deal about fast days in this period, but never addresses how Friday became firmly set as a fast day. Knotker's anecdote about Charlemagne may be the first specific note of that being the case.

It is always useful too to bear in mind that for several centuries after Clovis' conversion (496) many Christians continued to be recently converted pagans and the Church may have taken some time to impose its more demanding rules; just enforcing Lent once a year probably took some doing, especially with groups whose diet included more meat than that of the Romans.

Whatever the practice in Christian Rome, Saturday fasting seems to have never been widespread elsewhere. According to Rudoph Glaber (985–1047), it was officially instituted after the disasters of his time (war, famine, etc.) to give thanks to God for restoring peace and prosperity. Glaber is the only one to record certain councils in this period, and he says that this was first set at one in the year thousand (a year which some gave special significance in itself). Gregory VII [c. 1015/1028 –1085] confirmed this at a council at Rome in 1078, which recommended Saturday abstinence, except for the sick or if a feast day fell on that day.

Nonetheless, says Le Grand d'Aussy, this was “very badly practiced among us”:
A council of Béziers, held in 1351, EXHORTS the Clergy, and above all Benefice-holders, as people who by their state are obliged to set a good example to lay people. to not eat meat on Saturdays.
Finally, however, there was a Council, held at Lavaut seventeen years later, which imposed this law on every ecclesiastic, Benefice-holders as well as on every person in sacred Orders; and which held them to it by express command, on pain of being denied entry to church for as many months as days they had sinned.
Even then certain Churches and certain Diosceses could be found which, in submitting to it, nonetheless wanted to reserve the right to eat meat, according to old custom, several Saturdays of the year; for example, from Christmas until the Purification. Among the Prelates who admitted the reservation was Poncher, Bishop of Paris. In his synodal Statutes (1500), he expressly says: toleramus diebus sabbathinis carnes comedere à festo Nativitatis Domini usque ad Purificationem B. Mariae. Aliis vero temporibus prohibemus. “We tolerate eating meat, Saturday from Christmas until the Purification. Outside this period, we forbid it.”
If Christians resisted Saturday fasting (which, in theory, still applies today), it may be in part because of the ongoing association of any observation on Saturday with the Jewish Sabbath. For a long time, Sabbato in Latin simply meant Saturday, and referred to the Jewish Sabbath; Sunday was “the Lord's Day”.

This is implicit in a poem by Baldric, the abbot of Bourgeuil (c. 1050 – 1130), who mocked one of his monks for observing it:
Sabbata custodis tanquam judeus Apella;
...tu refugis per sabbata tangere carnem.
[“Apella you keep the Sabbath like a Jew;
… you refuse to touch meat on Saturday.”]
Le Grand points out that this rule then applied to the clergy, not lay people. Saint Antoninus of Florence (1389-1459) makes it plain that in his time the French were among those who did not fast on Saturdays: “To eat meat on Saturday in places where the custom is not universally established is a mortal sin. It is no sin when the custom of eating it survives in the country as in France, Catalonia, etc.” (In Sabbatis comedere carnes, in locus ubi est consuetudo universaliter non comedi, mortale est. Secus, si consuetudo patrie habet quod comedantur; ut in Franciâ, Catalonia.)

Thomassin concludes from this that Saturday abstinence was only obligatory in France after 1450; he does not however describe how it became so. He also addresses the situation in Spain in this regard, once again showing a bland pragmatism:
But the custom having been so long-standing and so widespread in Spain and several other Regions of the West, of freely eating flesh on the ordinary Saturdays of the year; one must not be surprised if from so long-lived a custom something remained. If we had finer and more piercing eyes than we do, there are no old and somewhat common customs of which we would not still note some traces.
Thomassin also notes another change which came over time, not only in France, but in the “Universal Church”: one was no longer excused from fasting on these days because a feast day happened to fall on the same day; the principle only continued to apply on Christmas “which equally frees Fridays and Saturdays from the laws of abstinence.”

Observation of Lent

The observation of Lent was far more strictly regulated from the start of French history, as per the canons of Orleans in 541. It was around the same time that the Greek physician Anthimus wrote his dietetic for Clovis' son Theuderic. His only mention of fasting is specifically in regard to Lent. This may only mean that he did not consider weekly fasting arduous enough to warrant a special food (like the barley infusion he recommends for strength at Lent), but it is typical of early mentions of fasting in focusing on Lent.

In his biography of St. Radegund, Fortunatus describes her as essentially living a permanent fast. Still, he gives special attention to her (extreme) self-mortifications during Lent, but says nothing about her efforts to observe any of the weekly fasts.

Surprisingly, until Charlemagne, none of the Frankish legal codes mention Lent or other fasting obligations, which in later centuries were often legally enforced. Charlemagne most memorably addressed the holiday in his Saxon Capitulary of 789, when he made failure to observe Lent (without a good reason) a capital crime. Le Grand cites this in a way which suggests the rule was general, but in fact Charlemagne had a long history with the Saxons and what he regarded as their betrayals; at this point he did not hesitate to engage in, effectively, forced conversion. The clause then applied only to the Saxons.

Still, there is no doubt he took the holiday seriously. His Capitulary de Villis not only inventories certain foods as Lenten foods, but sets Palm Sunday as the day for his stewards to pay him. In one of Knotker's tales of the Emperor, a bishop presumed to lecture Charlemagne on breaking his fast too early in the day on Lent; the monarch then made the man sit through all the successive services demanded by court etiquette before eating himself – after midnight. It is clear in the anecdote that the Emperor took the criticism seriously. (Thomassin writes that the very fact that the bishop found nothing else to criticize shows how scrupulously Charlemagne observed Lent.)

Charlemagne and Alcuin also corresponded on the finer points of Lent and the periods around it.

Sometime after Charlemagne, but before Charles the Bald, four days were added to Lent; Thomassin says this was in response to criticisms by the Greek Church.

Subsequently, the main variations in Lent were in the particular foods allowed and the rigor with which it was (or was not) enforced. The latter seems to have become more pronounced as the medieval period ended. By 1534, when Guillaume du Moulin, Lord of Brie, sought permission for his aged mother to eat meat, the bishop of Paris granted it only on condition that she do so secretly and that she nonetheless avoid meat on Fridays.

Le Grand cites a 1549 Edict of Henry II which forbids selling meat during Lent to anyone but those who bring a Doctor's certificate. Fourteen years later, Charles IX forbade selling it, even to Protestants, during this period. In 1565, he granted the Hotel-Dieu the exclusive privilege of selling meat, ordering that it be provided only to the sick. When the Parlement (a judicial body) confirmed this, first in 1573, then twenty years later, it not only literally demanded a note (an attestation) from a doctor, but that the butcher take the name and the dwelling of the sick person to allow subsequent verification.

Le Grand says that this strict enforcement (which, bear in mind, followed the terrible losses of the fourteenth century plague) was respected even in military camps. This would be less the case in subsequent centuries, however, as individual soldiers took it upon themselves to violate the fast.

Ember days

In France, these fast-days were known as “Four-Times” (Quatre-Temps). Gaul seems to have been late in adopting them; the Council of Mainz (813), held a year before Charlemagne's death, established them there. Thomassin says the dates set were approximately as they were in his time (the seventeenth century). 

Pope Paul VI excluded these as days of fast and abstinence in his decree Paenitemini (February 17, 1966).

Birds on fast days

One of the most surprising aspects of early medieval fasting was the fact that many considered birds acceptable fare for the period. This was based on the fact that birds and fish were created together in Genesis and so, some felt, were of the same nature. Consider Socrates' statement above: “Some abstain generally from all animals; others, of all types of animals, eat only fish; others join to fish flying creatures, and think them born of water as Moses says...” (ab animatis penitus abstinent; alii ex animantibus pisces solos comedunt. Nonnuli, cum piscibus, etiam avibus vescuntur; ex aquis, ut est apud Moysen, eat quoque conditas esse affirmantes). This idea predated Frankish domination of Gaul, but persisted there, as Le Grand writes:
In France, it was regarded as an unquestionable principle; even by the most austere Religious Order, among those devoted to a perpetual Lent. At certain times of year, game and poultry were allowed the Monks. St. Columban so fed his people in a moment of shortage. Carnem quadrupedum, à die conversioniis sua usque ad extremum vitae, edere noluit: Jus e pullo compositum sumebat, si aliqua accessisset debilitas, [“For the day of his conversion to the end of his life he would not eat the meat of quadrupeds: if he felt weak, he took chicken broth.”] says the life of St. Benedict of Aniane. One reads in that of St. Eloi that, since his promotion to the Bishopric, he had given up eating meat; but that one day he allowed himself to eat a fowl with a guest who had arrived.
Gregory of Tours, who apparently did not eat meat, tells of Chilperic having a soup made for him “in which there is nothing but fowl and some chick peas." Le Grand also points out that a number of early saints' lives say that, in addition to abstaining from the meat of quadrupeds, “that as a particular mortification, they abstained... from poultry and two-footed game.”

It is questionable how official this position ever was and most early monastic rules implicitly or explicitly forbid poultry to any but the sick. But St. Benedict's rule (ultimately the most observed) only forbids the meat of quadrupeds to the monks (and at that was already ignored before the end of the Middle Ages).

Under Louis the Pious (reigned 814 – 840), an important council at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in 817 forbade the canons poultry except four days at Easter and four days at Christmas. But this probably had little affect on the laity and seems to have been unevenly observed by the clergy. Le Grand cites this anecdote from the life of St. Odon, Abbot,of Cluny [d. 942]:
A Monk from this Abbey went to see his parents. In arriving, he asked for something to eat; it was a fast day. He was told that all there was in the house was fish. He spotted several chickens in the courtyard, took a stick and struck one down, saying, here is the fish I will eat today. The parents asked him if he had permission to eat meat: no, he answered, but a fowl is not meat. Birds and fish were created at the same time, and they have the same origin, as is taught in our hymn.

UPDATE 9/19/2015: Le Grand neglects however to say that the monk then choked to death on his food, mocked as he did by those around him; clearly, the monk John (who wrote this hagiography) did not approve of his sophistry.

He also cites St Thomas Aquinas [1224/25-1274] as defending the same idea: “and for this reason, the creation of birds is ascribed to water” (et ideo, produĉtio avium aqua adscribitur.

Le Grand cites Vincent de Beauvais [c.1190-1264?] as mentioning a thirteenth century Lateran Council under Innocent III which forbade eating the scoter duck on fast days. (This clause does not seem to appear in those cited by Poisson and Guérin, but documentation of councils is sometimes uncertain.) The issue of whether the scoter duck, in particular, could be considered as “fish” would reoccur in later centuries.

Otherwise, it is not clear when this idea faded from practice as well as official approval, but it was probably before the end of the Middle Ages.

Eggs and milk

Knotker's anecdote is not the only evidence that dairy was considered acceptable on fast days in Charlemagne's time. De Villis lists both cheese and butter as fast day foods.
Two thirds of the Lenten food shall be sent each year for our use — that is, of the vegetables, fish, cheese, butter, honey, mustard, vinegar, millet, panic, dry or green herbs, radishes, turnips, and wax or soap and other small items
In the same period, Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans (797), wrote that "It is a man of great virtue who can abstain from eggs, from cheese, from fish and from wine." (Qui ovis, caseo, piscibus, & vino abstinere potest, magna virtatis est.) This shows that one was not obliged to abstain from any of these, but that it was considered virtuous to do so. Theodulf added what might be considered an observation of plain good sense: “What is forbidden, is drunkenness and wantonness and not milk and eggs, because the Apostle does not say: abstain from eggs and milk, but he says, do not get drunk with wine which produces wantonness."

These observations show that abstinence from these items was at least being considered at this point. But it was some time before an official change occurred.

Of eggs. Le Grand writes:
In regard to eggs, it is not surprising that people ate them without scruple. Opinion having established that fowl were meager [that is, not meat], of the same nature as fish, it was considered as a result that the egg too laid by this fowl was meager. The certificate of Charles the Bald [823 – 877], in favor of the St. Denis Abbey, allows this Monastery, among other things, eleven hundred eggs, annually, on the three great feast-days of the year; and we know that the Benedictine Order always abstains from meat. The Abbey of St. Maur des Fosses received every year, at Ozoir, at Torcy, at Boissy-Saint-Léger, and at Ferrières, a certain number of eggs for the Monks' pittance. Finally, the Carthusians who observe a perpetual Lent and who have always observed it with the strictest regularity, ate eggs. Their rules forbid them these only during Advent; they formally allow them them during all the rest of the year.
In 1365 a council at Anger stated that one should not only avoid meat, but those things which derived from it (a virtually vegan position). It explicitly forbade both the clergy and the laity the use of cheese and butter, even in bread (thus documenting that these were used in bread at this point).

The history of dairy and fasting remains complex after this, but again in the fifteenth century the diarist known as the “Bourgeois of Paris” wrote that “they ate flesh in Lent, cheese, milk, and eggs, as in the meat-eating period.All of these then were considered inappropriate for fast days by the end of the Middle Ages.

Animal fat

One of the more curious aspects of early medieval fasting was the use of “bacon juice” by those who otherwise avoided meat. This had its roots in a geographical anomaly: olive trees grew readily in the south, but not in the north. The Franks had always used pork fat in the same way southerners used olive oil. Monks in the colder parts of France long did the same, as Le Grand explains:
St. Ansegesis, Abbot of Fontenelle, in the Constitution he wrote for his Monks at the start of the IXth century, sets that they will annually kill forty fat pigs, to provide themselves with fat, bacon and ointment. Louis the Debonaire, in assigning twenty modius of fat per year to the monastery of St. Germain, declares that the Monks can take in exchange fifty pigs, the best that they can find. There exists a Charter of Charles the Bald benefiting the Monastery of St. Denis (862) by which the Prince grants this Abbey, at the solemnities of Christmas and Easter, two fat pigs to prepare poultry; ad volatila eorum praeparanda. Finally, in the Miracles de St. Vandrille, one reads the tale of a knight who, wanting to take some land from the Monastery of this name, began by carrying off all the pigs which the Brothers had fattened in order to season their foods.
Le Grand says this about the practice:
Lacking fat, bacon was used for the Monks' cooking; that is, a piece of bacon was put in with their vegetables and with their greens, when they were cooked. Before serving their vegetables at the table, this bacon was pressed to squeeze out its juice; but once it had been pressed in this way, they were very careful to throw it away; because these same men who, at peace with themselves, swallowed several pounds of pig flesh reduced to juice, would have thought to mortally sin had they knowingly swallowed the slightest bit of this same flesh in its original form.
When this problem was raised at the 817 council of Aix-la-Chapelle, it was decided that the regular canons could use “bacon oil”: "And because the Franks do not have olive oil, the Bishops want the (Regular Canons) to use bacon oil" (Et quia oleum olivarum Franci non habent, voluerunt Episcopi ut (Canonici Regulares) oleo lardino utantur.) This meant in effect that monks who otherwise avoided meat could use the fat from it to season their greens (an idea already mentioned by Anthimus, who says that, from a health point of view, this was acceptable). (Note that “bacon”, in texts from this period, is typically referenced separately from “meat”.)

At some point this was questioned, as Le Grand explains:
Later it was found, as I have observed elsewhere, that this was a dainty ill-suited to people who had devoted themselves, as a penitence, to an austere life. The juice of bacon was forbidden; from then on it was regarded by the Faithful as meat; and so people were obliged to substitute butter for it in preparing dishes. This last substance became almost a necessity; it was combined with the most rigorous fast. This is what can be seen from a work titled Claustro Animæ, by Hugues de Feuillet, Abbot of St. Denis, in 1149. The author, examining what must be the food of a true Monk, says that he must live on fruits and vegetables, and that these vegetables must be prepared, not with fat, but with butter, oil or milk.
Even then, human nature being what it is, it may come as no surprise that even those who had other options took advantage of this indulgence. The 1365 council at Angers noted this fact, and took appropriate action: “We know that in several regions not only the Regular Canons but even the Clerics use milk and butter at Lent and on fast days; even though they have fish, oil, and everything which is necessary for this period. As a result, we forbid any person whatsoever milk and butter during Lent, even in bread and vegetables; unless they have obtained a specific permission.”

Sometime between 817 and the fourteenth century then, it became unacceptable for monks held to abstinence to use “bacon oil”. But the fact that it ever was allowed demonstrates the vagaries of fasting in the medieval period.


For centuries now, the association between fasting and fish has been a strong one. In the late medieval period, “fish day” and “fast day” were virtually synonymous. Yet in earlier centuries there is no sign of this. Monastic rules only occasionally reference fish and then sometimes to limit its use. Note that Theodulf includes it in his list above of foods a man of "virtue" might avoid. St. Bernard's mention of quadrupeds means that fish was probably allowed to his monks; but nothing in the rule gives it a special status.

A very rare mention of fish on fast days in earlier centuries comes, not from France, but Spain, where the Council of Toledo of 633 cited fish and greens as fast day food. But nothing in other documents echoes this.

Two reasons for this come to mind. One is that, when poultry was still an acceptable option for fasting, fish was probably a less attractive alternative. The other is that, until methods for preserving it improved, it simply was not practical to depend on fish in regions far from the sea or streams that provided it.

Charlemagne kept fish pools and so had fish available on his estates. De Villis includes fish among the Lenten foods to be sent to him. But it has no special place relative to legumes, greens or grains, or even cheese. Still, this is an early mention in France of fish specifically as a fast day option.

At some point, two things happened: eating birds on fast days became less acceptable and new preservation methods made it possible to transport fish across long distances. Very tentatively, this may be why fish suddenly became not just one fast day option, but the main one.

Herring, which is absent from earlier mentions of fish, became common in France towards the end of the Middle Ages. In 1215, for instance, Thibaut, Count of Blois, granted a half-thousand herring annually to the Hospital of Beaugency. St. Louis (reigned 1226 – 1270) granted, among other gifts, sixty-eight thousand herring to different monasteries, leprosariums and hospitals. Eel, which is also barely mentioned in earlier texts, became a standard food.

By the fourteenth century, cookbooks regularly offered fast day options, often including fish. In one fast-day recipe for flan, for instance, cheese is replaced using fish eggs. The council of Angers included fish as one of the acceptable fast day items.

From this time on, fish was standard on fast days and even closely associated with them. But this represented a major change from earlier centuries in France.


Le Grand sums up the shifts in French fasting as follows:
If it was possible to restore to Life for an instant someone who no longer lives, it would be a Spectacle quite worthy of a Philosopher's eyes to seat at the same table a Monk of the VIIIth century, a Monk of the XIVth, and one of ours and to serve all three what, in their different times, and according to the regime of their same Rule, constituted and constitutes their fasting food. One would see the last think to keep a severe abstinence in eating eggs, butter and milk-meat; the second regard these substances as meat and abstain from them with horror; the first to the contrary would join to them without scruple a fowl, a partridge, vegetables or greens seasoned with fat or bacon. What a horrible scandal they would cause each other! How they would mutually condemn each other to excommunication.
Consider how different fasting could be in the early medieval period: birds were long acceptable as fast-day foods, monks could use “bacon oil”, dairy was perfectly standard, fish had no special status as a fast day food. All this is in addition to less-documented changes in the days on which fasting was required and the hour at which it could be broken.

These changes may not have been any more dramatic than others which occurred in fasting before and which would occur later, even into recent centuries. But they add up to a very varied idea of Catholic fasting in the medieval period, one that is often at odds with common ideas of the period.


Thomassin, Louis, Traité des jeunes de l'Eglise 1680

O'Neill, James David. "Abstinence." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 6 Jul. 2014 <> 1907

O'Neill, James David. "Fast." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 6 Jul. 2014 <> 1907

Butler, Alban, Charles Butler, The Moveable Feasts, Fasts, and Other Annual Observances of the Catholic Church ... With Life of the Author, by Charles Butler, Esqr. To which is Added, a Continuation of the Feast and Fasts, by a Catholic Priest 1839

Bechtel, Florentine. "Sabbath." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 6 Jul. 2014<> 1907

Legrand d'Aussy, Pierre Jean-Baptiste, Histoire de la vie privée des Français depuis l'origine de la nation jusqu'à nos jours, par M. Le Grand d'Aussy 1782

For an English translation of Le Grand's texts on fasting:
Legrand d'Aussy, Pierre Jean-Baptiste, Catholic Fasting in France: From the Franks to the Eighteenth Century, tr Jim Chevallier 2014

Guérin, abbé (Paul), Les conciles généraux & particuliers, v2. 1869

Poisson, Nicolas Joseph, Delectus actorum ecclesiae universalis,seu nova summa conciliorum ..., V1 1706

"Capitulary de Villis", Carolingian Polyptyques, University of Leicester

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