Saint Lupus (c. 383 – c. 478) was said to live only on barley bread. St. Gregory of Langres (c. 446-539) ate barley bread, which he hid under wheat bread, and drank water, carefully using a vessel of opaque glass to hide the fact from those around him. (Hiding one's holy actions is a theme found elsewhere as well.) St. Germanus of Paris (c. 496 – 576) not only lived on it, but is said to have ground and sifted the meal himself. Strictly speaking, though, he didn't just eat the bread – he put ashes on it. Only Gregory of Tours mentions St. Monegund (sixth c.) who, he says, also ate only barley bread and only drank a very little wine on feast days, and then with a great deal of water.
Saint Bruno of Cologne (c. 1030-1101), who founded the Carthusian Order, only ate (with rare exceptions) bran bread.
For a secular reader, the first question in reading such accounts is: how credible are they? After all, hagiographies typically include accounts of frankly miraculous events (often connected with food). Plus, they have an obvious agenda: to emphasize the sanctity of their subjects. What is more, the repetition of certain claims makes it likely, at the least, that a certain “contamination” occurred between stories, so that what might arguably have been true of one figure is only imitatively attached to another. (In certain erudite circles, this has been known as a “meme” – before colorful graphics with catchy messages took over that term on Facebook.)
At the same time, these stories are describing people of fervent belief, people who, further, had reason to lead by example, especially in those early centuries when Catholicism was not only fighting paganism but Arianism and other heresies. Extreme self-mortification was one way to model commitment for the less certain. Modern understanding of anorexia and bulimia only makes the image of willful self-deprivation, driven by single-minded belief, all the more credible.
Too, we must be careful not to judge an "adequate diet" by familiar standards. Could someone live on a diet of nothing but bread? Many in later centuries did exactly that – if not by choice. The bread historian Steven L. Kaplan writes: "The mass of the population in eighteenth-century France derived the bulk of its calories from bread and sundry grain products.... their lives turned on the urgent need to wrench an adequate bread ration for themselves and their family each day." Often, he adds later, a bread soup "constituted the entire meal”.
In earlier times then, one did not have to be a saint to live only on bread; many had no other option. But, as Ina Lipkowitz points out, even those who did might not have sought much more:
Stories were told of saints and hermits who ate so sparingly that they became too weak to stand upright and of noble women who subsisted on barley bread and broth made of nothing but herbs steeped in water. Yet such diets, although certainly an exaggeration of the normal, were not qualitatively different from what would have been eaten on non-fast days. Even now, a Tuscan specialty is the soup known as acqua cotta, which literally means no more than "cooked water". In other words, your average Italian could have sat down to a meal of bread, oil, and vegetables, whether the day was a fast day or not.
In fact, not all saints, even by hagiographic accounts, went to quite such extremes. But one constant in most of these stories is the use of barley bread. It is important to understand that, if for the Gauls this had been common fare, for someone of Roman culture (which suffused the early Church), eating barley bread was the culinary equivalent of wearing a hair shirt (even without adding ashes). The Romans had fed barley bread to dogs and used it as punishment rations for soldiers. Even the poor in early Medieval France often got bread, albeit dark bread, made from wheat or maslin (wheat and rye mixed).
Aside from the inherently humble status of the grain, it also has a technical inconvenience: it does not rise well. In fact, most modern recipes for the bread incorporate some wheat flour. One of the few sites to provide a recipe that does not says:
Because it’s wheat-free, this bread doesn’t contain the amount of gluten that a wheat-based loaf would, so therefore it doesn’t puff up and create a light, airy bread like wheat-based loaves. It’s more a cross between a flat-bread and a cracker, crunchy around the edges.To a modern eater, that may actually sound appetizing. But its charms were largely lost on those for whom "light, airy bread" was less ubiquitous than it is today. Those who could get the latter (including many later monks) certainly preferred it.
It is understandable then if even the holiest figures often added something to their bread. St. Winwaloe (c. 460 – 532) himself only ate coarse barley bread (with, yet again, ashes) but in the Breton community he founded the monks could add to that boiled greens and roots, or barley-meal mixed with greens. On Saturdays and Sundays, meals were, comparatively speaking, downright luxurious: they were allowed cheese and shell-fish.
St. Genevieve (c. 419/422 – 502/512) accompanied her barley bread with broad beans which had been cooked in a pot for two or three weeks. If anything strains credibility here, it is the latter detail, though the fact that a fire might have been kept burning regularly in colder months means that this would have required little more than leaving the pot on the fire and adding water from time to time. More to the point is the question: what do three-week old beans taste like? (Presumably a bland and slightly burned mush.)
One thing that makes Genevieve's biography one of the more credible is the fact that she is said, at fifty, to have modified this menu (though by bishops' orders) to one of barley bread, fish and milk. (Such acknowledgment of a saint's physical needs is rare in these works and strikes a realistic note.) Since St. Genevieve also avoided "wine or anything else that could inebriate", milk was one of her few alternatives. It is interesting however that the passage implies that she had not (with any regularity at least) been drinking it before. (Note too that this is a rare specific mention of drinking milk in the early Middle Ages.)
St. Clotilde (465-545), who, as the first queen of France supposedly worked for Clovis' conversion, only lived on bread, legumes and water after she gave up her royal life.
Among the saintly, if not quite a saint, Gregory de Tour writes of a hermit named Hospicius who lived on bread and a few dates, and at Lent used “the roots of certain plants common in Egypt. He first drank the broth in which they had cooked, and ate them later.”
St. Radegund (ca. 520–586) presents a more complex, because better documented, example. Her biography is particularly rich and all the more credible for having been written by her friend Venantius Fortunatus. It begins with a very secular, and historical, drama – the destruction of her homeland by the Franks. She was a child – apparently a beautiful child – at the time and Theuderic and Clothar argued over who would take her as a prize. Clothar, having won, appears to have raised her to be his sixth queen (his Catholicism was no obstacle to his polygamy, which Fortunatus did not find worthy of comment). If this may have seemed marginally less creepy then than it does now, the adult Radegund can be forgiven for not being enthusiastic about the marriage – whatever her religious vocation. Though the unqueenly behavior that maddened her husband is credited to her devout fervor, it is tempting to see in it a stubborn protest as well.
While she was still forced to play that role, she would "secretly" eat beans or lentils at royal banquets. Sometimes she would even (shockingly for a woman of her time) be completely absent from the table; her irate husband was told only that she was "delayed, busy about God's affairs."
Ultimately she escaped the palace and managed – largely by force of will – to have bishop Médard make her a nun. After this she would still play down her austerities, hiding rye or barley bread under the "flan” – which at this point was still a flat cake (flado), probably a honey cake. This trivial detail tells us that the bread she hid was almost certainly itself flat. This in fact would have been the only bread she (or her servants) could secretly make, using the hearth. Such foccacius (“hearth-baked”, focus meaning "hearth") bread was a standard one for those who made bread at home and required nothing more than making dough and putting it under the hot coals. (The hearth itself was then little more than a fire, set off by bricks, stones or other means from the rest of the room.)
At Lent, Radegund would, perhaps in imitation of St. Germanus, grind her own flour, though in her case to make special consecrated breads (eulogies) to distribute to others. For the first Lent she spent in her cell, she did not even take bread (except on Sundays) but “roots of herbs or mallow greens without a drop of oil or salt for dressing.”
Though Radegund was self-mortifying to a point that led Fortunatus and others to fear for her health, she ate well compared to other early saints. Fortunatus says that once she was consecrated, she ate “nothing but legumes and green vegetables”; it seems likely that she continued to eat breads of the humbler grains as well. While this was hardly extravagant, it was certainly a step beyond living on nothing but bread (and even Radegund does not seem to have added ashes to the latter). For her drink, writes Fortunatus, “she drank no drink but honeyed water or perry and would touch no undiluted wine nor any decoction of mead or fermented beer.”
Again, sweetened water, pear cider and diluted wine are modest enough as drinks, but something more than St. Clothilde's (plain) water or St. Genevieve's (late in Life) milk. St. Germanus only took wine at Easter and Christmas, and then diluted it with vinegar to hide its taste. St. Winwaloe's monks mainly drank only water, though it was “sometimes boiled with a small decoction of certain wild herbs” (making it effectively the kind of infusion later French drinkers would call a tisane.)
On the other hand, Radegund's self-deprivation was all the more striking in that she actively enjoyed providing rich delicacies to others. Fortunatus himself thanks her and her “sister” Agnes on several occasions for various delicious foods they have sent him. In his hagiography, he tells how she fed sick beggars with her own hands, bringing water and napkins for each. She would even cut up the food – meat and other delicacies she would never touch herself – and serve it. On Sundays, she went so far as to provide them a drink of undiluted sweet wine.
For a food historian, it is also interesting to note what she did not eat. The fact that she used no salt or oil on her greens shows that that was exceptional, and that both were otherwise typically used on salads (vinegar on the other hand was not included until later). Similarly, it is noted that St. Germanus ate “no wheat bread, no wine, no vinegar, no oil, nor pulse, and never used either salt or other condiments.” As minimal as it is, this list of negatives gives us an idea what people of the time otherwise considered standard fare. (Note that Germanus rejected vinegar here when it enhanced the meal; whereas he used it, we are told just after, to prevent wine from being pleasurable.)
More strikingly, one might think that a nun would have felt comfortable eating fish, yet Fortunatus tells us that Radegund ate “not fruit nor fish nor eggs.” St. Winwaloe did not explicitly allow fish, which means it was probably forbidden, strangely, to the same Breton monks who could eat shell-fish once a week. The life of St. Germanus does not mention it at all in discussing his food.
In a rare passage, St. Leutfred (d. 738), having been served fish, says, “Everything of this sort, Leutfred's clergy does not eat.”
Much later St. Bruno explicitly avoided fish, though he would accept it when it was given as alms. St. John of Matha (d. 1213), who founded the Order of the Holy Trinity in 1198, allowed his monks a much broader range of foods – bread, pulse, herbs, eggs, oil, milk, cheese, fruit – but they could only eat fish, like meat, on feast days and then only if donated.
Generally, fish was not necessarily forbidden – several tales tell of fish being miraculously provided to saints – but did not have the special status it later would have. Neither saints nor those around them yet had any idea of a “fish day”.
If much of this sounds extreme, it may have appeared so to people of the time as well. It was one thing for a saint to observe such limits. But as more communities were established, similar rigor was often demanded of a founder's followers.
Gregory of Tours tells the story of the hard-edged St. Lupicin of Lauconne (or of Jura; end fourth c. – 480/493) arriving at one of the communities he had founded as the meal was being prepared:
There he saw a great preparation of various dishes, like a multitude of fish piled up, and he said in his heart: "it is not good that monks, whose life is solitary, use such unsuitable preparations." And at once he had prepared a large copper cauldron, and when the latter placed on the fire began to heat up, he put together all the prepared foods, the fish with the greens and the pulse, and everything intended for the monks' meals, then he said: "Now let the brothers satisfy themselves with this gruel, because they must not give themselves over to delights which can distract them from their divine occupations."
The result? Twelve brothers at once left in a huff (iracundia inflammati; "inflamed with ire") and the saint's brother, Romain, told him, "If it was to cause the dispersal of our brothers, please Heaven that you had never gone to them!" If events here ultimately worked out to Lupicin's satisfaction, over time accounts like those cited earlier would become rarer and the rules of monasteries more adapted to human frailty. But that is a subject for another post.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Butler, The lives of the fathers, martyrs, and other principal saints, V2 1866
Monumenta Germaniae historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo ..., V3 1896
Addis, “Carthusians”, A Catholic Dictionary: Containing Some Account of the Doctrine, Discipline … 1893
“Barley Bread”, The Healthy Eating Site
Kohler, “Étude critique sur le texte de la vie Latine de Sainte-Geneviève de Paris”, Bibliothèque de l'École des Hautes Études, no 48 1881
"Leutfred (Leufroy), St.", Encyclopedia.com
The Life of the Holy Radegund, by Venantius Fortunatus
Saint Gregory (Bishop of Tours), Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges Florent ..., V4 1862
Saint Gregory (Bishop of Tours), Histoire ecclésiastique des Francs, Issue 7 1837