Food in early monastic rules
In reading of the food of early saints, sometimes little more than barley bread and water, with perhaps some added greens, it can be difficult to believe anyone willingly lived on so constrained a diet. But somewhat more substantial information exists from the early medieval period which shows diets almost as limited: the early rules for monastic orders.
A large number of these exist and the issue of which merely reiterate most of one or more earlier ones is tangled and thorny. But for France at least a few stand out: the rule of Columbanus, the rule of St. Caesarius of Arles, the rule of St. Benedict of Aniane and the rule of Chrodegang. Others have proved important as well. The rule of St. Augustine, or some variant of it, regained importance centuries after the lifetime of that saint. The Regula Magistri is considered the basis for some later ones.
Ultimately it is the Benedictine Rule which has been most followed. But even today some of the others persist.
For food historians, these rules often provide glimpses into what monks did, or did not, eat. Not all rules address these, but even those that do not often include intriguing glimpses of food-related practices. Also, in a time before etiquette manuals, behavior at monks' tables can at least be outlined from some basic strictures.
To a modern reader, too, it can be entertaining to read that monks were not to eat between meals or start in before the blessing. One sometimes has the image in reading these rules of a parent's hand slapping down a greedy little paw.
A distinct trend over time in these rules is an easing of what, initially, seem like Draconian limits. It is important to realize that the early Church was by no means assured of its ultimate triumph, not only over pagans (who long co-existed with Catholics) but heresies like Arianism. Rigor and purity of purpose not only served to edify potential converts, they were probably meant to steel the resolve of those who had committed to the monastic life. As the Church grew more assured of its position and monasteries recruited from an increasingly wider base, it is not surprising that demands on monks grew less strict.
For more about the early Middle Ages
Feasting with the Franks
The First French Medieval Food
Among the many rules that existed, this is roughly the order of those examined here, all more or less relevant to France.
|Augustine: Ordo Monasterii?||ca. 400|
|Caesarius of Arles: Regula Virginum||512-34|
|Benedict: Regula monarchorum||530-55|
|Caesarius of Arles: Regula monachorum||534-42|
|Aurelianus of Arles: Regula Ad Monacho and Regula Ad Virgines||546-51|
|Columbanus: Regula monachorum||ca. 600|
|Regula cuiusdam patris ad monachos||6th-7th c.|
|Chrodegang: Regula||8th c.|
|[Unnamed rule for canons of Strasbourg]||9th-12th c.|
(from Fassler et al, with some changes)
NOTE: Most translations are my own. The exceptions can be found under "FOR FURTHER READING"; in some cases too I have translated or lightly modified these.
Food for monks
The earliest rule here is that of St. Augustine (354-430). But there is some disagreement about which of his documents is exactly that; also, when the rule was more widely adopted in later centuries, it seems to have undergone some changes.
As it is, some versions of the rule are so minimal they include no mention of food at all. Those that do favor, in a general way, abstinence: “Tame your flesh with fast and abstinence from food and drink so far as your health will allow. But in case anyone is unable to fast, he must not take any food outside of meal times unless he be sick.” The rule stands out for warning those who adhere to strict limits not to resent those who, as new converts or otherwise, find it too hard to do so. Augustine (or his subsequent editor) insists on the equality of those who were formerly poor with those who were formerly rich.
This infuses his comments on the sick – often added to strictures on fasting – with an individual tone:
Let the sick whose weak condition during illness obliges them to take less food be treated when their sickness is past in the way that will enable them most quickly to regain their strength even if they were formerly in the very lowest state of poverty; for then their recent illness gives them the same claim to lenient treatment as the habit of their former life gives to those who once were rich. But when their strength is restored let them return to that happier rule of abstinence which the servants of God ought to observe with greater strictness as their needs grow less; for they must not continue for mere gratification of the appetite what was begun for the requirements of health.
Otherwise, the rule does not mention specific foods at all.
The Regula Magistri is not known to have been used by any actual monastery, but it is generally believed to have inspired Benedict's rule. Its first passage on food is a long and rather curious one describing how bread is lowered down in baskets (apparently to show that it comes from Heaven) and blessed and various drinks are taken in a ceremonial fashion not found elsewhere. Along the way bread crumbs are gathered from the table and put in a vessel. Once a week, these are cooked in a pan with flour or eggs and served hot (or possibly with a hot drink) on the abbot's table. This is followed by a blessing of the pan and a prayer where everybody puts their spoon in their mouth (starting to eat?).
These are curious passages and unlike anything found in any other rules.
The passage on food is very long, but begins somewhat like the Benedictine rule:
We believe it is enough for daily refreshment at the sixth hour as at the ninth for two cooked dishes for every table, and a third if there were raw foods [vegetables?] with fruit. A moderate loaf weighing a pound for each brother suffices each day...
and examines various cases, including one where raw (vegetables) are mixed with some cooked dish and fruit (cum cruda quocunque pulmentario mixto cum pomis), or even leftovers – the cooked dish from dinner – are to be served for supper. For Sunday or feast days, or when outsiders come, more can be allowed, or some sweets.
The section on drinks is even longer and begins by saying that once the brothers are seated at the table they should each take wine. Then each is to dip three sops of bread in the wine.
A variety of rituals follow, one involving what appears to be heated posca (a vinegar-like Roman drink), several involving praying before drinking and after drinking. As pious as the praying makes this, the effect may well have been like toasting, drinking, and toasting. Various possible vessels are mentioned as well – ewers, chalices, buckets.
Overall it is a very long and lively passage and very unlike anything found in other rules. Aside from wine and possibly the posca, water is the only other drink mentioned; beer does not appear.
St. Caesarius of Arles (468/470 – 542) left rules for both monks and nuns. He too does not mention specific foods to eat, but does say, for monks, “no healthy person is to eat poultry and meat; they can be served to the ill who need them.” A similar statement applies to nuns: “poultry only offer to the sick: for these must never be served to the community. Meat must never be taken as food. If perchance someone is desperately ill, the Abbess can command that it be provided.” Note that even sick nuns are forbidden meat, which is allowed sick monks.
His details on servings at the major meals are uncertain on two points. First of all, along with prandium (dinner) and coena (supper), he speaks of jejunio. Literally, this would be a fast, but he defines drink or food for it along with the other two meals, suggesting that it was basically breakfast. For monks: “Put at jejunio three, at dinner and at supper offer two: at dinner drink twice, and take at supper, and at jejunio three.” This is a very laconic version of statements found in other rules, including his for nuns. The latter also refers to caldella, which is very likely to refer to a warm dish, though it could arguably refer to a warm drink:
Every day three servings of food at jejunio, at dinner only offer two. On major feast days add dishes at dinner and at supper: and for newcomers among them sweets are added. Daily during the summer, two warm dishes for dinner, in the winter at dinner two warm dishes, for the refreshment [?] take three warm dishes, at supper two warm dishes suffice. Juniors at dinner at supper, for refreshment receive two.
The passage is, frankly, a little obscure, but it shows an early attempt to define how much to serve at each meal. Otherwise, the interdiction of poultry (which was sometimes considered a fast day food at this point) and meat is notable.
St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543 or 547) created the most enduring rule of all. Its passages on food and drink are widely quoted and worth giving here fully:
We think it sufficient for the daily dinner, whether at the sixth or the ninth hour, that every table have two cooked dishes on account of individual infirmities, so that he who for some reason cannot eat of the one may make his meal of the other. Therefore let two cooked dishes suffice for all the brethren; and if any fruit or fresh vegetables are available, let a third dish be added. Let a good pound weight of bread suffice for the day, whether there be only one meal or both dinner and supper. If they are to have supper, the cellarer shall reserve a third of that pound, to be given them at supper.
But if it happens that the work was heavier, it shall lie within the Abbot's discretion and power, should it be expedient, to add something to the fare. Above all things, however, over-indulgence must be avoided and a monk must never be overtaken by indigestion; for there is nothing so opposed to the Christian character as over-indulgence according to Our Lord's words, "See to it that your hearts be not burdened with over-indulgence" (Luke 21:34).
Young boys shall not receive the same amount of food as their elders, but less; and frugality shall be observed in all circumstances. Except the sick who are very weak, let all abstain entirely from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.
Note that the above is not only detailed in terms of the foods to be eaten and when, but also tries to incorporate a concern for individual frailties which is absent, for instance, from St. Columbanus' rule.
The rule on drink is similar, even begrudgingly accepting that monks will drink wine, however undesirable that may be:
"Everyone has his own gift from God, one in this way and another in that" (1 Cor. 7:7). It is therefore with some misgiving that we regulate the measure of others' sustenance. Nevertheless, keeping in view the needs of the weak, we believe that a hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each. But those to whom God gives the strength to abstain should know that they will receive a special reward.
If the circumstances of the place, or the work or the heat of summer require a greater measure, the superior shall use his judgment in the matter, taking care always that there be no occasion for surfeit or drunkenness.
We read it is true, that wine is by no means a drink for monastics; but since the monastics of our day cannot be persuaded of this let us at least agree to drink sparingly and not to satiety, because "wine makes even the wise fall away" (Eccles. 19:2). But where the circumstances of the place are such that not even the measure prescribed above can be supplied, but much less or none at all, let those who live there bless God and not murmur. Above all things do we give this admonition that they abstain from murmuring.
The food here would largely be vegetarian, but the mention that fresh vegetables would constitute a third dish implies that the main dishes would typically have been of grains (such as gruel) or legumes (probably broad beans or field peas). Also the rule, unlike others, does not mention poultry, but only the the meat of quadrupeds (an unusually specific reference). It may be then that earlier Benedictine monks could also have eaten both birds and fish.
If this rule later found such favor, it may be because of the overall sense of balance which marks it.
Aurelianus' (523-551) rules for both monks and nuns ban meat entirely, but allow “poultry and other winged creatures” to the sick (only). These are notable for allowing “fish on certain feasts, or when the Abbot/Abbess wants to allow indulgence”. This is striking not only because it shows that fish, too, was limited at this point and apparently considered something of an indulgence, but gives no hint of the special role fish would have at the end of the medieval period, when a “fish day” and a “fast day” were virtually synonymous.
This rule may be unique as well in specifying that, if the Abbot/Abbess so decides, the sick are to have a separate pantry and cooking (or kitchen, though that would seem more problematic).
Aurelian again forbids having food or drink “outside the common table”, but allows it to the sick and the young (minors).
Often these rules imply an essentially vegetarian diet. St. Ferreolus' (530-581) rule, though it says nothing about meals, is unusual in making this explicit. He forbids hunting to monks, in part because it was one of the pleasures of a worldly life, but also because he says of a monk: “he should know better, [than for the] lives of the animals to be slaughtered.” The section ends with an injunction to monks to appear not as lovers of hunting, but of fruit.
St. Columbanus (543-615) was Irish, spent years in France and ended his days in Italy. His rule is relevant then to all three places. It is one of the strictest, not only in restricting meals to one a day, but in frankly advising self-mortification:
For indeed those who desire eternal rewards must only consider usefulness and use. Use of life must be moderated just as toil must be moderated, since this is true discretion, that the possibility of spiritual progress may be kept with a temperance that punishes the flesh. For if temperance exceeds measure, it will be a vice and not a virtue; for virtue maintains and retains many goods. Therefore we must fast daily, just as we must feed daily; and while we must eat daily, we must gratify the body more poorly and sparingly; since we must eat daily for the reason that we must go forward daily, pray daily, toil daily, and daily read.
For food, this specifically results in:
Let the monks' food be poor and taken in the evening, “such as to avoid repletion," and their drink such as to avoid intoxication, so that it may both maintain life and not harm; vegetables, legumes, flour mixed with water, together with a little paximatio bread, lest the stomach be burdened and the mind confused.
Yet already he provides details absent from earlier rules: vegetables, legumes, flour. ("Legumes" here very likely referred to broad beans and field peas, though lentils were still a possibility.) The paximation (paximadion) was a form of biscuit, used like hard tack by Byzantine soldiers. (Haldon) Forbes points out that fish, though unmentioned, could not have been forbidden, since St. Gall (one of Columbanus' companions) was always fishing.
The Regula cujusdam patris ad monachos is sometimes associated with St. Columbanus and may either be sixth or seventh century. Its main statement on food is to abstain as much as possible; otherwise, that monks must refuse flesh and wine and anything which causes drunkenness (Caro et vinum, sive potus, in quo fit ebrietas, refutanda sunt Monachos).
The version for nuns is different enough to suggest a different author writing at a different time and emphasizes that the abbess must fairly assess the distribution of drink and food, as well as the demands of particular seasons. It is specified that two dishes suffice, with fruit in addition, the dishes made up of “vegetables or herbs or flour sprinkled overall” and everyone to be served in equal measure. The exception as always is for the sick, and others, like new converts, whom the Abbess judges unable to bear limited fare.
Discipline at the table is often a concern, but is particularly emphasized here:
If however, there are several foods and less present, to refresh the body, do not take enough to be condemnably full. When food is served at the table, none is to eat first before the blessing. The Abbess watches that immediately when the food is served. provides the sign with a touch and all showing that they have heard, with one voice ask a blessing, at which the voice of the Abbess follows saying: Dominus dignetur benedicere. The manager must take care that to all dishes or fruit and drink it is especially decreed that no one give another from their share or presumes to take that of another, which is the Abbess' responsibility. If however a novice or some bold person does as said above, transgressing the discipline of the Rule, they are to be corrected for the temerity of their audacity.
As is often the case, feast days allow for indulgence: “On feast days, out of reverence for the sacred solemnities, several foods, that is, three or four dishes refresh the body”.
As for drink:
For drink, strong liquor, that is, the usual measure of beer is given; if the Abbess wishes, if working, or a feast day, or some harried pious pilgrim arrives, wine is added to the drink. And if there are two turns of refreshment, additional wine as drink the Rule similarly serves.
The rule of St. Chrodegang (d. 766) specifies that one ought to observe a balance of food and drink, but is, relative to earlier rules, relatively generous with the meat:
When one or two of every sort in place of the clergy in the day of takes refreshment, he may receive, from the least even to the greatest four pounds of bread,
If eating twice in the day, a hot dish [of greens?] at the sixth hour, one serving of meat between two. If someone takes other dishes and these are not available, they can take two servings of meat or bacon as the second. Supper also one serving for two, or another dish.
For Lent, at the sixth hour one portion of cheese between two and another dish, and a third if there is fish or vegetables. For supper one dish between two and a portion of cheese. And if God gives more, they are "to take it with gratitude". The canons are also to have a kitchen garden to add some greens (pulmentum) to their portion.
In a year when there are no acorns or beechmast [that is, food for pigs], or enough meat for their ration, they are to take the consolation of Lenten or other food.
In wine-producing regions, five pounds a day of wine (when available); replaced with equal beer when necessary.
This is also the first mention of bacon in monks' meals, though other sources show that it was common in monasteries. (Note the phrase "meat or bacon" - bacon was long treated as a separate item.) It is the first mention of cheese as well (and on Lent, at that; in later centuries dairy would be forbidden on fast days). With Chrodegang's rule, monks' meals were already coming much closer to what a lay person might expect. Note too that fish is beginning to be associated with Lent (that is, with fasting).
A rule that is said to be from the ninth century, but is preserved in a twelfth century document, is not named, but applied to the canons of Strasbourg. (Grandidier) It begins with a variant of Chrodegang's rule. Dinner consisted of a soup, a portion of meat and a portion of vegetables; the latter could be replaced with more meat or with bacon (which, it appears then, could be eaten along with better meat). Supper consisted only of meat or of more vegetables. Bread was unlimited, except on fast days, when cheese and vegetables were served and sometimes fish. They got three pounds of wine for dinner and two for supper, or two Paris pints (four English) - enough that they were warned against getting drunk. These could be replaced with beer.
These were standard rations, simple enough, though more substantial than for many other orders. But at some point, on high holidays, meals became frankly luxurious; then came what was called “the great service”. (Grandidier gives details for these from a manuscript which he notes as having been held by the cathedral. He makes no attempt to date it, but does note that the Latin version uses the word frisginga, which primarily appears in Carolingian documents. On the other hand, he mentions “galettes”, which is probably his translation of oublies (wafers), and these tend to be first mentioned just after this period, as does clairet [clara potio in the text]. What follows then might be either from the end of the Carolingian period, or a century or two after it.)
On Easter Sunday and the week [of the octave], the day of the Ascension, Pentecost, Christmas, St. John the Evangelist's, the Epiphany, the Purification, Lent Sunday [?], the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the Assumption and the day of the Church's Dedication, the Canon on duty in the kitchen got (presumably for everyone) three muids of wheat, three one year old pigs, three suckling pigs, an adult, forty-eight chickens, twelve cheeses, one hundred and ten eggs, a half-bucket of milk, a half pound of pepper, “enough” honey and six pails of wine. In summer, four one year old lambs were served and two grown pigs instead of the three suckling pigs and grown pig. From Easter Sunday until mid-May, three young lambs, ten eggs and “enough” bacon were added to this. From All Saints' Day until Lent, six geese were substituted for the three lambs.
On a number of other holidays, such as the octaves of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, came what was called the “half great service”.
The first Sunday of Lent, a portion of fish, a quarter cheese, four eggs and three loaves, beyond the normal bread; for supper, fish, eggs, "galettes", cheese and clairet. Palm Sunday (and the four Sundays before), was of fish, in a pound of oil and enough vinegar. Supper, a half-pound of oil and some vinegar. Easter and the following Monday, three loaves beyond the ordinary, three portions of boiled meat, four of roast, a chicken and three larded young lambs with fried foods and galettes. (This seems a great deal for one person, even if the other rations listed specify “for each canon”.) Friday of the octave of Easter, three portions of salmon followed by a "galette", with a glass of clairet and one of Caritas ["the cup of Charity"]. From Easter to Pentecost, two meals a day, with meat, except on Friday. Two meals on Pentecost until St. Jean; meat forbidden until after high Mass.
St. Mark's day and on three days of rogation, fasting; dinner was a full portion of fish each, one and a half of salmon, and four eggs and a quarter of cheese. Same for the evening before Pentecost, but with less fish and three loaves beyond the ordinary.
Note again that fish is increasingly part of a monk's “fasting”. At the same time, these rations are already frankly luxurious and show how much indulgence was becoming standard as part of “abstinence”. Note too that the number of holidays – holidays on which (very expensive) pepper was allotted – seem to have increased suspiciously.
Monk's meals over time
The successive rules from Augustine on do not follow a linear progress, but an overall trend does appear. In Augustine, the main emphasis is on fasting, though the Regula Magistri offers more complete meals from the start. St. Caesarius' offers substantial enough meals, but without poultry or meat (he does not mention fish). St. Benedict's rule is similar but already more generous and is specific about bread. He accepts the necessity of letting monks drink wine. Aurelian continues the ban on meat and (except for the sick) on poultry and fowl. He is the first to mention fish, but as an indulgence, not in association with fasting. St. Columban's rule is frankly harsh, but also more explicit about specific foods than earlier ones. The male version of the Regula cujusdam patris is again fairly strict, forbidding meat and not only wine, but any intoxicating drink. Yet the version for women is more concerned with discipline than limiting food. It is the first of these to mention beer, which even seems to be the default choice in this case, wine apparently being something of a treat.
Compared to its predecessors, Chrodegang's rule is downright luxurious, mentioning not only meat but bacon and cheese and including both wine and beer. But in more than one monastery it was outstripped by reality, as shown by the holiday fare for the canons of Strasbourg.
With the popularity of the Benedictine Rule, one would think that many later monks lived on a vegetarian diet. But in practice, meat became standard in Benedictine communities, at least in part because of legalistic readings of the rule which allowed it to be eaten outside the refectory (as in the Abbot's quarters). Brother Leonard's fourteenth century dietetic for a Belgian Benedictine community mentions a rich variety of meats.
These early rules then were specific to the early centuries of Christianity and to a far narrower ecclesiastic population and only rarely persisted (or were renewed) in later centuries. Not that stricter dietary rules do have their advantages, even today:
In one study the rates of hypertension in Benedictine monks were compared to those of Trappist monks. The results showed that 30 percent of the Benedictine order had hypertension, while only 12 percent of the Trappists had the condition. Why is this significant? Because Benedictine monks eat meat, and Trappist monks are vegetarian.
FOR FURTHER READING:
The Divine Office in the Latin Middle Ages : Methodology and Source Studies . ed Margot E. Fassler, Robert S. Tangeman, Rebecca A. Baltzer 2000
"De Regula Magistri Veterum Testimonia", Patrologiae cursus completus, ed. Migne, Jacques-Paul (Paris) v88 1844
Aureliani Arelatensi, s., "Regula Ad Monachos", Patrologiae latina cursus completus ... series prima, ed Jacques Paul Migne (abbé) V 68 1847
Klingshirn, William E.,Caesarius of Arles: The Making of a Christian Community in Late Antique Gaul 2004
Columban Monks' Rules (Author: Columbanus Hibernus), CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts
Forbes comte de Montalembert, Charles, The Monks of the West: book 4. 1861
Haldon, John, Byzantium at War AD 600-1453 2003
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