The Matter of Food and Fasting: Rules…Are Made to Be Broken [Or Sidestepped Anyway!]


Welcome to my reader from Bahrain, visiting two days ago.

Fish Pond

I would just like to deal with food here and how the rules about fasting were ‘manipulated’ and carefully ‘interpreted’ so that the monks of old stuck by letter if not quite the rule of their Church law. It is for me a wonderful affirmation of human nature, that no matter what rules are laid down, there will be those who see them as a challenge to work around. This unpredictable inventive imagination of humankind is what gets it through its scrapes and challenges and ensures our very survival; it is an essential quality of survival. It is the same impetus in war prisoners who thought up and then carried out the tunnel escapes, the ingenuity of men who created the conception of how to get to the moon, and the driving force of someone I knew of who was the only prisoner to escape from Colditz  5 times. Even his German prison guards admired his ingenuity in the end!  But generally this uncontrollable inner drive of mankind  annoys and frustrates those in power at any given time who think they have covered every conceivable angle in their dictates, only to find them being flouted at almost every turn in practise!

Food is the very fuel that drives our engines that we call bodies. It is essential to our survival. Too much or too little of it kills us. But it is also a social activity and one that has all kinds of associations with it for us, bonding, caring, nurturing, family, comfort, love. It is a complex need of our lives, tied in with all sorts of emotional triggers. This is why during war, so much is done to ensure that people have the emotional satisfaction of food as well as its physical quantity and looking in wartime cookbooks one can see the ingenious substitutes that enabled people psychologically to feel they were not suffering too much. ‘Spirits’ need to be fed as well as bodies!

In the days before supermarkets though, there were natural times of the year for lean food supplies and these do tie in with religious fasting times. In the religious sense these fasting periods were proscribed, but even the ordinary folk would have been limited at these times. Fasting is a healthy activity when conducted properly, and has always been considered an aid to spiritual development as well by most religions. The big Christmas food feast which we still generally enjoy today goes back to times when a period of lack was about to ensue, so it was almost the final big feast up, ‘eat as much as you can before you have to go without.’

In medieval times, only two meals were eaten in a day. The Church forbid eating animals on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and throughout Lent and Advent. This equates to half a year. In Lent eggs are also forbidden. According to the rule of St Benedict, monks were not supposed to eat the meat of four-legged animals at all. However men living at that time felt that… St Benedict lived ‘a long time ago’ and over the next 800 years since his passing, monks across Christendom found ways of circumventing his rule. The Rule states that they should not eat meat in the refectory. Consequently many monasteries built a second dining room, called the misericord [place of mercy], where meat-eating can take place! Also, although eating the flesh of four-legged animals is forbidden [in the refectory], there is nothing in the Rule specifically against eating offal.

Realising that this is not wholly within the spirit of the Rule, and realising he cannot stand in the way of ‘progress’, Benedict X11 [Pope between 1334-42], suggests a compromise. As long as half the monks eat in the refectory, the remainder can bolt to the misericord and gorge on whatever meat they choose, providing it is not a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday or a day in Advent or Lent. Those who remain in the refectory must not eat the meat of quadrupeds but can eat fowl and other meaty ingredients, such as offal. On non meat days everyone must eat together in the refectory and observe non meat rules. The Benedictine monks at Westminster even managed to justify and wangle bacon. Pope Benedict’s ‘compromise’ means that a monk may only eat in the misericord for a maximum of 86 days per year and so monks are rather keen for their turn to come round. First course is nearly always beef, the second course normally consists of more beef plus three further roasted meats, veal, mutton, pork or goose. Lamb is eaten in late spring, boiled pork in the winter and at other times of the year mutton is served. At supper, only one meat dish is served.

Fish is big in the monks diet. Everyday the refectory serves fried, poached or baked fish served at dinner. For supper only shellfish such as cockles or whelks are served. Some of the largest fish ponds are owned by monasteries, Gracious Pond in Surrey, was constructed by the abbot of Chertsey in 1308 and extends to over 35 acres, whilst the ponds at Frensham [Surrey] extend to over a hundred acres. Where once the monks fished at Frensham, now people access these ponds for leisure fishing, perhaps unaware of their history.

Frensham Fishponds

Benedict XII was a reforming pope who did not carry out the policies of his predecessor. He chose to make peace with Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV and as far as possible came to terms with the Franciscans, who were then at odds with the Roman See. He tried to curb the luxuries of the monastic orders, though without much success. He also ordered the construction of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. He spent most of his time working on questions of theology. He rejected many of the ideas developed by John XXII. In this regard, he promulgated an apostolic constitution, Benedictus Deus, in 1336. This dogma defined the Church’s belief that the souls of the departed go to their eternal reward immediately after death, as opposed to remaining in a state of unconscious existence until the Last Judgment. Though some claim that he campaigned against the Immaculate Conception, this is far from clear. He engaged in long theological debates with other noted figures of the age, such as William of Ockham and Meister Eckhart.

Benedict X11

This is the last of my posts on this site about Pilgrimage. I have set up another blog which, if you are interested in you can find a link  on the side of this site, entitled Pilgrimage and Its History.  I want to concentrate heavily in that new blog on all sorts of Pilgrimage and sacred sites, focusing especially on my specialised knowledge in Medieval and Tudor History. It will cover sacred sites, lots of photographs, as well as history about anchoresses, hermits, priories, and cathedrals, and I think the new platform will enable me to go far deeper into that than this site can allow me to do. Living In The Monastery Without Walls will continue to be dedicated to mysticism. Hope to see some of you over on the new site if you fancy a walk in the past, that led to where we are today…

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2 thoughts on “The Matter of Food and Fasting: Rules…Are Made to Be Broken [Or Sidestepped Anyway!]

  1. I always marvel that men think that the Divine Source is concerned as to whether they eat meat or fish on Fridays or whenever !!!
    Where there is cruelty involved in eating flesh I think that’s another matter, but surely the minutiae of the rules which were for the discipline of the monks is only a man-made concern !!!

  2. I’m fairly certain that there’s something in the Rule of St Benedict that states that if a brother is ill he is to be fed meat regardless, to help the brother get his strength back. But after Passiontide being meatless I was desperate for a bacon sandwich on Easter Day!

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