Eat, Drink and Be Merry the Monastic Way

Medieval Monasticism and Food

Go to any medieval monastic site and you are likely to find a display board which talks about monastic kitchens and food in a way meant to amuse as well as inform. There may be mention of the extraordinary quantities of food consumed (thank you, Barbara Harvey) or the use of pittances (extra portions of luxuries such as wine, fruit or nuts served on feast days such as Christmas or Easter). Sometimes there is a mildly disapproving reference to the meat-eating that went on in the frater or refectory for the sick. Undoubtedly, most monks and many nuns ate better, or at any rate more copiously, than their peasant counterparts. We forget the other side of the picture: the frequent fasts, the cold and damp, the fact that even in the cloister, there could be imbalances because what was available locally might not always be the best choice nutritionally. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of the monotony of their diet: the endless beans cooked at Cluny or the sameness of the fish consumed at Ely in the earlier years. Then there are the delightful surprises: Boniface sending a barrel of beer to Fulda for a ‘merry day among the brethren’ or an unexpected gift of cherries or spiced wine to mark a friendship or in thanksgiving for a favour received. What is more rarely averted to on these display boards are the chapters of the Rule of St Benedict we have just been reading about the measure of food, its preparation and service, the measure of drink, the times of meals, and the allowances to be made for the sick, the elderly and children. These are the context for monastic food, for the fasting and feasting that alternate in our lives.

Food and Drink in the Rule of St Benedict

What I think is striking is that Benedict devotes so much attention to food and drink in the first place. There is a very clear link between what we eat, how we eat, when we eat, and the liturgical life of the community. The kitchen servers, for example, begin their week of service with a triple blessing. To be excluded from the common table is a painful sanction, a form of excommunication. The cellarer, who is responsible for ensuring that the community is adequately fed, is reminded of the religious significance of his task: he must look upon everything entrusted to him as though sacred altar vessels, and the people he serves as having unique dignity and importance, never to be neglected or treated harshly. Meals are to be simple but such that everyone can share them, accompanied by reading so that their eucharistic character is maintained. It is in the abbot’s power to increase the allowance of food or drink if he judges it appropriate, and the sick, the elderly and children are explicitly exempted from the more rigorous aspects of the Rule’s teaching. All this amounts to a considered policy which recognizes the importance of food and drink and a humane approach to the community’s everyday life. There is discipline, care to avoid excess, but no intention of inflicting misery. We are to enjoy food and drink as we enjoy all God’s gifts.

The Situation Today

I once stayed in a monastery — admittedly not Benedictine — where the idea seemed to be that eating should be as unpleasant as possible. I felt as awkward as I had when attending a meal conspicuous for its excess. Both extremes make food the centre of attention and that is rather sad. Yet it is interesting how often what monks and nuns eat is the subject of discussion and sometimes censure, and perhaps it is our own fault. We don’t usually write about eating baked beans on toast but we do note the festive celebrations and the appearance of various delicacies on our tables. I have done so myself, quite recently, too; but it is not the whole story. Most monastic communities have taken to heart the need to provide a sound diet, as free from chemical additives and processing as possible, with only occasional luxuries. In a world where many go hungry, to do otherwise would be an insult to God. But we need to recognize that having the ability to make such choices in itself places us in a privileged position. I am glad, therefore, that every meal, no matter how inconsequential (and believe me, supper on fast days is decidedly ‘short commons’!) is preceded and followed by grace: a prayer of blessing beforehand and thanksgiving afterwards. That, and support for our local food bank, are a reminder that everything we have and are comes from God and is to be shared with others. That is the source of our joy, our merry-making, our true delight.

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