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Stephen Halliday reviews an intriguing study of monastic dietary habits
There is more to this volume than the title suggests.
The author, a professor of history at Lancaster University, has spent many arduous days exploring the deserts and wadis of the Holy Land in search of early monastic sites and one of the pleasures of the book is its clear account of the early history of the monastic movement and the way in which practices varied enormously between east and west.
The Syrians were a grim bunch. Symeon the Stylite, whom the author describes as “the real star in the Syrian ascetic firmament” was asked to tone down his practices by the abbot of his monastery so he left and spent the rest of his life on top of a pillar 60 feet above the ground, food and drink being despatched to him on a rope.
By the time of his death in 459 his reputation had reached Britain. His more faint-hearted brethren contented themselves with wearing heavy chains around their necks to keep them bent under their weight, or ropes around their chests to make breathing difficult.
By contrast the Rule of St Benedict which came to prevail in western Europe from the sixth century was mild.
Benedict forbade the consumption of four-footed animals and recommended a pound of bread and a pint of beans daily, though lentils, peas and garlic seem to have been a feature of the monastic diet from an early stage. Cheese, wine and fish soon followed, the last of these on the grounds that some of Jesus’s disciples were fishermen.
Attempts to revert to more ascetic lifestyles were led by the Cistercians who, from 1098, deliberately sought remote, uncultivated sites, many of them in north Yorkshire.
However such was the enterprise and energy of the monks and their lay brothers that Cistercian monasteries swiftly prospered.
They were especially successful in the production of wool, but then what was one to do with the meat of a sheep which was indisputably a four-footed animal? Loopholes were found. Benedict forbade the consumption of meat in the refectory but this didn’t stop the monks eating meat elsewhere and the rule wasn’t always observed by the abbots who had their own table.
This reader, incidentally, did not realise that the word abbot is derived from the Aramaic word Abba, meaning ‘Father’ spoken by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane; or that the word ‘Monk’ is from the Greek ‘Monos’ meaning one who lives alone, though it came to be applied to those who lived in communities.
Andrew Jotischky’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on the monastic life and deserves more than a specialist readership. And it has many appetising monastic recipes.
Stephen Halliday is the author of The Great Filth: Disease, Death and the Victorian City
(The History Press, 2011)