Sunday, June 2

Summer Banquet Blog Hop: Medieval Monks' Meals

Welcome to my post in the Summer Banquet Blog Hop! In my medieval thriller, The Fifth Knight, food plays its part. There is a pivotal scene where the five knights, including the hero, Sir Benedict Palmer, feast lavishly upon their arrival at Knaresborough Castle. It is due to his overindulgence at this feast that Palmer discovers the true nature of his mission for the ringleader, Sir Reginald Fitzurse. But for this post, I'm going to look at the eating habits of another Benedict- as well as the eating habits of men and women inspired by this second Benedict. 
For it was Saint Benedict who was a key figure in starting the monastic movement in the early Christian Church. Benedict was a Roman nobleman who in around 500 AD, choose to leave Rome and worship Christ in an isolated setting. Hie popularity grew and he founded his own monastery, writing his famous Benedictine Rule. The Rule is a set of regulations for those in the monastic life and shaped almost every aspect of that life in the medieval period. 
Saint Benedict did not approve of personal possessions, he proscribed how many hours a monk should sleep. And the Rule also laid down what monks should eat and the quantities of food that should be eaten.Benedict was a fan of black bread, plain water, greens and vegetables. He believed that monks should eat once a day in winter and have a second lighter meal in summer in the evenings when days were longer. His plan was that monks should have a choice of two cooked meals, vegetable or cereal based and which could include a modest amount of fish or some egg. Meat was only for those who were ill. On feast days, monks could be allowed a supplementary treat known as a 'pittance'. A pittance might be better quality bread or wine instead of beer. 
Dressed Peacock- not what Saint Benedict would have had in mind.
The rationale behind Benedict's Rule was to support one of the three monastic vows: chastity. There was a belief that a rich diets inflamed the senses, incited greed and lust. A full monk was a sleepy monk, and so would not be in a fit state to pray for hours at a time. Benedict did acknowledge that monks needed to have extra treats every now and then. Brothers were allowed to eat more if they were invited to the Abbot's table. 
But as with all good intentions, the Rule was adapted over the centuries. A special room called the misericord was built for infirm monks. This was separate to the main refectory (dining room), so meat could be eaten here. Yet monks in full health would retire there to consume meat. By 1336, Pope Benedict XII (yes, another Benedict!) permitted meat on four days outside of fast days. And what meat: records show the consumption of beef, mutton, pork, veal, suckling pig. Poultry and game were also popular: monks consumed swan, cygnet, chicken, duck, goose. 
Medieval Butchers at Work
It has been calculated that some monks could have been consuming up to 7000 calories a day. Astonishing when you think that today, the recommended calorie intake for an adult male is 2500 calories. What is also of note is that as much as one fifth of these calories could have come from alcohol. Monks had access to beer (as did the rest of the population: it was safer to drink than water) but also wine.
Monks' reputation for Gluttony 
Fish was also popular, especially as no-one was allowed to eat meat on a Friday. Earlier in the medieval period, Wednesdays and Saturdays were also non-meat days, as well as the dietary restrictions imposed for Lent and Advent. That didn't stop the monks. With another bit of monastic Rule tweaking, certain types of geese and puffins were deemed to be fish because of their close association with water. A monastic feast day (of which there was about one a week) could consist of a couple of dozen dishes.
And of course, these huge levels of consumption were taking place in a society where the vast majority of people were at the brink of starvation or were actually starving. Ordinary people began to deeply resent the excesses of the privileged religious, as the picture above shows.The stereotype of the overfed monk, portly in his robes, immune from poverty, became one focus for discontent with the established church. By the fourteenth century there were poems and ballads mocking the monastic life and the over-privileged monks. 
As for my Benedict, Sir Benedict Palmer? Despite the thrill of attending his first banquet, he too  has doubts about the wealth of the church while ordinary people go without. Why not check out his story here
If you would like the chance of winning a signed copy of The Fifth Knight, (the #1 Amazon Bestseller in Action & Adventure and Historical) leave a comment at the end of this blog.
And make sure you check out the rest of the posts on this Blog Hop- you'll find great posts and giveaways!
Congratulations to Shelly Hammond whose comment was chosen at random to win a copy of The Fifth Knight. Hope you enjoy the read, Shelly!
Blog Hop Participants
  1. Random Bits of Fascination (Maria Grace)
  2. Pillings Writing Corner (David Pilling)
  3. Anna Belfrage
  4. Debra Brown
  5.  Lauren Gilbert
  6. Gillian Bagwell
  7. Julie K. Rose
  8. Donna Russo Morin
  9. Regina Jeffers
  10. Shauna Roberts
  11. Tinney S. Heath
  12. Grace Elliot
  13. Diane Scott Lewis
  14. Ginger Myrick
  15. Helen Hollick
  16. Heather Domin
  17. Margaret Skea
  18. Yves Fey
  19. JL Oakley
  20. Shannon Winslow
  21. Evangeline Holland
  22. Cora Lee
  23. Laura Purcell
  24. P. O. Dixon
  25. E.M. Powell
  26. Sharon Lathan
  27. Sally Smith O’Rourke
  28. Allison Bruning
  29. Violet Bedford
  30. Sue Millard
  31. Kim Rendfeld

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