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MEDIEVAL MONKS “DELIGHTED IN FATNESS”.

03 AUGUST 2020, THE TABLET by Michael Carter

The “dumb ox” himself, St Thomas Aquinas, in a 15th century depiction

Massive daily calorie intake, overconsumption of meat, fat and salt, a dearth of fresh fruit and vegetables and a falling life expectancy due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and increased vulnerability to infectious diseases. No, I’m not talking about the UK government’s renewed focus on diet, body weight and exercise brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic but a medieval monastic obesity crisis. 

As will be apparent from my earlier columns, I think there’s evidence that shows that late medieval monasticism was vibrant and remained religiously and socially relevant until the Dissolution of Henry VIII. But I’m more than prepared to put my hand up and concede there’s more than a grain of truth in the modern stereotype of corpulent Friar Tuck-like monks. 

It’s a literary topos that goes right back to the Middle Ages, the eponymous monk of one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales described as  “a lord full of fat”.

In fact, concern about over-consumption at the refectory table is apparent in the influential Rule written by St Benedict for his monastery at Monte Cassino, near Naples, in the early 6th century.

“Above all, let overindulgence be avoided,” says chapter 39, which also specifies that, for most of the year, monks were to dine just once a day, their repast consisting of a choice of two dishes and a pound of bread. The consumption of meat, meaning the flesh of quadrupeds, was an unnecessary luxury and strictly forbidden in the refectory. 

However, monks soon started to capitalise on the regulation’s various vagaries and inconsistencies. 

For instance, poultry, being two-legged, rapidly found its way onto the monastic menu, and a stay in the infirmary became something to be looked forward to and sustained as long as possible thanks to the better diet enjoyed there.

All this was too much for the back-to-basics reform movements that emerged in the years 1100. New Orders like the austere Cistercians insisted on a literal interpretation of St Benedict’s Rule and for much of the year dined on fare that would meet the approval of many a modern-day vegan. Cistercian monks were also required to undertake manual labour, therefore burning calories, building muscle and staying fit.

But even the Cistercians found it difficult to adhere to the strict letter St Benedict’s writings. A single daily meal just wasn’t practical or sufficient, even if supplemented by a light supper at harvest time.

This was especially the case for monasteries in frigid northern climes, where more frequent dining provided essential calories, warmth and comfort. 

By the late 13th century, Benedictine monks were enjoying three square meals a day: a breakfast of bread and ale; a substantial two-or even three-course midday dinner; and an evening supper.

This multiplication of meals was partly due to a general improvement in overall living standards in the late Middle Ages, but also reflected the social origin of monks, who were, for the most part, were from well-off families. They expected to be well fed and a padding of fat reflected their high social status, a reverse of the situation today when obesity is often a consequence of poverty and widely stigmatised.

The construction of special meat refectories called “misericords” allowed monks to circumvent St Benedict’s prohibition on eating the flesh of quadrupeds in the communal refectory. 

The surviving financial accounts from monasteries such as Battle, Westminster and Whalley show that by the 15th century, massive amounts of money was being spent on the monks’ food. At Westminster it came to around £11 per monk per year, equivalent to the salary of a then well-paid parish priest. 

Monks at richer monasteries were consuming enormous numbers of calories.

Today, a well-built, reasonably active man requires about 3000 calories a day to maintain his body weight.

It’s been estimated that the plates loaded in front of the Westminster monks contained up to 7000 calories on feast days (in every sense of the word) and no fewer than 4000 calories on days of “abstinence”. 

Whether the monks actually scoffed such enormous amounts of tucker is open to question, and it’s likely that abundant leftovers were destined for the abbey’s servants and the doles distributed to the poor at the abbey’s gates.

The scraps from the tables of Westminster Abbey may have been very tasty and substantial indeed. But even after taking this redistribution into account, the sedentary monks (manual labour had long since disappeared from their daily routine to make way for additional study time) were consuming more than enough to pile on excess pounds.

Largely devoid of fresh fruit and vegetables, and containing substantial amounts of saturated fats, protein and salt, the food eaten by monks had inevitable consequences for their health. If the evidence from 15th-century Westminster is anything to do by, an unhealthy diet contributed to a substantial fall in life expectancy, which slumped by about ten years over the course of the century. 

The excavation of monastic cemeteries has uncovered the remains of monks suffering from degenerative bone disease caused by obesity.

Analysis of the remains revealed that many had dropped dead in early middle age, and it’s therefore probable they succumbed to heart failure, stroke or diabetes.

Doubtless, diseases associated with obesity also made monks more vulnerable to the epidemics of viral illnesses, such as the mysterious “sweating sickness” that swept through late medieval and early Tudor England.

It’s also clear that monks were regularly in need for the medieval equivalent of a packet of Rennies. Monastic manuscripts are full of recipes for indigestion remedies and the meat-rich diet enjoyed by an abbot of Muchelney was probably the cause of his bad base of constipation that required treatment with an enema inserted in his “fundament”. 

But overconsumption is only part of the story. There are numerous instances of monks and nuns complaining about their bland, meagre victuals.

Spare a thought for the poor canonesses of White Ladies Priory, whose total annual income wasn’t much more than the yearly food allowance of a single Westminster monk. The ladies must’ve had a very frugal board indeed. 

And nor did excess body weight necessarily undermine respect for the monasteries. Medieval sources explicitly refer to the heaviness of St Thomas Aquinas. That didn’t stop him being esteemed as one the greatest philosophers and theologians all time.

It’s a salient reminder that BMI isn’t an indicator of worth.

PAT SAYS

Both this article and the BBC 4 three part series on the English monasteries are very interesting.

The BBC series is, I think, on YouTube.

It seems that everything started off very idealistically and then deteriorated as wealth and influence grew.

I suppose that’s what happened to the whole RCC?

Traditionally I had always thought Henry V111 destroyed the monasteries as part of his opposition to Rome.

But it looks as if the monasteries were hot houses of financial and sexual corruption.

And the RCC today is as utterly corrupt as it ever was.

89 replies on “MEDIEVAL MONKS “DELIGHTED IN FATNESS”.”

Corpulency, corruption, credal hypocrisy, and (and often inevitably) crime are, were, and probably always will be, the defining characteristics of the RCC.

If you ponder any of today’s predominantly bloated Catholic bishops, you’ll easily find shades of characters in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’.

And we know where Chaucer placed many such medieval figures post mortem…in the Devil’s posterior.

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Pat, Fr Dylan James. Typical parish dodger. He is from Clifton diocese in the UK. But has now ended up in the states as a moral theology professor. God bless his ass. But, he has posted pictures on Facebook of him with his American-style car. Who is paying for that? Also, a picture of a swimming pool in his seminary. And, a posh Gym. This guy really does take the proverbial.

What gives him the right to spend all that money, and not be in a Parish?

Or maybe he has been sent off to the states for some other reason.

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He taught moral theology at W@nkersh. Always talking about weight lifting and how much he enjoyed the gym.

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You have made a right clown of yourself with so many inaccuracies. As for the car. What has that got to do with you? Many priests come from well to do families who support them.
Who is paying for you?

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Probably one of the moochers on the dole. He’s an academic so is remunerated accordingly. He’s not a religious priest so can spend it on himself.

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Odd that gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, seemed not to trouble monastic medieval minds, not even the overthinking mind of such a morbidly obese figure as the ‘Angelic Doctor’, Thomas Aquinas. I suppose life was just too convenient for them to take serious moral stock of themselves, while keeping one eye on that judgemental god with whom they loved to frighten, and control, the simple folk. But sure, how else could they part them, and their meagre wealth, to give generously to the friars and the monks?

This ball of bloated, ruddy flesh, Aquinas, needed an adjustment to the recfectory table (a semi-circular cut) to facilitate his enormously protruding gut (putting a severe strain on his spine, incidentally) and to enable his greedy fat hands access to the food he consumed with hedonistic abandon. I suppose all that thinking of his gave him a gargantuan appetite. And I suppose, too, that was offered as mitigation for his massive and gluttonous greed, since he ended up being canonised anyway, despite the spiritual death supposedly inflicted on him by one of the seven deadlies. Or maybe it was just that too many clerics and religious of the time lived as hedonistically as he had and couldn’t condemn him without also condemning themselves. God would, they must have thought, understand, just as Bishop Eamon Casey apparently too thought he would, while having sex with Annie Murphy on a soft and fluffy rug in front of a roaring fire.

So one can conclude only that the seven deadlies aren’t that deadly, after all. Well, at least not for the friars, the monks, the priests and the religious.

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The seven deadlies seem to me to have affected the Western monks, vis a vis diabetes, heart problems and stroke.
The Greek and Russian monasteries I’ve visited have observed vegetarian diets except on high festivals fish is on offer. The problem is that one has to eat speedily during the lection. When the bell rings the meal is over.
On the other hand parish meals include all kinds of meats, pastas, and delicacies. Wine and vodka generously flow forth to cut all the fat in the rich food.
I thank God everyday for Vatican II because I’ve found delightful places of exile.

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I thought Casey and Murphy had their secret trysts at an abandoned quarry. The “soft and fluffy rug” in their case was allegedly an old bit lino.

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10.21, had you read my post at 10.27 with the intelligent care one might reasonably expect of an adult rather than a minor, you’d have learned that I said gluttony seemed not to trouble monastic medieval minds, not that they didn’t write on the subject.

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10:46
You miss the point yet again.
The point in question is that if you knew something about the thought of St Thomas you would find it utterly engaging and admirable. You wouldn’t be concerned with his physical features.
After all, when you were outed here and it was possible to google you, well, let’s just say that charity prevents me from clinching the point.

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3.46, no, I didn’t miss any point with you, either previously or ‘again’.

But for argument’s sake, if that was your point, then it should have been stated rather than left for readers to infer. It is a lapse of judgement I’d expect from a Year 9 student, a minor. From an adult, like you, it betokens a distinct lack of scholarly rigour.

But since you’ve just raised the point, explicitly, for the first time, I shall address it by paraphrasing Pope Paul VI:

People listen better to witnesses than to teachers, and to teachers only if they are witnesses.

Aquinas was no witness to the virtues of abstemiousness.

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6:14
Your postings here over time are no witness to any virtue. The opposite, in fact. You display a chronic disregard for them.
Secondly, you have absolutely no proof that St Thomas’ corpulence was not the result of a myriad of other possible explanations. If it was, for example symptomatic of an eating disorder, more shame on you to apportion volitional action and therefore unmerited moral culpability to him.
When I consider the many potential celebrations of reconciliation which did not take place because of your ‘parting of the ways’ from seminary, I’m cheered.

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8.23
Your post is literally as pointless as your comment at 10.21. It does not alter my final paragraph at 6.14.
Aquinas was no witness to the virtues of abstemiousness. This is a fact.
Hearing Aquinas’ lecture on, but not wax, abstemiousness would be as pointless as (I was about to say ‘your last two posts’, but I do love novelty. So…) hearing a Catholic priest’s lecture on marital bliss.

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10:27pm

Polly you’re repeating yourself, we’ve heard all this before from you about the ‘Angelic Doctor’ you are so nasty about dear St. Thomas I can only conclude you don’t like him but then again you don’t seem to like anyone, be nice or say nothing.

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11.01pm: How was your nightmare? Hellish or comforting?… Let us know for fun….It’s all too serious on the blog…🤣🤣🤣🐽😎☠👜👡👡👒🐄🐄😆💔💔💔💔😻😻😻

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Major sex scandal Pat to be revealed about Elsie’s Seminary in Chelsea. The Blacks Brothers owned the Telegraph who live on the Channel Islands are publishing a dossier. Elsie has crossed them. Had the priest flown by helicopter for weekend Mass. Crispian Hollis would go personally.

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It’s the Barclay brothers who own the Telegraph and have a house on Alderney, where they will airlift a priest out to say Mass for the servants.

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What a load of baloney. You really do need to engage your brain before you commit to writing. Please do not open your mouth and let your belly rumble. There are so many errors in your post.

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The video linked is very well worth watching.
I wonder if anyone else noticed the description of monasticism in it by the Cistercian abbot, Fr Erik Varden. To him, monasticism is the preferred lifestyle for men seeking to unite themselves to Christ. This contrasts sharply with the Lutheran idea of pursuing holiness, one I find more realistic, and more appealing. Martin Luther, himself formerly an ascetic Augustinian friar, had a less rarified, more egalitarian, view of personal holiness and believed that even everyday situations, like those of wives and mothers, were as much the locus for unity with Christ as the most extreme hermetic practices.
Fr Varden’s outlook epitomises the Roman Cathoic clerical ideal of pursuing personal holiness, and it is centered on the clergy, not the laity. It repeats the old prejudice, still prevalent in some even today, that a person can devote himself to God only if he aspires to the clerical or religious state. It is, in fact, an outlook rooted in clericalism, and it completely overlooks a historical and biblical fact about Mary, the mother of Jesus: that her relationship with her son was not expressed in the physical isolation and the privations of monasticism, but in the mundane and ordinariness of Jewish commonplace.

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Yes, indeed an excellent post at 2.44 pm, though I would also point out that the discovery of Christ in all things was also stressed by the Jesuits and in Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devour Life. I’m not sure what to think of Erik Varden, Dave that there is something preening and self-regarding about his approach which is as much of an ivory Tower as his former post in a comfortable Cambridge college.

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Anon@10:26: In this blog about clerical over indulgence, your comment on the “Introduction to the Devour life” is priceless appropriate. A typo of course, but one to relish, …..oops, another eating one!

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If he is talking about contemplation, there are more contemplative outside the monastery. They have jobs and families but value prayer.

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10:18 am

Are you alright?

2:44 am and 8:59am are not from the same person. I posted at 8:59 am.

If anything, you seem to be engaging in obsessive compulsive paranoid ideation.

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7.39, gluttony, like most or all of the other Seven Deadly Sins, is often mitigated on health grounds…by the offenders themselves usually. It reminds me of an encounter in one of A. J. Cronin’s novels, ‘The Keys of the Kingdom’.

A missionary priest back home calls out a clinically obese and wealthy parishoner: ‘Eat less; the gates of Paradise are narrow.’

The parishoner complains to his boss, who in turn chides the priest. Didn’t he know that the woman had ‘glandular’ problems? 😕

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Up till quite recently obesity was valued as a sign of wealth. Look at photographs up to the 1950″s very few obese people as diet was restricted and food was expensive.

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9.00, a guy who ought never to have been ordained and (if popes Benedict and Francis are correct in their ban on ordaining gay men) whose ordination is as valid as that of a chimpanzee’s.

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Just to point out the so called “ban” on ordaining gays is in a document which isn’t even legislative in it’s nature. Even if it was, which it wasn’t, it still wouldn’t render the ordination of a gay man invalid, merely unlawful.

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9:22
Repeating a meme as frequently and as mindlessly as you do is bad for mental health, which, in turn seeks release in reiterating mindless memes – the proverbial vicious circle.

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9.52, what matters here is not canonical validity, but something more fundamental and serious: the discernment of God’s will regarding gay men and the priesthood.
If popes Benedict and Francis are morally correct to ban gay men from ordination, then it must be premised on the certainty that God himself does not ‘vocate’ such men to the priesthood; otherwise both popes would be in open rebellion with God and would be violating the catechetical principle of avoiding unjust discrimination against such men.
The ordination of any gay man is, in light of the ban, absolutely and irrevocably null and void; this includes the ordination of Sean Jones.
The bishop who ‘ordained’ Jones acted contrarily and openly not only to the proscriptions of two popes, but to the will of God himself.

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10.14, you seem…worried. Fretful for your future; perhaps even your present.
You wouldn’t be one of these gay ‘priests’, would you?

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10.14

And sure now, isn’t Christianity quintessentially the greatest of all memes, which you doubtlessly repeat frequently and, from the spirit of your posts, with utter and abject moral inanity and mindlessness, a contradiction and a cognitive dissonance relieved only by cathartic reiteration in a ‘proverbial vicious circle’?

God bless you.

Ambition without talent is always a tragedy. So, too, is covetousness. Both take a terrible toll not only on mental health, but also on a soul.

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9:36 is so desperate because of the churches’ embrace of the real, as distinct from an ideological world that she/he feels it necessary to imagine that God’s will accords with her/his views. The last resort of the morally bankrupt.

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+Pat: Varden has been appointed as the Prelate of the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim. However, soon after he was apointed, the consecration was postponed citing health reasons.

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10:36 According to the church’s understanding the call of the Bishop is the call of God. Both Popes rejected the possibility of ordaining men with “deep-seated tendencies” which might also be a concern for straight men. The fact that someone has same-sex attraction does not disqualify him. Once a person is male and baptised they can be validly ordained even if it is only God’s permissive will rather than his positive will.

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4.16, excellent post, for the most part.

‘Permissive will’ is an abstract, theological construct: there is no such thing in God. It may be useful in helping students rationalise the co-existence of Good and Evil, but what we refer to as God’s ‘permissive will’ is the inevitable working out of the evil WE commit, either individually or collectively, historically and presently.

God, in the quite literal sense of the phrase, is a Law unto himself and must obey it to avoid such things as anarchy and mayhem (not least within the Trinity), and the violation of our freedom to choose to love him or not.

The fruit of moral lawlessness lies all around us, rotted and wrenching; but this is but a foretaste.

The Man of Lawlessness? He is elsewhere, and he is real, not abstract. In him, anarchy and mayhem are supreme. He is to be avoided at all costs. And I do mean ‘all’.

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10 50: Another gay obsessed fantasist …. did you not get your fun last night? Just wondering as the obsession by you and others is psychopathic and dysfunctional. A therapist will help you accept your own gayness. Don’t be afraid!!

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I believe Pat ordered a certain former poster to get lost – and in no uncertain terms. Since his cover was blown (and we now know what he looks like), his posts here, on a daily basis, are done anonymously. However, his diarrhoea of words and constipation of truth and good sense combine to produce a lot of hot air.

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Monsignor Shine told us in Waterford that you you didnt have a vocation to priesthood you would get it the moment you got the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

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I am sad that the word enlightened equates with gay on your site …….anything other seems so crude and ignorant of literature, reality , and what is essential. The RCC has done such irrevesible harm…….irreversible…….the self-loathing will attack……my contributions to your site are always inviting of the argumenum ad hominem…..grammar is irrelevant to me as is sin tax and whatever ….

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7.53

And I, dear lady, have the remedy.

A powerful, lung-burst of the two first lines of that hymn

🎶 BIND US TOGETHER, LORD

BIND US TOGETHER 🎶

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Pat
I telephoned Fr Donal Roche
I telephoned Fr Rathgar ( X)two dentists with one…..
I threatened a new blog…
Fr Fraser…..Fr Camelleri and the British Navy….
And many others…
They would be foolish not to take my sincerity seriously…
I assure all… I have fuck all to loose…
The clergy are moral vacuums …
I issue again what was spoken …..
Bill Mulvihill

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Lets start with Fr Tom Clancy……all abused by that shit…..come forward….
He resides quietly in Cork….how dare he..

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Clancy the clown. That bumptious idiot was patronised daily by Ledwith. “Sure, God” indeed. Clancy should have had an Oscar for best supporting actor.

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I don’t think it was Tom Clancy who used to say ‘Sure God.’

What’s the point in harassing a man of his years? You wouldn’t like it done to your father. Leave him in peace!

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