At the Tables of the Monks: Part I

The hood does not make a monk.
William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Monks concert in the egg
The Concert in the Egg, by Hieronymous Bosch

Contemplating a National Geographic article from February 2009 on the mummies of priests and other religious persons in Sicily, it’s easy to start wondering just how and what monks ate. Citing research on the skeletal material indicated that unlike most of the population of Europe in the early modern era, the article suggested that monks and other clerics tended to weigh in on the portly side. Furthermore, close examination of these skeletons showed that these people suffered from many of the same chronic diseases that plague modern people. And this during a time when the population practiced locavorism by necessity, although some trade brought spices and a few other food items for afar.

With just a brief bit of Benedictine history* under his or her belt, the casual observer quickly notes that the Benedictines, and later monastics, poked a finger into just about every pie in Europe. Figuratively speaking, anyway. What’s true is that we still eat foods invented by those Benedictines and other religious orders that followed them.

Everything from cheese to preserved meats to wine and bread in modern Europe bears a resemblance to the products that the monks developed in the early Middle Ages and afterward. Their motto, Ora et labora (Pray and Work), meant feeding themselves and the peasants surrounding their vast land holdings, donated to the monasteries by grateful families when sons joined the monasteries and also bequeathed to the monasteries  at the deaths of pious luminaries and lords.

And feeding themselves meant forgoing the meat, but not the milk, of cows, sheep, and goats. St. Benedict’s Rule technically permitted meat only for the sick and the aged. The rest of the monks had to do without. Theoretically speaking, anyway.

That’s why cheese became an important item in the monks’ diets. Many of the cheeses invented by the monks — for example,  Munster cheese — still sit on little straw mounds in Parisian cheese shops. Unlocking the story of these cheeses and other products with origins in medieval monasticism promises an adventure I wouldn’t want to miss.

A Monk as Wine-Cellar Taster
The Cellarer as Taster

One of the chief virtues of the early Benedictines, and other monastics, was their lauded hospitality. And those acts of welcome demanded food and lots of it. By welcoming all guests, the Benedictines set themselves a pretty steep task: feeding a lot more mouths than just their cloistered community. At a time when most monasteries acted as inns in the unstable world outside their walls, the Benedictines needed their cellarers, or supply managers, more than ever.

*Monastic orders in the Roman Catholic Church began with the Benedictines, an order founded by St. Benedict of Norcia, which actually began long before the establishment of the institutional Church.

To be continued.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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