At the Tables of the Monks: In the Beginning (Part II)

St. benedict eating with his monks
St. Benedict Eating with his Monks (Painting by Giovanni Sodoma)

You’d never know a hermit started it all.

St. Benedict of Norcia (ca. 480-547 A.D.), called the Father of Western Monasticism and the Patron of Europe, never intended to form a religious order. He just wanted to get away from it all, “all” in this case being Rome, where his noble Umbrian family sent him for literary studies, and what he perceived to be the decadence of his upper-class noble friends and their families.

So, like many young people, Benedict ran off into the hills and went back to the land, in Enfide. Of course, he took his long-time nurse with him to cook his food while he spent time reflecting on life. And, like many such seekers, he soon attracted a number of followers.

The rest is, as they say, is history.* Benedictine monasteries soon dominated the countryside and cities of medieval Europe. Nearly all followed St. Benedict’s Rule, or better said, suggestions for living in community.

St. Benedict’s Rule, written around 530 A.D., merely summed up what he believed to be a “right” way to live in community. After all, he’d spent a lot of years observing human nature and thought he knew a thing or two about people’s foibles. And he did; to put it mildly, people haven’t changed much in 1500 years, cell phones and Twitter notwithstanding!

Since food obviously concerned these monastic communities, Benedict included a fairly loose prescription for eating. Contrary to popular ideas about medieval monasticism, Benedict’s Rule accommodated people’s likes and dislikes in some interesting ways.

RB 39: The Quantity of Food

1. We believe that two cooked dishes are enough for the daily meal, whether at noon or mid-afternoon, at all times of the year. This is done because of the weaknesses of various persons, 2. For one who cannot eat one dish may be able to eat the other. 3. Therefore two cooked dishes should be enough for all the brothers, and if fruit or fresh vegetables are available, a third may be added. 4. A generous pound weight of bread should be enough for the day, whether it be for a single meal or for dinner and supper. 5. If they are to eat supper that day, a third part of the pound weight should be set aside by the cellarer for the evening meal.

6. If it should happen that the work has become especially heavy, the abbot may judge that something should be added. He has the power to do so if it seems useful, 7. Provided above all that gluttony be avoided and the monk never be surprised by indigestion. 8. For there is nothing as out of place in a Christian life as gluttony. 9. As Our Lord says: “See that your hearts not be loaded down with drunkenness” (Luke 21:34).

10. The same amount of food, however, should not be served to young children, but less than to adults. Frugality should be maintained in all cases. 11. With the exception of those weak from illness, all the members must refrain from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

(Contemporary ideas on meat indicate that many medieval people believed meat to inflame sexual passion, something not recommended in the cloisters.)

These dietary proscriptions follow, frankly, the everyday menus** of many ordinary Romans: soup, cheese, eggs, fruit and perhaps meat if the household could afford it. Benedict believed in moderation.

Thus, St. Benedict’s Rule set out the framework for the foods that the monks began to develop: these cheeses, breads, wines, beers, and sometimes meat products all had one thing in common, besides their monastic origins.


To be continued.


Monte Cassino (Photo credit: Aileen Parsons)
Monte Cassino (Photo credit: Aileen Parsons)

*One of the ten monasteries established by Benedict, Monte Cassino, lies southeast of Rome and was heavily bombed by the Allies during World War II. The monastery has since been rebuilt to appear like the original.

** A menu recorded by Apicius gives us more clues about the Roman culinary excess that repelled Benedict:


Jellyfish and eggs

Sow’s udders stuffed with salted sea urchins

Patina of brains cooked with milk and eggs

Boiled tree fungi with peppered fish-fat sauce

Sea urchins with spices, honey, oil, and egg sauce

Main Courses

Fallow deer roasted with onion sauce, rue, Jericho dates, raisins, oil, and honey

Boiled ostrich with sweet sauce

Turtle dove boiled in its feathers

Roast Parrot

Dormice stuffed with pork and pine kernels

Ham boiled with figs and bay leaves, rubbed with honey, baked in pastry crust

Flamingo boiled with dates


Fricassee of roses with pastry

Stoned dates stuffed with nuts and pine kernels, fried in honey

Hot African sweet-wine cakes with honey

***“Humans could not have survived over the millennia without fermented foods.” Keith H. Steinkraus, “Origin and History of Food Fermentations.” In: Handbook of Food and Beverage Fermentation Technology, eds. Y. H. Yui et. Al. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2004, p. 2.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

8 thoughts on “At the Tables of the Monks: In the Beginning (Part II)

  1. I would like to request permission to reprint this image:
    St. Benedict Eating with his Monks (Painting by Giovanni Sodoma)

    In a book titled The Rule of Benedict, by Joan Chittister.
    Thank you very much.
    Eve Sheridan

  2. I agree with kingbiscuitpants– this is fascinating. I love the painting and the photo of the monastery, which looks more like a medieval castle. Beautiful post!

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