At the Tables of the Monks: Daily Fare (Part III)

(Painting by Francisco de Zurburan)
St. Hugh in Refectory at Cluny (Painting by Francisco de Zurburán)

Fermentation provided a number of foods on the tables of medieval monks. Beer, cheese, wine, sausages all result from fermentation processes.

While it is true that medieval monks invented none of these foods originally — the Romans made cheese, wine, and sausages and Norsemen enjoyed beer — the monks, after the fall of Rome, guarded the production processes in monastery kitchens and vineyards and smokehouses. And in doing so they improved upon the old tastes and created entirely new foods.

In particular, the monks prized cheese, because of its complicated, almost meaty taste — thanks to bacterial fermentations and other ripening treatments. But before we get to the cheese course, so to speak, it behooves us to examine the daily fare of a medieval monk.

Let’s not forget that after the initial “founding” of the order by St. Benedict, after the Church attained power and wealth, that many — if not most — of the members of these cloistered communities came from wealthy, noble households. This fact, it seems, accounts for the association between rich diet and poor health as seen in skeletal remains.

Numerous sources list the foods eaten by monks throughout Europe. Recall that in winter just one meal appeared on the table, whereas in summer the monks generally ate two meals. Eggs, cheese, fruit in season, wine (including piment, wine augmented by honey and spices), boiled beans — at Cluny “flavored with a bit of fat,” boiled seasonal vegetables, and fish (eel, lamprey, salmon, pike, trout). Seasonings ranged from simple salt and mustard to the more exotic black pepper, as well as honey.

Bread, too, played a large role in the monastic diet.

Monks dark bread 2And the amount of bread boggles the modern mind, in these days of carbohydrate phobia. “Give us our daily bread” for the average monastery meant approximately a pound of bread per monk. St. Benedict allowed a “hemina” of wine per day, or half a sextary (an ancient Roman liquid and dry measure, more or less equivalent to an English pint or ten fluid ounces). However, and this is where we start seeing the impact of the rather privileged life of the cloistered monks, at Westminster Abbey monks received a gallon of ale per day, accounting for 19% of their caloric intake for the day.

Monks took their meals at times laid out in St. Benedict’s Rule:

At What Times the Brethren Should Take Their Refection

From holy Easter till Pentecost let the brethren dine at the sixth hour and take supper in the evening. From Pentecost on, however, during the whole summer, if the monks have no work in the fields and the excess of the heat doth not interfere, let them fast on Wednesday and Friday until the ninth hour; but on the other days let them dine at the sixth hour. This sixth hour for dinner is to be continued, if they have work in the fields or the heat of the summer is great. Let the Abbot provide for this; and so let him manage and adapt everything that souls may be saved, and that what the brethren do, they may do without having a reasonable cause to murmur. From the ides of September until the beginning of Lent let them always dine at the ninth hour. During Lent, however, until Easter, let them dine in the evening. But let this evening hour be so arranged that they will not need lamp-light during their meal; but let everything be finished whilst it is still day. But at all times let the hour of meals, whether for dinner or for supper, be so arranged that everything is done by daylight.

And the place for meals?

Refectory Table
Refectory Table

In English Monastic Life (1905), F. A. Gasquet wrote, about Beaulieu Abbey, founded in Hampshire, England in 1204 by Cistercian monks:

The refectory, sometimes called the fratry or frater-house, was the common hall for all conventual meals.  Its situation in the plan for a monastic establishment was almost always as far removed from the church as possible, that is, it was on the opposite side of the cloister quadrangle and, according to the usual plan, in the southern walk of the cloister.  The reason for this arrangement is obvious.  It was to secure that the church and its precincts might be kept as free as possible from the annoyance caused by the noise and smells necessarily connected with the preparation and consumption of the meals.

As a rule, the walls of the hall would no doubt have been wainscotted.  At one end, probably, great presses would have been placed to receive the plate and linen, with the salt-cellars (salt dispenser), cups and other ordinary requirements of the common meals.  The floor of a monastic refectory was spread with hay or rushes, which covering was changed three or four times in a year ; and the tables were ranged in single rows lengthways, with the benches for the monks upon the inside, where they sat with their backs to the paneled walls.  At the east end, under some sacred figure, or painting of the crucifix, or of our Lord in glory, called the Majestas, was the mensa major, or high table for the superior.  Above this the Scylla or small signal-bell was suspended.  This was sounded by the president of the meal as a sign that the community might begin their refection, and for the commencement of each of the new courses.  The pulpit, or reading-desk [during the silence observed at meals, a reader would read from the Rule or other spiritual books], was, as a rule, placed upon the south side of the hall, and below it was usually placed the table for the novices, presided over by their master.

Photo credit: Andrew Huff
Fresh Fava Beans (Photo credit: Andrew Huff)

Recipe for Monastic Beans, from Udalric, “ Consuetudines,” 726-727 (from Cluny in Burgundy, eleventh century, one of the oldest surviving European recipes) :

The cooks go into the kitchen to get the beans [likely dried fava beans] … . After Vespers they wash them diligently three times in water, in which they allow them to soak overnight in the cauldron, which should be well covered. … Coming into the kitchen [the next morning], they again wash the beans three times with water, and then put them on the fire.  When the cauldron is boiling, and the froth welling up, they cast it out continually with a slotted spoon, lest any of the floating beans be cast out with the froth. They also frequently stir the bottom with the same spoon, lest when they are eaten they should taste the odor of the fire. When the skin of the beans begin to burst, they take them off the fire; they cool them three times again with cold water, and again stir them about with the spoon, and put them in a pot having well-fitted lid. … After the chapter meeting, they put the beans into another cauldron again [to reheat them]. They take bacon fat, and when it has been cooked for a bit with vegetables, they press from it the fat to be poured over the beans.

On page 729, Udalric continues with a description of the some of the kitchen equipment found at Cluny:

One cauldron for beans … one basin for storing beans, when they are partially cooked. … Four spoons, one for beans, another for vegetables, a third, not so large, for pressing fat; the fourth is made of iron, for covering the fire with ashes. … One pan for water, should it need heating, and for melting fat; another, which is small, with tiny holes in the bottom, so that the fat may be strained.

To be continued.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “At the Tables of the Monks: Daily Fare (Part III)

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