Peregrinations and Pilgrimages: Medieval Benedictine Hospitality

If your idea of hospitality is having good friends over for stimulating talk and take-out pizza and beer (good beer, mind you), you may just be a Benedictine at heart. That is, Benedictine as in monk, not liqueur.

In the Benedictine charism, true hospitality is a “holy event”, not just a social happening where only people’s bodies are nourished. No, Benedictine hospitality requires much more than feeding people and sending them on their way.

Chapter 53 of The Rule of Saint Benedict makes it very clear just what is asked: in true Benedictine hospitality, “All guests who arrive should be received as Christ.”  Benedict stressed the importance of listening, for he began his Rule by saying “Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).” In Genesis 18, at Mamre, Abraham ran to meet the guests standing at the entrance of his tent, for he recognized that “sometimes we may entertain angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2) In modern Bedouin culture, too, it is clear that a host is “blessed by the guests.”

It was, and is, a question of sharing.

The most costly thing in modern-day culture is time. Listening quietly to a person, giving them undivided attention in a time when no one has time to talk, to listen, to share, to heal through the simple act of listening intently. Holyhead and Muir sum up the blessings of true Benedictine-style hospitality when they write:

A listening ear, a quiet place for prayer, a healing space to balance the frenetic clutter of everyday pressures, an environment of simple beauty, these are all aspects of Benedictine spirituality. (The Gift of St. Benedict, p. 92)

Gifts of Benedictine spirituality, the sum total of the three pillars – stability, conversion of life, and obedience – ultimately add up to hospitality. Maybe “love of the Other” would be a better term than hospitality? For true hospitality is a taking in of the stranger, the Other.

Days during Saint Benedict’s time were days like ours, full of great social mobility, prejudice against outsiders, and fear for personal safety, with threats of war and unrest all around. And so it came to be that monasteries like Benedict’s (and almost all monasteries until the eleventh century were Benedictine) provided hospitality for travelers and pilgrims and just plain strangers who found themselves in foreign and seemingly unsafe places. Howard Johnson’s before there was a Howard Johnson, so to speak.

For the Winter 2006 issue of the journal Gastronomica, Kirk Ambrose compiled a list of foods from material related to the great Cluny monastery in Burgundy, France. (1) (During the French Revolution, the townspeople destroyed monastery and carried off the stones to be used in building new houses.) The list resulted from directions for sign language to denote foodstuffs, since the monks could not speak, due to their vow of silence. Some of the foods served to the monks, and possibly to the pilgrims passing through, included round bread, bread cooked in water, flat cakes, beans, eggs, fish, cuttlefish, eel, lamprey, salmon or sturgeon, pike, trout, millet, cheese, milk, honey, apples, cherries, leeks, onions, wine, mustard, and vinegar.

An example of this sign language:

Pro signo ovorum cum digito in alterio digito simila testam ovi vellicantem.

(For the sign of eggs bend one finger with another in the shape of an eggshell.)

Joan Chittister, a modern Benedictine nun, says that the “Benedictine heart is to be a place without boundaries … a point where all the differences of the world meet and melt … .” A new world takes shape, she suggests, when people let strangers and new ideas into their hearts. It’s in that openness that humans find the opportunity to practice true hospitality, to the world and not just to their families or intimate group of long-standing friends. In other words, they  embrace the opportunity to change things in their lives.

The wisdom of a medieval monk became like a stone tossed thoughtlessly into a still pond. The ripples of that wisdom created way stations, hospitals, universities, and more over the centuries.

Makes 8

This recipe comes from French star-chef Marc Meneau’s La Cuisine des Monastères (1999).

8 Golden Reinettes (old apple favored in the 17th and 18th centuries)
2 T. butter
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 t. ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven 180 C. Grease a baking sheet. Core the apples. Mix butter, sugar, and cinnamon, and fill the insides of the apples with this mixture. Place apples on baking sheet with the filling parallel to baking sheet. Cook for 3 hours. This process essentially dehydrates the apples. Serve warm with Creme Anglaise flavored lightly with cinnamon.

These keep for two to three days in the refrigerator. Reheat briefly before serving. You may cook pears, apricots, and peaches in the same way.


(1) Ambrose, Kirk. “A Medieval Food List from the Monastery of Cluny.” Gastronomica 6 (1): 145 -20, 2006.

Quotes on hospitality from The Rule of Saint Benedict (RB):

Prologue 29
RB 31:13-14
RB 53:1-2, 3, 4, 15
RB 66:1
RB 72:4-5

NOTE: I decided that all this talk of pilgrimages and medieval Europe requires a certain understanding of the Benedictine mind-set. So this essay attempts to examine the concept of hospitality as defined by The Rule of Saint Benedict and put  into practice in the monasteries that mushroomed across Europe. Benedict based his  Rule  heavily on passages from the Bible.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen



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