In the Middle Ages, fasting and Lenten traditions were highly evident in the monastic houses. The different Rules and Orders (take your pick from Benedictine, Carthusian, Cluniac, Cistercian, Premonstratensians, Trinitarians, Beguines, and more!) had strict rules governing their lifestyles, including their diet, nutrition, and meals.
Where, When, What, and How Much?
Monastic communities ate their meals in the refectory, or dining room. In many communities the refectory, or frater, was on the south side of the cloister placing it relatively far away from the church and center of worship. Community meals were a key element in most of the religious rules, and especially important was the behavior at these meals. Before meal time, the brothers or sisters passed by the lavabo, or lavatory sink to wash their hands and any personal utensils. They proceeded to take a seat on long benches pushed up against the wall with trestle tables lining the room below the windows. In some orders, portions were collected at the refectory entrance and others dined family-style. Most orders ate in silence, with a lone reader sharing scripture to the community.
The Benedictine and Augustinian rules allowed for two cooked plates at each meal, with a third dish allowed if it is raw or uncooked produce. Bread was the staple of almost all meals, with produce coming in as the second priority. The Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia recommends a daily portion for each brother of a one-pound loaf of bread. If it is not fully consumed during the main meal then it can be kept and eaten later in the day. No mammals were consumed at regular meals however exceptions were made for meals served in the infirmary. The sick and injured were allowed to consume regulated portions of red meat and broth. Poultry was generally considered a meat yet some Rules only qualified four-legged animals as meat. Fish were generally acceptable in monastic menus, since they were not considered meat by the monastic rules.
There are a few exceptions which include meat in the refectory: the 8th century Rule of St. Chrodegang allows for two dishes per meal including one vegetable and one meat. These dishes should be shared among the brothers and when one ran out, the rest of the diners had to make do with the remaining option. This Rule also specifically mentions the recommended portions for bread (four pounds), cheese (one portion unspecified), wine, or beer (five gallons cumulatively; let’s hope these portions were for weekly rations otherwise those would be some pretty cheerful monks!).
The different orders allowed for a variety of diet; some orders only allowed one meal a day while others such as the Benedictines allowed two. Perhaps this is why there were a larger number of Benedictine houses compared to the other orders? The Rule of St. Columbanus is one of the strictest which restricts it to one frugal meal a day to honor a simple lifestyle and self-mortification. The diet was affected by the liturgical calendar too; during Lent the diet was even more frugal and around Easter it might be more bountiful.
The typical dishes included bread, grains, legumes, eggs, cheese, fruit, and vegetables. Peas and broad beans were popular in Britain and France and are mentioned in many medieval recipes and household guides. Pottage was a common feature on all medieval tables and likely played a starring role in the refectory. Modest seasonings included honey, mustard seed, beer, vinegar, garden herbs, and of course salt.
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