Food for thought : Medieval England – Feast or Fast

When you suddenly find yourself with time to spend, away from the normal hustle and bustle of everyday life, your thoughts will probably turn to those interests which are always there, but which often spend a lot of time on the back-burner whilst you get on with the all important ‘bread and butter’ work which ‘puts food on the table’   Perhaps it is immediately obvious that I am a foodie and have a huge appetite (figuratively speaking) for all things food and wine !  When you pair this with a great love of local, family and social history, it is no surprise that food and drink, through the ages, fills a void in keeping me mentally stimulated whilst offering material for future ‘foodie tours’  Although, I guess I will have to use quite a lot of imagination rather than trying out some of these dishes, or I shall be too large to fit in the aisle of one of my coaches, or have difficulty in navigating some of the narrow alleyways on my walking tours !

Being a Canterbury tourist guide, with a great love of the Middle Ages and monastic life, I would first like to turn to thinking about how it might have been here in Canterbury for a Medieval monk.  We might imagine the vow of poverty would potentially lead to a very lean way of life.  In some cases, such as the monastic cathedral in Canterbury, monks were living in an enclosed order, and were self-sufficient and lucky enough to have a fresh water supply.  They lived mainly on fish, bread, honey, eggs, cheese, fruit, and beer (probably safer than most water supplies)! and had fresh herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes.

In strict monasteries, meat might be a reserved privilege for the sick or just eaten on feast days.  However, I think those vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience might be more recognizable when we consider the mendicant orders of friars, such as the Dominicans Blackfriars) who worked in the community and relied on charitable donations for their sustenance. 

We are told, from some accounts, of a very different story:  ‘When Ralphe de Borne was installed as Abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury in 1309, provisions for the 6,000 guests included 100 hogs, 30 Oxen, 1000 geese, 500 capons and hens, 24 swans, 600 rabbits and nearly 10,000 eggs.  It all cost £287.8s with spices being the largest single cost – a hefty £28.00’ (Kate Colquhoun – Taste)

The Monks in Canterbury Cathedral followed the Rule of St Benedict, written in the 6th Century at Monte Cassino, Italy.  Imagine them in their Refectory enjoying their main, perhaps only meal of the day, in solemn silence.  Would they have reached for a glass of wine or two ?  St Benedict appears to have been a great believer of moderation in all things and regarding wine, he wrote: ‘We do, indeed, read that wine is no drink for monks; but, since nowadays monks cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree upon this, to drink temperately and not to satiety; for wine maketh even the wise to fall away’

So, yes, depending on who you were and where/when you lived life in a medieval monastery, abbey or friary, very much fast or feast. Today, we can still visit St Augustine’s Abbey, and, of course, Canterbury Cathedral, we can see the ruins of refectories as well as infirmaries and dormitories.  We can close our eyes and hear bees buzzing furiously in the wild flowers adorning the ruins, and, perhaps catch the perfume of some of the plants and herbs, and we can imagine their, perhaps more simple way of life. If the thought of all this food makes us hungry, we can then leave the Middle Ages behind us to enjoy a taste of modern day Kent in one of Canterbury’s many splendid hostelries.

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