Recreating Medieval Lent
Tournaments Illuminated, #145 (Winter, 2003)
Agnes deLanvallei, Kathy Keeler
Lenten food restrictions dominated the spring for Medieval Christians. For the past five years I have been trying to keep the Lenten fast as my persona would have kept it. I have learned a lot from the experiment. First I will briefly review historical Lenten observation, then describe and comment on my experiences.
In the Catholic calendar, Lent is the period leading up to Easter. For Roman Catholics, it is runs between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The term “lent” originally just meant “spring” (the season), being based on Middle English or AngloSaxon words derived from “long” (lang), which referred to the lengthening of days in spring. In German and closely related languages, the term is based more directly on lenz, spring, (Thurston ) (World Publishing Company, p. 838 ).
Fasting before Easter, in recognition of the trials of Jesus, was interpreted by the early church as suggested by Jesus himself when he said “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and then they shall fast” (Matthew 9:15; (Thurston ). The length of the fast varied among early Christian sects. In the Roman Catholic Church, by at least the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604 AD) the Lenten fast lasted forty days, ending at Easter. Forty is the number of days Jesus fasted in the wilderness, that Moses, and Elias fasted, and the number of hours Jesus lay in his tomb before rising (Thurston ). To attain 40 days, the beginning of Lent in the Roman Catholic church was moved to (Ash) Wednesday.
Within Lent, not all days were fast days. Sundays are feast days in all Catholic churches, so the forty day fast was broken with a respite each Sunday (Cowie and Gummer ). In the early church Saturday was excluded also, so there were fewer fast days in Lent. Eastern Orthodox Christians maintained the pattern of excluding Saturday and Sunday, except for Holy Saturday, so they had 36 not 40 fast days (Cowie and Gummer ) (Henisch p.31-32).
Other Lenten customs evolved throughout the Middle Ages as well. Initially fast days had only one meal, taken toward evening, but from the the 9th Century on this gradually moved forward and by the 15th the meal was at midday, even in monasteries. An evening “collation” was added, which at first was just a drink but from the 13th Century included some light food (Cowie and Gummer ).
The earliest Church fasts severely restricted all foods, but this gradually eased. Pope Gregory the Great wrote that"We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs." This version of the fast, codified in the Corpus Juris, was the standard of the Roman Catholic Church throughout most of the Middle Ages. By the fifteenth century, however, milk, butter and cheese were generally allowed. (Cowie and Gummer ) (Wilson p. 140). Religious orders and devout individuals of course observed more stringent fasts.
Not all the definitions of flesh meat would please a modern biologist. Fish were a fast day food from before the Middle Ages. Since in Genesis (1: 20-25), the fish and birds were created to populate the waters and the heavens on the fifth day, and creatures of the earth created on the sixth day, a variety of interpretations pushed to include sea birds as fast day foods. The barnacle goose was obviously a fish, since it was believed to hatch from barnacles (Gerard,p. 1587-1589; Henisch p.32), but puffins were also eaten (Wilson, p. 38). The beaver's scaly tail was described as 'the tail of a fish" in learned writings, that was taken as license to eat beaver tails during Lent (Wilson, p. 38).
Since for much of the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was indeed the universal church, Lenten fasts dominated the spring for centuries. The details of course varied with region (e.g. (Pouncy pp. 195-7; Dembinska, p. 71). But whether you were devout or casual in your beliefs, at Lent, the manors and palaces, taverns and monasteries, served only Lenten fast fare. Many, maybe most, people observed the Lenten fasts conscientiously, but the rest, whatever their preferences, found few alternatives. Spring meant Lent.
I tried a Medieval Lent more or less by accident the first time: my husband, the cook at my house, left for three months in China on Ash Wednesday. Since I had to now cook for myself, I decided to learn something from it. My persona holds lands in England and Normandy in the 1190's. She would have observed Lent scrupulously every spring.
My initial question was: what was it like, and specifically, how odious was it? Reading cookbooks, one sees almond "milk” and faux eggs which suggest that the fast foods were missed enough to need replacements. Henisch (pp 36-49) argues strongly that Medieval people disliked the hardships of the fast. The clever definitions of "fish" (above) and the development of sweetmeats "too tiny to be deemed a meal" ((Henisch p. 32) seem to support that. In the modern world, calculating my taxes is a recurring task that I heartily dislike but must do. I wondered if Medieval people of conventional levels of piety found observing Lent to be similar: not much fun, but inevitable. I recognize the need for taxes and the validity of my contribution. Medieval Catholics would agree that the Lenten fast was the proper thing to do and good for them, though the experience was a hardship.
What I Learned:
The importance of breaking the fast on Sunday. The fact that Sundays are not fast days proved very important. Anything you really are starving for can be eaten on Sunday. Waiting until Sunday is not too odious, so you can keep the fast on the expectation of Sunday. At the same time, there’s only so much gorging that can be done in a day. Breaking my fast on Sunday took the edge off the sense of deprivation, but did not allow me sustained indulgence.
Breaking the fast on Sunday also had the advantage of letting me use non Lenten foods. In the Middle Ages this probably allowed eating the rabbit the hunters inadvertently killed or the eggs the chickens laid. For me the problem was food I received as a gift. Usually it was given me by a friend at an event, who fully expected me to eat and enjoy it. Because Sunday was a not a fast day, I didn’t have to go into a long explanation or save the item until after Easter…I ate it very happily on Sunday and told them how good it was the next week.
The impression most authors give is that Lent was an unbroken fast, but that was not the case. "Eggs, at least, vanish after Shrove Tuesday and reappear in all their hardboiled glory on Easter Sunday" (Henisch, p. 33). Since eggs could be eaten on Sundays, this is an overstatement. But its not so far off from my experience: even though I ate omlets some Sundays, I looked eagerly forward to Easter and the end of foregoing eggs.
There are lots of good things to eat on a Lenten diet. I appreciated the simple tastes of Period Lenten foods. Normally I would eat lots of things in preference to, for example, pea soup. But in Lent, when hungry in the evening, pea soup was wonderful. Especially thick pea soup, made with toasted sesame oil and plenty of leeks. Sardines, kippered herring and smoked oysters were a treat. I found some tasty all-sugar candies. I liked eating out during Lent. I could order shrimp, which I usually consider an indulgence. And, any deprivation, as the Church fathers knew well, heightens your appreciation of good things.
Successful foraging for Lenten foods among normal servings can be great fun. Some stores and restaurants have almost no foods allowed on a Lenten fast. At a spaghetti restaurant, I was about to leave without eating, until I thought of adding the fried oyster appetizer to a basic order of spaghetti. I got a real sense of triumph and a tasty meal. Locating a dairy-free candy among all the milk chocolates can be equally satisfying.
The Lenten diet is more diverse now than it was in the Middle Ages. It is easier to eat meatless, dairyless meals now than it was in the Middle Ages. The protein sources of Medieval Lent were fish and shellfish, nuts (walnuts, pistachios, almonds, mainly), peas, lentils, and fava beans (Simpson and Orgazaly ). Some other beans and nuts were eaten in Medieval Europe but are not very accessible today (Wilson 201-3). But I can eat peanuts and peanut butter, brazil nuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, beans (Phaseolus), corn and especially, all the soy products, including tofu, tempeh, and miso. We have nondairy creamer and margarine, the list goes on. The American vegetables, e.g., squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers add terrific variety…eating sardines in mustard sauce gets old. I also had the benefit of modern distribution systems that made available foods that rarely got to England in the 12th century: oranges and bananas in particular. Eating only Medieval foods of 12th century England was the grand goal but frequently daily life made that too difficult for me. In that case I kept Lent by choosing peanut butter or tofu. Thus, hard as it was for me to keep the fast, it was probably harder in the Middle Ages.
There were times for dropping my fast. When eating out with non-SCA folk I can usually choose something Lenten without being noticeable. I exempted myself when I ate in someone's home: gracious behavior as a guest seemed more important than my experiment. However, I’ve at least once required a penance of myself on the following Sunday: I didn’t have to have the second brownie, good manners were already satisfied.
Meat and dairy food additives are common. Many apparently meatless items contain small quantities of meat or dairy products. The danger of breaking the fast by eating them was very high. Shopping meant painstaking reading of the ingredients. I was horrified to discover that all but one of the brands of battered, frozen fish sticks—my favorite quick workday meal—had whey as a minor ingredient. Likewise, although every fast food place offers a fish alternative, even if you don’t ask what’s in the batter, you have to be vigilant to keep the mayonnaise (tartar sauce) off the serving. I thought I could eat pretty safely at a Chinese restaurant, since that cuisine is historically low in dairy products. But the vast majority of the entrees had meat, and there were eggs in the fried rice.
In the Middle Ages the Lenten fast was not a special diet but everyone’s experience. This was a major aspect of the recreation that my practice of Medieval Lent missed. It was, in the Middle Ages, a shared experience. I see my persona as conventional in her observation. She would have had lots of other people to share stories of “what I am hungry for” and “good Lenten meals I’ve discovered”. The shared experience would mitigate much of the hardship.
Benefits of Lent: From the point of view of the Medieval Church, Lent provided a period of sacrifices that were beneficial for everyone, enhancing their appreciation of the things they had and it highlighted the importance of Easter.
For the agrarian economy, Lent likely made a virtue out of necessity. Generally running from late February into April, these spring weeks are times when the winter stores have run low but the new crops are not yet in. Animals are thin from the winter, their meat poor. By nature, cows give milk only when nursing calves and birds lay eggs in spring and early summer. Modern husbandry has developed methods for inducing continuous production. Lenten fasts reduced the pressure on the herds, too, and made it less tempting to slaughter too many beasts (Wilson p. 25-6). It may have been that in many homes there would have been nothing but vegetables to eat by spring, and so a religious observation made eating no meat much less obvious, although fish could be expensive during Lent (e.g. Henisch p 33-37)
Philosophical issue. There is an interesting philosophical question about appropriateness of my keeping Lent in the SCA. I’m an inactive Protestant in modern life: Lent and its rules are strictly historical study for me, not part of my religious life. Lent was a major fact of Medieval life. Whether you were devout or doubting, Christians were expected to keep Lent. That is what I am trying to re-create. However, it is also a religious practice, and the Society is very careful about the maintaining religious neutrality.
Cooks at SCA events were not necessarily friendly to Lenten recreation. Saturday is a fast day, so there is the potential for attending feasts at six events every Lent. I asked to eat the feast so I could dine with my friends and because I wanted to play SCA intensely. The observation of Lent clearly grew out of that.
I have had a diversity of reactions from cooks at events. In a couple of cases I was given a special meal so lovely that I felt uncomfortable eating it as a fast: it was in fact a meatless feast. I did not seek anything that elaborate: Lenten observation is supposed to be a modest hardship.
I have also met the attitude that I should just forget eating the feast. Since I came to Lent as Medieval recreation, I was initially quite puzzled by this. I have never pushed for an explanation. Maybe my Lenten fast seemed a religious practice to the cooks. Maybe the cooks could not accommodate special meals. Maybe limited seating should be reserved for those eating feast. However I’m willing to pay the full price and to make do. In the first years I didn’t worry about warning the cooking staff in advance because eating mainly bread amused me. This last year I found that a hardship when for three consecutive weeks the only Lenten food in the entire feast was the bread.. All the vegetables were buttered! So in the future I may make an effort to contact the cooks in advance about Lenten options. I do like to sit at the Saturday night meal on site with my friends, so I am resisting the picnic basket option. However, being excluded from the feast at an SCA event because of Medieval re-creation, remains downright weird.
The Estrella War started on Ash Wednesday this year. All the grilled meat featured in my enjoyment of past Estrellas, so that was a disappointment. Nevertheless, I decided against dropping the fast and I managed to buy three meals a day for three days without breaking my fast. Alas, they were closing down on Sunday so I didn’t get to gorge myself on all the wonderful meats I’d scrupulously bypassed earlier.
Lunches at events are sometimes harder than feasts because they rely heavily on cheeses and meat stews. I have learned the hard way to pack peas porridge cold or a can of sardines, just in case.
Recurring Experience of Lent
The first year was great fun. The foods were novel. I lucked out on the feasts I attended, and I enjoyed eating just green beans and bread the one feast where that was all that was Lenten.
But Medieval people don’t do Lent just once, it comes every year. So I repeated it. One reason for repeating it was to see if I came to dread it as the novelty wore off. Another was that it was good persona development, and let me “play SCA” three meals a day.
I have not been as successful as I was the first year. One year I quit because cross purposes with my (nonSCA) husband made mealtimes a battleground. I have since worked that out, although his presence means I keep the rules but frequently eat oriental and vegan foods. I doubt grain burgers are Period. This last spring, keeping Lent was hard and I was counting the days to Easter, although I never quite went off the fast.
The diet I've observed has varied between years. In part, I keep finding items to add and subtract from the Lenten list. For example, it was pointed out to me that gelatin is an animal product, and so my list of acceptable sugar candies dropped by half. I do find additional cookies and especially crackers that I like and are Lenten.
My experience suggests that ordinary Medieval people did find Lent a hardship. The foods are fewer and many are less desirable. Most people would never have known a spring without a Lenten fast, however, so it was a seasonal phenomenon, like cold hot in summer.
There is certainly spiritual benefit in fasting--as almost every spiritual discipline recognizes--even if you are not attending mass every morning as my persona would have.
One very useful outcome for me was an increased appreciation of the problems of people with serious special diets. I was just playing at it but it was hard to not break the diet inadvertently, and lots of places are careless about telling you exactly what is being served to youl
Keeping Lent is hard. For me it’s a special diet that reminds me about the Middle Ages at every meal, which I like. In the Middle Ages it was a shared experience: people may not have enjoyed it but they were together in their discomfort. The comparison to the annual approach of tax time may not be too bad after all.
Company, World Publlshing. "Lent." Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition. New York: World Publlshing Company, 1962.
Cowie, L. W., and John Selwyn Gummer. The Christian Year. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, Publishers, 1974.
Debinska, Maria. Food and Drink in Medieval Poland. Revised and adapted by William Woys Weaver. Translated by Magdalena Thomas. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
Gerard, John. The Herbal or General History of Plants.Complete 1633 edition, New York, .Dover Publications, 1975.
Henisch, Bridget Ann. Feast and Fast. Food in Medieval Society. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State Press, 1976.
Pouncy, Carolyn Johnson. The Domostroi. Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. Trans. Carolyn Johnson Pouncy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Simpson, Beryl B., and Barbara Orgazaly. Economic Botany. New York: Harper, 2000.
Thurston, Herbert. "Lent." The Catholic Encyclopedia.Online Edition Kevin Knight. 1999. Vol. IX: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm, 1910.
Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to the 19th Century. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991.