Christianity (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
Christianity (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
Fasting or abstaining for a period from food and drink is common to various religions and is often an expression
Fasting can be abstinence not only from food or drink, but also from sexual intercourse or other activities. This article focuses on food and looks at when Christians fast. Early monastic communities enforced abstinence from meat and wine, following in part the classical argument of Hippocrates and Galenus that warned against such "warm and humid" foods, which were thought to stimulate luxury. These strictures proved too severehe religious lacked the energy to complete their daily tasks, and the laymen who worked outside the walls could not be expected to observe such stringent restrictions on food and drink.
By the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had modified its rules for fasting, distinguishing between monastics and ordinary people, and regulating the severity of fasts on the Church calendar. The Church never prescribed total fasts (without food and drink) or even those allowing just water and bread during a whole day or longer. Instead, several forms of the discipline were practiced, the more severe of which is called "fasting" and the milder "abstinence."
During fasting periods, Christians were forbidden to eat the meat (and other products, such as milk and eggs) of quadrupeds and birds. Christians did not consider these animals and their products "unclean," as did the Jews (Acts 106), but eating them was proscribed by the Church during certain times of the year. At such times, Christians fed on seafood, fish (including hard and soft fish roe), grains, and other field produce. The prohibition on dairy produce and eggs, in particular, and the resulting lack of protein nourishment, placed an enormous strain on medieval people. Chicken eggs were replaced by hard roe and butter, lard, and bacon by vegetable oil. For the European countries north of the Alps, where olives and almonds could not be grown, there was a substantial rise in the cost of living. Those who could afford them obtained expensive olive oil or almonds from the Mediterranean, which were mashed into a binding agent for sauces and chowders. Dried fruits, including dates, figs, raisins, and currants, from the Mediterranean were highly sought in northern Europe, as were the indigenous walnut and hazelnut.
During the milder periods of abstinence, milk could be consumed. It was not clear whether the meat from birds could be consumed during these times, but their eggs were permitted. Late medieval household accounts (fourteenth to fifteenth centuries) show that Christians lived according to these rules, especially during the longest fasting period in the church calendar, the forty weekdays of Lent or the so-called quadragesima (Latin quadraginta = 40, hence quadragesima), which precedes Easter, when the faithful switched over to a fish-and-oil kitchen.
In addition to Lent, the Catholic Church had four fasting periods called Ember days during the year (Latin quatuor tempora = four times, corrupted to quatember, then to "ember"). These days, prescribed by Pope Gregory VII (1073085), correspond to the turn of the seasons: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week after St. Lucia (13 December) at the beginning of winter; then the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Ash Wednesday (therefore, part of Lent) at the beginning of spring; next, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week after Whitsuntide (Pentecost) at the beginning of summer; last, the same days of the week after Holy Cross Day (14 September) at the beginning of fall. Because the Christian calendar, unlike that of the Muslims, has a solar year with twelve months of more than the twenty-eight days of the orbit of the moon, these so-called Ember days always occur in the same season. Unlike the Muslim Ramadan, which shifts through the year, the Christian quadragesima always occurs during the turn from winter to spring.
In contrast to the quadragesima and the Ember days in which the severe abstinence that we call "fasting" was observed, a milder abstinence was obligatory all other weeks of the year on Wednesday and Friday, or Friday and Saturday, depending on the diocese in which one lived. On those days fish, which might be served with butter, was consumed. Fishermen strove to bring fresh fish to the market on those days, knowing that they would find ready consumers. Long after the fasting prescriptions in Catholic Europe had been mitigated by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the habit of eating fish on Friday or Saturday remained common.
Religious generally did not observe a more severe fasting regimen than lay people, but the duration of the fast was greater. Monks and nuns started the quadragesima ten days prior to Ash Wednesday, thereby making a quinquagesima of fifty days, and they also fasted on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day, the so-called Rogation Days. Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, formed a fasting period for them, not just the Ember days of St. Lucia that fall during this period.
The Rule of St. Benedict forbade the consumption of the meat of quadrupeds unless the religious was ill. The eating of birds was allowed, as was the consumption of eggs and dairy produce, except, of course, on fasting days. In this Rule it was stated that on fasting days, but not before Vespers, only one meal should be served that would be finished before dark. On other days, two meals were eaten, earlier or later depending on the season but always with daylight.
Mindful of the heresy of the Manichees and the Cathars, who taught that the body and the material world were the work of Satan and only the immaterial spirit was the work of God, Christians of the Western Church attempted to strike a balance between gluttony on the one hand and too rigorous an asceticism on the other.
The forty days of Lent referred to the forty years during which the Jews, under the guidance of Moses, had wandered through the desert before reaching the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 1:1), as well as to the forty days of Christ's temptation by Satan in the desert (Matthew 4:11, Mark 1:123, Luke 4:13). But this does little to explain the timing of the Lenten fast, which commences at the turn of winter into spring. There is no text in the Bible prescribing this particular fast period. Also, the other Ember days coincide with the turn of the seasons.
Perhaps a key can be found in the reference to the humoral system of Hippocrates and Galenus, which was used to condemn the consumption of meat and wine as a stimulus of luxury. In this system of thought, every season has its own qualitiesry or humid, hot or coldnd the human body, which also has humoral qualities, needs a little digestive pause to switch over to another season. So fasting might have served such a function. This reasoning was seldom explicit, but in one example, a Latin schoolbook of chronology from 1436 (Computus Magistri Jacobi), the comparison was made between the qualities of the seasons and the capital sins, from which the human mind should be cleansed by fasting.
However, not all questions concerning the Christian traditions for fasting and abstinence can be answered. Why was the longest fasting period the one from late winter to early spring? And why did the church not forbid the consumption of fish and seafood? Were there economic motives at stakehould eggs be allowed to hatch instead of being eaten by humans? Should the milk of animals be reserved for their newborn? Since Church authorities never clearly explained the reasons behind fasting and abstinence, we may never know the answers to these questions.
See also Christianity; Lent; Middle Ages, European; Shrove Tuesday.
Bazell, Dianne M. "Strife among the Table-Fellows: Conflicting Attitudes of Early and Medieval Christians Toward the Eating of Meat." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65 (1997): 739.
Dembinska, Maria. "Fasting and Working Monks: Regulations of the Fifth to Eleventh Centuries." In Food in Change: Eating Habits from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, edited by Alexander Fenton and Eszter Kisban, pp. 15260. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers/National Museums of Scotland, 1986.
Gumbert-Hepp, Marijke. Computus Magistri Jacobi: Een schoolboek voor tijdrekenkunde uit 1436. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 1987. See pp. 10811.
Hanslik, Rudolphus, ed. Benedicti Regula: Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. Vol. 75. Vienna: Hoelder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1960. See capita 36, 41, 49.
Henish, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park, Pa., and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
van Winter, Johanna Maria. "Obligatory Fasts and Voluntary Ascetism in the Middle Ages." In Food in Change: Eating Habits from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, edited by Alexander Fenton and Eszter Kisban, pp. 16166. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers/National Museums of Scotland, 1986.
Johanna Maria van Winter