Controlling the preparation and consumption of food has been central to the monastic tradition since the days of Pachomius. However, within the day-to-day life of the monastery, food could also promote discord. Evidence from late medieval England abounds with examples of food (or the lack of it) sparking internal monastic rebellions, power struggles, and even sexual encounters. This paper analyses the role of food in monastic misconduct as recorded in a corpus of episcopal visitation records from 15th- and 16th-century Lincoln and Norwich between 1420-1530.
The role of Christian clergy in confronting the problems of famine and their subsequent leadership in relief efforts is well documented in such historical moments as an Gorta Mór, the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852, the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s and other 19th- and 20th-century events. During the long medieval period, however, Catholic clergy, particularly in the monasteries, played an important role in staving off the worst consequences of famine whenever possible. The particular efforts of selected monasteries will be examined in the light of Catholic Eucharistic theology as it was known and practiced in the monastic order. The Rule of St Benedict and the writings of St Anselm of Canterbury will be important sources for this understanding.
The Benedictine Rule places considerable emphasis on silence, both to save the individual monk from imperilling his soul with idle chatter and to provide a calm, meditative enironment for the community as a whole. But it would be impossible to run a refectory, where large numbers of people had to be fed, or a dormitory, where they were issued with linen and other personal necessities, without some kind of communication. The solution, in the Cluniac tradition, and eventually the Cistercian, especially, was a list of manual signs with which the individual could make his needs known but which did not lend themselves to more extensive discourse. On the assumption that signs would only provided for things that really were in use in the relevant communities, these lists provide a more realistic insight into monastic daily life than the better known, and more common, prescriptive texts. This paper will explore the evidence they provide for diet, with a focus on the 10th-century Old English list, comparing it both with the prescriptions of the Rule, and with other lists, in the hope of identifying regional traditions, or change over the half-millennium that the signs were in use.