Andrew Jotischky: A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages. London, New York: Continuum, 2011.

With the title of A Hermit's Cookbook, a reader might expect a coffee table tome filled with colorful reproductions of medieval manuscripts, or perhaps a chapter from a country skills manual with recipes coaxed from a hermit. But this book is a modest summary of how hermits evolved into monks, and how diets evolved from the asceticism that inspired Christian desert spirituality to diets of a changed demographic of monks drawn almost exclusively from medieval aristocracy. Much in this history would scandalize the pious and the simple were not the diets so much like those of today's indifferent Western world.

Recipes are scattered about here and there, but the air of antiquarianism and idealism is considerably dampened by the reality of the late medieval monastic diet. Similarly, small grainy black-and-white photos of ruined medieval ovens, kneading troughs, and the like -- doubtless concessions of the publisher -- seem expendable. What works well in this book is the historical momentum (which could have easily been captured in a longish essay, however) of the evolving diet and food choices, a clear token of the evolution of mind and heart.

The fare of the desert hermit was profound in its simplicity: bread, lentils, greens, dates, figs, and variants thereof. Similarly, the Western hermits who emulated them, such as Romuald or Peter Damian, merely substituted northern equivalents like apples and pears for fruit, added chickpeas as beans, or included the many more local greens and grains. Jotischky's passages about the conscious spiritual link of food (body) and mind make wonderful reading:

The Egyptian hermit Onuphrus was discovered living in solitude in the desert, and surviving solely on the dates that grew on the palm tree under whose shade he was accustomed to rest. As he explained, the tree provided all his wants. ...


Typically, the bread eaten by Eastern monks was a flat unleavened kind similar to the "pita" of the eastern Mediterranean region today. Its ingredients were simply wheat flour and water. ... Cassian tells us that monks of Skete ate two and a half of these daily. A Syriac source indicates that monks who were fasting might eat two daily, whereas the normal ration was ten ... The Rule of Pachomius specifies that fasting monks, who ate by themselves rather than communally should have especially small loaves made for them.

And so forth, passages multiplied at the beginning of the book completing a portrait of integrated purpose in the life of the desert hermit and later successor monk.

St. Benedict's Rule made the first two obvious concessions to the understanding that the diet of the hermit and monk should exclude animal products and intoxicants. Benedict allowed meat for infirm monks -- a mistake of medical ignorance but also a moral concession -- and he allowed wine with meals. However, the early medieval centuries, still imbued with desert spirituality and enthusiastic enough to give rise to the reform movement of Cistercians, restored the desert simplicity, reinforced by availability in the eleventh and twelfth centuries of classics like John Cassian, Sayings of the Fathers, and the famous Life of St. Antony by Athanasius. 

The reformer Gerald of Wales (12th century) objected vehemently to the extravagances of Cluny: prepared and seasoned dishes, the introduction of meat for all monks (forbidden by Benedict), considerable use of eggs, many added dishes. Gerald recounts the anecdote of a monastic threat of revolt because a certain bishop would reduce dishes to three. The monks petitioned King Henry II, who asked what was the total number of dishes if reduced by three. The monks replied that the total would be ten. Whereupon Henry, outraged, swore that he never had more than three dishes at one meal, and he threatened the bishop if he did not reduce the monks' fare to the same.

At Canterbury, Gerald reports,  the dishes served were "cooked with so many flavourings and condiments that they awakened rather than sated the appetite." But monastic diets only worsened. By the fifteenth century, St. Swithun's in Winchester, England (the same monastery as in the anecdote told by Gerald of Wales) recorded a meal highlighted by hors d'oeuvres of moyle (warm bread soaked in the liquid of roast meat on a spit), morterels (white meat balls), beef, mutton, and 280 eggs. 

Other practices further undermined meals in the refectory, where the Rule obliged all monks to eat in common. Benedict's proscription of meat, for example, was finely parsed to define entrails and fat as not being flesh, thus circumventing the Rule and prompting bacon and sausage to become daily fare. Abbots' quarters sponsored small rooms called misericordia where monks could dispense with common refectory meals and take up meat diets as "guests" or drink holiday fare. Similarly, infirmaries became havens for earing meat, like abbot's tables. Finally, too, the obligation to feed the poor was exacted not by abstemious consumption and donation of leftovers but by procuring more food, adding more expenses to the monastery budget.

A revealing statistic from Canterbury in 1500 itemizes the percentages of a typical monastic diet: 35 percent bread, 25 percent ale or wine, 17 percent meat, 6 percent fish, 8.5 percent milk, eggs, and cheese, 7 percent suet, 1 percent oats -- and a mere one half percent vegetables. During Lent, suet and dairy were cut out, the percentage of bread rising to 45 and ale or wine to 33. Meat was replaced with fish, dried fruit (not otherwise consumed) was introduced at 5 percent. The proportions of vegetables did not rise at all.

Author Jotischky attributes the later medieval monastic diet in part to technological changes in agriculture producing increased grains (for feeding animals) and international trade increasing demand for seasonings. But the most telling fact. he notes, is that nearly all monks were by that time from aristocratic families, and they expected to eat like their secular counterparts. Jotischky states, perhaps generously, that in contrast to the earliest monks, the later ones "must appear to us soft and complacent." The contrast hinges on the profoundly different motives: the hermits and early monks renounced society, while the latter monks embraced it, or at least conformed to it. The latermonks, says the author, are "more familiar to us" than the hermits and monks of the world of asceticism in earlier times, virtually "heroic" and "heroes," who "merit our admiration."

Yet moribund habits persist, with today's modern monks not only eating the same as late medieval monks but now famous for making and selling their fruitcake, confections, cheese, alcohol, and other deleterious and unhealthy food. Obviously, the later medieval monks no longer toiled in the soil and led sedentary lives, growing heavy and unhealthy -- "familiar to us" indeed. To maintain the modern comparison, we may applaud the hermits and early monks as heroes of organic, vegan, and localvore food habits. Their wisdom transcended any "rule" as they discovered for themselves the best food and habits possible for body, mind, and spirit.