The food in medieval monasteries….


What was the lifestyle of medieval monks in Britain? What went on in those wondrous abbeys that ruled their neighbourhoods, often with fists of iron? They had some harsh rules, not least that the people they lorded it over had to pay exorbitant sums to have their grain milled by the abbey. Woe betide them if they were caught grinding their own grain. This, of course, was one of the great grievances that in England culminated in the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

But what sort of lives did the monks themselves lead? We know that their abbots etc. did very well for themselves, with expensive bread and whatever else took their pious fancy. The ordinary monks fared less well, but still better than the vast majority of the ordinary people beyond the abbey walls.

This article concerns Benedictines and Cistercians in Scotland. It seems the Benedictines were sort-of vegetarian, but the Cistercian more vegetarian. The sick were allowed meat. Looking at the illustration above, it would seem the abbot and his guests are enjoying meat. It looks like a large chicken leg.

However, the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey seem to have had a better time of it, although whether this is due to the cosseted south I cannot say. If you go to this article you’ll find the following:

“….The monks ate lots of fish (herrings, oysters, flatfish, sturgeon, whelks, cod etc.) and had beef, mutton, pork and some chicken and duck, with bread, beer, cheese and eggs but very few vegetables….”

The article about Westminster goes into much more detail, and—to me—paints a rather different picture from the one north of the border. Surely Benedictines are Benedictines, wherever they are? So I conclude that Westminster benefited from being close to the English king and court. Would a Benedictine Abbey in the farthest corner of Cornwall also lead such a relatively luxurious life?

Since writing this article, I have come upon an article in The Guardian which points out the dire consequences when monks eventually had a meat-rich diet. To read more, go to this site.

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