Monks & Meat

Lamb, beef and pork in the Benedictine diet of 13th-century Rochester

Image: A 14th-century butcher shop. From Tacuino Sanitatis. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The consumption of meat should be allowed to the gravely ill for the sake of their recovery, but when they are better, they should all abstain from meat as usual. […]

They should all abstain entirely from the consumption of the meat of quadrupeds [Carnem… quadripedium], except the gravely ill.

The Rule of Saint Benedict, 36.9 and 39.11 (Vernarde, p. 139).

Saint Benedict (480-547 AD) prescribed, for those monks following his rule, a diet free from the meat of quadrupeds, only permitting such meat at times of serious illness. Thus meat from oxen, cows, sheep and pigs was strictly forbidden unless a monk was near death’s door.

This sixth-century dietary law was evidently still in force in the Benedictine monasteries of England after the Norman Conquest by William I (r.1066-87), as can be seen from the Constitutiones of Lanfranc, the Conqueror’s archbishop of Canterbury (r.1070-1089).

In a quite lengthy elaboration of the Benedictine regulation, Lanfranc stipulates that if a sick brother was ill enough to be removed from the community, and therefore into the infirmary, then, circumstances permitting, he could be given both ‘ordinary fare’ and ‘fleshmeat [carnis]’. As soon as he began to eat meat, the brother was to ‘wear his hood up wherever he goes, and should walk leaning upon a staff’ (Knowles, p. 119).

The reason for covering his head is that his tonsure – a sign of his monastic calling – would not have been maintained during that period his illness forced him to break the rule forbidding meat. It was only on recovery and subsequent return to the community that he would once again ‘be shaved and enter choir for the hour before chapter’ (Knowles, p. 119).

Chapter here refers to the meeting of the brethren in the chapterhouse which incorporated the religious formula of announcing sins and receiving absolution from the abbot. The recovered monk who had eaten meat was to be the first of the brothers that day to make his declaration: he would prostate himself, as was the custom, and beg pardon. Lanfranc made sure that this monk would say, in allusion to his dietary straying, something in particular:

My Lord, I have been long in the infirmary borne down by sickness; I have offended in matters of food and drink and much else, and I have acted against our established discipline, and for this I beg of you absolution.’

The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc (Knowles, p. 119)

The foregoing illustrates the great seriousness with which the avoidance of meat was regarded by early Benedictine houses in post-Conquest England. However, within a century or so, there had been a seismic shift in attitudes toward and practices of meat consumption. To illustrate this, let us take a look at a thirteenth-century document of the Benedictine community of monks at St Andrew’s Priory of Rochester.

The Rochester Priory custumal

Title page of Custumale Roffense, compiled by John of Westerham, monk of St Andrew’s Priory. The vast majority of the content dates to c.1235, though there are a few later additions. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral.

Around 1235 the Rochester monks of St Andrew’s Priory recorded the duties of their employed workers, or ‘servants’. Around the same time a separate survey of manorial rents and services (‘customs’) was written down. Later, either at the end of the thirteenth or early in the fourteenth century, the monk John of Westerham (d.1321), who just before his death became the prior of the community, compiled all this material into a single book, which today is given the Latin title Custumale Roffense, the Rochester custumal, now kept in the library at Rochester Cathedral.

I had the pleasure a few years ago of preparing material from the Custumale for an exhibition in the Cathedral’s wonderful crypt, and now much of this material is being adapted for the Cathedral’s website.

The crypt houses Rochester Cathedral’s exhibition space. Medieval manuscripts, including Custumale Roffense, are regularly on display.

Image: © 2022 Ray Gairns

At the time, I translated the section on the servants and was impressed by the insights it gave into everyday life at the priory court. What’s more, some of these little nuggets of information relate to food. For example, those of you who watched my last YouTube video will have seen how Rochester Priory’s master miller received a flan as a food gift at Easter.

Below, I’ll explore a few more of these food-related insights, focusing on those specifically related to meat. Let’s start with the opening statements concerning the priory’s cooks.

Concerning the cooks…’

The office of R. Fichet and Ernulf serves at the main meal. The office of G. Toterel serves the patients and the little brothers in the infirmary. The office of S. Calchepalie serves the guests, and watches over the kitchen door, and carries out the slaughter of sheep and pigs at the Feast of St Martin, and distributes the cooks’ fee [meaning the offal and lesser parts from the animals].

The office of Fichet carves all the dishes, both of meat and fish. He himself [i.e., Fichet, the master cook] makes the first or second dish and thereupon serves the monastery. […] His wage is 7 shillings. Ernulf’s office is 5 shillings. Toteterel’s office is 4 shillings. Calchepalie’s office is 4 shillings.

Custumale Roffense, folio 54r. Translation by Christopher Monk.
Custumale Roffense, folio 54r, with detail below. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral.
Halfway down, the heading in red ink begins: ‘De cocis…’ (Concerning the cooks). Three offices of cooks are named and their roles are explained.
Fichet, the head cook, was to serve the monks ‘dishes both of meat and fish’, ‘fercula tam in carne quam in pisce’.

Here, we learn that each year the monks’ sheep and pigs were slaughtered, as was the tradition, on the feast day of St Martin, celebrated on 11th November. The husbandry of the animals did not take place in the priory grounds, which were simply too small, but rather on the manorial farms that were held by the monks, most of which were relatively nearby in Kent.

There is much detail given in the custumal about the various manors and the peasant farmers who worked the lands there, including what part of their work involved working on the demesne land (demesne meaning the land set aside for the ‘lord’, in this case the monks of St Andrew’s Priory). Hopefully, one day I can examine all this material more closely and get it all translated.

Of particular note, so far, is that the monks held a very valuable manor at Haddenham, quite some distance away (86.6 miles today) in Buckinghamshire. The demesne land there was large enough to sustain 50 cows, 300 mature pigs, and 250 sheep, and in the nearby villages of Grave and Didcot, part of the Haddenham manorial estate, a further 300 sheep.

Now it seems unlikely to me that these particular animals would have been transported live to Rochester, so far away, and indeed the sheep there were important for wool, not just meat. It’s rather more likely that there were sufficient animals for the monks’ food needs available from the demesne lands of closer manors. For example, the small manor at Darenth (18 miles away) had demesne pasture for 18 sheep and two further animals.

Further research should make the matter of where the priory sourced its animals for their larder much clearer.

It is interesting that the record on the cooks refers, as we shall see, to the monks making use of the services of a swineherd, or pig keeper, though he is not mentioned as one of their paid servants. So it is possible that pigs were kept not too far away in manorial lands close to the priory.

Back to the cooks:

Now, there is no stipulation that the butchered meat – the majority of which was probably salted to preserve it – was kept for the gravely ill. Rather, the head cook, whose surname was Fichet (this may well have been an inherited office), is described as personally making one of the two cooked dishes, prescribed under the Benedictine Rule, for the monks. Presumably, his assistant Ernulf cooked the other dish. These dishes could be either meat or fish and were carved by Fichet as he served the monastery.

The Rochester monks, it seems, were following the typical elite, but secular, pattern of consumption, namely eating meat dishes on four days of the week (known in later culinary texts as ‘flesh days’) and fish on the three days of abstinence (known as ‘fish days’), namely Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, as well as at Lent and Advent.

Barbara Harvey, in her study of monastic pittances – i.e., extra dishes added over time to the two prescribed ones – explains how by the end of the thirteenth century pittances, which had by then for some time included meat, became ‘regular features of the diet’ and that ‘despite the extreme reticence with which monks mentioned the practice, we begin to glimpse a structure of three dishes at dinner, all of meat’(Harvey, p. 223; my own emphases).

So, the two main cooked dishes, originally vegetarian, had evolved into three meat ones on those days of the week which were not assigned as fish days. The Rochester monks had not yet expanded to three dishes, but it seems clear there was no compunction for them to avoid meat.

Let us now take a look at another meat-related section of the record of the servants’ duties, which appears to correspond to the earlier mention of the ‘cooks’ fees’, those parts of the butchered animals that get given to the cooks for evidently assisting with the butchery and preparation of the meat.

Cooks’ fees

They also have, when the cellarer makes his larder, all necks of oxen and cows and all pieces from the knee to the foot, so that the sinews of the aforesaid pieces will remain attached. They have the heads for their skinning, but the cellarer keeps the tongues. They have at the same time, to be sure, all necks and tails of pigs, attached to a single joint from the backbone. They have also all heads of fish except salmon, from which they have the tail. For the offal of the prepared oxen, cows and pigs, the cooks will fetch their wives and the cellarer will supply them. And if the cellarer wishes, when, instead of one pig, two or three sucklings are slaughtered for the court, the swineherd has a tale and neck from the cook, and for prepared offal they [i.e., the cooks] have charity, namely bread and ale, but by the goodwill of the cellarer. They also get to take all the feathers of all the types of birds which come into the kitchen for eating.

Custumale Roffense, folio 54v. Translation by Christopher Monk.
Custumale Roffense, folio 54v. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral. Details are provided of the meats that were butchered and prepared in the Priory’s larder. Beef, pork and lamb were all consumed by the monks.

I think when I first looked at Custumale, this passage was my favourite to translate. I absolutely loved the detail given: which parts of the animals were given – and which parts weren’t – and the fact that women were allowed through the priory gates to collect the cooks’ fees given to their husbands made me smile.

What we should notice in relation to meat is that beef is now included as one of the meats prepared for the brethren. The cellarer, the senior monk responsible for the monastery’s provisions, oversaw the preparation of the meat – its butchery and salting – and clearly he held the authority over what the monks themselves would enjoy at mealtime.

It seems that consuming beef tongue was the preserve of the brothers and the cellarer would make sure that they got this delicacy; and, when he deemed fit, suckling pigs could be on the menu, instead of normal pork. This delicate and luxurious meat would likely have been fresh rather than salted and reserved for special feast days.

Meat as food gifts

As mentioned earlier, food gifts (referred to as ‘oblations’, from Latin oblatio, ‘gift’) were part of the monastic culture at Rochester Priory. The monks made sure to show appreciation for the work of their servants by giving special food provisions at times like Easter and Christmas. These items were in addition to the regular monthly payments of grain, which could be commuted into money and were of equal amount for all servants, and, during Lent, the weekly payments of herrings or eels for which the amount paid depended on the rank of the servant.

Cheeses were given as gifts three times a year and, as with the fish payments, the differences in rank were observed: master servants got one mature cheese, one medium and one young, whereas second-rank servants got two medium cheeses. But as far as meat was concerned: ‘All have meat equally at Christmas, or one penny, and on the Tuesday before Lent and at Easter.’

The type of meat is not stipulated but it may well have been salted beef or pork at Christmas and perhaps fresh lamb on Shrove Tuesday and at Easter. The latter is perhaps suggested by the following reference to the food gifts which the priory’s two church attendants (Latin, famuli ecclesie), responsible for the day-to-day, practical running of the cathedral, recieved:

On the Tuesday* on the eve of Lent** they will have lamb.[…]

From the offering that comes forth on Good Friday, they have bread, eggs, herrings, onions, nuts, garlic, and from the sacristan a silver coin, and the finest piece of fruit.

* More literally, ‘the third day’; see DMLBS feria 3c, ‘(~ria tertia) Tuesday’. **More literally, ‘the beginning of fasting’; see DMLBS, caput 16f, caput jejunii, ‘(of Lent, i.e. Ash Wednesday’).’

Custumale Roffense, folio 58r. Translation by Christopher Monk.
Custumale Roffense, folio 58r, detail. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral. The church attendants received a gift of ‘agnum’, (a) lamb, on Shrove Tuesday.

Since the Tuesday referred to here, known today as Shrove Tuesday, falls in late winter/early spring (between 3rd February and 9th March) it is just possible the lamb was given as fresh, early lamb, which is delicately flavoured. However, it’s perhaps more likely that such lamb was reseved for Easter and therefore the Shrove Tuesday lamb was from the previous season, suitable for slower cooking. (On the evidence for medieval consumption of tender lamb, see Sykes, pp. 61-4 and 68-9.) No matter, it would have made a delicious meal for the church attendants (and their families) on the last day of meat-eating before the stringencies of Lent commenced.

Though meat is not listed among their gifts on Good Friday, which apparently were taken from the general food offerings made by Rochester’s lay worshipers, as we have seen they also received meat for Easter along with all the other servants. Perhaps spring lamb was the meat of choice then. (On the tradition of the Easter lamb, see Dyer, p. 203).

Ham for a hospital

Finally, on the matter of meat as a food gift, Custumale Roffense contains a record relating to a hospital founded and supported by St Andrew’s Priory. The account enumerates what was owed by the monks to ‘the infirm brothers of St Bartholomew’. St Bartholomew’s was established at the end of the eleventh century by Rochester’s beloved bishop-prior, Gundulf, and seems to have become a hospital for lepers. As well as taking care of the daily meals of the residents, using leftovers from the refectory and providing sufficient ale and bread, the patients were given a ham at Christmas.

Custumale Roffense, details from folio 47r, above, and 48r, below. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral. The food for the patients (‘called ‘brothers’) at St Bartholomew’s Hospital is provided by the monastery of St Andrew’s. On Christmas Eve they received a special food gift of a ham: ‘In vigilia Natalis domini, unam pernam’.
The alms-collector who worked at the hospital received a dish of the ‘patients’ ham’, ‘perna infirmorum’, on Christmas Eve.’

So why did Benedictines start eating meat?

It is a somewhat romantic view to think of all medieval monks as cloistered away and unsullied by the world outside. Clearly, as we see from the example of St Andrew’s Priory in Rochester, monks interacted with the lay folk beyond their gates. The walls of monasteries were, culturally speaking, penetrable, and this social permeabilty related as much to food as other cultural influences.

Barbara Harvey observes that the pittance system, the vehicle by which meat was introduced into the Benedictine diet, ‘represents the monastic response to a long-term rise in standards of living outside the cloister’ (Harvey, p. 225).

Christopher Woolgar further points to the elite connections monks had:

The households of the greatest prelates had patterns of consumption that were similar to those of the elite more generally. […] Many monks and some nuns were closely linked to the elite, and the dietary connections they made were to the foods and foodways that they had known in family life and may have continued to experience on visits to the outside world.

‘Foodways and Monastic Institutions’ (Woolgar, p. 148).

Woolgar describes the eating of meat from quadrupeds as a ‘process of negotiation’, and indeed in 1336 Pope Benedict XII officially gave dispensation for meat-eating, with a few provisos. Monks were supposed to eat meat in an agreed place and on those days when it was eaten at least half of the monks were to eat ‘regular’ food, the food prescribed by the Benedictine Rule (Woolgar, p. 150).

But the pope was in truth bowing to the inevitable. As Woolgar observes, ‘The compromise was more a reflection of a trend that had been in place for some time than a new departure’ (Woolgar, p. 150). Certainly, in the case of the Benedictine community of Rochester, they had been eating lamb, beef and pork for several generations by the time the pope gave his ruling on the eating of meat. And when we consider that beef tongue and suckling pigs were delicacies that would appear on their refectory tables, it’s apparent the monks enjoyed it!

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DMLBS, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, online edition: [accessed 15 April, 2022].

C. C. Dyer, ‘Seasonal Patterns in Food Consumption in the Later Middle Ages’, in Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition, ed. C. M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson, and T. Waldron (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 201-14.

B. F. Harvey, ‘Monastic Pittances in the Medieval Ages’, in Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition, ed. C. M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson, and T. Waldron (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 215-27.

David Knowles (ed. & trans.), The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc (Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1951).

N. J. Sykes, ‘From Cu and Sceap to Beffe and Motton: The Management, Distribution, and Consumption of Cattle and Sheep in Medieval England’, in Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition, ed. C. M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson, and T. Waldron (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 56-71.

Bruce L. Vernarde (ed. & trans.), The Rule of Saint Benedict (Harvard University Press, 2011)

C. M. Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200-1500 (Yale University Press, 2016).

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

2 thoughts on “Monks & Meat

  1. One of the 4 principles of religion is mercy ,”thou shalt not kill” a vegetarian diet is based on maintaining this principle ,breaking it ,disqualifies anyone from even being considered religious,there is no chance of entering the higher heavenly realms with this kind of killing or blood on your hands .this was the begining of the end of Christianity .


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