Medieval monks had gourmet lifestyle

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The Independent Online
THE POPULAR image of the corpulent medieval monk, feasting away the time he should have been spending at prayer, seems to have been confirmed by the discovery of lavish medieval food remains at St Albans Abbey.

The food remains, consisting of thousands of animal, bird and fish bones in two rubbish dumps dating from the 12th and 14th centuries, suggest that monks at the Benedictine abbey were not keeping to the precise letter of the Rule of St Benedict, which favoured a mostly vegetarian diet.

The bones belonged not only to cattle, sheep and pigs - luxuries for most Englishmen in the 12th century - but also to game animals such as red and roe deer and hare, which were delicacies usually reserved for the king's table.

Dale Sergeantson, a specialist in animal bone remains at Southampton University, said the food remains were exactly the type that would be found at a royal palace from the period.

'Frankly, we were astonished by what we found. Nowhere else in England has such a high proportion of high-status food remains. The monks were living anything but an abstemious life,' she said.

In addition to animal bones the excavations also found the bones of an array of game birds, including wood pigeon, mallard, woodcock, teal, brent goose, heron and crane. The monks also ate blackbird and thrush, and domestic chicken, goose, and dove. Fish on the monks' diet included halibut and turbot, salmon and pike.

Most monks at St Albans in the Norman era came from England's leading noble families, and many would have expected to continue their high standard of living, according to Martin Biddle, professor of medieval archaeology at Oxford University, who directed the excavations.

Benedictine luxury had its critics in the 12th century, however, and prompted the foundation, at the Abbey of Citeaux in France, of the more rigorous, Cistercian monastic order.

In a famous debate in the 1120s between St Bernard of Clairvaux, a leading Cistercian monk, and Peter the Venerable, Abbot of the great Benedictine Abbey at Cluny, Bernard denounced the 'comfortable lifestyles and full stomachs' of the Cluniac monks, and accused them of abandoning the life of strict discipline and manual labour set out in St Benedict's original Rule.