Blog post

Monastic mealtimes

Nourishment for body and soul

A modern-day example of a monastic refectory of St. Paul's Abbey in Oosterhout (the Netherlands).
Mark Vermeer (Public Library Bruges)

In most monastic orders, daily life was communal. Monks and nuns slept, prayed, worked, ate and read together with their brothers or sisters. At all times, their thoughts should have been oriented towards God and the tenets of Catholic faith – even during mealtimes. The Benedictine Rule contains strict guidelines on how meals had to be organised and what behaviour was (not) tolerated. Meals were served twice a day in the refectory, where the community sat at long tables, and talking was absolutely prohibited, even for the abbot or abbess. Communication, such as requesting food or cutlery, was done through hand signals.

The only member who was allowed to speak was the person appointed to read aloud during that week’s meals. The head of the community, usually the abbot or abbess, was allowed at times to give a short clarification of the text or to instruct the congregation on certain matters. The Rule of Benedict prescribes that good care be taken of the person appointed as reader. They were allowed a cup of diluted wine beforehand, so they would not have to carry out their duties on an empty stomach. Afterwards they were allowed to eat with the monks who were on kitchen service. In the refectory there often was a special place reserved for the reader and their books, such as a lectern or even a stone pulpit.

An elaborately carved built-in pulpit in the refectory of the Cistercian monastery of Santa María de Huerta in Spain

The Rule emphasises that the reader should be able to teach; that is to say, their reading and singing should be understandable to others. They were chosen not by rank or seniority, but by ability, and their service began after Mass on Sunday, when they would ask God’s blessing in the fulfilment of their duties by thrice singing the first words of Psalm 51: ‘Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise’.

Below: A detail from a Cistercian Bible from Ten Duinen Abbey, showing the verse sung by new readers (column B, first line: D[omi]ne, labia mea ap[er]ies) (Bruges, Public Library, Ms. 2, f. 172r)

A detail from a Cistercian Bible from Ten Duinen Abbey, showing the verse sung by new readers (column B, first line: D[omi]ne, labia mea ap[er]ies) (Bruges, Public Library, Ms. 2, f. 172r)

What was read aloud during meals? Unlike other parts of the day where reading was compulsory or encouraged, such as during Mass, the Offices, and self-study, Benedict did not prescribe the type of literature suitable for this occasion. From the twelfth century, fixed collections of texts were created that corresponded with liturgical dates, and biblical texts (and the medieval commentaries on them) were important. Lives of saints, or hagiographies, were also deemed particularly suitable, for they provided examples on how to live. In particular, the lives of the Church Fathers were popular. They were compiled by John Cassian, an important figure in early Christian monasticism.

John Cassian writing, from the first page of a mid-10th century copy of the Lives of the Fathers (Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 255, p. 2)

On entering a monastery, one’s main purpose in life became ‘to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul and the whole strength’, according to the Rule of Benedict. Serving God meant praying and working, but also embodying the virtues of Christianity. Studying the Bible and other authoritative texts, memorising them word by word, and applying the lessons to one’s own improvement, was fundamental. Even during meals – an opportunity to nourish oneself physically after hours of praying, reading, writing or other kinds of labour – spiritual nourishment was also ensured.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.

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