Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle by Andrew Jotischky

By Andrew Jotischky

How did medieval hermits live on on their self-denying nutrition? What did they devour, and the way did unethical priests get round the ideas?

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Nostalgic quality, as John looks for monks carrying on what was already, in the early seventh century, a venerable tradition. In John’s day, grazers seem to have travelled in small groups, and to have known one another. Menas, abbot of a coenobium, tells John about the monk Sophronius. ‘He grazed around the Dead Sea. ’13 Where did the idea of grazing, or living purely off the land as a religious way of life, come from? The earliest writing about monasticism plays up the associations between desert monks and biblical role models.

It is an important distinction, for it allows the observer licence to exaggerate, misrepresent, or use facts selectively in order to get across a picture of people and events that may in general be quite accurate. A given account may be more concerned with establishing patterns of ideal behaviour than with historical facts. As Leontius of Naples expressed it in his Life of Symeon the Holy Fool, the purpose of his writing was to ‘unveil . . ’4 Perhaps Onuphrios lived principally off dates, supplemented by food brought to him by visiting monks; or perhaps the period he fasted in this way was much shorter than the whole span of his adult life that we are supposed to believe.

17 In order to understand how this understanding of the moral value of fasting emerged, it is useful to first examine the roots of the ethical tradition of early Christian asceticism. Throughout monastic literature, especially that of the desert fathers, there runs a deeply ethical thread in which the intention of an action is considered more important than the action itself. This was far from unique to Christian teaching, and the fact that it was adopted so naturally as part of monastic behaviour only demonstrates the debt owed by the early Christian Church to classical and Jewish precursors.

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