Stuff your face like a pre-Reformation Christian

| 22nd December 2009
Tom Hodgkinson
Tom Hodgkinson. Photo by Chris Floyd
We've inherited an unhealthy, puritan attitude to food and sensory pleasure, says Tom Hodgkinson. Taking a leaf out of the books of our medieval ancestors would do us all good...

I am often accused by people who know nothing whatsoever of the subject of romanticising the Middle Ages.

When I point to a simple fact about the era, such as that usury was considered sinful, or that neighbourliness was considered of paramount importance, or that there really were knights, ladies and shining armour, I am told that I am wearing rose-tinted glasses.

Have at you...

I make two refutations to my attackers: the first is that the Middle Ages was in actual fact simply a more romantic era than ours, if by romantic we mean colourful, passionate and alive (long boring lives of television-watching and disillusioned slaving for the corporation would not be considered by most of us as romantic). So I don’t romanticise it; it just was more romantic. The second is that I am dealing with facts and not impressions. I am also well aware of the unpleasant facts: for example I know that the Black Death of 1348-50 wiped out millions of Europeans.

So given all that, what I want to do here is to emphasise the eco-friendly aspects of the period, to use a completely anachronistic term.

It is a simple fact first of all that there were no chemical fertilisers and that dung was used to fertilise the soil. All vegetables, fruit and meat were then necessarily organic. But the main point is that it is fascinating to note, when environmentalists are asking us to eat less meat, by for example refraining from eating meat on one day of the week, that systems were in place in the Middle Ages to do precisely this.

Less meat? No problem

We know about the very sensible Meat Free Monday campaign. The medical mainstream has also asserted that a 30 per cent reduction in meat eating would lead to a general reduction in heart disease. And we all know from personal experience that a surfeit of meat makes you feel completely exhausted. It’s also of course true that the lives of millions of chickens and pigs are conducted in misery because of our greed for meat.

For medieval man, woman and child, the decision to eat less meat needed not to be made self-consciously: around seventy meat-free days every year were built into the calendar. The whole year was built around the idea of fast days and feast days, itself a cultural system which was inherited from the pagan Roman culture. A feast day was cause for celebration and a suspension of toil. We would freely indulge in meat and wine, as we remembered a saint’s day, an event in Christ’s life, or commemorated a significant moment in the yearly cycle, such as the equinox. But on a fast day, you would not eat meat or, in general (rules varied), any animal products. During the six and a half weeks of Lent, we would eat fish instead of meat. This was not necessarily a terrible privation (although Lent was certainly a comparatively sober season): account books from medieval manors show that vast quantities of fish were consumed in Lent. We were not starving.

And the feast and fast culture meant that you cheerfully gave up meat because the fasting would intensify the pleasure of the meat that would come later (although Sundays and certain saints’ days were not fast days, so even in Lent, there was a binge once a week).

It was this emphasis on pleasure which the later Protestant reformers hated, and they sought to abolish all the saints’ days as well as Lent and Christmas. They hated fast and feasts equally. Their attempts to remove the old festive culture were of course always resisted:
'Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?' as Sir Toby Belch says to the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, when Malvolio tries to break up a late-night drinking session.

Healthy eating

What we are now realising is that as well as the religious motivation for feasting and fasting, there were excellent practical reasons for such variation in our eating habits. To use another contemporary word, it made life sustainable.

Our own culture, which inherits the Puritan unease around sensory pleasure, is an uneasy mix of over-indulgence and under-indulgence. Some of us are too fat and others are too thin. We stuff ourselves and then feel guilty. In the medieval system, there was no need to feel guilty about feasting because a fast was always on the horizon.

So if you want to live a more eco-friendly and healthy life, then simply follow the calendar of the pre-Reformation Christian. In other words, stuff your faces without guilt this Christmas because from Wednesday 17th of February you can fast all you like.

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