A few years ago, a colleague offered a new undergraduate module called Food and Eating in the Middle Ages, only to find herself teaching a 30-strong cohort of anorexics, bulimics and assorted food fetishists.
I fear that this book will draw a similar audience, but there is plenty of meaty stuff for non-foodie readers as well. Spicing up the text with a handful of made-up hermit recipes (miracle peas, anyone?), Andrew Jotischky gives us a potted history of the monastic movement and its relationship to food from the 4th to the 15th century.
As a history, the book charts the rise of the communal monastery and the subsequent changes to monks' culinary practices. From the solitary abstemiousness of the early desert fathers to the productive "agribusinesses" of the Cistercian monasteries in high-medieval Europe, social change is refracted through the practicalities of diet and food production, reminding us that monasteries were not, as they claimed, isolated from society but were increasingly implicated in its economic and cultural frameworks.
As a book about food, it progresses by means of capacious listings of food obsessions (Onuphrios and dates, Hilarion and half-cooked lentils) and food-related anecdotes (Bernard of Clairvaux snubbing the greedy Cluniacs). The connective theme is the tension between the eremitical ideal of spiritual purity through fasting and the realities of food consumption as a social process. As Jotischky says of the hermits: "They might wish to become like the angels, but while they still lived on earth, they needed to eat."
Unable to resolve this dilemma, medieval monks gradually abandoned the earliest hermits' ascetic ideals. By the 13th century, the monks of Westminster Abbey were eating meat four times a week, in direct contravention of the Benedictine rule, while the abbot of Bury St Edmunds kept his own deer parks. Contemporaries pilloried "dissolute monks", but Jotischky tends to let them off the hook, arguing that greater food diversity and the aristocratic background of many monks accounted for their increasingly comfortable relationship with food.
What underlies this entertaining, informative account of monastic diet is the unexplored issue of food consumption as a means of exercising individual and social control. Some examples are obvious, such as Symeon the stylite, who carried ascetic piety to extremes by taking up residence on a pillar and having his food winched up, thereby acquiring the status of a guru. Others are more subtle, including the practice of the "abbot's table", whereby the head of a monastery could circumvent St Benedict's dietary restrictions by eating away from the refectory.
The book has a rather disorganised feel, with nuggets of information inserted or repeated at odd points. The food-related items of the Benedictine rule, central to the monastic lifestyle, are doled out in incomplete portions, denying us a full understanding of its commandments and loopholes. There is nothing about the diet of women anchorites, and the issue of eating disorders is naively sidestepped. I just don't buy the claim that asceticism represents "an indifference to food", when all the evidence cited by Jotischky points to the contrary.
Hovering somewhere between the academic and the popular, the book ends with a useful "Further reading" section, which, among the scholarly tomes on early monasticism, rather refreshingly cites Richard Mabey's Food for Free, the hippy bible of 1972. As a self-confessed "whimsical" history of monasticism and food, this is a book that does more than it says on the tin.
A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages
By Andrew Jotischky. Continuum, 224pp, £17.99. ISBN 9780826423931. Published 26 May 2011.