Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Having had some success with changing our diet a bit in order to get a sense of the medieval European diet, this year Cindy and I decided to skip meats for lent.

Many modern Catholics eat fish instead of (terrestrial) meat on Fridays during lent. During the medieval period though, the common practice was much more restrictive. Aside from meats, dairy and eggs were also off the menu. There were some typical substitutions for the wealthy - almond milk, almond cream, almond butter - but for the most part it was nothing but fish and plants for 40 days.

The reasons for these restrictions (other than theological) are unclear. I've heard that at this time of year poultry would have been laying few eggs, so not eating eggs makes sense. Also, I assume that any animals that one didn't intend to keep through the winter would have already been slaughtered in the late autumn, so not eating meat also makes sense. But dairy?

I suppose (caveat lector: I am not a dairy farmer) that milking cows over winter when there is limited feed would stress them further and reduce their chances of reaching spring in a healthy state. By not milking them they'd require less fodder, and even though they'd dry up, when they calved in the spring the milk would start flowing again.

At any rate, we'll be splitting the difference between the modern and medieval Lenten diet. No terrestrial meats on any day, but I'm granting us an indulgence for dairy and eggs. I don't expect it'll be too difficult for us given that we were primarily vegetarian for a couple of years a long while back, but for our children it's a new experience (especially for Alex, who often says things like "Animals are yummy!"). Next year maybe we'll go completely medieval.


Rachel Laudan said...

Hi Daniel,

As a diary farmer's daughter I can assure you that cows do not lactate year round. It took a major, major change in dairy management involving staggering the times at which cows got pregnant to have milk year round as we now do.

I enjoy your blog by the way.



Lisa Hendrix said...

The Lenten fast is clearly tied to what Brits call "the hungry gap," when last year's food was running out and spring crops weren't in yet, but in its very earliest form, it was the period of fasting and physical deprivation catechumins underwent in preparation for baptism. The 40 days has to do with the period Jesus fasted in the wilderness, and the old tradition of 40 hours of total fasting immediately before Easter was supposed to be the amount of time He lay in the tomb before resurrection.

The Church also forbade sexual relations during Quadragesima (the old name for Lent), and for the week after Easter, too -- a fact which made a useful plot point for one of my books.