Allan Massie

Monks’ Mackerel

A Hermit’s Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages

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Continuum 209pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

This book’s subtitle is a more accurate description than the title itself, because some desert hermits did little or no cooking. Many of them indeed ate no more than was necessary to stay alive, mortifying the body to purify the soul. One Theodosius, a Palestinian monk, scolded a follower, who was to accompany him on his annual Lenten wandering around the Dead Sea, for bringing a pot and pan: ‘If he needed to eat cooked food, he should go elsewhere.’ Some lived like beasts by grazing. For seventy years a certain Sophronius ‘went around naked, eating wild plants but nothing else at all’. The example to follow was that of John the Baptist, who lived on locusts and wild honey. Andrew Jotischky suggests both words may have been mistranslated, though he also points out that locusts actually are an acceptable food.

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