top of page
  • Writer's picturejulesfrusher

Feast and Fast

These days many of us are lucky enough to have the option of eating what we want, when we want. In the Middle Ages, it was very different: the Church controlled a great deal of what people did in their day-to-day lives, and food was no exception. Fasting was considered a good spiritual practice (as it mortified the flesh!) and one that everyone, not just monks and clergy, should participate in. Therefore the Church dictated that there would be days when people should not eat meat - or indeed any products that came from flesh (such as eggs, milk, cheese, butter etc) and should restrict their mealtimes to once a day.

Fridays were always considered to be a fast day, and sometimes Saturdays and Wednesdays as well. Other times when fasting was enforced were Lent and Advent, Ember Days and the evening of other major church feasts. On these days all that could be eaten was fish, fruit and vegetables. If milk was needed during the making of a dish, almond milk was substituted instead. Fish may sound boring, but there were many varieties to choose from, and fish dishes were usually accompanied by tasty sauces. Some fish, such as pike and sturgeon were of extremely high status and so were valued on the table both on fast days and feast days. Others, such as stock fish and salt fish were more of an everyday staple and also within reach of the pocket of many of the poorer classes. However, saying that, the peasantry did not always have access to meat or fish anyway and subsisted on a diet of grains and vegetables.

Fasting days were often followed by feast days, when all the ‘forbidden’ foods could be eaten, and in great quantities if desired (although even the richer people had no more than two meals a day). The main meal, when a feast would take place was at midday and could last over two hours due to different courses being served, often with entertainment in between. In monasteries, things were a little different, or at least they should have been. Under Benedictine law, monks were forbidden meat throughout the whole year but the strict observance of this often slipped, up to a point where, in some monasteries, meat was an important part of the weekly diet. Some stricter orders took fasting far more seriously and would only allow themselves bread and water during fasting periods.

Some people were exempt from fasting, such as those who were sick,old, young children, pilgrims, workers and beggars. Even so, they were only permitted light meals. During the fourteenth century the idea of paying for an indulgence from priests also started to creep in. This meant that, as long as the church was paid a ‘fee’, it would overlook any lapse on the payer's part to observe the fast. For those others who didn’t observe the fasting rules and didn’t have an indulgence, there was penance. This penance took the form of fasting on only bread and water for a period decided upon by Church law.

So, to sum up:

Fasting Days:

  • Friday (considered a day of penance).

  • Also Wednesday and Saturday every week, although these were considered to be days of less strict fasting than on Ember Days (see below).

  • All of Lent.

  • All of Advent.

  • The eves of the the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

  • Ascension Day (the three days, or Rogation days prior to this).

  • Pentecost.

  • The eves of the feasts of the following saints: St. Matthias, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, St. James, St. Bartholomew, St. Matthew, St. Simon and St. Jude, St. Andrew, St. Thomas, All Saints’ Day.

  • Ember Days: known as the fasts of the four seasons because they occur during each quarter of the year. These days were always either a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday and occurred in the week after the following days: St Lucia (13th Dec), Ash Wednesday, Pentecost and Holy Cross Day (14th September). These were observed far more strictly than the weekly fastings).

As you may guess, there were far more fast days than feast days in the year, which meant the need for a lot of fish!

Examples of Forbidden Foods During Fasts:

  • Meat (from quadrupeds and fowl)

  • Eggs

  • Milk

  • Cheese

  • Butter

Examples of Foods Allowed During a Fast Day

[caption id="attachment_1088" align="alignright" width="292"] The barnacle goose hatching from a barnacle tree[/caption]

  • Almond Milk

  • Bread

  • Plain pottage

  • Fish

  • Vegetables

  • Nuts

  • Fruits

  • Barnacle geese*

  • Beaver tail **

  • Whales and Porpoises ***

Barnacle geese hatching from a barnacle tree

* Barnacle geese were thought to hatch from barnacles and were therefore considered fish!

** Because its tail was scaly and it spent much of its time in the water, the beaver was considered to be a kind of fish!

*** As this was pre Darwin and the identification of different species, whales and porpoises were thought to be fish.


Food and Feast in Medieval England (Food & Feasts) - Peter Hammond

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England - Peter Brears

NB: What I thought was going to be an easy post turned out anything but (as usual!). I came across several sources that contradicted each other about the fasting days of the week so I have gone for a consensus of the best ones. Hence you may come across sites that have different information to what has been posted here.

6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Prisons - or gaols - in Medieval England operated very differently than they do today: in fact today’s prisons – even the toughest ones - would seem like a holiday camp in comparison. The primary func

bottom of page