The Regular Canons and the Use of Food, c. 1200–1350

Refectory - Life of St. Benedict Scene 31 - Benedict Feeds the Monks

Refectory – Life of St. Benedict Scene 31 – Benedict Feeds the Monks

The Regular Canons and the Use of Food, c. 1200–1350

Dave Postles

The Regular Canons in the Medieval British Isles, Brepols Publishers (2012)


The black canons are regularly assumed to share the attributes of the worldly. The argument seems to follow that because they lived in the world as well as being enclosed, they easily assimilated the customs and practices of the secular society which they theoretically served. It is perhaps not surprising then that some of the definitions at the earliest chapters of the black canons, in 1223, 1237, and 1241, reiterated the rule not to consume meat during Advent. Yet such reiteration does not necessarily condemn the monks for worldliness. It is possible that the earliest chapters in the 1220s were informed by the general aim of enforcing canonical reform. Reiteration, moreover, does not necessarily imply persistent neglect; medieval documents customarily practiced repetition as a method of confirmation to prevent backsliding. However, the canons are, nonetheless, incriminated and the present article examines the extent to which the charge can be maintained.

Little substantiated research exists about the ‘foodways’ (the cultural, social, and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food) of the canons before c. 1350. Perhaps we can make an initial foray here by considering two interrelated aspects of the use of food by the canons: how gifts of food between the canons and secular society assisted in the negotiation of social and spiritual relationships, and concomitantly what can be inferred from those exchanges about the consumption of the canons. The chronology is confined to this period of one hundred and fifty years from 1200 to 1350 for two reasons: firstly, insufficient evidence is available before c. 1200, so we have an imposed terminus a quo; secondly, the impact of the canons after 1350 was far less than that of the mendicants and others. Both assumptions are intentionally broad but serve to focus our present analysis.

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