For people in the Middle Ages, Lent was a time of both physical fasting and spiritual renewal. In her paper, ‘The Salvation Diet’, Martha Daas examines how medieval people endured the 40 days of fasting.
Lent refers to a major religious observance for medieval Christians – it would begin each spring on Ash Wednesday, roughly six weeks before Easter. Believers were to observe certain fasting rules, abstain from pleasure and vice, and instead focus on prayer and penance.
Daas began her talk, given at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, by noting that the period of Lent was considered a long and dreary time – besides restrictions on food, one also had to abstain from sex. It was meant to be a time of rejection of all that is pleasurable. Those caught breaking the Lenten fast might endure severe punishments, such as whippings or having their teeth pulled.
The rules around fasting from certain foods was associated with the idea the some types of food were also bad for your temperament, and could be morally as well as physically dangerous. For example, red meat was believed to overheat a person, and could lead them to gluttony or lust. Therefore the restrictions on certain foods was meant in a way to clean a person’s body spiritually as well as physically.
How might a Lenten fast look like? Daas turns to The Book of Good Love (El Libro de Buen Amor), a 14th century Spanish poem written by Juan Ruiz. The poem is partly a spiritual writing, romance and collection of comedic fables. In one of the tales, Lady Lent does battle with Lord Flesh and imprisons him during Easter Week (afterwards he is freed and then rules over the land while Lady Lent retreats until the next year).
While in prison a friar visits Lord Flesh and hears his confession. The friar then imposes his penance on Lord Flesh, making him eat a particular food each day. The text states:
On Sunday, for your moral cupidity, you will eat nothing but boiled chick peas with oil…
On Monday, for your great pride, you will eat not salmon or trout but vetches…
On Tuesday, for your great avarice, I order you to eat porridge, but only in small servings; you can eat one-half or two-thirds of a loaf bread, and the rest you will keep for the poor.
On Wednesday, you will eat a little spinach, just a little, for your craven lust…
On Thursday, you will have salted lentils for supper, to pay for the deadly rage and the perjury you committed by your lies. Be devout at your prayers and when the lentils begin to taste good, you must stop eating them.
On Friday, for your excessive gluttony, you will have nothing cooked, just bread and water…
On Saturday, you must eat only beans, nothing else; for your great envy, you will not eat fish.
Daas notes that while the story and characters from this story in The Book of Good Love were exaggerated, this tale would undoubtedly remind it readers of their own fasting ordeals during Lent.
Martha Daas is an Associate Professor at Old Dominion University. Click here to visit her university website.