Why people medieval were fasting on Fridays

By Danièle Cybulskie

Fasting was a regular part of medieval religious practice, from royalty to peasantry. There were many rules, reasons, and times which dictated when a person should fast, for how long, and whether or not this meant some specific food or nothing at all. Fasting was proscribed as a penance, often as a restricted diet, and as a way to recognize important events in the Christian calendar. While monks and nuns would have fasted more frequently and more severely than the general population, everyday people were expected to fast, as well, especially on Fridays.

It’s important to remember that medieval people weren’t just a homogenous group who followed every rule set out by the church or state without question. People had a lot of questions about the most minute details of their faith, and theologians were constantly working out answers to the thorniest of these. Because most of the common people were illiterate, they were not able to read the Bible, nor were copies permitted to be made in the vernacular at the time. The Bible was to be read in Latin and interpreted by priests. That meant that when the people had a question – especially about why they weren’t supposed to eat what they wanted – it was up to their priests to have an answer.

In British Library MS Harley 2253, there exists a short passage which explains “Reasons for Fasting on Friday”. The fact that it is contained in this miscellany shows that people were concerned enough to want an answer as to why their stomachs were meant to be growling. The reasons given show not only some of the more important Biblical events for Christians to remember, but also the calculations that Christian priests had made to establish when these events had occurred. The fact that Biblical events had been temporally mapped in this way demonstrates the sophistication of the thinking and reasoning of the church at the time, precisely because they were counted on to know these things. The people depended on them.

The text of ‘Reasons for Fasting on Friday’ from British Library Harley MS 2253 fol.135r

So, without further ado, here are the Reasons for Fasting on Friday. Given its short length, here’s the passage in full:

One should fast more willingly on Friday than on any other day of the week because on Friday the sons of Israel entered the Promised Land. Friday the prophet Moses died on Mount Nebo.

Friday the prophet David killed Goliath.

Friday the prophet Elijah was beheaded.

Friday Saint John the Baptist was beheaded.

Friday Herod killed one hundred forty-four thousand Innocents, and this slaughter began on Friday.

Gabriel proclaimed to Our Lady on Friday that Jesus would be born to her.

On Friday Saint Peter was crucified.

Friday God was crucified.

Friday Our Lady passed on to heaven.

Friday Saint Stephen was stoned and Saint Paul beheaded.

Friday Enoch and Elijah will battle with the Antichrist.

You can find this translation of “Reasons for Fasting on Friday” by Susanne Greer Fein along with the rest of MS Harley 2253 on the TEAMS Middle English Text Series website. For other texts in this tradition, see Fein’s introduction to the text.

Top Image: British Library MS Harley 2897   f. 220

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