Overweight Medieval Monks The Norm
The fictional Friar Tuck had hundreds of real-life counterparts, according to a newly published analysis of skeletons in three monastic burial sites in London. Monks were taking in about 6,000 calories a day, and 4,500 even when they were fasting, according to archeologists.
"Suet, lard and butter were wolfed down in "startling quantities" by the closed communities, whose abbots often depended on arranging large and regular helpings to keep their flocks under control."
Arthritis in knees, hips and fingertips showed that the often under-employed monks were seriously obese, according to a new study. "They were five times more likely to suffer from obesity than their secular contemporaries, including wealthy merchants or courtiers."
The reckless scoffing was in clear breach of St Benedict's austere rules laid down probably in 530, which warned: "There must be no danger of overeating, so that no monk is overtaken by indigestion, for there is nothing so opposed to Christian life as overeating."
Critics, such as Peter the Venerable, who slated monks for "wearing furs and eating fat", were advised however that Benedict had also warned about grumbling: "Brethren would indeed grumble if deprived of the food to which they are accustomed."
The skeletal data, from 300 sets of bones found at Tower Hill, Bermondsey, and Merton abbeys, includes information on a medical condition known now as Dish (diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis) triggered by overeating and a rich diet. "The marks of Dish keep appearing on their skeletons. It forms a coating on the spine like candlewax dripping down the side."
The findings tally with satire that developed a keener edge after the Black Death and food shortages. Friar Tuck was only one of many fat fictional characters based on medieval churchmen by resentful lay storytellers.
The new evidence backs records from Westminster Abbey, showing that six eggs a day was normal for monks. In the middle ages, monkish obesity was Europe-wide. The Portuguese Cistercians had a test: monks unable to squeeze through a certain doorway at Alcobaca monastery's dining room had to fast while slimmer colleagues tucked into "pastry in vast abundance".