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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

The prohibition of meat


A parish priest from Hereford rose from the table after dinner, walked through the court and on reaching the innermost chamber saw the abbot with eight or ten of the thirteen brethren gorging themselves in splendour on meat, capons, geese, wine, good beer and mead served in silver jugs adorned with gold and silver. .....
Read more of Gerald of Wales’ colourful remarks on the Cistercians’ dietary habits

The Cistercians were adamant that neither meat nor lard should be eaten within the monastery, although an allowance was made for the seriously ill and hired craftsmen.(7) This ruling also applied to the granges.(8) The prohibition of meat was essentially in adherence to chapter 59 of the Rule of St Benedict, (9) but it was also believed that this would quench the monks’ carnal desires and sharpen their spiritual alertness. Thus, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in a sermon on the Song of Songs:

I abstain from meat because by over-feeding the body I also feed carnal desires; I strive to take even bread with moderation, lest my heavy stomach hinder me in standing up for prayer.(10)

The meat kitchen at Kirkstall abbey © Abbey House Museum
<click to enlarge>
The meat kitchen at Kirkstall abbey © Abbey House Museum

Inevitably, ideals were not always observed and there were those who disregarded these rules. Transgressors were reprimanded by the General Chapter took measures against transgressors, but by the fourteenth century relaxed its stance: in 1335 it was officially sanctioned that meat could be served at the abbot’s table and also in the infirmary; in 1439 the General Chapter conceded that once or twice a week each monk might dine outside the refectory to eat meat but underlined that there should always be 2/3 of the community eating a regular diet in the refectory and that nobody should eat meat more than twice a week.(11) By the end of the fifteenth century it was commonplace for the monks to eat meat two or three times a week in a separate room, the misericord; the meat served here was prepared in a special kitchen.