A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle by Andrew Jotischky

By Andrew Jotischky

How did medieval hermits live to tell the tale on their self-denying vitamin? What did they consume, and the way did unethical clergymen get round the rules?

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But the Apophthegmata proved so influential that similar collections were made in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic and Ethiopic – languages that describe a geographical arc around the monastic landscape of the Near East. By AD 400, monasticism in Lower Egypt was already so well established that many of the monks had settled there from other parts of the Roman world. One of these, Palladius, was born in Asia Minor in 363, but had been both a monk in the Holy Land and a student in Alexandria before joining the monks at Nitria and then Kellia.

Menas, abbot of a coenobium, tells John about the monk Sophronius. ‘He grazed around the Dead Sea. ’13 Where did the idea of grazing, or living purely off the land as a religious way of life, come from? The earliest writing about monasticism plays up the associations between desert monks and biblical role models. In the Old Testament, pre-eminent among these was the prophet Elijah, but in the early chapters of the New Testament a more spectacular example was provided by John the Desert fathers, pillar-saints and fasting 41 Baptist.

What was lacking was a definitive formula that could consciously unite the best in these traditions Beginnings – who were the first monks? 21 into a synthesis. That was left to the most famous monastic figure in the West, often seen as the father of Catholic monasticism: St Benedict of Nursia. Nothing is really known about Benedict’s life other than what is told in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, which was written a couple of generations after Benedict. From this source, which is far from reliable as an historical text, we can reconstruct something of his career.

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