[Smashy the Hammer] [An Aspiring Luddite]
I carry no phone
An aspiring Luddite
In a wired world.
[Jeff Berry]
Jeff Berry is an early adopter of the Internet and the Web, a late adopter of Twitter, and declines to adopt Facebook or Livejournal. (Although he did succumb to the lure of Google+.) He hates cell-phones.

Lent: Medieval and Secular
14 April 2011

[Smashy the Hammer Logo] Despite what all the writing in the last few weeks might lead one to believe, I am not a religious person. My interest in Lent is historical rather then theological. Yet my wife and I keep to a Lenten fast substantially more rigourous than that observed by most modern Christians of a far more religious bent. I thought it might be interesting to describe both our Lenten diet and some of the reasons why someone whose personal religiosity is somewhere between "atheist" and "godless heathen" participates in such a yearly ritual.

During Lent, we strive to follow a set of guidelines which were more-or-less standard throughout much of medieval Christendom: no meat, no eggs, and no dairy. Living as we do in the modern age, this is far less harsh than it was for our medieval ancestors. We have access to fresh fruits and vegetables during these lean months - they did not. We have tofu and a wide variety of "fake meats" - they had to make their own, which they did, showing great creativity; and they did it without soybeans! We can purchase fresh fish, both salt- and fresh-water, in a profusion of species and flavors - much of Europe relied heavily on salted fish for most of Lent. Finally, in my personal case, I can schedule "feast days" to fit my schedule, since I am not driven by divine injunction - we have one per week, usually Saturday.

Within those parameters, we actually try not to take advantage of all that the modern world can offer. I try to keep our eating mostly seasonal and local. Fortunately, we have a locally produced source of tofu, as well as a decent range of produce. I'm more flexible on where the fish comes from, I must confess. This brings us to the first reason to observe Lent in this fashion: it is an experiment in medieval foodways. For much of the history of mankind, eating seasonally and locally was not a choice for most people, it was the only option. Lent was also a presence in the life of everyone in medieval Europe; even those small groups who were not Christian were very much aware of the Church and of the Lenten fast. So for a medieval culinary historian like myself, this particular way of observing Lent is, quite simply, another way to try to connect to the past.

One can also choose to follow a medieval Lenten observance, or, indeed, any Lenten observance at all, as an exercise in will-power. It is an excuse to discipline the mind. In fact, much is made in the medieval fasting literature of how a fast subdues the body. The medieval ascetics were mostly concerned with resisting temptations of the flesh, especially gluttony, viewed by some as the worst sin since it led to the fall from grace - remember the apple! However, one needn't be in fear of damnation to think that trying to keep one's will strong is a good idea.

Shifting now to a more foodie stance, I find that the Lenten restrictions mean that the diet we follow is a nice transition from the winter diet to the summer one. Winter, at least in my house, is full of gratins and sausage, while summer, with the farm share in full swing, is heavy on fresh greens, tomatoes and other fresh produce. The fishy, legumey Lenten diet somehow seems to be in the middle. It's not quite as 'hearty' as winter, nor yet as 'fresh' as summer.

In a similar vein, with a bit more of a philosophical edge, I feel that anything that requires one to think a bit more about what goes in one's mouth is probably a good thing. During Lent, I scrutinize labels more carefully, and find whey in the darnedest places. Eggs are more common than one might think, as well. While scouting for dairy and eggs, I can't help but notice the sweeteners and the other additives that are so pervasive in prepared food. Given the nature of this site, it probably comes as no shock to learn that we eat little in the way of commercially prepared food, but even in things that don't sound like prepared food, there are occasional surprises. For instance, while egg noodles certainly sound like they should have egg in them, other pastas sometimes do as well. Chips often use whey, even when they aren't 'cheese' flavored, and so forth. Reading labels is a good thing.

One thing that Lent did, along with other early medieval food-related activities, was build a sense of community. Rich and poor, noble and peasant, cleric and lay, man and woman, young and old - all partook of the Lenten fast, as well as in the various other fasts and feasts of the year. It drew communities together. Today, a Lenten observance can do the same, if you let it. We have friends with whom we meet every Lent for a luxurious fish dinner - Lenten in letter, if not in spirit. (But then again, by the late middle ages, the upper classes were also treating themselves to sumptuous feasts of fish dishes.) Then, as the fast ends, we usually celebrate with a carnivorous feast of semi-epic proportions.

So an exercise in willpower that teaches you about history, prepares you for summer, makes you think about your food, and builds strong friendships - that's a Lent that even the areligious can love.


© 2011 Jeff Berry
The Aspiring Luddite