Adventures in Medieval Lent: Part 1 - Of Inspiration and Practicalities

Lent was drawing near. Janelle and I had discussed the requirements of fasting for Lent in the Middle Ages; we’d lightly discussed the possibility of trying it ourselves, but nothing very committal came of it. I then read an article by an SCA woman (SCA-Society of Creative Anachronism) who had tried to do a Medieval Lent. She wasn't a practicing catholic or protestant, but it was important for her to understand her character better. And so she tried it. Because of Janelle’s wickedly nerdy influence, I've recently begun training to be a medieval living history interpreter, and I knew that I needed to develop and understand my character on deeper levels to really get to know who she is. I decided, that as a Catholic and an amateur Medievalist, that I should try to keep Lent medieval style. Not only would I have a better understanding of my 14th century persona, but I would also be learning about what my medieval brothers and sisters went through. And above all that, my hope was that it would help redirect my life towards God, which is the normal aim of the Christian life... Lent just concentrates one's focus on that.  

I have had to make some adjustments and be understanding about my life as a modern person, and about how life was different in the Middle Ages. Don't get me wrong, it is possible to do a Medieval Lent! Medieval people were just that: People. And they struggled with temptation to sin and selfishness just as we do. Temptation is rife in every century, and the self discipline which leads to virtue can be difficult. But there are some practical differences in the way that I live and in the way that they lived that made some adjustments necessary.

I told Janelle what I wanted to do, and to my joy she wanted to do it as well. And for the exact same reasons that I had! More than anything, having another person with you on your journey makes it easier. Well, especially if you see eye to eye. As Catholic, Medievalist, Paternostering nerds, we definitely see eye to eye.

The basic Medieval Lenten fast consisted of avoiding eggs, dairy, and meat. Fish was allowed, so they were not entirely vegan. (I’ve been saying that I’m vegan for Lent, just to be succinct. If people need details, I’ll add that I am allowed to have fish.) Medieval peoples would also restrict themselves to one normal-size meal a day, and one snack. On Sunday, one would be allowed to partake of the restricted foods, as it is a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and thus should never be a day of fasting.

I’ve necessarily made a few adjustments to this strict Fast. I do eat exclusively vegan food during the week. The biggest way in which my fast does *not* look like a medieval person’s fast, is that I’ve not been eating strictly Medieval recipes. I have allowed myself things like tofu and coconut milk to supplement my protein and fat intake. I’ve also had snacks that have consisted of energy bars and I look for the ones that say “Vegan”, but if it has the ‘processed in a facility that processes milk and eggs’, I still allow it. Maybe in subsequent years I will try to be so prepared that I will use Medieval recipes instead. But for ease of living, sticking with modern vegan food has been easy enough.

Apparently medieval peasants had a pretty calorically rich diet; up to 4000 calories daily. So cutting out meat, eggs, and dairy puts a huge dent in what they were used to eating. Luckily, Lent usually takes place in the late winter and early spring. Sacrificing those sources of calories would be a dent for sure, but do-able, since at that point in time work for the day stopped when the natural light was gone – you could use candles, but those were expensive, so most people would go to bed when it got dark. Late winter and spring still have the majority of hours in darkness, so despite the sacrifice, once the day was done you could go to sleep. I think personally, the biggest difficulties have been from the fact that my day starts when the sun comes up and continues for hours after the sun goes down… Thanks to artificial lighting! So I’ve allowed having additional snacks to continue to operate in the modern world. Since my modern life is still spinning around me, I have to make these exceptions. Maybe when I’m retired, I can step back from the world more fully to do the fast completely authentically, but for now, the exceptions will have to stand. 

~ Megan

Please tune into the next post, where I contemplate a few more difficulties, a few more blessings, and how practicing medieval Lent in far away 21st century U.S.A. is similar to our modern revival of the ancient Paternoster. (Hint: The Communion of Saints is a big part of it!)


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