Eat like a Carolingian nun (but check with a doctor first)

The ruins of Notre-Dame de Soissons

The ruins of Notre-Dame de Soissons (perhaps betraying calcium deficiency?)

Taking in the last of those Jean Verdon articles I mentioned in my recent and apparently misjudged post about the range of female monasticism, I find a reference to an article by Michel Rouche about famine.1 In it he apparently refers to a forged charter of Charles the Bald for the nunnery of Notre-Dame de Soissons, which specified the food that the various estates it claimed should render and the size of the community.2 That size was 260 nuns and 200 servants and domestics of various kinds, which would have made the place far and away the largest Carolingian-period nunnery known and seems unlikely to be true.3 But, since the claims were presumably intended to be plausible whenever they date from, Rouche thought, and Verdon agreed, that they were reasonable evidence for the dietary allowances of an early medieval nun. So, dividing the daily allowance by the number of nuns, we get per inmate:

  • 1,440 g of bread
  • 1.38 l of wine
  • 70 g of cheese
  • 133 g of dry vegetables
  • 16 g of salt
  • 0.6 g of honey (which I guess was used in accumulated dollops)

Verdon (or perhaps Rouche) calculates that this is 4,727 calories and says that the required daily intake is 2,400. That was France in 1975, and a rapid websearch suggests that UK women are advised by the National Health Service to keep calories down to 2000 a day. Of course, there is a big difference in how many calories the nuns were burning in just not freezing for at least half the year, but Verdon is presumably still right when he observes that this diet was seriously lacking in protein and vitamins. I assume (without evidence) that they would have supplemented this with fruits and vegetables of the season when there were some, but it’s still not a rich diet despite the supposedly rich nunnery. All of this mainly leaves me wondering what the motives of the forgers were and how much information they had about food use from the house’s refectory, but since we like medieval factoids, there’s one for you, with suitable cautions about how the fields of both diplomatic and nutrition have moved on a bit since 1973 and how I haven’t checked in with at least one of them while writing this post.


1. Jean Verdon, “Notes sur le rôle économique des monastères féminins en France dans la seconde moitié du IXe et au début du Xe siècle” in Revue Mabillon Vol. 58 (Ligugé 1975), pp. 329-344, at p. 332 where he cites Michel Rouche, “La faim à l’époque carolingienne : essai sur quelques types de rations alimentaires” in Revue Historique no. 508 (Paris 1973), pp. 295-320 (some details supplied by me; non vidi).

2. The charter is †A. Giry, †M. Prou & G. Tessier (edd.), Recueil des Actes de Charles II Le Chauve, Roi de France (Paris 1927-1947), 3 vols, II no. 494, discussed by Rouche at “Faim”, p. 299 (cit. Verdon).

3. Comparators listed by Jean Verdon, “Recherches sur les monastères féminins dans la France du nord aux IXe-XIe siècles” in Revue Mabillon Vol. 59 (Ligugé 1976), pp. 49-96 and idem, “Recherches sur les monastères féminins dans la France du Sud aux IXe-XIe siècles” in Annales du Midi Vol. 88 (Toulouse 1976), pp. 117-138. The largest known to Verdon otherwise (though figures are rare) is Ste-Croix de Poitiers, which boasted a hundred nuns in the time of Louis the Pious (idem, “Monastères féminins dans la France du Sud”, pp. 133-134); congregations of 10 or 12 were much more usual (and in the former case, strictly speaking uncanonical).

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16 responses to “Eat like a Carolingian nun (but check with a doctor first)

  1. Honey and wine could also have medicinal purposes. Of course the wine would have a liturgical use also. They could have drank the wine watered down, but a lot of the calculated calories are coming from the wine. That is a lot of wine per day. The honey could have been used in cooking rather than as dollops.

    Looks like a diet of bread, cheese and soup.

  2. I have to wonder if this is not adjusted seasonally, if maybe this is the basic diet and things like livestock, which are not necessarily butchered year round, are not counted. I’ve been working with a number of Carolingian inventories, such as the _Capitulare de Villis_, and simply based on what the Emperor wanted grown and raised, the average (or at least average noble) diet was somewhat more balanced.

    As to the calorie count, I suspect that not only are the nuns trying to keep warm, but they were also doing flat-out more labor than we are accustomed to. Nuns did housework and garnering and even fieldwork on occasion. That burns up a great deal of calories!

  3. Absolutely zero meat is interesting. I was unaware that was the norm during that period. There are enough stories, Vitae, etc., of nuns and monks abstaining from it as a sign of holiness that it seems they might have gotten a burger now and then. And with the cheese you have to assume the presence of livestock.

    Better watch it though – with all the wine, you might be accused of drawing another parallel with college!

    • You would think a little meat thrown in the stew pot.

      Its really odd that there are no eggs or poultry. Maybe they just were not considering livestock held by the convent.

      The one good thing about cheese is that it can be stored for a long time and transported there from production elsewhere. This could explain why there is no milk listed.

      We need to keep in mind this was a list of what estates should send to the convent, not what resources the convent had within its own estate. This would bias the list toward goods that could be stored and transported.

      • True – and the other aspect which could have an impact on the total calorie count is the role of the convent in hospitality including care of and lodging travelers, guests, care of the poor, sick, etc. Those folks would tend to receive better food than the residents, based on the rules I’ve seen anyway. Might account for a lot of the wine too.

        I’m not opposed to the nuns taking in a lot to make up for labor but doubling their caloric intake would be pretty extreme.

      • I obviously should have checked the original source, then I’d be able to answer some of these questions! (Though, you know, I provided the reference, you could too :-) )

        From what I know of monastic rules, meat was definitely deprecated; it would be allowed for the sick or for infants but otherwise was strictly for special occasions. Completely forbidding it would be rare, however, which makes me think that what we’ve got here is very strictly the basic allowance, and there might be a lot of irregular extras.

        No eggs is very weird though, you’re right. I don’t have a guess for that.

  4. Actually zero meat is not that uncommon in the monasteries. A vegan diet would have been another matter entirely. Cheese did indeed indicate access to livestock, but I don’t think that we can assume that the livestock were also a meat source for them. I am intrigued by the absence of eggs however, being that they were a cheap source of quality protein. Eggs turn up in the documents I’m reading- including paying one’s taxes in eggs. (Now _that’s_ poor!) Why are they absent here?

  5. Is the assumption that all of this food was intended to be consumed only by the inhabitants of the nunnery? Surely some of it would have been distributed as alms to the poor.

    • That may well be the case! The Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie make it sound as if almost all poor relief would be done with bread, so that bread may well have had other destinations, but if so it’s still strange that it’s allocated per nun.

      This text has dodgy preservation, of course, but it’s hard to say which direction you’d want to fake it in if you were faking it. Number of nuns, surely, rather than making your nuns greedy, and that does seem to have happened already.

  6. highlyeccentric

    Oooh, fascinating! My renaissance history teacher in first year showed us calculations for feast and fast days in, I think, a 15th century Cistertain monastery – I remember being shocked by the sheer *volume* apparently consumed, although I couldn’t speak in hindsight for the accuracy of the sources.

    If this document was intended to be the food rendered by estates to the nunnery, I’m sure the nuns themselves would’ve kept livestock and perhaps grown fruits and vegetables. The maintenance of which would’ve burnt up more calories for them, too!

    I also wonder what the basis of the calorie count for the wine is; I don’t know much about the continuity of winemaking practices, but did your source try to work out what the value of the contemporary food was, or swap in for modern equivalents? That could affect cheese, as well.

    • If this document was intended to be the food rendered by estates to the nunnery, I’m sure the nuns themselves would’ve kept livestock and perhaps grown fruits and vegetables. The maintenance of which would’ve burnt up more calories for them, too!

      Oh I feel stupid now! That’s it, of course, isn’t it, this is what they want in, not all of what they’re eating. I think that’s almost certain to be the answer.

      • highlyeccentric

        :D Which means they’re eating even MORE calories, but yes, probably a more rounded diet – although in winter they’d be down to stored grain and vegetables, I assume. And fruit cake. Christmas cake is a vital defence against scurvy!

        • Um, no. Fruitcake like we have during the holidays is relatively late in development. Basically you have to be able to candy that fruit to preserve it- which requires large quantities of sugar- something that was not common until the 16th century. Something like a fruitcake pops up occasionally in earlier texts, but basically as subtleties or ultra luxury dishes. I haven’t found them tied to Christmas (though there is one traditionally served at 12th night in the Renaissance). And candied fruit is not a remedy for scurvy.

          I’m fairly certain that the Carolingians had dried fruits available. And many things could be kept in a cold cellar: root vegetables, such a carrots, turnips, onions, cabbages, maybe beets, possibly fennel bulbs, and some fruit, such as apples and pears. Nuts of course keep well.

          How available citrus fruit might have been to the Franks is something I’ve not been able to find. Anthimus doesn’t mention them, and they haven’t popped up in any of the capitularies I’ve been reading. I suspect that if they did, they were a novelty luxury item.

          I’ve not been able to find much about baked goods, except to not that barley seems to have been the most common grain used in the Carolingian diet, with wheat being the luxury food.

          This year I held two dinner parties, one for 11, the other for 10, serving only foods that would have been available to a Carolingian cook, adjusted for the seasons. Both went well, though I have to note that modern people think there must be dessert, and I have not yet come up with something that I am satisfied with that fits the bill. Spiced apples in pastry had to do.

          And we went through enormous amounts of wine…

          • highlyeccentric

            … my undergraduate supervisor mislead me on the matter of cake!

            Now I wonder if he was deliberately stringing me along. Sometimes it’s very very hard to tell if he’s joking or not.

            • They had cake- it just didn’t look anything like the cake we have now. For one thing, modern cakes take baking powder or baking soda, depending on the recipe- and neither was available then. ‘Cakes’ are generally kind of lumpy cookies- soft cookies.

              There were breads with fruit in them, like the modern stollen and panettone. But anything like that nasty stuff that ends up re-gifted because you hate it and can’t bring yourself to eat it even if Auntie Mildred made it? Nope.

  7. Pingback: Women, girls and the female of the species « On boundaries

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