Catholic Fasting in France

From the Franks to the
Eighteenth Century


Why were birds considered fish?

Because, according to Genesis, both were created on the same day.

When was bacon fat not meat?

When monks were allowed to use it on "meatless days".

Was cheese allowed on fast days?

Depends on the century.

"The history of a people's customs is only, strictly speaking, the history of its contradictions."

Legrand on Fasting

"It is not surprising that, in a work on the history of French food, Le Grand addresses the issue of Catholic fasting. The distinction between meat (gras, or “fat”) and meager or meatless (maigre, or “lean”) foods was central under the French monarchy; it is referenced all through period recipe books and was enforced by law. What is more surprising is that, rather than devoting a separate chapter to the subject, Le Grand has scattered his comments through four different chapters, sometimes shamelessly digressing from a chapter's main subject to explore the intricacies of this history. The translation offered here combines – with minimal editing for flow – sections from the chapters on “Poultry”, “Eggs, Cheese, Butter and Milk”, “Fish” and “Prepared Dishes” respectively. Taken together, these passages present an unusually concise and reasonably comprehensive overview of the history of Catholic fasting in Old Regime France. Often too, this material is colorful and diverting. Le Grand, though a former Jesuit, shows evident amusement at the contortions of logic some used to eat meat while classifying it as something else. One of the most striking aspects of this complex and shifting history is the diversity of foods – poultry, animal fat, even hash – which were considered acceptable fast foods at different points in Catholic history."

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Some samples from the book

"Anyone who has read a little knows that, for a long time, and since the fourth century, Christians regarded flying creatures and poultry as meager foods; and that as a result they allowed themselves the one like the other without scruple during times of the year when meat is forbidden. They distinguished the flesh of quadrupeds from the flesh of birds; and this gentle error had for them a respectable authority: that of the holy books themselves. Genesis, speaking of Creation, says that, on the fifth day, God commanded the waters to produce fish and the birds who fly on the Earth. This text, misunderstood, served to give the same origin to two such different species of animal; they were supposed as a result to have the same nature, and it was thought one could equally use the one or the other on days of abstinence. (a). Several Church Fathers, St. Basil, St. Ambrose, etc., even authorized this decision by their reasoning.

(a) Alii, says the historian Socrates [born c. 380], ab animatis penitus abstinent; alii ex animantibus pisces solos comedunt. Nonnuli, cum piscibus, etiam avibus vescuntur; ex aquis, ut est apud Moysen, eat quoque conditas esse affirmantes. [“Others completely abstain from living things; others of animals eat only fish. Some, with fish, feed upon birds, which according to Moses were also created from water.”]

In France, it was regarded as an unquestionable principle; even by the most austere Religious Order, among those devoted to a perpetual Lent. At certain times of year, game and poultry were allowed the Monks. St. Columban so fed his people in a moment of shortage. Carnem quadrupedum, à die conversioniis sua usque ad extremum vitae, edere noluit: Jus e pullo compositum sumebat, si aliqua accessisset debilitas, [“For the day of his conversion to the end of his life he would not eat the meat of quadrupeds: if he felt weak, he took chicken broth.”] says the life of St. Benedict of Aniane. One reads in that of St. Eloi that, since his promotion to the Bishopric, he had given up eating meat; but that one day he allowed himself to eat a fowl with a guest who had arrived. Gregory of Tours tells how in eating at Chilperic's table, and he not using meat either, the King told him: Eat this soup; it is for you, it has been made with fowl. Finally in a large number of old lives of Saints, it is said of them, that as a particular mortification, they abstained, not only from meat, but from poultry and two-footed game..."

"Milk and butter, which are allowed us today, even in Lent; eggs which we only use then with a particular permission; finally cheese which we regard as a food of the most severe abstinence, have not always been, either equally allowed, nor equally forbidden. For a long time, these different substances were beyond the rules of ecclesiastical discipline; or rather the Church having not at first decided anything about which foods could be allowed or forbidden on fast days, the Faithful, for several centuries, had on that no other rule of conduct, as Doctor Launoi [Jean de Launoi, 17th c?] shows, than that prescribed for themselves by devotion. Sunt & alia in catholicâ Ecclesiâ instituta vivendi præstantia, says St. Epiphanius [c. 315-403]; nimirum quod alii carnibus prorsus abstineant tam quadrupedum & avium quam piscium, nec non ovis & caseo. Alii quadrupedibus duntaxat; sed avibud ac ceteris vescuntur. Alii etiam ab avibus temperant; ova & pisces retinent; quibus nonnulli etiam abstinent, qui tamen caseum sibi permittunt. Alii verò caseo non utuntur. Præterea quidam a pane abstinent; quidam ab arborum fructibus, & coctis omnibus.

'The Catholic Faithful follow, in their way of living, several commendable regimes; because some abstain not only from the flesh of quadrupeds, of birds, and of fish, but also from eggs and cheese; others give up only quadrupeds, and allow themselves birds and all other foods. Some eat no flying creatures; but they eat eggs, and fish. Others forbid themselves eggs. There are those who only use fish; there are those who, abstaining from fish, eat cheese, of which others deprive themselves. Finally, some reject bread; and others, the fruits of trees, as well as all cooked foods.'..."

Table of Contents

  • About Le Grand d'Aussy's Work
  • About This Translation
  • Le Grand on Fasting
    • Complementary facts

  • Poultry
    • Poultry considered as meatless
  • Milk, butter, eggs and cheese
  • Fish
    • Rigor with which Lent was observed
    • Saturday abstinence
  • Fat
    • Bacon used on fast days
    • Hash considered meager

Further Reading

About Le Grand's Work

"The current volume has been extracted, translated and retitled from Pierre Jean-Baptiste Le Grand d'Aussy's classic work on French food and drink, which has come down to us with the slightly misleading title of Histoire de la vie privée des Français depuis l’origine de la nation jusqu’à nos jours; that is, “History of the private life of the French from the origin of the nation until our days”. Though Le Grand originally intended to produce such a comprehensive work, in practice he only finished the three volumes on food and drink (first published in 1783). Incomplete as these may be in terms of the overall project, they are almost manically thorough in their examination of the specific subject and have remained, over the centuries, some of the prime sources on the subject. Not only do even modern writers continue to draw on them for key information, more than one writer (in both French and English) has shamelessly copied whole stretches of Le Grand's work, well after it was written, and presented it as their own.

...He is, in a word, not only an informative but a lively and enjoyable writer, but one who, in English, is more often cited than translated at length. The present effort is intended to remedy that, if only in small measure."

All text and translations copyright 2011 Jim Chevallier.
Please do not reproduce or post elsewhere without prior permission.


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