Appetites are not to be trusted, that is for sure. Most of us have hunger for food beyond any immediate energy requirements, an evolutionary response to the lifestyle of nomad hunter-gatherers for whom it is advantageous to accumulate surplus calories when the opportunity arises, to be stored in the body as fat. The advent of agriculture c.10,000 BCE, however, disrupted the nomadic rhythm as upper classes came to enjoy year-round abundance – a state of affairs now general in the West.

In parallel with this development, Europeans have since antiquity sought to reconcile the selfish call of their own bodies for more with a societal need for a fair distribution of scarce food. There also emerged a distinct philosophy concerning the control of bodily appetites; the religious symbolism of food became deeply embedded in our culture.

St. Augustine of Hippo (d.430 CE) provides an archetypal insight into the moral confusion wrought by appetite in the era of agriculture in his autobiographical Confessions. Augustine acknowledges he must eat for the sake of his health but is wary of the ‘dangerous pleasure’ he draws from it: ‘it is difficult to discern whether the needed care of my body is asking for sustenance or whether a deceitful voluptuousness of greed is trying to seduce me’. For Augustine, all bodily appetites are indicative of the ‘fallen’ state of Man, a form of cupiditas, ‘Ardent desire, inordinate longing or lust; covetousness’ (OED).

In an era where an obesity epidemic and unabashed gastronomic celebration are joined by fetishised restraint and under-eating pathologies it is worth investigating the cultural inheritance of European Christianity.

Religious Ordinances

All major religions have rules pertaining to appetites. Early Christian thinkers such as St. Paul (d.c.67 CE), synthesising Hellenic and Judaic ideas, conceived a dualistic view of body and mind in which the former was subordinate to the latter. Bodily cravings were to be resisted whenever possible: sex was allowed only for procreation, food for survival and alcohol for ceremonial purposes. Holiness was equated with a denial of ephemeral earthly pleasures. Corporeal deprivation and even suffering could be lodged in a celestial account that would repay the keen interest of paradise for eternity.

Moral censure for excessive consumption had more than a theological basis. The dietary rules of a religion can be traced to the environment in which it is framed. Thus Marvin Harris (1998) interprets Biblical (Lev. 11.24) and Koranic (Holy Koran 2.168) injunctions against pork- eating as practical responses to farming conditions in the un-forested and arid Middle East. Similarly, Christian ideas on dietetics may be traced to an egalitarian response to recurring shortage, while Lent, the season of sustained fasting, dovetails neatly with seasonal fluctuation, leading Hermann Pleij (1998) to observe that ‘if the Church had not required a period of fasting at Lent, it would have had to be invented’.

The availability of food was a source of anxiety for the bulk of the population under the Roman Empire. Successive emperors tamed a restive populace by bestowing free grain, the main component of the proverbial pan et circe. In these circumstances signs of excessive feasting by the upper classes could be a torment to starving plebeians. The Roman writer Seneca (d.65 CE) was appalled by his decadent contemporaries who would ‘vomit in order to eat, and eat in order to vomit’ and bemoaned the wastefulness of ‘banquets for which they ransack the whole world’. Romanised Christianity would absorb a Stoic disregard for luxury.

So St. Paul writes of enemies of the cross whose end is ‘destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things’ (Phil. 3.18-19). Later, Adam’s eating of the apple was interpreted by the Fathers as an act of greed. Hence a pious Christian might seek to expiate Adam’s original sin, resident in all, even to the point of starvation.

Pedagogue of the Body

As observed, appetite for food has an elastic quality, stretching beyond what one may actually require in the short term. Moreover, what is sufficient for any individual on a given day will fluctuate depending on activity and metabolism. As a demonstration of piety, early Christians promoted a way of life in which hunger was controlled to a point where practitioners would consume less than was sufficient for normal levels of activity, but suited to a life of meditation and prayer. Mortification of the body would bring celestial bliss.

Those great exemplars of self-abnegation, the Desert Fathers, lived in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries CE. In their writings denial of appetite was encouraged not only as beneficial in itself but also as a means of suppressing other bodily urges, in particular sexual desire. Evagrius Ponticus (d.c.399 CE) recommends fasting in impassioned terms as:

‘the bit of the belly, the whip of insatiability, the stable of moderation, the muzzle of voraciousness, renunciation of recreation, prescription of austerity, chastisement of idle thoughts, eye of vigils, the dissipation of burning desire, pedagogue of the body, defence tower of [ascetic] labour, fortification of character, restraint of lifestyle and repression of passions, mortification of the [bodily] members, revival of the soul’s life, imitation of the resurrection, the society of sanctification’.

This approach was grounded in the best scientific knowledge of the time. Teresa Shaw [1998] has shown the extent to which these early monks, practising an eremitic (solitary) form of monasticism, were influenced by the medicinal theories of Galen (d.c.199 CE), who viewed the four humours of which humans were said to be composed (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm) as products of digestion. He divided foods into those that were ‘hot’, like meat, and ‘cold’, like fruit. Diet would dictate the functioning of body and mind he argued.

Galen had argued that the avoidance of certain foods would dry out the humours relating to sexual desire. The ensuing listlessness of half- starvation would keep what was referred to as ‘the demon porneia’ at bay. Thus St. Jerome viewed fasting as a ‘primary and effective weapon against sexual desire’. Shaw reveals that modern studies on the effects of starvation on sexual desire vindicate the monks’ approach. Two appetites were now dealt with simultaneously. To this we can add a third, the intoxicating effects of alcohol, then undifferentiated from food.

Deadly Sins

Pope Gregory I (d.c.604 CE) created the most lasting definition of gluttony when he laid down the seven ‘deadly’ or ‘cardinal’ sins. Building on St. Paul’s condemnation of those who treated their bellies as ‘God’, his taxonomy defined that sin as more than merely eating too much. For Gregory, this form of sinfulness resides in the eater’s state of mind as much as his actions:

‘the glutton eats before he is hungry and continues to eat when he is no longer hungry; he craves costly and gratuitously sophisticated dishes; he eats too much and with excessive eagerness; he seeks not sustenance, but pleasure; he becomes the slave of his stomach and his palate.’

As with the elements of a criminal offence, the sin required a guilty mind (mens rea) contemplating the food as well as the guilty act (actus reus) of eating it. Gregory also attacks the conspiratorial idealisation of the next meal, the province of the contemporary gastronome who eats ‘before he is hungry’ or even ‘when he is no longer hungry’.

Gregory’s formulation does, however, permit ‘eagerness’ for food, as with other appetites, as long as it not excessive. This is perhaps in recognition of the human impulse toward survival. For Gregory, if Christendom was to obey the Biblical injunction ‘to go forth and multiply’, it could not fully embrace the extreme asceticism of the Desert Fathers.

We may discern a slightly more tolerant line emerging in the writings of the greatest theologian of the high medieval church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The ‘Angelic Doctor’ still regards gluttony as a mortal sin but, crucially, he also says that it ‘was not the greatest sin, for it is about matters connected with the nourishment of the body’. He defines it as eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly and too daintily. We may note that, while he agrees with Gregory on the need for restraint, Aquinas perhaps

implies that it is permissible to eat expensively, daintily or eagerly. This hardly amounts to a gluttons’ charter but elites might enjoy their often stupendous feasts while performing the necessary fasting to assuage their consciences. Aquinas was simply advising them to curb their excesses. An appetite for food was necessary; as Aquinas says: ‘we understand human life [vita hominis] to be a good to be served and preserved’ (Finnis, 1998).

While in our age we might be aware of the disparity between the luxury of our western culture and the poverty of remote regions such as famine- stricken parts of Africa, in the Middle Ages the juxtaposition of feast and famine was far closer to home. Lucile F. Newman et al tell us in Hunger in History (1990) that ‘Europe’s population by the late thirteenth century had reached a stunning size, and famines were widespread and recurrent’. In such an era over-indulgence and excessive enjoyment of food could be considered cruel, and spark widespread criticism from ecclesiastics and writers. Thus in Dante’s Inferno (c.1300), those who have indulged in a life of gluttony are punished with excruciating and eternal hunger and thirst.

It was, of course, apparent that fasting too vigorously could be fatal, and there are records from church councils condemning those enthusiastic ascetics who refused to ease their abstinence, even on Sundays. But the ascetic ideal took firm root, and the early exemplars could be emulated without risk to one’s health on the many days of fasting which the Church demanded. So, according to Pleij, ‘an overwhelming amount of attention was paid to gluttony (including addiction to drink) in late medieval and early modern society’, with most people believing that it was ‘the mother of all sins’. Unsurprisingly, it tended to be well-fed elites who performed their fasting duties most prominently.

Monastic Reform and Reaction

Over the course of the Middle Ages monasticism underwent some significant modifications. The Rule of St. Benedict (d.547) imposed less stringent demands on its followers than the asceticism of the Desert Fathers. The daily regimen practised by monks in this cenobitic (communitarian) setting comprised, apart from fast days, of two meals a day each offering a choice between two dishes plus a supplement of fresh vegetables and an allotment of about five hundred grams of bread. These meals were not necessarily sophisticated but by comparison with the extreme restraint of the Desert Fathers they were positively luxurious. Indeed, monasteries became key centres of innovation in food and drink, often with large estates on their doorsteps; the over-fed, impious monk became a stock figure of medieval satire.

But the ideal of extreme renunciation advocated by the Desert Fathers, recalled in devotional art, was not so easily expunged from the culture, even if practitioners of the cenobitic form of medieval monasticism were partial to two square meals a day. The movement of mendicant friars inspired by St. Francis of Assisi (d.1226) can be seen as a reactionary throwback to this earlier devotion. However, as Caroline Walker Bynum (1987) shows, abstemiousness to the point of starvation was practised in disproportionate numbers by women in this era. St. Catherine of Siena (d.1380) is probably the most famous of this new wave of ascetics: by the end of her days she survived merely on the Sunday Eucharist, one of at least thirty cases of women who were reputed to subsist on that basis. In one disturbing episode she went so far as to consume the pus from the cancerous breast of a dying woman in order to display her disregard for anything pleasurable to the palette.

Bynum dismisses the argument that self-starvation among women was in some sense biological, as opposed to cultural, by pointing out that the ‘evidence we have indicates that extended abstinence was almost exclusively a male phenomenon in early Christianity and a female phenomenon in the High Middle Ages’. She argues instead that, in a culture in which women cooked and served while men ate, ‘it was the resource they controlled’; thus, through fasting ‘women renounced and distributed the one resource that was theirs’. Perhaps women were also reacting to a philosophical schema originating in the depiction of the Garden of Eden which identified them with an irrational body, best subjected to the rational control of their more cerebral husbands. So St. Paul says: ‘I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband’ (1 Cor. 11.3), and that ‘the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says’ (1 Cor. 14.34). By asserting an absolute power over their bodies, women could attain a form of liberation, albeit at great cost.

Moreover, just as some among the Desert Fathers limited themselves to the weekly consumption of the Sunday Eucharist, female ascetics in this period connected control of their sexual desire with their consumption of food, as Galenic ideas continued to hold sway in Europe until the seventeenth century. As Bynum shows, medieval hagiographers point out explicitly that the menstruation of saintly women ceases under the strain of their abstinence: ‘Food abstinence was connected with chastity and greed with sexual desire’.

Back to the Present

In reaction to recurring shortage and unequal access to food resources, it is unsurprising that Christianity should develop a theology which regarded gluttonous behaviour as immoral. Eating beyond one’s needs and with excessive pleasure showed a disdain for one’s fellow man, quite contrary to Jesus’s message to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Mark 12.31). A community only survives if some regard is paid to the welfare of others, and as inheritors of the Roman Empire, the leaders of early Christendom were conscious of the idea of a common civilisation. The extreme asceticism of the Desert Fathers was a radical theological interpretation of the dualistic philosophy separating rational mind from bestial body: any bodily satisfaction was essentially sinful. Pope Gregory’s articulation of this sin was, however, a more nuanced response, moving it beyond the physical process of eating into the realm of the contemplative mind: a pious Christian could legitimately view food as sustenance while being careful to avoid drawing pleasure from it. This position was then modified by Aquinas who acknowledged eating to be pleasurable but affirmed that gluttony remained a mortal sin.

It is important to note that the Desert Fathers were operating at a time when Christianity was at the persecuted margins of the Roman Empire, before it became the religion of state in the fourth century. Once Christianity was brought within the embrace of empire, public policy ordained that the weakening of the body wrought by starvation could not be a universal aspiration: an army cannot march on an empty stomach. Instead renunciation – the exertion of control by the mind over a recalcitrant body – was confined to the prescribed periods of fasting. However, the symbolic importance of food and eating remained paramount in this period, and the radical solution of complete abstinence from the gluttonous pleasure of all eating retained its appeal. Disproportionately, it was women, on the margins of Christian civilisation, who embarked on enduring fasts. This response, though voiced in a religious idiom, suggests a political opposition to a prevailing philosophical system which cast them as irrational animals.

The contemporary relationship with appetite for food in the West has changed beyond recognition, but the legacy of Christendom endures. Food and our appetite for it are still intimately connected with sex in subtle ways. Further, the link between eating too much and sin, or guilt as it is now generally articulated, can still be detected. There is also fitful discomfort with gastronomic celebration. Finally women, disproportionately, continue to have a troubled relationship with their appetites. All these themes merit further discussion.

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