Why eat meat? An entrance through Medieval Christianity

UntitledYears ago my focus was meat. I have a lot of material left over from that period that I mean to put together into something someday. As a start on that project and as a belated response, in part, to a post over here, I give you this, an introduction.

With nearly a third of the Christian year eventually given over to the fast days, it is unsurprising that reform or heretical movements often expressed themselves through the irregular eating of meat.Fifteenth-century Norwich heretics declared that anyone could eat meat regardless of whether it was Lent, Friday, or an “Ember Day.” The bellicose indifference of their furtive heretical feasts was bad enough, but they hardly compare to the enormities of the twelfth-century heresiarch Peter of Bruys, who, as Peter the Venerable reports (PL 189: 771C), went so far as to roast meat on a pile of disassembled crucifixes on Good Friday. The Cathars, like the Norwich Lollards, also opted out of the Christian cycle of eating, in their case, notoriously, by refusing meat altogether; for, regardless of what the people accused of belonging to this group practiced, they were routinely derided (at least!) for scorning any food derived from coitus, that is, animal flesh. The monk Eckbert of Schönau assailed these heretics in Cologne in 1163:

It is quite extraordinary that when the Lord, the creator of all things, allowed men to eat flesh, he ignored your “sacred reason,”namely that because all meat is born from coitus, everyone who eats meat becomes unclean. Alas that he didn’t have any Cathar about who could have whispered this wisdom to him in his ear in that hour when he gave Noah and his sons the power to eat flesh!
(PL 195: 37A-B; for another picture of their beliefs, see a sermon by the twelfth-century canon Raoul Ardens, PL 155: 2011A: as he reports, they are “condemners of meat and marriage. They say that it is as shameful to take a wife as it is to marry one’s mother or daughter. They also condemn the Old Testament. They receive certain parts of the New and reject other parts. And what is worse, they preach that there are two authors of things, believing God the author of invisible things and the Devil the author of visible things”: hence Eckbert’s interjection of “Dominus creator omnium rerum”).

Ekbert’s scorn no doubt masks – or, just as well, signals – his nervousness at the contiguity of heretical and devout diets. How to tell friend from foe, virtue from heretical vice? No wonder, then, that an eleventh-century sermon reports that Saint Martin intervened in the executions of heretics, not out of sympathy for heretics, but out of the worry of justice misapplied: many Christians unnecessarily suffered during a time when many were identified, and slain, as dualist heretics merely because of the pallor of their skin. Ethnic profiling, or the Khmer Rouge’s purge of intellectuals.

These anxieties call to mind, necessarily, 1 Timothy 4:1-5 and, also, an early great crisis of dualism in the Christian church, a crisis on which, indeed, much of this later material drew to give voice, and shape, to its own anxieties and solutions. The early fourth-century Council of Ancyra (now Ankara) largely concerned the readmission of lapsed Christians into the church. Its fourteenth canon reads,

Those who are in clerical orders or priests or serve the church and abstain from meat should at least taste of it and then, if they wish, they may abstain from eating it. If they judge this to be so abhorrent that they decide not to eat vegetables cooked with meat, inasmuch as they have not obeyed, expel them from the rule in which they had been ordained to serve.

This canon, translated into Latin and circulated in the Western church with the others, made heretics known by their refusal to touch meat or at least vegetables cooked with meat (presumably as some kind of pottage), while the professional religious who wished to make their bona fides known to the community of the faithful could engage in a meatless ascetic diet only so long as they showed that this diet overlaid one as potentially carnivorous as that of their fellow Christians. In short, because no religious could eat a diet entirely free from meat without inviting charges of dualism (see Raoul Ardens, above), membership in the community of the faithful required the death of animals. But just as surely, later Christianity required that Christians abstain from the pleasures of carnivorousness on certain days.

Some preliminary theses, then: The Church designates meat-eating a pleasure and requires participation in it or, at the least, requires abstention from it as from a pleasure. Disgust for meat is the beginning of heresy just as surely as is careless indifference to its importance. As Eckbert claimed, the Cathars “shun all flesh…but not for the same reason as monks and others living spiritually abstain from it” (PL 195: 14C-D). Perhaps.

Stay tuned for a future post if I can get around to writing it. I’ll talk about Francis of Assisi’s Christmas wish for walls made of meat. And perhaps the hairy John Chrysostom.

Tanner, Norman, ed. Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich, 1428-31. Camden Fourth Series 20. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.
Turner, Cuthbert, ed. Ecclesiae occidentalis monumenta iuris antiquissima: canonum et conciliorum Graecorum interpretationes Latinae. Oxford: Clarendon, 1907. Vol. 2, Part I, 86s.

(minor edits to correct sleepy-headed solecisms and typos)