Soy, Masculinity, Warriors, and Monks: Again, with the Meat

steak2 Some of my favorite blogs have been in a tither over this:

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That’s why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today’s rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products.

– James Rutz, Megashift Ministries

Image credit, appropriately enough, to

The mockery of Rutz at blogs like Crooks and Liars, Pandagon, and Sadly No has been topical, but mine, charissimi, is historical. Rutz’s opinion, despite the scientific veneer he gives it, derives from a longstanding masculinist discourse described in work by Julia Twigg, Carol Adams, Nick Fiddes, and, for the Middle Ages, here and there in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present and Colin Spenser‘s The Heretic’s Feast. Ultimately, the whole complex of these notions has been summed up by one of Derrida’s last coinages, “carno-phallogocentrism,” a word that refers to the violent relationship of humans to nonhuman animals that “institutes what is proper to man,” namely, reason, selfhood, immortal soul, language, and so forth.

Unsurprisingly, the Middle Ages are far from innocent of the connection Derrida saw between meat-eating and human – especially masculine – claims to power. In a formulation that may stand (at least during this post) as a maxim applicable to the whole period and all its cultures, the thirteenth-century dietetic manual by Aldobrandino of Siena declares that “among all the things that provide man with his nutrition, meat provides him with the most. It fattens him and gives him strength” (cf Rush Limbaugh, who once explained that “Vegetarians are a bunch of weaklings who wouldn’t be able to bench press 50 pounds after one of their meals. Ask anyone in the [National Football League]”). In a vita of Columba of Iona, the saint asks a reaper what his customary diet had been when he was a warrior; the reaper recalls, “‘I used to consume a fat ox to my full meal,'” and when presented with an ox, this is what the reaper proceeds to do, in the process showing what it is that a warrior – the quintessential figure of masculine power – should eat. Einhard records Charlemagne’s irritation with his doctors when they compel him to give up the roast meat he seems to have enjoyed almost to the exclusion of all other food: as the Middle English Alphabet of Tales observes, Charlemagne “ete bod littyl brede, bod at ans he wolde ete a quarter of a weddur, or ij hennys, or a guse, or a swyne shulder, or a pacok, or a crane, or a hale hare.” In the Chanson de Guillaume, Girard and William on separate occasions each devour an enormous meal whose centerpiece is an entire shoulder of a boar eaten hot off the spit. Their porcine diet separates them as Christians from the Saracens they battle, but the meal, taken as a whole, also separates them from lesser humans, weak men and women both. While watching Girard eat, William’s wife Guiburc cries out to her husband:

“Par Deu, bel sire, cist est de vostre lin!
Qui si mangue un grant braun porcin,
et a dous traiz beit un cester de vin,
ben dure guere deit rendre a sun veisin,
ne ja vilment ne deit de champ fuir!” (1053-59)
“By God, my good lord, he’s one of your family! Anyone who can eat a great brawn of pork and drink a whole gallon of wine in two draughts will wage a bitter war on his neighbor and never disgrace himself by fleeing the field!” trans. Philip E. Bennett

Still exhausted by battle, Girard then sleeps, but he rises refreshed, calls for his arms, and is made a knight: the meal has done what it was meant to do. Later, after Girard has been killed in battle, and William sulks, despondent at his many military setbacks, he eats a loaf of bread, two roast pasties, and a whole pork brawn, and then tops this off with an entire peacock (1407-32). Once more, Guiburc reminds William that no one could eat like this and not be a great warrior, and this time, the Christian knights finally emerge victorious, fulfilling the promise of their diet.

Monks present a special problem in my catalog of carnivorous masculinity. Ideally, they should have at least avoided the flesh of all quadrupeds, and many of them ostensibly followed Rules that also forbade the flesh of fowl. Yet monks tended to slide towards a diet commensurate not only with the class from which they were drawn – for monks tended to be drawn from the ranks of the elites – but also with the actual power they exercised as monks. Like any elites, monks could be great landowners, political leaders, and even, as indicated in the Gesta Herewardi‘srecord of William the Conqueror’s siege of Ely, able warriors. As much as they may have claimed to be otherworldly, monks, as members of the elite, were more “masculine” than the poor (following the work of Sharon Farmer, Ruth Mazo Karras, and, ultimately, among other theorists, bell hooks). It should come as no surprise, then, that monks turned to masculine diets.

The twelfth-century vitae of Gilbert and Abbot Sampson of Bury St. Edmunds attest to how rarely monks hewed to their ideal alimentary strictures, as Gilbert and Sampson’s abstention from meat merits their biographers’ special admiration: for example, Gilbert “abstained at all times from meat and from any food made with meat except when afflicted by serious illness, and he also avoided eating fish throughout the whole of Lent and Advent, though he would very often eat freely of vegetables, pulses, and similar cheap things.” I can’t help but be reminded of a classic Chris Rock bit about, er, people taking credit for the things they’re supposed to do: ” ‘I ain’t never been to jail.’ Whaddya want? A cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!” Not infrequently, monks drew fine distinctions between meat (carnes), which they refused, and flesh food that didn’t count as meat (carnea), which they allowed themselves. Scorning meals in the common dining room, the refectory, where normal rules applied, monks often ate instead in the sick-ward, where meat was allowed. They had their blood let more frequently than they should have, since meat was allowed to monks who had lost blood, and, eventually, they even established “misericordia,” special rooms set aside just for meat-eating. (I am of course doing violence to the subtleties of monastic history, which has increasingly tended towards precise analysis of local institutions and dispensed with clumsy great narratives of the rise and fall of entire orders. Bear with me, at least, for the purposes of this blog post.)

This dishonest monastic taxonomizing appears in a number of satiric medieval tales. Marie de France tells of a Wolf who vows not to eat meat during Lent. But when he finds a sheep in the woods, he rationalizes breaking his vow by thinking, “mangerai pur un saumun” (I’ll eat it as if it were a salmon). Marie also tells of a likeminded wolf that encounters a pig and asks the pig what it is called. The pig ran through the list of its names – hog, and the like – and finished with porcus, and the wolf, mishearing this as porpoise, ate the pig. This tale should be classed with another tale, in which a wolf, being taught to read, can spell only “lamb” no matter what letters he learns. But there’s more going on, as the wolf’s (mis)knowledge of Latin gives him the power to classify things to his advantage. If we accept that Latin was the most powerful of England’s languages in the twelfth century, this capacity to use Latin to make his food (and by extension his world) whatever he wants it to be is a perhaps a kind of lupine manifestation of masculinity. In another widespread tale, the steward of a traveling bishop can’t find his master any fish on a Friday. The disappointed bishop orders partridges from his innkeeper. When his steward chides him for being no better than a Jew or Saracen, the bishop explains that, given his ability to turn bread into the body of Christ, it is a simple matter for him to turn a bird into the substance of a fish while preserving its visible accidents (nota bene: “Transubstantiation differs from every other substantial conversion in this, that only the substance is converted into another — the accidents remaining the same — just as would be the case if wood were miraculously converted into iron, the substance of the iron remaining hidden under the external appearance of the wood”). In this case, eating a partridge on Friday is a sign of his Christianity and of his possession of a power both to make Christianity bend to his wishes and to reduce his steward to silence.

Invitation: Among the strange things about monastic masculinity is that it notoriously relies upon identifying women as the bearers of bodies and men, especially monks, as having tamed or purified their bodies. But meat is the most bodily of foods. Yet monks certainly don’t feminize themselves by their habitual meaty diets. I can imagine some ways this analysis might go, but my post is already more than long enough. Any of our medievalists want to take a stab at this problem or help me refine my discussions of masculinity? Alternately, you may want to go less medieval and discuss peoples’ responses to your own dietary restrictions, especially if these responses tried to remind you of your proper gender. Lord knows I suffered a lot of those responses in my decade of vegetarianism.


I do know of a letter of English Rabbis to their brethren on the Continent concerning the Barnacle Goose. The Barnacle goose, as readers of Gerald of Wales’ anti-Judaic natural history on this bird know (if only he knew about komodo dragons), was so called because it was thought to hatch from barnacles. Because of this, some Christians argued that the goose was a fish, not a bird, and so suitable eating for Lent (I have a case in my notes from the 15th-century Norwich heresy trials in which someone is accused of Lollardy, which is an English heresy, for eating a barnacle goose on Friday: hardly seems fair). English Jews numbered among the people confounded by this disingenuous taxonomy: could they eat the goose, since it was a shellfish? I seem to remember, as well, some French Jews wondering if they had to slaughter the goose properly, since it wasn’t ‘really’ a bird but perhaps some kind of fruit. You know, like the agnus scythicus, a kind of sheep that hatched from melons.

The answer, from Jacobs, Joseph ed. and trans. The Jews of Angevin England: Documents and Sources. English History by Contemporary Writers. 1893. Israel: Gregg International Publishers, 1969.
Resp. R. Meir of Rothenburg, “Of the question whether geese ‘growing on trees; may be eaten by Jews. My teacher, the Lion [Sir Leon of Paris] told me that he had heard from his father, R. Isaac, that R. Tam [R. Jacob ben Meir, grandson of Rashi, d. 1171] directed that they should be slaughtered after Jewish fashion, and sent this decision to the sons of Angleterre” (54)-while R. Tam allowed them to be eaten.

For more on this fascinating subject (I mean it: I love this stuff. It’s a major reason I’m a medievalist), see
Lugt, Maaike van der. “Animal légendaire et discours savant médiéval: la barnacle dans tous ses etats.” Micrologus 8 (2000) :351-93.

Oh, there’s also this, from Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. The Art of Falconry (De Arte Venandi cum Avibus). Trans. and ed. Casey A. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe. 1943. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1961:

I.23F. “There is, also, a small species known as the barnacle goose, arrayed in motley plumage (it has certain parts white and in others black, circular markings), of whose nesting haunts we have no certain knowledge. There is, however, a curious popular tradition that they spring from dead trees. It is said that in the far north old ships are said to be found in whose rotting hulls a worm is born that develops into the barnacle goose. This goose hangs from the dead wood by its beak until it is old and strong enough to fly. We have made prolonged research into the origin and truth of this legend and even sent special envoys to the North with orders to bring back specimens of those mythical timbers for our investigation. When we examined them we did observe shell-like formations clinging to the rotten wood, but these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting places, invented this explanation” (51-52). – See more at: