Monday, September 25, 2006

Why eat meat? An entrance through Medieval Christianity

Years 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)


Anonymous said...

Whereas modern ethical vegetarianism/veganism rejects meat (as in mass rearing of cattle) as an environmental evil reflecting the greed and economic dominance of first world consumers. Still underpinning both perhaps (?) is the idea of holy SUFFICIENCY, natural balance, and the equal right of all souls to life. n50

J J Cohen said...

The Church designates meat-eating a pleasure and requires participation in it or, at the least, requires abstention from it as from a pleasure.

The fruit of the sea typically appears on the Christian plate when the meat is temporarily banished. Is the eating of fish not pleasure-giving in the way that the eating of meat is? Why should fish be allowed outside this economy of pleasure?

Karl Steel said...

I'd say that the medieval Christian, as well as the heresies that I know, avoided meat for reasons that had nothing to do with respect for the lives of nonhuman animals.

This isn't to say that there's no call to respect animals themselves in the West before the animal rights movement. Book III of Porphyry's On Abstinence from Killing Animals argues that:

"Greeks do not understand Indian, nor do those brought up on Attic understand Scythian or Thracian or Syrian: the sound that each makes strikes the others like the calling of cranes"(81) Therefore "it is absurd to judge rationality or non-rationality by whether speech is or is not easy to understand, or by silence or voice. That way one would also say that the god who is above all, and the other gods, lack logos because they do not speak" (83)

And gradually, he attempts to prove that nonhuman animals have logos and therefore merit justice. It's a thrilling argument, but one, I think, that has no purchase for millennia afterwards.

I've also observed that although it could have been a conduit for vegetarian thinking in the Middle Ages, Ovid Met. XV (the reincarnation chapter) tended not to be made much of in the medieval commentaries that I've read (have my made my way entirely through Ovide Moralise? Someday). Granted, the commentaries focus on narrative, and XV is largely non-narrative: but, still, the commentaries seem simply not to have known what to make of it.

Now, my own approach to food is that combating environmental damage, greed, and the economic dominance of 1st-world consumers demands that we limit our consumption of oil as much as we can. Cutting out meat isn't the best approach to that, necessarily. Eating locally is. If I'm eating a banana in Brooklyn, it strikes me that the transportation requirements for that fruit--oil to move it 1/4 of the way around the world to me and to keep it cool the whole way--is finally good for all the organizations I hate. The UK seems to be miles ahead of the US in these matters, but even in the US you can do some good by shopping at farmers' markets or joining a CSA. Of course I'm not a constant follower of my own advice, but don't let that deter you!



A few points, which I think I'll draw together into something coherent for a post at some point:

* The penitentials tend to set down different rules for fish than for what they identify as meat because, as the Penitential of Theodore says, "Pisces autem licet comedere quia alterius naturae sunt" (Fish are fine for eating because they're of another nature);

* Christ's example: because he ate roasted fish after his resurrection (Luke 24: 42-43), Christians can eat fish as still be holy;

* Because of this divine meal, fish probably--and I would need to do more research or at least thinking on this--are marked as a food of abstinence, regardless of what pleasure people might actually take from them. I can imagine that eating only fish and taking great pleasure in it would be a kind of perversion (see, in the Plinian races, the fish-eaters: perhaps);

* Evidence for the above: foods of strength and power are mammals and, later, certain fowl. In the Chanson de Guillaume, William renews his flagging spirits by eating an enormous meal of boar, bread, and partridge: no fish. Einhard records (promotes?) Charlemagne's love for meat. From the Alphabet of Tales, #422: "And he 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." I could go on (I can't go on, I'll go on: but some other time).

N50 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
J J Cohen said...

It's funny, though, because fish can certainly be a source of alimentary pleasure, and its consumption a spur to conviviality (i.e., it isn't necessarily an austere food, as you might expect through its lenten employment and Christological resonance). Take, for example, the Life of St Cuthbert, when the saint and a companion are wandering in the country. An eagle drops a big fish down to them to eat. Cuthbert orders his companion to slice the gift in two so that the eagle will have a share. They bring the rest to a local village, where a family boils the remainder and the group experiences "a most enjoyable meal" (sorry, I don't have the Latin at hand). Happy and full, they praise God for his bounty and continue on their merry way.

Speaking of environmentalism/love of earth/make veggie burgers not bacon/etc., Cuthbert has a fairly close relationship with animal companions. There's a great scene when he is forced to take shelter in an abandoned shepherd's hut and finds some divinely sent food hidden in its roof: warm bread and meat wrapped in cloth. He breaks the loaf in half and shares it with his horse.

N50 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
N50 said...

Sorry Karl, my Brevity misexplained me.

Environmental vegetarianism (and I have this only on the authority of younger kin) is not about wanting to be kind to animals. The argument goes that feeding grain to cattle is a waste of agricultural products from land that would be better used raising corn for human consumption. Reducing beef production would thus solve World Hunger. Vegetable sources of protein, etc, are more ‘efficient’.

This seems to me to be quite Malthusian in tone – following M’s idea about the natural limits on achieving a balance between population growth and agricultural output. But then (as ‘eny fule noes’) the Reverend Malthus’s conceptual framework was both Christian and traditional. The related idea that all workers should only consume that which is sufficient to their needs is all deeply ‘medievalist’ I think (see Epstein on medieval wages and the just price) – as is the notion that all human souls have an equal right to life.

And so of course you are quite right about oil. The same enthusiastic young people refuse to drive, never buy new possessions (everything is recycled from charity shops and jumble sales) and never travel by air. They aspire to growing as much as possible in their back yards and avoid consuming air miles in anything they do purchase. They are quite a lot to live up to (and I never do).

Occasionally these ideas do even manifest itself as a conscious form of medievalism; the allegedly more sustainable practices of medieval farmers are sometimes cited by environmental economists as outstanding role models for future sustainable development.

Note: apolgies for deleted posts - still finding my way on this site.

Eileen Joy said...

I think what I find most fascinating about Karl's post is the refusal of the Cathars to eat meat altogether since, in their view, it was the product of coitus and therefore "unclean." Yet another instance of the dangerous denial [and even denigration--moral and otherwise] of the body [animal or otherwise]. The Cathars' very existence depended on being housed in bodies produced, also, by coitus. They must have found that difficult [haha]. So much of early religion in the West is predicated upon the idea that the body is always "the wrong place to be" [and yet, it was difficult to imagine the Resurrection without the body; Bynum's "Resurrection and the Body" beautifully illustrates this, and also points to all the ways in which "self" and "body" could not be imagined apart from each other while, at the same time, "body" was always, at least for the Christian, not supposed to be anything more than a corruptible & temporary residence. In my own work lately, I've been thinking a lot about all of the ways--mainly in the Western tradition--both religion & philosophy aim at a kind of bodily detachment, whether through asceticism or a certain type of "rational" [as opposed to "emotional"] thinking, and what the "human" costs have been as a result.

Karl Steel said...

Hit and run comment. What I find fascinating about the Cathar (or supposed Cathar) repudiation of meat is that their disgust is as much a repudiation of pleasure as Orthodox asceticism. It's just--how much meaning in that "just"!--that they are rejecting rather than chosing to forgo a divine gift. Instead of the "no thanks, I couldn't eat another bite" of a good guest, it the "yuch" of our inner toddler.

I love that "body as the wrong place to be." Such a sharp way to put it.

Some more on bodies. The one place I thought The Spectral Jew nodded was--iirc, if I'm being fair--its attention to the body only as feminine. Certainly Christians derided Jews for a hermeneutic weighed down by the body, and Christian misogyny (hardly limited to the Middle Ages) derided women for being too corporeal. Nevertheless, as Bynum as well as Philip Lyndon Reynold's excellent Food and the Body: Some Peculiar Questions in High Medieval Theology show us, that exact body would be resurrected in its entirety, either into the immutable perfection of Paradise or the equally immutable perfection of suffering in Hell. The De Contemptu Mundi tradition counters the perfectable body to a degree, as, do of course misogyny and other nasty traditions. But, again, they do not scorn the body but rather the flux in which sin trapped the body. These traditions hate the bad bodies they imagine marked by weakness.

Of course the question is whether the hatred of flux is in fact hatred of the body disguised, since what can a body be but flux?!

N50: the UK is indeed miles ahead of the US on these issues. Thanks for the clarification, and consider my admiration extended to your native informants.


JJC: more to say later. I'm familiar with the Cuthbert and still trying to figure out what to do with him. The stories of Celtic saints and their animal companions (or, rarely, victims) are legion (Bridget and her pig, etc.). You might want to look at St Giles, too, as he was suckled by a deer. Lydgate has a version of the legend. Of course.

Karl Steel said...

Yes, yes, I know that Cuthbert's not quite a "Celtic saint."

But the animal stories sure as heck are Celticy, yeah?

J J Cohen said...

Celticy, I like that!

I might post on Cuthbert later in the week. He's interesting, in that -- though racially/culturally English [whatever that means] his monastic training was at a British monastery that was disbanded for its non-Roman (and therefore non-Anglocentric) orientation, and he went on to be a bishop and abbot at Irish-founded Lindisfarne, and was also a Celticy kind of hermit at Farne. Plus, animals were his servants (I wish he'd had a dog [Dogbert] or cat [Catbert]).

Karl Steel said...

Isn't Horsebert enough?

(hint: an excellent name for Kid #3 if it ever should arrive through hell and high water)