Medieval monks may have been more gluttonous than godly. Most of the paintings and literature of the time portray them as fat, almost obese. But was that really the case? University College London archaeologist Philippa Patrick decided to find out.
She examined 100 skeletons from the 11th to the 16th centuries from three abbeys in the vicinity of London. She then compared the monks’ remains with those of 200 secular Londoners of similar ages. Not only did the monks have higher rates of thickened bones and certain patterns of ossification that are hallmarks of the severely obese, but they also showed higher rates of arthritis and other weight-related joint problems. All in all, Patrick estimates, the monks were more than five times as likely to be overweight as contemporary merchants and courtiers.
Patrick then enlisted the help of a historian, who used written records of menus and food shopping lists to calculate the average monk’s diet—a staggering 6,000 calories a day. Even during fasting periods, a monk’s daily intake topped 4,000 calories. The monks’ abundant eating often outraged those on the outside, but inside the abbey it probably helped keep the peace, Patrick suggests. “Abbeys were highly political places; there are numerous records of head abbots being overthrown for all sorts of reasons,” she says. “I suspect that food was one of the few pleasures allowed in the monasteries, so if it wasn’t good and plentiful, there could be a lot of unrest in the ranks.”