Drunk Monks of the Public Domain
Medieval monasteries conjure the image of brown robes and solemn rituals. But the reality wasn’t all worship and sinless living. Let’s talk about drunk monks.
Time For God… and Sin
Silent monks walk stone hallways, amongst threadbare tapestries and dusty books. Within the abbey, a fraternal order dedicates their lives to worship, theological study and sinless living. The brotherhood remains cloistered from the horrors of medieval and Renaissance life. Here they have the time to focus upon Godly pursuits.
Unfortunately, many monks appear to have spent their time on ungodly pursuits as well. Gluttony, alcoholism, and lust are commonly depicted in medieval and early modern illustrations and paintings of monks. Monks are shown gambling, visiting brothels, seducing nuns and engaging in homosexual relations.
It’s true that many of the images were designed to damage the church’s reputation. The general public lived in starvation and squalor, and was understandably envious of the comfortable living of monks. However, there is also some truth to the imagery as well. Unsurprisingly, clergymen didn’t always control their desires of the flesh.
The Catholic church took allegations of corruption within the clergy seriously and conducted regular investigations. Monks were held to high standards, and not only to prevent God’s wrath. High standards also protected the church’s image. In the event monks were found guilty of corruption, they were punished in a variety of ways. Punishments ranged from shaming sentences and forced ritual fasting to prison or excommunication.
There is some truth to the trope of the happy drunk monk. In medieval Europe the water was often unhygienic. It has been written that everyone, from toddlers to the elderly drank beer. While it’s likely that on occasional feast days this was true, most people would have not been able to afford drinking beer as a daily water replacement.
This was not the case though within monasteries. Monks had the time, knowledge and financing to develop breweries. Monastery brewing in the middle ages became such a big business that often monasteries often contained multiple breweries! For instance, different beers might be produced for travelers and customers, the poor, and the monks themselves. Surrounded by beer as they were, it’s no surprise that even the most pious monk was day drinking.
Monks also ate a lot. Monks came from wealthy families and were accustomed to a surplus of food especially compared to the impoverished parishioners in their communities. Religious orders had food restrictions, such as a single meal a day, or a ban upon the flesh of quadrupeds (four-legged animals). However, this was no match for human inventiveness and greed. Monks discovered loopholes within the rules and feasted upon birds (two-legs) even on meat-less days. For example, they even classified a particular bird as a plant (see our post on Barnacle Geese)!
Consequently, monks packed on the pounds. Exercise within monastic life was nonexistent and monks generally abstained from manual labor in order to have more time for religious study. This led to obesity and many monks suffered from diabetes, strokes and heart failures.
So much for a life of purity and closeness to God.
On the positive side we’ve been working on some exciting images of monks and other religious images lately. Check it all out here.