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Chapter 1: Dining with God
Peter the Venerable and the Monks at Cluny, Burgundy, A.D. 1132

O taste and see that the Lord is good.

Psalm 34:8

Peter the Venerable (1092/4-1156), wielding the lizard-crested crosier of his office, led 1,212 monks and 200 priors into the newly completed church of the monastery of Cluny. As abbot of this most powerful order, answerable only to the Pope, he had convoked the general chapter of Cluniac monks from more than a thousand satellite priories and abbeys -- stretching from Italy, Germany, and England to as far as the edges of the Orient -- for this stirring occasion in the year 1132. Together, they marched in a single procession, chanting in unison as they went.

Never, since the abbey's foundation in 909/910, had such an elaborate celebration, with so many participants, been staged. The new church, dubbed Cluny III by twentieth-century archaeologist Kenneth J. Conant, was consecrated with an unprecedented swelling of pride. Construction on the colossal structure, which embodied the order's ripe flowering after nearly two centuries of tending by sage and devout abbots, had begun on 25 October 1088, under the guidance of Saint Hugh (abbot 1049-1109). Although the choir had been used since 1120, and Pope Innocent II had dedicated the sanctuary in 1130, building continued into 1132 before it was ostensibly complete. Situated in southern Burgundy, in the valley of the Grosne, west of the mountains of Mâconnais, it was the largest church in all of Christendom, with a nave 187 meters (614 feet) long and a cupola estimated to have crossed its great transept at a height of 40 meters (131 feet). Soaring octagonal bell towers, visible through the surrounding hills, proclaimed Cluniac ascendancy. Inside the sanctuary, a profusion of florid, almost Gothic carvings of biblical stories and saints entwined within native grapevines enlivened the Romanesque solemnity of massive stone walls and arches.

Life within the abbey unfurled as gracefully as the curling tendrils of her ornamental sculptures. Cluniac monks followed the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-547), as revised by Saint Benedict of Aniane (d. 821), which ritualized every aspect of monastic life, from the hours and order of worship, to the proper way to sleep (in an open row of beds with a candle burning) and personal comportment (walk with bowed head). By the time the first stone of Cluny III was laid, the order had richly embellished Saint Benedict's basic tenets to develop its own intricate culture. The chanting of psalms, originally recited on a single note without inflection, became marked by dramatic passages of ascending and descending movement. So too, the daily rituals spiraled in complexity, which were meticulously recorded in a series of Customaries.

Feast days were the most spectacular Cluniac occasions. From its inception, the Christian faith, with Jesus' blessing of the bread and the wine, itself an act overlaid upon the ancient ritual meal of the Jewish seder, at its core, feasted to mark important anniversaries in the ecclesiastical calendar. A "feast day" might include extra or special foods, such as the pound of special flat cakes Cluniac monks received on their five most important holidays. However, dating from the early Church, fasting, to honor God with the piety of self-denial, was equally a feast-day practice. A diversion from the usual menu was only one of the elements employed at an ecclesiastical feast; appropriate sermons, readings, and music also added to these celebrations.

Nowhere in Christendom were feasts more elegant than at Cluny, renowned for richly embroidered vestments, the glorious singing of antiphons, and the joyful ringing of bells. Colorful banners waved through its processions. Magnificent liturgical plate gleamed in its sanctuary. Sometimes, elaborate liturgical dramas brought the story of Christ's Passion to life as a tableau vivant in the choir. Most awe-inspiring of all, the great jewel-encrusted Corona of Cluny, suspended from the ceiling of the church like a hanging crown, and ceremonially lit with candles reflecting "the flame of crescents from all the facets of her stones," impressed observers as one of the great wonders of the age. Cluniac feasts grew so numerous and complicated that they were broken into six hierarchical classes, each celebrated with commensurate splendor. However, at Cluny, even the days on which no saint was honored abounded with ornate ceremony.

In the musical flow of Cluniac observance, dinner was a rest. For seven hours each day they chanted psalms because the Bible entreated, "Seven times a day I do praise thee because of thy righteous judgments" (Psalm 119:164). Aside from a small breakfast of bread, cheese, and sometimes eggs taken shortly after matins, for most of the year, the monks ate but once daily. Yet this break from the rigorous schedule of chanting, praying, and readings was itself a form of worship, as ritualized as the performance of daily offices.

A monk's adherence to the vow of poverty was shown by the austerity of his diet. Although the sick and elderly in the infirmary were permitted meat, under no other circumstances were the brethren allowed to eat the flesh of "four-footed animals." Abstinence from meat constituted a devotional sacrifice. Saint Benedict, known to be kind but firm, recommended that each table be offered two cooked dishes, "on account of individual infirmities, so that he who for some reason cannot eat of the one may take his meal on the other." A third dish of fresh fruits or vegetables was permitted, when these were in season. The abbot had the power to adapt or alter Saint Benedict's basic recommendations, but the Rule instructed that the good monk should be addicted neither to wine, nor to eating. To take too much pleasure in the food one ate was gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. The Customaries of Ulrich record that under Abbot Hugh monks at Cluny were served a plate of broad beans and a plate of vegetables, accompanied on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by cheese and two eggs and on the other days by either five eggs or fish. Fish, one of the earliest and most universal symbols for Christ, predating the cross as a sign of the baptized on ancient sarcophagi, and whose letters, in Greek, form the initials of the words Jesus/Christ/of God/the Son/Savior, was the centerpiece of the monastic table; eggs and cheese offered variety.

The Cluniac diet, like its art, elegantly mingled Benedictine beliefs with the rich offerings of the Burgundian soil. More than a pound weight of bread, baked from local grain, formed the staple of the monastic diet, but it simultaneously evoked both the sacred wafer of the Eucharist, and the Mystic Mill, symbolizing Christ, into which Moses poured the grain of the Old Testament, which Paul received as the flour of the New Testament. Wine from Cluny's lush vineyards was carefully measured out into flasks, so that each monk received the same amount. In the Church, wine was the blood of Christ; for the monks at Cluny, it was also the soul of their native region. Burgundy had already been exporting wine in barrels to Rome for at least two centuries when Saint Martin of Tours (ca. 316-397) converted the pagans of France to Christianity. The local viticulturists soon adopted him as their patron saint and paid their taxes to the monastery on his feast day, which Cluniacs celebrated with especial import.

Cluny's cooks introduced playful flourishes to the frugal Benedictine menu with mustard and vinegar, whose acidity was deemed suitably ascetic. Long before the start of the Crusades in 1096, Cluny, with its trade ties with Spain, also had access to more exotic tastes such as ginger, pepper, and cinnamon, officially valued for their restorative properties. Such herbs as chervil, grown for medicinal purposes, lent a burst of local freshness to the daily fare. Sweet honey, cheesecakes, and crispellae, fritters made from flour and herbs cooked in oil, were pleasurable treats. Cherries and apples, from the surrounding orchards, graced the Cluniac table, despite the latter's association with Adam's fall from grace.

Even the hours of the meal reflected both the liturgical and agricultural seasons; Saint Benedict ordained, "From holy Easter until Pentecost let the brethren take dinner at the sixth hour and supper in the evening. From Pentecost throughout the summer, unless the monks have work in the fields or the excessive heat of the summer, let them fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, until the ninth hour, on other days let them dine at the sixth hour....From the Ides of September until the beginning of Lent let them always take their dinner at the ninth hour." And so in winter, after the service of None, amidst the fading light of late afternoon, the monks processed single-file past the cloister to the refectory.

Wearing the black robes and cowls of the Cluniac Order, the brethren took their places at benches on either side of rectangular tables. The first form of excommunication for disobedience was revocation of the privilege of dining in the refectory. Offending monks were fed separately, after others had finished. Exclusion, rather than hunger, was the punishment. Community lay at the heart of the Rule, which originated from the premise that monks who lived together, sharing possessions and beliefs, and submitting to the rule of an abbot, remained strong in their devotion.

The abbot, symbolically representing Christ, sat at a "high table" on a dais, to signify his elevated status. Because he was also secular lord over his followers, a magnificent salt cellar stood before him, as at the table of a nobleman. The Rule implored, "Let the Abbot's table always be filled with guests." As Saint Benedict ordained, a separate kitchen prepared a menu befitting the dignity of the abbot and his guests, who, over the course of Cluny's illustrious history, included dukes, kings, emperors, and popes.

Although, with the exception of the abbot, the Rule forbade "distinction of persons at the monastery," by the eleventh century, Cluny was the most aristocratic of abbeys, whose residents were broken into a strict hierarchy. Only professed monks were permitted to dine in the refectory. The lowly conversi (monks who entered the monastery as adults), novices, and those too weak or old to adhere to the strictures of the monastic diet were banned from the premises. Oblate children, given to the monastery by their families in infancy, could enter but had to stand, not sit, throughout the meal.

When the monks were assembled at their tables, the abbot might have been presented with an exquisite bronze aquamanile, an object often made in the form of a lion or a dragon. This ewer held the water with which the abbot would ceremoniously wash his hands. (In spite of their fancy vestments, Cluny's brethren were criticized by generations of abbots for their lack of hygiene. Although monks were shaved on fourteen feast days per year, five essui mains for hand washing were not installed in the cloister until the abbacy of Bertrand de Colombier [1296-1308], who also decreed that the monks wash their faces and hands daily and bathe before Christmas and Easter.) After the hand washing, a prayer acknowledged God as the provider of the food that sustained them.

Pristine white linens, the primary decoration to the medieval table, must have been supremely elegant, perhaps even imported from Damascus. However, even in this rarified abbey, table settings were sparse before the introduction of the dinner plate and fork in Europe. Thick slices of stale bread, known as trenchers, were piled at each place to sop up juices. Fingers served as the primary means to convey food to mouth; spoons, if needed, were shared, even at noble estates. Among the few possessions permitted monks, a cup and a multipurpose knife, worn during every waking hour, could be carried into the refectory for personal use.

Not a word was uttered during the meal, in observance of the vow of silence. Saint Benedict believed that this regulation, especially enforced in the refectory, prevented idle chatter that led to sinful words. The discipline required to maintain this promise manifested obedience and humility, and created an atmosphere of meditative contemplation. By the time of Saint Hugh's abbacy, the vow's importance had been amplified within Cluny's unique culture. An early biography of Saint Odo (abbot 927-942) recorded that one group of monks, who refused to speak even when tortured by their Viking kidnapper, miraculously escaped when God struck down their captor.

To avert the temptation to converse, the Rule specified that everything be passed from one monk to the next. Should a necessity to communicate arise, Saint Benedict commanded this be done "in some audible sign other than speech." The Cluniacs developed their own complex language of hand signals. Berno (abbot 909-927), first abbot of Cluny, began a rudimentary system of gestures, which Saint Odo developed more fully. By the last quarter of the eleventh century, the monks Ulrich and Bernard had compiled a list of the signs in the Customaries, roughly a third of which concerned the meal.

"Because it is customary for bread to be round," the sign for bread was formed by making a circle with the thumb and forefinger and its two adjacent digits. For another variety of bread, "cooked in water and which is better than the bread served on most days," after making the generic signal, the monk placed the palm of one hand over the other, "as if oiling and wetting." By contrast, following the bread sign with a cross over the middle of the palm specified torta, "because bread of this type is generally divided into quarters." "A wave of the hand like a fish in water" signified all fish, while further signs distinguished between trout, pike, salmon, eel, lamprey, and cuttlefish. To call for a low, saucerlike beaker for drinking, Cluniacs would "bend three fingers considerably and hold them upwards." Precious glass drinking vessels could be signaled for by adding to the previous gesture "two fingers around the eyes, to signify the splendor of the glass to the eye."

Throughout the meal, a designated reader cried out Holy Scripture to nourish the soul even as the body was fed. Saint Augustine (354-430) heard the voice of the Almighty say from on high: "I am the food of grown men; grow and thou shalt feed upon Me; nor shall thou convert Me, like the food of thy flesh, into thee, but thou shalt be converted into me." Readers served for a week's time, rotating duties each Sunday. After the Communion Mass, the assembled brethren prayed that the incoming reader would be free from a spirit of pride. In response, the reader intoned three times, "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise."

After the monks had eaten, the almoner supervised the collection of their trenchers, complete with drippings and juices, for distribution as charity to the poor. Though the same practice took place in secular manors, the monastery considered feeding the hungry one of its primary occupations. By the late eleventh century, Ulrich the monk claimed that seventeen thousand poor were fed at Cluny each year, although this figure was probably hyperbole.

The gifts God provided at table were not to be wasted; even this philosophy found ritual expression in Cluny's refectory. Custom dictated that monks meticulously pick up and eat any crumbs left scattered on the table. On his deathbed, one monk had a vision of the devil testifying against him before God because he had let his crumbs fall. Saint Odo, second abbot of Cluny, known for his pious adherence to the Rule, was visited by a miracle as a young monk. Realizing that he had forgotten to pick up his crumbs, he gathered them hastily in his hand and confessed his sin to the abbot. When he opened his palm, the crumbs had turned into pearls.

The horrors that befell those who broke from Saint Benedict's Rule or Cluny's Customaries appeared luridly vivid in the holy days of Cluny's sainted abbots. Saint Odo believed that food would stick in the mouths of monks who ate animal flesh and they would die a terrible death. However, even before the construction of Cluny III was complete, accusations that these sacred practices were being abandoned circulated everywhere. There were claims that monks at some of the outlying dependencies were dining on meat. Widespread reports cited idle chatter and even laughter in refectories throughout the Cluniac realm, although the Rule explicitly forbade such behaviors. Worst of all, in 1122, Pons de Melgueil (abbot 1109-1122), spiritual father of the entire order, had been forced to flee in disgrace to the Holy Land because of his intemperate love of display and ostentation. The beauty of Cluny's church, the feasts, the rituals, the vestments, the music -- it was all a tribute to God. But these inherently sensuous achievements required Odo's and Hugh's purity of heart and strict discipline to maintain their soul.

Even before Pons fled, the rival Cistercian Order (founded 1088) rebelled against Cluny's ornamental worship by offering a new, austere form of Benedictine devotion. The Cistercians' most vociferous spokesperson, Saint Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153), scathingly criticized Cluny as decadent. Puritanical in spirit, he declared their grand feasts, replete with numerous courses and inventive sauces, more appropriate for royalty than monks and thought the Corona a vain and unnecessary extravagance.

When Pons's successor died after only a few months in office, a conference of the Cluniac leadership unanimously elected Peter of Montboissier, later called Peter the Venerable, ninth abbot of Cluny with the hope that he would render the spirit of their order as shining as their Corona. Peter agreed with Bernard that laxity had infected his abbey. He, however, found the flowery quality of Cluniac worship spiritually uplifting. In response to Bernard's critique of Cluny's feasts, Peter retorted, "The Cistercians have two meals on Sunday to honor our Lord -- we have them on other days not only in honor of our Lord, but his Saints." Nevertheless, he knew that in order to restore Cluny's status as a beacon of civilization, he needed to undertake a thorough revision from within. As a man who promoted a spirit of understanding, writing treatises on Judaism, and sponsoring a translation of the Koran, Peter hoped he could institute his reforms with charity and kindness.

His job was not easy. When, in 1125, Peter was called away to Cluniac houses in the Aquitaine, Pons, with the help of rebels lurking within the abbey walls, and outside in the town, mounted a ferocious campaign to retake the monastery, collapsing one of the high vaults of the still unfinished nave of Cluny III. Peter quashed the rebellion with assistance from his own, loyal followers.

Although Peter had defended Cluniac monasticism in his correspondence with Bernard, he quickly realized that the widespread abuses in his order warranted more severe censure. In a circular letter distributed throughout the Cluniac houses, Peter decried the growing laxity of their repasts:

Pork boiled or baked, fat heifers, rabbits and hares, geese chosen from out of the whole tribe of their fellows, hens and every quadruped and fowl that man has ever domesticated, cover the tables of the holy monks. And now even these pall, and we turn to strange regal delicacies. The forests must be drawn; we need our huntsmen. Fowlers must trap for us pheasants, partridges and turtledoves, lest the servants of God die of hunger. Is this how we follow the Rule?

Peter was careful to add, "Let no one say these changes were not made without good cause by our fathers. I myself argue in this way when writing of other matters to the abbot of Clairvaux, but for eating fleshmeat no excuse will serve."

Throughout his career, Peter the Venerable upheld Saint Benedict's tenet that profound fellowship is created around the dinner table. Before becoming abbot of Cluny, when Peter was prior of Ve;zelay, he had offered a sermon on the sacred meal of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit, the founders of monasticism. According to Saint Jerome's biography of Paul, when the saint was leading an ascetic life in the Egyptian desert, divine providence sent every day a bird with bread to sustain him. When Anthony visited the hermit, the portion miraculously doubled. Peter called their meal a "transmission of the bread of eternal life" and preached it was a metaphor for the enriching bonds of monastic community. The scene was also carved into two of the capitals of Ve;zelay's elegiac nave for the monks to behold.

It was not, however, until Cluny III was ready for consecration that Peter had occasion to demonstrate his order's finest blend of aesthetic flourish and austerity with a triumphant celebration designed to lead by example. By convoking the monks from his far-flung dependencies for this historic event, Peter hoped that the beauty of the architecture might rekindle the purity of Cluniac monasticism practiced when the church's construction had begun under the enlightened abbacy of Saint Hugh. When the 1,212 monks and 200 priors had assembled in the sanctuary, Peter issued a series of reforms, insisting upon a unity of practice among all Cluniacs. Though no specific text survives, it is known that the bulk of his decrees concerned the rituals surrounding the monks' daily meal.

With the members of his order before him in the elegiac sanctuary, Peter the Venerable implored the brethren to observe their vows more rigorously. He reminded them of the importance of strict adherence to Saint Benedict's most fundamental tenets, as well as the more florid rituals sacred at Cluny. If Cluny lost her mealtime discipline, her influence and reputation would soon follow.

Peter the Venerable's 1132 sermon was only one part of an ongoing campaign to root out decadence within the flock. Fifteen years later he issued a second series of statutes, which survive as testimony to his heartfelt belief that the manner in which his monks ate and lived manifested their faith as much as their hours of chanting.

In the 1147 statutes, Peter decreed that absolutely no flesh meat was permitted except to weak and sick brethren. He reimposed the firm silence maintained during meals and added, "[I]t would be a disgrace for Cluny, which had reformed the entire monastic community, to be faulty in this matter." The single-meal regime set forth in the Rule was being ignored even as each sitting included increasing numbers of complex dishes. Peter reasserted its observation from September to the beginning of Lent, except for certain feasts and the Christmas season. Bread and wine were being saved for future use within the monastery. Peter declared that "all the leftovers from the tables in the refectory and the infirmary should without any exception be given in alms." There would be no half measures to charity while Cluny was under his watch. So too, the oblate children, who had been made to stand in Cluny's refectory, were thenceforth to sit as equals with the professed monks.

Saint Benedict had specified, "[L]et no one be exempted from kitchen service except by reason of sickness or occupation of some important work. For this service brings increase of reward and of charity." However, by Peter's era, lay servants, called famuli, performed the majority of these functions for the complex society dwelling within the mother abbey. Peter banned them from serving in the refectory for both spiritual and practical concerns; he believed it "more respectable for the conversi than for secular famuli to live with the monks"; yet he also wanted to prevent the famuli from stealing leftovers.

The majority of Peter the Venerable's statutes merely sought to bring all Cluniacs back into the observance of their fundamental Benedictine vows. Others, however, addressed the more subtle issue of balancing the call for asceticism with Cluny's decidedly artistic culture. The rival Cistercians denigrated Cluny's fondness for expensive, luxurious, even voluptuous spices. Moderate in nature, Peter the Venerable had no wish to destroy the elegance of Cluniac life; this was the abbey's pride. (Antonin Carême [1783-1833], who later brought haute cuisine to its highest pinnacle, attributed the refinement of French cooking to the inventiveness and subtlety required by fast-day strictures. The epicurean debt to monks, inventors of myriad cheeses, liqueurs, and confitures, cannot be underestimated.) However, sensuous pleasure had to be curbed. Peter banned the previously permissible use of lard for frying or other forms of cooking on Fridays. As early as Saint Hugh's day, Cluny had enjoyed "the drink which is flavored with honey and wormwood." After Bernard pointedly declared, "What are we to say of the practice that some monasteries are said to observe by custom, of taking their wine in the frater on great feasts mixed with honey and flavored by spices?" Peter the Venerable ruled, "[N]o spice of honey is to be used in wine."

Peter complained that "many feasts have been recently introduced not for the love of the saints themselves, but for the sake of recreation, so, the fast of the Rule has been all but abolished to make room for solid food." He therefore reduced the number of feasts for which the fast could be dispensed with and decreed that only a holiday of the highest rank could override the standard Sunday liturgy. By his orders, the great Corona of Cluny was thenceforth lit only for the very highest-ranking feasts. Peter explained, "[E]ven the most splendid spectacles pall if seen too often."

Although Peter the Venerable differed from Bernard, the Cistercian, in his definition of what constituted a suitably Benedictine meal, the two developed a warm, lifelong friendship and mutual respect. It was, in fact, Bernard who first added "the Venerable" to Peter's name -- an acknowledgment of the devout wisdom and sincerity with which the Cluniac abbot acted upon his faith. Peter strove to ensure that as his flock ate their daily bread from native grain and drank the lush Burgundy wine, they dined with the vision of their Savior always before them. In so doing, he hoped their silent meals might ring out to God as loudly as the psalms they sang over and over again:

Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving;

sing praise upon the harp unto our God:

Who covereth the heaven with clouds,

who prepareth rain for the earth,

who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains.

He giveth to the beast his food,

and to the young ravens which cry.

(Psalm 147:7-9)

Copyright © 2002 by Carolin Young

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Dinners and dining -- History.