Friday, 28 April 2017

Holy Days and Lots of Fish

Holidays can mean both time off work and time spent away from home, lazing around, visiting ancient ruins, paragliding, or indulging in whatever else might be your preferred form of relaxation. The term originated from holy days, of which, in medieval England, a great many were celebrated.

I use the term ‘celebrated’ loosely. Some of these are still well-known or even participated in today (Lent, Easter, Christmas). But way back when, there were scores of them. And they came less with delightful presents and chocolate eggs, and more on restrictions of what you could eat.

Meat was banned. And if that sounds bad, that was true on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays all year round. Now, if you’re Peasanty McPoorperson, this made as much difference to you as banning the use of golden footstools. The staple foods of humble people were bread and cheese, and weak ale.

On the other hand, if you were rich or moderately well-off (a yeoman farmer, say), then not being allowed to eat meat for perhaps as much as over half a year was a pain in the posterior. As we know, the wealthy and powerful are not necessarily renowned for sticking to inconvenient rules, so they conjured up some work-arounds.

Fish wasn’t banned. They swim in the sea or rivers or lakes, and don’t count as meat (veganism wasn’t big in medieval England). So, fish was a popular (although sometimes hugely expensive) alternative. Obviously it was cheapest and most readily available for those near the coast, rivers and lakes, but nobles might send one another fish as gifts (a large pike, for example). These piscine presents were kept fresh by catching them alive and transporting them in water.

The definition of the term ‘fish’ was also creatively applied. A puffin was considered fish, for example, on the basis they dive into the sea to eat. The same went for beavers and geese. It was a bit like early definitions of vegetarianism, (in the early 20th century, ‘vegetarians’ [such as Hitler] might eat kidney. Because that didn’t count, apparently).

Then there were the holiest of chaps: monks. They were banned from eating meat entirely. It said so, according to their holy rules. Thou shalt not eat meat in the refectory.

Sometimes monks can be slippery weasels. Some of them, particularly those from noble backgrounds, looked at the rule and realised that it actually only applied to the refectory. So, they created a second dining room called the misericord. As long as at least half the monks ate in the refectory, shunning meat, the rest could eat in the misericord, and eat meat.

There you have it. Thou shalt not eat meat on holy days or Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. Unless it’s a beaver, and then it’s ok. And no meat at all if you’re a monk. Unless you’re eating in the swanky dining room, obviously.


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