Inequalities in Monastic Food and Drink (Alice-Mary Talbot)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Eat, Drink, and be Merry (Luke 12:19): Food and Wine in Byzantium, pp. 117-119:

Eat, Drink, and be Merry

A common principle of typika is equality of food for all, in terms of number of dishes, quality and portion size.’ As stated in the fourteenth-century typikon of Andronikos II for St Demetrios-Kellibara cited at the beginning of my paper, ‘the same bread should be given to all the brothers to eat, whether you are talking of the superior, the steward, the ecclesiarch, or whether it be the shoemaker, the gatekeeper, the baker or whoever it may be.’ The same held true of wine: ‘Neither shall good wine, full-bodied and with a nice bouquet, be given to this one to drink while that one is given the opposite, like vinegar, foul smelling and hostile to one’s palate and one’s stomach.’

Other typika suggest that some monks and nuns claimed the right to a more luxurious diet ‘because of pride in ancestry perhaps or advanced education or supposed superior virtue, or the privilege of age, or because of a contribution of money of [read: or] property.’ The typikon of Bebaia Elpis enjoins the nuns to maintain ‘custody of the eyes’, and not to look around the table to see if others were receiving larger portions or different food:

“No one at table will be allowed to raise her eyes and look at her neighbor to see how she eats the food set before her, and what has been served to her. Each nun should not only have eyes for herself alone, and focus her attention on the food set before her, but should concentrate … on the sacred readings.”

In similar vein Theoleptos of Philadelphia instructed the nuns at the Philanthropos monastery to keep their gaze fixed on their own food:

“When you are at table, do not look around at the portions your sisters got, nor allow your mind to be divided by nasty suspicions: As you look upon and touch what is set before you, give food to your mouth, attentiveness to the readings to your ears and prayer to your soul …”2

Manuel I Komnenos
Manuel I Komnenos

The constant reminders that the same food and drink were to be served to all monastics, no matter their rank, lead to the supposition that in fact there were disparities in the quality and amount of food and beverages provided at the refectory table. This suspicion is borne out by the testimony of the twelfth-century Ptochoprodromos’s satire on monastic superiors. This lengthy poem, ostensibly written by Hilarion Ptochoprodromos, a former monk of the Philotheou monastery in Constantinople, was addressed to the emperor Manuel I Komnenos as a complaint about the excessive privileges of the superior and high monastic officials in contrast to the discriminatory and abusive treatment of ordinary monks. A large part of the satire deals with inequalities in food and drink, so that the abbot and his cronies gorge on gourmet delicacies, while junior monks are subjected to an almost starvation diet of virtually inedible food and wine. Ptochoprodromos reports that monks of lower station are served tiny pieces of rotten tuna, unsalted soaked beans, dry bread, hot cumin drink or vinegary wine, and the dreaded αγιοζουμι, literally ‘holy broth’. He describes this horrid concoction as being made from water, onions and olive oil, flavoured with savory (θρυμβοξυλον) and served in bowls containing small bits of bread.3 Additional piquancy was provided by the verdigris from the copper cauldron that floated atop the broth with a greenish sheen. Meanwhile the monks of higher station were feasting, even on fast days when fish was not permitted, on untold varieties of shellfish, including oysters, clams and scallops, crab, squid and lobster, as well as caviar, accompanied by honey-flavoured rice, apples, dates, figs, nuts and grapes from Chios, quinces and pomegranates. On non-fast days the senior monks enjoyed multiple courses of various fish, including mullet, red snapper, striped bass and flounder cooked with exotic spices such as cloves, cinnamon, caraway and saffron. A particular treat was the casserole that included the following ingredients: cabbage, moray eel, swordfish, carp, small dried mackerel, fourteen eggs, Cretan and Vlach cheese, twelve heads of garlic and fifteen onions.55 These succulent dishes were washed down with the finest wines from Mount Ganos, Crete, Samos and Chios,56 while the junior monks had to be satisfied with sour and vinegary wine from Varna or large quantities of cumin drink that caused Ptochoprodromos to be afflicted with dropsy! The bread differed as well, the top-quality variety made from fine wheat flour, served hot and. sprinkled with sesame seeds, while the other was coarse brown bread with an outer coating of ashes from the oven

Though no doubt exaggerated, this account of the abundant and tasty food to be found in at least some monasteries is borne out by Eustathios of Thessalonike’s famous tale about the wedding banquet hosted by Manuel I Komnenos. The story goes that late one night the emperor decided on the spur of the moment to organize a wedding feast, but since it was Cheese-Eating Week his servants could not find appropriate foodstuffs in the Blachernai Palace on short notice. Manuel suggested that they go to the nearby monastery of St John Prodromos in Petra, where indeed they were able to obtain delicacies suitable for serving at the palace: breads of various kinds, a pure white loaf, spongy and light as foam; another well kneaded and solid; barley-cakes; sweet and dry wines; abundant cheese; dried and salted fish; red and black caviar imported from Tanais on the Sea of Azov. The imperial emissaries took so much from the monastic storerooms that it took several donkeys to carry the foodstuffs back to the palace.


  1. A similar injunction is made by Isaac Sevastokrator Komnenos in the Kosmosoteira typikon, where he forbids the serving of wine that has turned sour (ὀξώδης) because it can be harmful to the monks’ health: Kosmosoteira, chap. 70, BMFD 2.832.
  2. Theoleptos of Philadelpheia. The Monastic Discourses, discourse 1, chap. 31.
  3. This soup was a prescribed staple food at Kosmosoteira on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A recipe for this soup is found in the vita of St Cyril Phileotes, singling out onions and herbs as the principal ingredients. Cyril does not find the concoction sufficiently ascetic and calls it γαστριμαργοζωμιον!


The Unfortunate Monk, A Poem by Hilarion Ptochoprodromos (12th Century)

This poem is a satire of the life in a Byzantine monastery. The text survives in eight manuscripts, in full with alterations and in fragments, which shows the sensation it created. This poem is also addressed to the emperor Manuel I (1143–80), by the novice monk, or “rag-wearer.” In Suppl.1034 of 1364, the title is: “Other verses of Hilarion, the monk Ptochoprodromos, to the most revered emperor lord Manuel the Purple-born and Komnenos.”

Ptochoprodromos 1

In 665 verses of fifteen syllables, the narrator, a young monk, “illiterate” and “dressed in rags”, describes to the emperor how things are inside the monastery, his suffering and the greed of his priors, a father and son that illegally and excessively rule over the entire surrounding area. The many kinds of punishments imposed to the unfortunate monk without substantial reason are described in a satirical way. He emphasizes on the difference of living standards between priors and monks, describes how the former eat fish and let the latter eat a horrible slop, and generally how “they greedily collect coins/ and catechize us on avarice.” He describes very lively the luxury and privileges enjoyed by “them”, while he points out that for “us” there is suffering, mistreatment and hunger. As he has no one else to turn to, the monk turns to the emperor, asking him only a small piece of bread.

He is verbally and otherwise abused, while the hierarchs indulge in all conceivable (and inconceivable) delectations of bathtub, food, and wine. They get every fish and the very best of seafood “laid before them”, and drink from decorated cups of the best Samian and Chiot wines, while we are fed on what they baptize as “holy broth” in dirty clay pots. They get a “true baptismal font” of finest fish stew, we just get twenty onion rings, with a few stale crusts and three drops of holy oil thrown into boiling water in a massive old cauldron, green with verdigris.

Ptochoprodromos 3

The contents of the hierarchs’ repast, served in what is playfully but subversively termed a “baptismal font,” are described in detail tantamount to a recipe (III.174–94). But the “fish stew” is not as innocent as it may sound, coming as it does right after a full array of four rich courses—broiled, sauced, sweet-and-sour, grilled with spices—of every kind of fish the Black Sea could boast of (including turbot cooked with labrus, tender bream, gray mullet three palms long, and flatfish, or “citharus linguatula”). Prodromos has exploited Constantinople’s rich fish supplies to add to the range of sexual reference to “tasty bits of roasted meat” familiar from Attic comedy. What is more, he wishes a second “Akrites” (like Herakles) could enter their refectory fray and smash their heinous “dishes” into smithereens. Humor in this episode depends on wordplay and bilingual puns.

What is αγιοζουμι? It is frequently mentioned in the monastic typika as a fasting “holy broth,” meant to be simple but nourishing; but Prodromos puns on ιοζουμι (“viral swill”). He also puns on the twenty “rings of onions” thrown into boiling water, calling them καλολεοντας (“good lions,” throughout), which unimaginative editors have emended into κολεντας (“rings,” from the Venetian coleta, “ring,” “chain”). The suffix λιοντας suggests a champion wrestler or jouster. A few lines later he has “Good Lion” engaging with “Fat Thug” (Contro´”) in a wrestling match, with clear sexual connotations, as in the carnival games and jousting with his wife of poem I, with the difference that in poem III the connotations are homosexual; indeed, the filthy cauldron of “viral swill” reminds us of the bathtub in which, as a novice, he was forced to “rub up” the two fat hierarchs (III.107–16). We are back with the theme of games and play with a funny but sinister and obscene twist.


311 [They are eating frogs, we get the “holy broth”] . . .


  1. They feed on the best sea bass, and huge [red mullet] too,
  2. we get that stinking smokey “holy poison broth”;
  3. they get fat fish and seal steaks, truffles, dabs,
  4. while we were eating that old what’s-its-name:
  5. it does have a crazy name, it’s just a trifle strange
  6. and a man gets sizzled up before he hits on it . . .
  7. I’m drowned, I’m dead, let the worm cut it out,
  8. look, they say “Slow down!” just as you want to come.
  9. Come now, shit head, I think you are bewitched!
  10. If only mullet, dabs, and tit-bits had found their way down here,
  11. then I might hit upon the word, –Behold, a mystery ensues!–
  12. Lord, with my blessing, you know its name so well,
  13. it’s here upon my tongue tips, –Devil, curses on you!–
  14. Enjoy the leaky bag, I just got it in the mouth,
  15. so here’s its food and mess, while I was being sizzled.
  16. They were quite determined to shove it up me,
  17. but I was no village boy, not to puke it out with fire.
  18. Eh, how much sore chafing, lord, have I upon my soul,
  19. yet do we speak out all things as have been uttered in.

Ptochoprodromos 4

In this passage, Prodromos comes nearest to what Jeffrey Henderson has termed “primary obscenity,” in that it is hard to read “innocently.”1 Yet even here, the humor depends on double entendres, achieved through wordplay, punning, and above all by the metaphorical associations of food, wine, and sex. And beneath the games and play there lies a deadly serious purpose—to expose the filth, corruption, and abuse experienced by the lowly monks in the Philotheou monastery.2 He also wants to get transferred to another monastery (the Mangana), where Theodore Prodromos actually served. Read in the context of monastic reforms debated during the later twelfth century, poem III touches on issues no less topical than does poem I.30

  1. J. Henderson, The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy, 2d ed. (New York, 1991), 35–41. It is surely relevant to Prodromos’ revival of obscene humor in the 12th century that, as Henderson (ibid., 13) points out, with the exception of the Ionic iambic poets and the cults of Dionysos and Demeter, obscenity is not found elsewhere in the surviving literature of the time.
  2. The monastery, situated five miles up the Bosporos at Anaplous (modern Arnavutko¨y), was founded ca. 1022–53

Games and Play in the Ptochoprodromic Poems


On Guarding the Sense of Taste (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: In most of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, guarding the sense of taste is virtually ignored. The main requirement is blind obedience and the Prayer with the belief that the perfect application of these two things will bring all the other virtues to a monastic. Fasting from the required foods on the required days is about the extent of fasting that exists in the monasteries. Monastics can get a blessing to not eat all the food on their plates and not eat desserts though many times it is denied. Monastics are warned that wanting to fast or not eat desserts can lead to delusion because when a monastic goes down that path, they will start getting proud thoughts because they fast better than the other monastics or they don’t eat desserts so they are more virtuous and have more self-control. This will lead to judging the other monastics and especially judging their Geronda or Gerondissa who also eat desserts. Out of all the abbots and abbesses, it is really only Geronda Paisios who has maintained a regime of ascesis, fasting and self-denial when it comes to the area of foods. Unlike the other abbots, he does not drink soda, eat desserts, and other pleasurable foods. He never drinks cold water, always room temperature, etc. In most of the other monasteries, fasting and ascesis are dismissed as the quickest way to pride and delusion.

The following article is taken from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels, pp. 107-112


The fourth sense is that of taste and generally speaking that of the mouth. Here, indeed, we find a great marketplace! This sense is like the great chasm that was suddenly opened in Rome and was so deep that no matter how much earth and debris was thrown into it, it simply disappeared and was never filled up, as the historians have written. Also this sense of the mouth is like a gulf so wide that it can contain all the edible provisions which the earth and sea produce. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, the mouth is like a large broken earthen jar that is always filled and yet always remains empty. In a word, it is an insatiable Hades. Even though the sense of taste is fourth in line, I consider it to be first in terms of power. Be careful therefore to shut out of this door of your senses the negative effects of so many varieties of foods. Avoid then the sumptuous meals. Avoid the bewitching artistry of the chefs. Avoid wantonness and wastefulness in food. For what else were these delicacies invented? Certainly, you cannot say that they serve some need or function of the body, but only that cursed pleasure of taste in the mouth. What indeed are the effects of such a variety of foods? Nothing good, of course, comes of them, except passions and evils to the soul and to the body. Greedy licking, satiety, and gluttony are the first offspring. If we go deeper we find drunkenness, rapacity, obesity, gout in the feet and in the hands, and even paralysis. If we go even deeper than this we can also find fornication, homosexuality, and virtually all of the carnal and irrational passions that come under the influence of the stomach. These then are the evil by-products of irrational indulgence in the delicate and tasty things of the mouth.

The mouth is an insatiable Hades.
The mouth is an insatiable Hades.

Sumptuous eating deprives One of Piety & Harms, Especially Young People 

Sumptuous eating is harmful to all without exception, but especially to the young. The natural reason for this is obvious. The natural warmth of the young person is enhanced when it receives the fatty matter of various foods. The heavy foods consumed draw out the heavy excretions of digestion in the stomach. These in turn are converted into substances and blood and eventually into fatty tissue. The abundance of food creates a fat body that is susceptible to the forceful temptations of one’s sexuality.

Thus treated and exposed, the poor body becomes a flaming fire, a Babylonian furnace. If the young body is a wild and untamed animal even when it lacks essential nourishment, imagine what it is like when it is well fed! All young people know this because they experience these passions on a daily basis. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: “Its own evil is sufficient for the body. Why add to the existing fire any additional fuel, or any more nourishment to the beast? It will only become more difficult to control and more violent (forceful) than the mind.”

The monks in Texas after breaking the Clean Monday and Tuesday fast following Presanctified this morning (mid-2000s)
The monks in Texas after breaking the Clean Monday and Tuesday fast following Presanctified this morning (mid-2000s)

Solomon too said: “It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury” (Proverbs 19:10). In interpreting this passage, St. Basil considered the body of a young person to be “a fool.” “What is more senseless than the body of a young person prone to easy temptations?” He asked.

Now if you cannot avoid these fatty foods completely, then set a discipline for yourself to eat only once a day, as many spiritual persons, hierarchs, and even worldly leaders do. In this manner the body is kept lighter and healthier and the mind is clearer and more capable of advancing upon divine thoughts. Even then, it is important not to overeat.

The Three Degrees of Eating

According to St. Gregory the Sinaite there are three degrees in eating: temperance, sufficiency, and satiety. Temperance is when someone wants to eat some more food but abstains, rising from the table still somewhat hungry. Sufficiency is when someone eats what is needed and sufficient for normal nourishment. Satiety is when someone eats more than enough and is more than satisfied. Now if you cannot keep the first two degrees and you proceed to the third, then, at least, do not become a glutton, remembering the words of the Lord: “Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger” (Luke 6:25).

Remember also that rich man who ate in this present life sumptuously every day, but who was deprived of the desired bosom of Abraham in the next life, simply because of this sumptuous eating. Remember how he longed to refresh his tongue with a drop of water. St. Basil not only did not forgive the young people who ate to satiety but also those who ate until satisfied; he preferred that all eat temperately. He said, “Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires.” 1

The Rich Man & Lazarus illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach
The Rich Man & Lazarus illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach

St. Gregory the Theologian has also noted in his poetry: “No satiety has brought forth prudent behavior; for it is in the nature of fire to consume matter. And a filled stomach expels refined thoughts; it is the tendency of opposites to oppose each other.” Job, too, assuming that one could fall into sin through eating, offered sacrifice to God for his sons who were feasting among themselves. “And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said: “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts’” (Job 1:5-8).

In interpreting this passage Olympiodoros wrote: “We learn from this that we ought to avoid such feasts which can bring on sinfulness. We must also purify ourselves after they have been concluded, even if these are conducted for the sake of concord and brotherly love as in the case of the sons of Job.”

Surely then, if the sons of Job were not at a feast but in prayer or some other spiritual activity, the devil would not have dared to destroy the house and them, as Origen interpreted the passage: “The devil was looking for an opportunity to destroy them. Had he found them reading, he would not have touched the house, having no reason to put them to death. Had he found them in prayer, he would not have had any power to do anything against them. But when he found an opportune time, he was powerful. What was the opportune time? It was the time of feasting and drinking.” Do you see then, dear reader, how many evils are brought forth by luxurious foods and feasting in general?


Hierarchs, Priests, and Every Christian Ought Not to Break the Fast of Each Wednesday and Friday

Let me add here that after abstaining from rich foods and sumptuous feasts, you must also keep the prescribed fast of each Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, except of course for those times when no fast is required by the practice of the church calendar. Even if others may break this fast by including wine and oil in their diet on Wednesday and Friday, you ought not to imitate them, whoever they might be, for the holy canons require this rule to be kept. The 69th Apostolic Canon considers the fasting rules of each Wednesday and Friday to be the very same as that of Great Lent. “Any bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, or chanter who does not fast during Great Lent and each Wednesday and Friday is to be deposed, except if he is prevented from doing so because of a bodily illness. If the person is a layman who does not fast, he is to be rejected.” The same kind of austerity is expressed by the 5th Canon of Peter of Alexandria: “I agree with St. James who called the well fed sheep for slaughter: ‘You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter’” (Jas. 5:5).2 St. Gregory the Theologian had no kind compliments for feasting when he considered it to be nothing but manure. St. Isaac the Syrian too considered the wasting of food as only appropriate to swine. This is why a wise man, seeing that inscription on the tomb of Sardanapal the glutton which read: “I have as much as I have eaten and have drunk and have enjoyed,” concluded: “This inscription is indeed appropriate for a pig!”3

King Sardanapalus and His Consort
King Sardanapalus and His Consort

God Will Put Gluttons to the Test

I praise the Most High God many times who has never neglected to put the gluttons who are always feasting to the test. Sometimes he permits the sons of Job to be crushed to death in the house of their cohorts; sometimes he destroys through Sampson the palace where the gentiles were eating and reveling. God disrupted the feast of Balthasar by that fearful hand which was writing on the wall, and he brought great sorrow to the hearts of the revelers who were feasting with the tetrarch Herond on account of the beheading of the Forerunner. Do you see, dear brother, how hateful a thing this gluttonous feasting and drinking is in the sight of God? This is why the Prophet Amos condemned such unrighteous feasting. “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp…who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Am. 6:4-6). Whatever I have said so far about sumptuous foods, I also say about aromatic wines. St. Gregory the Theologian has noted, “Let us not honor the wines that have the scent of flowers.”4 It should also be noted that the quantity of wine be limited to two or three glasses, especially for the young. The elder Sisoes was once asked if it is too much for someone to drink three glasses of wine. He answered that if there was no Satan, then it would not be too much. The Spartan Leotychides, too, was asked by the Spartans did not drink wine. He answered that the Spartans refrained from drinking wine so that others would not receive instruction from their consequent bad behavior. And he was right because wine clouds the mind and does not permit it to know the truth and the correct and benevolent advice. Now, when much wine is consumed, then the mind is totally clouded, like the extra oil that snuffs out the lamp. Thus another sober person is required to offer advice and guidance to him who is drunk.


What One Must Do to Avoid Overeating & Other Sins of the Tongue

When eating and drinking, always remember the Psalm: “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?” (Psalms 30:9). St. Basil has advised that we recall this verse in order to help us avoid overeating and overdrinking, as he has interpreted it in the following manner:

“What is the need for robustness of flesh and an abundance of blood if their future is to be delivered over to the common corruption of the body? For this reason I constrain and deprive my body, otherwise my blood becomes so robust and overzealous that it makes my flesh to sin. Do not therefore flatter your body with sleep and baths and soft beds, but always recall the saying: ‘What profit is there for my blood if I go down to the Pit?’ Why do you care for the lesser thing that will later become corrupt? Why do you bother to make yourself fat? Do you not know that the fatter you make your body so much heavier will be the soul’s prison?”

In this sense of the mouth are also included all those sins which are enacted by the tongue: condemnation, slander,5 mocking, insults, unreasonable excommunications, curses, reprimands, obscene talk, and all the other idle and vain words. From all these we must guard ourselves as much as possible, for as you know, we must give an account for every vain and idle word, according to the Sacred Scriptures (Matthew 12:36)…

Trapeza on the Feast Day of Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)
Trapeza on the Feast Day of Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)


  1. Broad Rules 15.
  2. I read once an amusing story about two men who met each other. One loved to eat a lot and was fat and robust, the other exercised self-control and was very thin and ascetic looking. The fat man greeted, “Welcome, spirit without a body!” And the thin man responded, “Welcome, body without a spirit!” Is it not true that this is the only gain of such well-fed persons: a heavy body that is difficult to maneuver and often troubled by ailments? While the body of the ascetic person is thin, healthy, and resilient. Moreover, it has been shown that gluttons die much sooner than those who exercise self-control in their eating habits. Hippocrates said: “The fat people die much sooner than thin people do…The mother of health is not to be over-satisfied with food, and the ability to bear pains.”
  3. Remember that the ascetic fathers on the Holy Mountain, who sit to eat on the 9th hour on days of fasting, experience greater sweetness and joy in tasting their simple meal and drinking their simple water than the gluttons who devour sumptuous pheasants and other rich foods and drinks. And as the wise Solomon said: “He who is sated loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet” (Prv. 27:7). St. Basil too made the same point: “If you wish to make your meals desirable, accept the change that is brought about by the period of fasting. Something that is enjoyed to satiety through continuous use is easily rejected. The things rarely acquired are the things most especially enjoyed” (Homily 1 on Fasting).

It can be said about all those who love to eat in excess all sorts of rich foods that they do not simply eat to live, as in the normal and reasonable case, but rather they live in order to eat, which is characteristic of irrational beings and beasts. The mind of Christians will surely be much more miserable than these if, after the Grace of the Gospel and the hope of eternal life, it becomes like that of pagans of old who had no other concern but to enjoy sumptuous and endless feasts. And, again, the Christian becomes a miserable person if he abandons his proper nourishment, which is the study and practice of spiritual things, to preoccupy himself with unworthy bodily foods and the worship of the stomach, which will be done away with.

  1. Homily on the Nativity.