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