The Monk's diet

Monks at the Priory of St Pancras in Lewes followed the Rule of St Benedict. This comprises a set of rules for monastic life set down by Benedict of Nusia (in Italy) in the 5th century. Some of these rules concerned the growing and consumption of food. During the 500 years that monks lived at the Priory adherence to the Rule slackened.

The Rule of St Benedict states:

“except the sick who are very weak, let all abstain entirely from eating the flesh of four-footed animals”

Eating vegetables was therefore very much encouraged, although some of the vegetables we eat today were not available to the monks. Potatoes were only introduced from America late in the 16th century after the Priory had been destroyed. Broccoli and cauliflower as we know them today were not available to the monks and the carrots they grew were purple and yellow – the orange carrot did not start to appear until the late 16th century.

The monks of Lewes Priory generally ate two meals a day. Their main meal was usually at lunchtime and consisted of two cooked dishes, one of pottage and one of beans, bread and fresh vegetables or fruit if in season. Monks were allocated a pound of bread and a pint of beans daily. At the mother house - the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, France - onions and little cakes replaced the beans on feast days and it is likely that this custom was followed in Lewes. The Larderer’s accounts for Lewes Priory for 1533-4 record four bushels (145 kg) of onion and garlic. Some of these would have been used to flavour cheese flans.

In later years, the Priory relaxed its rules and the monks would eat meat in addition to the fish and fowl they were allowed by the Rule of St Benedict. The Prior of Lewes was, by this time, in charge of large estates that had been given to the Priory and had his own separate, grand residence. The food served here would have been as grand as any that graced a lord’s table.