Christian monks as foragers eating wild edible plants

7th March 2023

One of the most fascinating books I read in recent years is A Hermit’s Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages by Andrew Jotischky. The authors, in his detail account of Christian monasticisms devotes a whole chapter about eating from nature. He specifically describes a category of monks known as boschoi (literally, ‘grazers’) which occurs in early Byzantine literature. The earliest reference to them comes from the fourth century written by by Ephrem the Syrian, who describes desert fathers inhabiting the Syrian mountains, wearing sackcloth and grazing off the land like deer. They treated the whole earth and all the mountains as their table. Later, in AD 425, the historian Sozomen, writes about hermits using sickles so that they could cut themselves plants for eating like herbivorous animals. Sozomen says: ‘These monks of Syria were called boschoi when they first embarked on the philosophic life, because they had no dwellings, ate neither bread nor meat, and drank no wine . . . When it was time to eat, each one would take a sickle, go up to the mountains and feed on what grew there, like animals at the pasture.’ (Cyril of Scythopolis 1991, after Jotischky 2011).

Jotischky emphsazies that living off wild plants was quite common in Syria and Palestine and failed among Egyptian monks due to the fact that Egypt is more barren. Later he describes more hermits living from wild plants. For example, when Euthymius and Theoctistus first settled in a cave in the Judaean desert, they subsisted on wild edible plants . Later, when Euthymius left their coenobium near the Dead Sea and resumed solitary life he again started eating a wild plant called meloa. Another monk, Sabas together with Euthymius, lived on melagria (identified as Asphodelus microcarpus). As Jotischky writes: ‘When Sabas lived in solitude in the Judaean desert, his food bag apparently contained only asphodel and reed hearts, as well as a small trowel used for digging the asphodel out of the ground.

Jotischky also writes about another wild plant eaten by Middle Eastern monks, meloa. He refers to it as salt bush, a form of mallow. This is a bit of a contradiction as salt bush is Atriplex from Chenopodiaceae, not mallow family (Malvaceae). I suspect meloa in texts about hermits may refer just to wild mallow common in the eastern Mediterranean (e.g. Malva sylvestris) or jute mallow (Corchorus), called molokhiya used to make the famous soups with the same name. Meloa is for example mentioned by Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Euthymius who describes monks at Euthymius community. Other plants served as monks’ food as well. Samas collected the fruits of carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua). John the Cicilian, another hermit described by Cyril, reported meeting old monks living for seventy years only on wild vegetables and dates. An Egyptian monk John of Lycopolis lived according to the literature only on raw fruits. The fifth century writer, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, describes another foraging monk named Jacob of Nisibis, who spent most of the year outdoors and took shelter in a cave only on coldest day of the year. He describes his food as follow (citation after Jotischky): ‘For food he did not have that which is laboriously sown and reaped, but that which grows of its own accord. He gathered the spontaneous fruits of wild trees and herbs which looked like vegetables, and of these he gave the body the necessities of life, renouncing the use of fire.’

The Near Eastern monks also used some plants growing near water. Jotischky names them ‘reeds’ though I am dubious they were reeds in the sense of Phragmites or Arundo, as these real reeds are quite hard and the moment their young shoots are soft is very short. I would rather suspect that the monks sought cattails (Typha) or some other plant with nutritious shoots or underground parts. Cattail (also called bullrush) has been used as food in what is modern day Iraq (Prendegerats et al. 2000).  It was Sabas who collected the inner parts of ‘reed’ shoots and saved them for later. Cyril of Scythiopolis also reports that Sabas was able to eat raw squills, normally not edible without cooking (I used the word squill after Jotischky, I assume it could have been something like Scilla, Muscari or maybe Ornithogalum, though other monocot bulbous plants which could be called ‘squills’ are consumed between the Mediterranean and the Caucasus (Łuczaj et al. 2017; Pieroni et al. 2017).

Actually the number of ‘grazing’ monks in the area which is now Palestine and Syria was much larger. For example another monastic work, The Spiritual Meadow (Moschus 1992), mentions fifteen such mystics. The work reports for example the monk Sophronius, who lived only wild plants for seventy years and went naked all the time.

Britain also has its foraging monk. It was Godric of Finchale. He was a twelfth-century English anchorite. He lived mainly on wild vegetable in his hermitage in County Durham. He was also influenced by the Holy Land. He made a pilgrimage there and after it he copied the ways of hermits from the area of Jerusalem, wanting to live like John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was actually a role model for the above mentioned hermits. According to the Bible lived on locusts (insects looking like large grasshoppers) and wild honey. However, the real food of John the Baptist is disputable. Leviticus (11, 22) actually allows the Jews eating grasshopper, locusts and beetles, however most Christian monks did not eat meat. This brings some doubt abouth John eating grasshoppers as the same word akrides was used to describe locusts and locust beans. Similar doubts arise about the use of wild honey, which may have been not so easy to obtain in the semi-deserts of Middle East. Here again we come across a word pun. Mela agria means wild honey in Greek, but melagria is the asphodel with its edible bulbs [see picture above], a much more likely source of calories. Of course we will never know for sure what where the exact species that John the Baptist ate. Wild bees may have also eaten wild bee honey. Honey is the most preferred food of hunter-gatherers in many parts of the tropics. In a conference on hunter-gatherer I attended in Liverpool there was even a special section devoted to honey gathering. In some hunter-gathering communities dying from falling when climbing for honey, Winnie the Pooh style is one of the commonest reasons of death among men.

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