It is no surprise, but no little sadness to any grown-up, that there are no trees without at least an occasional bad apple, and the clerical trees of all religious persuasions are no exception. I came across a new (to me) example of unholy behavior the other day, which I would like to share with you, as it involves – of course - eating.
The story comes from Bacchus, an essay on intemperance (1839) Ralph Barnes Grindrod. The author says:
The manners of the clergy in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, were extremely gross and discreditable to the cause of religion. The luxury and intemperance of the high dignitaries of the church, afforded a pernicious example to its inferior officers, whose conduct is thus described by a modern historian.
"The secular clergy, were no enemies to the pleasures of the table, and some of them contrived to convert gluttony and drunkenness into religious ceremonies, by the celebration of 'glutton-masses,' as they very properly called them. These glutton-masses were celebrated five times a year, in honour of the Virgin Mary, in this manner: Early in the morning, the people of the parish assembled in the church, loaded with ample stores of meats and drinks of all kinds. As soon as mass ended, the feast began, in which the clergy and laity engaged with equal ardour. The church was turned into a tavern, and became a scene of excessive riot and intemperance. The priests and people of different parishes entered into formal contests, which of them should have the greatest gluttonmass, i.e. which of them should devour the greatest quantities of meat and drink in honour of the Virgin Mary.
A specific example of this behavior is given in Curiosities of Literature (1833) by Isaac Disraeli, under a chapter heading of “Ancient and Modern Saturnalia:”
We had in Leicester, in 1415, what was called a glutton mass; during the five days of the festival of the Virgin Mary. The people rose early to mass, during which they practised eating and drinking with the most zealous velocity, and, as in France, drew from the corners of the altar the rich puddings placed there.
I would be most interested in comments from those of you with expertise in Church history, as to this practice. In the meanwhile, what can I give you but a rich pudding?
A Rich Pudding.
Line your dish with rich puff-paste, cover the bottom with preserved stoned cherries or any kind of dried fruit (or, as a substitute. Sultana raisins), with the grated rind and juice of a lemon; cover it with slices of roll buttered and cut thin, two or three more layers of preserve and roll to nearly the top of the dish, sifting sugar between each layer; just before baking pour over it seven eggs well beaten, a spoonful of cream, and plenty of brandy.
The English cookery book, receipts collected by a committee of ladies, and ed. by J. H. Walsh (1859)
Hmm, well. I'm suspicious of any 19th-century protestant "historian" purporting to provide "facts" about the behavior of 14th- and 15th-century Catholics. What were their sources?
You'll notice that they disagree about timing: Grindrod says the glutton-masses were celebrated 5 times a year; Disraeli says the one in Leicester happened during "the five days of the festival of the Virgin Mary." I'm not aware of any 5-day festival honoring the Virgin; church authorities generally agree on 4 feast-days for her over the course of the year. And 19th-century protestants were well-known for attributing to Catholics whatever scurrilous stories they could find.
This is not to say that there was no corruption in the 14th- and 15th-century Church. The corrupt and luxurious practices of too many orders and Church dignitaries are a matter of record. But I never heard of any group of monks including the laity in general in their bad behavior.
My guess is that these stories originated in the memory or record of some harvest or Easter celebration, when there would certainly have been feasting, although not on the scale described by Grindrod and Disraeli. I would love to hear from anyone who can do more than guess.
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