Fasting Part 3: Lenten Fasting in the Medieval Church: 5th – 13th Centuries

Read the previous article: Fasting in the Early Church (Part 2)


Continuing our series on fasting, we look at the Church’s practice of fasting and abstinence in the Medieval Ages for the Great Fast of Lent. Rather than being a merely intellectual study or one based on vain curiosity, we can see in our ancestors the desire to do penance for the good of souls. For those of us who seek to follow Our Lord and Our Lady’s requests for penance, we can look to Their observance of fasting for inspiration and guidance.

How Was Lenten Fasting Observed?

As mentioned previously, the Lenten fast began with the Apostles themselves and was practiced in various forms. In the fourth century St. Augustine remarked, “Our fast at any other time is voluntary; but during Lent, we sin if we do not fast.” At the time of St. Gregory the Great, at the beginning of the 7th century, the fast was universally established to begin on what we know as Ash Wednesday. While the name “Ash Wednesday” was not given to that day until Pope Urban II in 1099, the day was known as the “Beginning of the Fast.”[1]

Regarding Holy Saturday’s fast in particular, Canon 89 of the Council in Trullo (in 692 AD) provides an account of the piety and devotion of the faithful of that time: “The faithful, spending the days of the Salutatory Passion in fasting, praying and compunction of heart, ought to fast until the midnight of the Great Sabbath: since the divine Evangelists, Matthew and Luke, have shewn us how late at night it was [that the Resurrection took place].” That tradition of fasting on Holy Saturday until midnight would last for centuries.

Historical records further indicate that Lent was not merely a regional practice observed only in Rome. It was part of the universality of the Church. Lenten fasting began in England, for instance, sometime during the reign of Earconberht, the king of Kent, who was converted by the missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury in England. During the Middle Ages, fasting in England, and in many other then-Catholic nations, was required both by Church law and the civil law. Catholic missionaries brought fasting, which is an integral part of the Faith, to every land they visited.

Collations Were Introduced on Fasting Day

The rules on fasting remained largely the same for hundreds of years. Food was to be taken once a day after sunset. By midnight, the fast resumed and was terminated only after the sun had once again set on the horizon. But relaxations were to soon begin.

By the eighth century, the time for the daily meal was moved to the time that the monks would pray the Office of None in the Divine Office, about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. As a consequence of moving the meal to earlier in the day, the practice of a collation was introduced. The well-researched Father Francis Xavier Weiser summarizes this major change with fasting:

“It was not until the ninth century, however, that less rigid laws of fasting were introduced. It came about in 817 when the monks of the Benedictine order, who did much labor in the fields and on the farms, were allowed to take a little drink with a morsel of bread in the evening … Eventually the Church extended the new laws to the laity as well, and by the end of the medieval times they had become universal practice; everybody ate a little evening meal in addition to the main meal at noon.”[2]

How Was Lenten Abstinence Observed?

In 604, in a letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury, Pope St. Gregory the Great announced the form that abstinence would take on fast days. This form would last for almost a thousand years: “We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.”[3] When fasting was observed, abstinence was likewise always observed.

Through the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, we can learn how Lent was practiced in his own time and attempt to willingly observe such practices in our own lives. The Lenten fast as mentioned by St. Thomas Aquinas consisted of the following:

  • Monday through Saturday were days of fasting. The meal was taken at mid-day and a collation was allowed in the evening, except on days of the black fast.[4]
  • All meat and animal products were prohibited throughout Lent.
  • Abstinence from these foods remained even on Sundays of Lent, though fasting was not practiced on Sundays.[5]
  • No food was to be eaten at all on either Ash Wednesday or Good Friday.
  • Holy Week was a more intense time of fasting, which consisted only of bread, water, salt, and herbs.

The Lenten fast included fasting from all lacticinia (Latin, for milk products), which included butter, cheese, eggs, and animal products.[6] From this tradition, Easter eggs were introduced, and therefore the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is when pancakes are traditionally eaten to use leftover lacticinia. And similarly, Fat Tuesday is known as Carnival, coming from the Latin words ‘carne levare’ – literally, the farewell to meat.


In the next installment we will consider the organic development of fasting in these same centuries for fast days other than during Lent. In the meantime, ask yourself, what voluntary changes can you make next Lent to observe any of these practices that St. Thomas Aquinas would have also observed.

[1]Christian Feasts and Customs”, p. 174.

[2]Christian Feasts and Customs”, p. 171.

[3]Christian Feasts and Customs”, p. 170.

[4] The Black Fast has three primary characteristics. [1] More than one meal is strictly prohibited. [2] Meat and food from animals is banned. [3] The one meal may only be taken after sunset. Read more in the Catholic Encyclopedia here.
“A Black Fast is a severe form of Christian fasting. It is the most rigorous in the history of Church legislation [emphasis added] and is marked by austerity regarding the quantity and quality of food permitted on fasting days as well as the time when such food is legitimately taken. … Some Eastern Catholics perform the Black Fast on Fridays during Lent, especially on Good Friday.” (Wikipedia)

[5] Laetare Sunday would eventually become the one day of a reprieve during the Lenten observance when abstinence was relaxed.

[6] Regarding this point there are important exceptions to note as the Church has always exercised common sense and Christian charity. “Abstinence from lacticinia which included milk, butter, cheese, and eggs, was never strictly enforced in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia because of the lack of oil and other substitute foods in those countries. The Church using common sense granted many dispensations in this matter in all countries of Europe. People who did eat the milk foods would often, when they could afford it, give alms for the building of churches or other pious endeavors.” Weiser, pp. 171-172.