By Andrew Jotischky
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Extra info for A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages
However, the Life of Anthony is much more than simply a biography. Anthony’s life posed problems for a biographer because for long periods he did not actually do anything – or, rather, what he did was contemplative rather than active, and therefore deﬁed description. Athanasius’ biography is thus in many ways an intellectual study rather than a ‘life story’, and although the outlines of Anthony’s long life do emerge, Athanasius’ chief concern is to give a portrait of monastic spirituality. Thus, many chapters are devoted to Anthony’s advice to other monks and to descriptions of the fantastic and terrifying visions of demons that he experienced in his solitude.
Eating and drinking in the sources mentioned in the previous chapter. Dioscorus, one of the monks of Skete encountered in the Sayings of the Fathers, set himself a new ascetic challenge every year: one year he undertook only to eat raw food, another year, not to eat fruit, though he was very fond of it, and so on. Abba Sisoes of Thebes would eat either bread or vegetables, but not both at the same meal. 2 He was also frugal about eating fruit. One year he had a yearning for the ﬁrst grapes from the harvest, but when someone sent a bunch to him he sent them on to another monk rather than give way to his desire.
We will see examples of this later on in the book, when we encounter particular traits or details of ascetic practices that appear to have been repeated across centuries in widely different contexts. Thus, when we read that Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century monk noted for his personal austerity of living, also suffered from digestive problems later in life, we cannot be sure whether this is a plausible statement of fact on the part of his biographer, or a coded clue designed to alert the reader to the same detail in Jerome’s Life of Hilarion.