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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Consumption of Meat

Updated: May 26, 2019

Morgan Library, ms. M.638, fol. 23r

I am a lover of nature, and as such, a lover of many forms of both animal and plant life, with a few exceptions, particularly among the former (for example, despite my Australian upbringing I have completely failed to love snakes). As a by-and-large animal lover, I am faced with a conflict that many of us face, anyone indeed who is a thinking person. How can you love something, and then kill and eat it? But there you have it. Along with being an animal and plant lover, I am also, like most humans, an unabashed omnivore. It is a strange dilemma that nature has faced us with. For some, the solution is to eat only plants. This they justify by the assumption, for which there is no real evidence, that plants do not suffer. But can you look at the stump of a large tree that has been brutally chopped down and agree with that. I do, however, admit that I feel considerably less of a conflict in eating a carrot than a steak.

Although we do not have detailed written records that can attest to the quantities of meat consumed by the Frankish population in the Latin East, there is evidence to suggest that it was a prominent part of the Frankish diet. This was clearly the case for one segment of the population; the military orders. The early Rule of the Templar Order includes a statute (26) that states: "It should be sufficient for you [the brothers] to eat meat three times a week, except at Christmas [Easter], All Saints, the Assumption and the Feast of the Twelve Apostles. For it is understood that the custom of eating flesh corrupts the body."* This restriction to three days a week, which really doesn't sound all that bad (even for a meat-lover like myself), suggests that the general public, who were presumably less in fear of corrupting their bodies than the religious communities, ate meat more frequently than did members of a military order.

Historical sources and archaeological discoveries support a fairly high level of meat consumption, with the prominent presence in Frankish cities of meat markets and butcheries. Jerusalem had a pig market in the Patriarch's quarter and a large cattle market in the south, and butcher shops were located on the main east-west road (vicus Templi). In Acre there was a large cattle market in the west of the city, a pig market in the Genoese quarter (the Hospitallers had a piggery of their own), and butcher shops were located near the port. Also, large quantities of animal bones, mainly of cattle, sheep, goats and pig, are found in most archaeological excavations.

The raising of pigs underwent a revival in the Crusader period. Islamic law expressly forbids their consumption, and in most archaeological sites during the period of Muslim rule the ratio of pigs compared to cattle, sheep and goats is indeed quite low. When Christian rule was restored under the Franks, pig raising enjoyed a considerable increase. Pig bones from Crusader levels at Yoqne’am, although forming a small part of overall meat consumption, increased nearly five-fold from the quantity found in the Islamic levels. At Belmont Castle they form 34.8% of all identifiable fragments of the animal bone specimens recovered (by contrast, in the Ottoman period they represent a mere 5%). The pig is of particular value because it rapidly reaches the stage where it can be slaughtered, and it is easy to feed. Only a few domestic pigs were allowed to reach maturity for breeding purposes, most being slaughtered while still young. This is one of the ways to distinguish between the bones of wild and domestic pigs, both of which are found in most excavated sites. Unlike domestic pigs, those of wild boar are often mature.

Fowl were also sold at a special market in Jerusalem. They are a good source of protein and require a relatively low energy investment, and their archaeological presence is consequently high. Bones of chickens, ducks and geese have been found at many urban and rural sites and in fortresses, and a constructed chicken coop was excavated at a Frankish farmhouse near Jerusalem. But perhaps the most remarkable find that I have come across was the discovery of an intact chicken egg in a ceramic flask at the Templar castle, Vadum Iacob - presumably a brother's uneaten breakfast from the morning the castle fell on 30 August 1179. One wonders if he was planning to have it fried, baked or poached,** though perhaps such choices as were available to patients in the Hospitaller infirmary were not realistic in a castle under siege.

* J.M Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Templars, Woodbridge, 2002, p. 26. ** E.J. King, The Rule Statutes and Customs of the Hospitallers 1099-1310, London, 1934, p. 179.

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Joppe Gosker
Joppe Gosker
May 28, 2019

Dear Adrian, I enjoyed reading you blog (as a vegan!). I wanted to point out the remarkable poem, "I No Longer Steal From Nature", of the 11th century Syrian Philosopher Al Ma'arri that apparently had similary moral scruples:

You are diseased in understanding and religion.

Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.

Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,

And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,

Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught

for their young, not noble ladies.

And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;

for injustice is the worst of crimes.

And spare the honey which the bees get industriously

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