Monday, 22 August 2011

Leaflocker Exclusive: Pope Eats Babies

So it's not a bible study or a devotion, but I sure did a lot of reading on the Church fathers, so I feel a lot more holy, or at least a lot more confused. That must count for something. Probably do a devotion on Thursday.

In response to Connell's comic on Proairesis, and in keeping with the old adage that everything is funnier with a pope, we continue our series which began last week with the following:

This one depicts (rather terribly, I'll admit, but you can't win every time) Pope Gregory the Great getting surpised (and slightly embarrassed) by a rabbit that has stolen his papal mitre. It was going to be a carrot, but Gregory lived in the 6th century AD and Europeans hadn't yet heard of carrots; and I was going to replace it with the mediaeval vegtable of choice, the turnip, but decided it was going to be easier to draw a papal mitre of the type used in the hagiographic iconography of Gregory I (alongside the dove). When drawing popes, it's often easier to use the associated icons, because there's very little to distinguish one little old Italian man from the next, especially since we have no idea what they really looked like, and more importantly I have no idea how to draw. The mitre and the dove are mediaeval shorthand for saying "Gregory the Great", which is beyond me, but apparently it worked.

The story goes that rabbits were domesticated in the 6th or 7th century when Gregory declared that foetal rabbits (or laurices) were fish, and were thus acceptable for devout Catholics to eat on fasting days, of which there were considerably more than there are today (both the Catholics and the fast days). I like to imagine that a scene like this is why. Poor Gregory can't chase after the rabbit and get his mitre back because after a long life of monastic austerity he has crippling gout, and is rarely able to bestir himself from his bed (what he's doing here out in the snow is a little beyond me, I'll admit), but he can set his armies of monks to lagomorph genocide, ripping unborn rabbits from their mothers wombs and devouring them, which seems like a pretty nice little act of retribution against rabbit-kind. Pity that it ended up spreading them worldwide, the best laid plans of men and rodents...

Unfortunately, the story is probably apochryphal, I've spent my free time in the last week going through the writings of St. Gregory (who left behind quite a few writings, many of which survive to today thanks to Gregory's status as a Doctor of the Church), and can find no record of his granting an indult to eat laurices, which were known to be a great delicacy in Roman times, in fasting periods. In fact, the only surviving reference to the consumption of laurices of the time is in the works of fellow churchman Gregory of Tours (however shaky his theology), and when he describes a nobleman as eating Laurices he seems to be mocking him as a glutton rather than praising him for eating the correct foods in Lent.

Whether Gregory actually proclaimed an idult or not is probably beside the point, as there are plenty of other examples of animals that are considered in various parts of the world to be acceptable for consumption during fasts. Beavers and otters in Canada and Scandinavia, and the capybara in South America are the most prominent examples. It's not that the Church considers them to be fish, per se, but that...heck, let's let Thomas Aquinas show us how it's done:
Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.
In other words, those animals which are considered most like humans are to be avoided in times of fasting, the animals which breathe the air and live on the land. Aquatic creatures, be they 'fish' in the modern sense or not, are kosher because it was understood at the time that they don't 'result... [in] seminal matter'. Catholic law still hold to this today, on the assumption that Aquinas knew what he was talking about.

In the sixth century, the understanding of rabbits was what we would refer to in this educated age as "not understanding". Pliny the Elder, still a respected source at the time, tells us that rabbits have both male and female parts, so they can reproduce all by themselves (have a little sympathy for the guy, this was a long time before Linnaeus, and being a trusting guy in the tradition of philosophers he was just repeating what Anaxagoras told him). Thus, by the common understanding of the time, rabbit were another class of creature from humans altogether, and could have been eaten during fasts with impunity. Not that there's any evidence that I can find that says they were, but it's not out of the realms of possibility.

This brings up the whole purpose of fasting. Today we commonly understand fasting to be a penance or sharing in the suffering of others, be it Jesus in the desert or starving children in Somalia, oras a means of focusing ourselves on prayer by forsaking world distractions, but for a long time the early church understood fasting more as a type of bodily subjugation, essential starving oneself as a cure for lust. I can't help mentioning that perhaps our modern world could do with a little bit more fasting, and not just in Lent... those rabbits won't know what hit 'em.

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