By Andrew Jotischky
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Additional info for A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages
If Jerome was the inventor of the trope, he did at least give it some verisimilitude by observing that in his ﬁnal years Hilarion was so troubled by digestive problems that he could only manage thin broth – doubtless, the effect of the uncooked lentils of his youth. If such details of asceticism and self-denial are inventions or exaggerations, they not only follow an internal logic, but also offer a set of symbols, rather like a code, which can be understood and picked up by other writers. 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.
The guiding light behind it was Basil of Caesarea. Born into a prominent landowning family, Basil was educated according to the traditional classical syllabus in Constantinople. Before becoming bishop of his home town, Basil travelled through Palestine and into Egypt to study the example of ascetics in the Judaean desert and Skete. His own form of monasticism, however, was to be quite different from anything he had seen before. Basil persuaded his sister, Macrina, who was already committed to the unmarried life of an ascetic virgin, to live in retirement on one of the family estates with a like-minded community.
Although the average annual rainfall in these deserts is low, when they arrive the rains can be remarkably heavy, albeit for short periods. 10 On another occasion, when forced into exile from the Great Laura, Sabas fed off carobs gathered from a tree. The monk John the Cilician, one of the monks described by Cyril of Scythopolis, claimed that he had come across elders who lived for seventy years by eating grass and dates. John of Lycopolis, the Egyptian desert monk, supposedly lived off fruit alone, and certainly never ate anything that required cooking.