Wine Is Not for Monks?

Traditional scholarly renderings have long grounded the history of early monastic dining norms in narrative sources characterized by hagiographical hyperbole. The most familiar depictions take signature abstinence, rather than indulgence, as a starting point. Frequently cited accounts feature radical ascetics who eat, at most, every other day, and drink water as occasionally. For example, Abba Arsenius is delivered “one basket of bread” each year by a group of brothers. The latter eat “some of [this same] bread” when they bring the subsequent year’s basket (AP/Alph Arsenius 17). A second Abba “sometimes longed to eat a cucumber” but instead “took one and hung it before him where he could see it,” taming himself, and so “repent[ing] that he had wanted it at all” (AP/Syst 4.60). Another hermit is reported to have “made a resolution not to drink anything.” Instead, when thirsty, he washed a vessel, filled it with water, and hung it before his eyes (AP/Syst 4.67). Within such a frame, the question of alcoholic consumption rarely surfaces. Instead, larger than life avowals that “wine is not for monks” (AP/Alph Poemen), vie with gustatory counterparts, for interpretive pride of place. Having sparked the imagination for well over a millennium, it is not surprising that such stories catch the reader’s eye. Rhetorically, this is the point. Close reading of both literary and material evidence, however, suggests that there is much to be gained from resisting their persuasive appeal. Reversing traditional emphases, this invites engaging a more complex continuum of practice, and breathing life into the larger than life.