Fat monks and other medieval mysteries

By Peter Lazenby Was Friar Tuck really that fat?

He almost certainly was, as medieval monks were in the habit of consuming around 6,000 calories of food a day, while their physical activities were limited by many hours of contemplation and prayer.

The lifestyle of monks in medieval times is one of the subjects being aired at Britain's biggest academic conference, taking place in Leeds this week.

The 11th annual International Medieval Congress staged by Leeds University is being attended by 1,300 academics, writers and journalists from more than 40 countries.

It will hear 1,000 new papers presented on medieval subjects.

Its main theme is "Clash of Cultures", looking at the conflicts between the Christian and Islamic worlds of more than 1,000 years ago.

But it also looks at people's lifestyles, analysing remains of buildings, weapons and people.


Among them will be an examination of the way of life of medieval monks, based on evidence discovered in archaeological explorations, including investigations into their diet.

Hannah Love of the University of Leeds said: "The conference has grown into the biggest academic conference in the UK, with 1,000 papers presented.

"The theme is 'Clash of Cultures' between east and west, events like the sacking of Constantinople.

"There were a lot of tensions between the two cultures then, as we might see now.

"But there are a lot of other subjects, such as looking at the lives of monks in medieval times. Was the image of Friar Tuck right?

"When you think of Friar Tuck, you think of someone big and jolly with a hearty appetite.

"Well, they were consuming 6,000 calories a day, so it is no wonder they were big."

A paper on medieval monks is being presented by Phillipa Patrick.

Among others seeking to learn lessons from history is renowned travel writer Bill Bryson.

Last year he took time off from his usual occupation of producing humorous descriptions of his journeys around the United States and Britain, to produce his critically-acclaimed A Short History of Nearly Everything.

The book chronicles the origins of the universe, the history of life, human evolution and future threats to the Earth.

It won him the Aventis Prize, the world's most prestigious science book award.

As a result, he joined the ranks of such scientific luminaries as world-famous astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking.

At the Leeds congress, Bryson will join members of the media and academics to discuss what lessons can be learned today from medieval history.

Leeds University Institute of Medieval Studies director Richard Morris said: "The Leeds congress is a kind of academic Glastonbury – an occasion where sharing the latest research, performance and having fun go together.

"It's special in both range and scale. There's nothing quite like it anywhere else in Europe."

The congress began yesterday and ends on Thursday.


Alex Newman, partner at Irwin Mitchell in Leeds

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