Jesuits and Food. Jesuit Studies Café, Boston College

Next week, on Thursday December 13 (9.15 Eastern Time) I will give a talk via Zoom (conference call), entitled “Food and Jesuits”. It is a wonderful opportunity for me: I will be able to tell a group of very good scholars about my research. The conference is open to the public; just send an email to for information.

I thought of this post as an opportunity to tell about myself as food historian, as usual, but also as a way to introduce the topics that I will discuss during the conference.

In my research at the Archivum Romanum of the Society of Jesus, I have consulted and collected a large amount of documents that tell us something about food. Of course, there is a lot I have not seen, but the future belongs to us. In rearranging this large mass of documents, I realized that I could organize it into two large thematic nuclei, moderation and sociability. This needs an introduction.

Introduction: Historiographical concepts: Cuisine, Diet, Food Culture.

The Association for the Study of Food and Society is aimed at the promotion of interdisciplinary study of food and society. I refer to this Association to highlight one of the most recent debates that started in the Google Group of the affiliates. The question is: What is cuisine? Someone wrote: “There are no finite limits to the cuisines in the world”, this sentence applies even more for history. For example, we know that our sources push us to study the upper classes cuisines. Early modern Jesuits were often highborn and their food culture reveals it, as David Gentilcore showed in his studies about food and Jesuits in Roman Province during the 17th Century.

Cuisines are like languages, like forms of government: they overlap, intersect, and change; they need communities with shared understandings of what their food is and they need a discourse about that. At the same time, cuisines are a combination of foodstuffs (ingredients), dishes (ingredients transformed through specific procedures) and meals (culturally recognized eating events).

In my opinion, for the Jesuit studies “cuisine” is not enough.

There are other elements, which go beyond cuisine: the diet, for example. Diet is an abstraction for the total of what an individual or a group eat over a specific period. More, there are rules, controversies, calendars to respect, economic indications, moments to share.

For this reason, I prefer to use the concept of Jesuit food culture, to refer to food customs and values shared by a community.

In my opinion, if we look at the Jesuit food culture, we can recognize two concepts:

  1. Moderation
  2. Sociability

Let me start from

  1. Moderation

Moderation in eating (its opposite is gluttony).

Moderation in drinking (its opposite is drunkenness).

The moderation idea corresponded to contemporary medical notions of how best to nourish the body and maintain its health.

The discourse on moderation is developed, above all, around the regulation of the ecclesiastical fasting.

There is another form of moderation, typical of the Society of Jesus, moderation in privation: it applied to fasting and abstinence too.

This attitude firstly derives from the biographical experience of Ignatius and secondly from the goals of the Society.

The privations to which Loyola underwent during the conversion period left two significant legacies: first of all a persistent stomach pain particularly aggressive. These pains would have accompanied him until his death. The second consequence was the strengthening of the belief that the rules of fasting should be observed insofar as they allowed to guarantee a perfect balance both to physical and mental health.

It was necessary to have respect for the body, taking care not to debilitate the stomach, but on the contrary to reinforce it: a weak physique, in fact, would not have allowed the spirit to act for the better.

  1. Sociability

Meals are not just food. They are part of the food culture, as specific culturally recognized eating events, shared by a community.

For Marcel Mauss a total social fact is “an activity that has implications throughout society, in the economic, legal, political, and religious spheres”. Anthropological researches include alimentation in the group of “total social facts”.

If we look at the Jesuit food culture, we realize that the definition of “total social fact” is well founded.

Let me focus on the different spheres mentioned by Marcel Mauss, starting from society. Eating is usually a group event, food becomes a center of symbolic activity about sociality and our place in the society, and this applies even more to the members of a closed group, like a religious order, one of the most meaningful moments of the common life.

I just need to mention the differences in the table service between normal and “very important” people.  For example, potential donor deserve a special treatment: they are “caresses” in the Jesuitical language. Inside the Society, there are cases of Superiors who pretend rich portions, fancy food.

The rules of dining hall behavior were very strict. You had to be quiet, listen to edifying readings, follow a strict order of service and respect the schedule. But disobedience to the norm was the rule.

Economy. I have personally dealt with the economic issues related to food history researching on the yerba mate in the Reducciones of the Paraguayan province. The topic is widely represented in the sources.

In addition, there are documents that detail the close link between economics and law. For example, the orders relating to food expenses and to the responsibility to feed Jesuits who moved from one province to another, show a high rate of conflict.

Food is an important issue of canon law too. We have many treatises about fasting rules, for example. Chocolate became part of the theological and canonical debate between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries because of its identity.

These are just a few examples, perhaps useful in building the foundation for a discourse on the Jesuit food culture, an issue that deserves to be investigated in depth. We have a lot of work to do.



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