Food and Jesuits in the Early Modern Western World

This is the abstract of my last writing job, Food and Jesuits in the Early Modern Western World, published on 2019, December 6th, in the Journal IL CAPITALE CULTURALE. Studies on the Value of Cultural Heritage. I believe in Open Access! Full article available at this link:

The large number of Jesuit studies have failed to give due attention to the link between the order and food. This simple point, which I shall try to substantiate in what follows, explains why I have thought fit to propose some areas for research, on the basis of my own investigation, trends in historiography and, last but not least, Jesuit sources (published and otherwise). Starting with an analysis of the ideas connected with historical food studies, I will focus on the Jesuits over a time-span from the 1530s to the second half of the eighteenth century, going deeper into the issue of moderation (first part) and the dietary model that developed within the Society of Jesus (second part). I shall adopt an interdisciplinary perspective, with special attention to the contribution of anthropology.

Questo è l’abstract del mio ultimo saggio, Food and Jesuits in the Early Modern Western World, pubblicato il 6 dicembre 2019 nella rivista IL CAPITALE CULTURALE. Studies on the Value of Cultural Heritage. Sono un convinto sostenitore dell’accesso libero e gratuito.

L’articolo completo è disponibile a questo link:

Nella notevole quantità di studi relativi alla Compagnia di Gesù non ha ancora acquisto
uno spazio adeguato la questione del legame tra l’ordine e l’alimentazione. Questa semplice considerazione, che cercherò di precisare nelle pagine che seguono, è la ragione per cui mi è parso opportuno proporre alcune possibili prospettive di ricerca, sulla base di indagini personali, linee storiografiche, e, non ultime, fonti gesuitiche (edite e inedite). Partendo da un’analisi dei concetti storiografici legati ai food studies, mi concentrerò sull’ambito gesuitico in uno spazio cronologico compreso tra gli anni Trenta del XVI secolo e la seconda metà del XVIII secolo, approfondendo il tema della moderazione (prima parte) e il modello dell’alimentazione sviluppato all’interno della Society of Jesus (seconda parte), utilizzando una prospettiva interdisciplinare, attenta soprattutto ai contributi dell’antropologia.


Eating and Fasting among the Osage

Introduction. In the decade of 1820 to 1830, the missionary effort of the recently restored Society of Jesus was concentrated with particular intensity in some areas of the United States of America, Saint Louis being a primary center for reference. I write “recently restored” because between 1773 and 1821 the order lived in almost every corner of the world the parenthesis of suppression. One of the so-called Indian tribes in the midst of which the Jesuits were soon active was that of the Osage, who lived their lives and celebrated their rites in a vast territory in the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. End of introduction.

Among the first pastoral urgencies of the zealous missionaries was certainly that of changing the customs of life of the Osages, trying to bring them closer to the claimed superiority of Christian culture. For example:

“At rise of the day star, the Osage, and most all other Ind[ians] set up in their couch, and sing their morning prayers and next lay down again, but the women go to work, and prepair (sic) the breakfast to have it ready for sunrise. Next steps out, and smels (sic) from which way the smok (sic) of coffee is coming and… next he smokes – plays – goes out visiting or hunting – attend to his horses. No mercy for the squaws – they have to do all the druggers [drudgeries] of the house and carry wood and water … Meanwhile the men laugh at them … They say they wake do penance for having eaten the forbidden fruit.”

Like myself, there is an Italian writing in English. Of course, it is difficult to think that this description is completely credible, but at least it reveals that the male Osage had well understood what the missionaries wanted to hear. Even the meaning of “coffee” raises some questions, but let us move on.

And more: “They have no regular times for meals but eat whenever hungry. They lay down 15 on 80 meters in a circle around a big dish in which they have a gute [cut] of meat. Then they pass around a big spoon made of a bufalo (sic) horn, and each one helps himself from the main dish in which ther (sic) is meat, roots, vegetables, whatever is eatable. ”

For these lost souls, eaters of meat and ‘forbidden fruits,’ a catechism was needed, and in their own language. It was among others and in the following years that an Italian Jesuit, Paolo Ponziglione (1819-1900), who took care of  this issue by contributing with some of his confreres to put together a book in English and in Osage. This manuscript book was a very hard challenge, as explained by the date recorded on the title page: 1847-1887.

The part on fasting is in chapter XI, entitled “On the Commandments of the Church.”

“II. Of God’s Church the Commandments this is the second.

The 40 days (Lent) and days on which ashes are put on (Fasting days) and the day eve of a feast, on such days but once eat you shall, (shall take only one full meal). Also of the cross on the day (Friday) and on other forbidden days meat you shult (sic) not eat.

  1. The Church commands us to fast, for this reason she does so, that to God we may satisfy for our sins.
  2. If one cannot fast, the Church does not oblige to fast.”

Well, this second point immediately attracted my attention – I could even venture to say that I was getting excited. There are hundreds of pages of treatises in which this simple line (“If one cannot fast”) is examined in every possible (or probable) interpretation to clarify when one really “cannot fast”. I have also read some of these and wrote a detailed article . The answers are as numerous as the white men who arrived overseas and the disputes over the exceptions were inventive, severe and sometimes violent. There were huge disagreements; we cannot count the sinners as well as the dispensers.

Yet, for a missionary in the Mississippi valley of life, let us write it down, messed up by a thousand questions, which of fasting does not arise. If one cannot fast, one cannot – end of story. That is what they say:

Wanumble itzaletze winckie lutzackieta ouwacontzeaca hupacki pashielao.

We could add… What the hell!


Thanks so much to Taiga Gutierres for revising my English. This reconstruction, transcription in Osage language included, comes from the study of some documents consulted at the Saint Louis Jesuit Archives and Research Center. On the history of this mission: John Mack, Osage Mission: The Story of a Catholic Missionary Work in Southeast Kansas, in “The Catholic Historical Review”, Vol. 96, No. 2 (April, 2010), pp. 262-281.


Realities of everyday life – CFP on Jesuit Studies

Dear readers,

here is a proposal for every “Jesuitmaniac”. Feel free to share! 

Call for Papers – Potential Panel at the


Engaging the World: The Jesuits and Their Presence in Global History

Lisbon, June 17–19, 2020


Proposed Panel Topic: “Realities of everyday life”

Panel submission organized by: Claudio Ferlan (FBK, Italian-German Historical Institute, Trento, Italy; Boston College, Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies, Research Fellow)

For the International Symposium, I am proposing a panel that will focus on the daily activities and engagements of Jesuit missionaries in every corner of the world, in early modern as well as in modern age (old and restored Society). In particular, I welcome paper submissions for this panel that examine how the missionaries interacted with indigenous people, sharing with them everyday life, as they sought to adapt local life or accepted changes to their own customs.

With respect to the general guidelines given by the organizers of the Symposium, the proposals for this proposed panel should take into account these following questions:

  • How can indigenous people be seen in the books, maps, correspondence, and other materiality produced by Jesuits? And in what ways do those sources obscure those communities? What new sources should be consulted to better understand the indigenous people’s experiences with Jesuit evangelization?
  • What were the benefits, hindrances, and consequences of Jesuit accommodation to local customs and virtues? How can Jesuit accommodation be seen in art, theological treatises, scientific work, and pedagogical approaches?

I welcome proposals for this potential panel that consider:

  • Food culture (food and beverages, meals sharing, recipes, cooking…)
  • Common time:
    • Working, Hunting, Fishing and Gathering
    • Sleeping and dreaming
  • Extraordinary Time: Pastimes, Games and Sports


To be considered for this panel submission, proposals and a narrative CV (together no more than 500 words) must be submitted by October 14, 2019 to

More information about the Symposium is available at

1561132234360 JEsuit

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.