Christian Fast Days in the Middle Ages

Why were Wednesday, Friday and Saturday considered fast days in the Middle Ages?

Although Ian Mortimer states that Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays were fast days in his The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, it seems that this was not necessarily the case. Melitta Weiss Adamson in  Food in Medieval Times states that Christians copied Jewish practice of fasting on Monday and Thursdays and added Saturday on as well.

But she states that Wednesday taken out in the West, at the expense of Saturday. This seems to contradict Mortimer – unfortunately I don’t know the sources yet of either Mortimer or Weiss Adamson’s assertions.

Weiss Adamson goes on to tell us that there was fasting also before major feasts and that these were called ‘Ember Days’. I assume that the weekly non-meat days are not ‘Ember Days’, but as Mortimer calls them ‘fish days’.

“Ember Days, from Latin Quattuor Tempora, meaning “four times,” are fast days at the beginning of the seasons, specifically Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after December 13 (Saint Lucia), after Ash Wednesday, after Whitsuntide, and after September 14 (Exaltation of the Cross)”

Fasting meant no eating before nones, or 3pm. By 14th century lent fast ended at midday and also allowed a small meal in the evening.

List of “forbidden foodstuffs was trimmed down further and in medieval times essentially included the meat of warm-blooded animals, milk, dairy products, and eggs”

In practice this meant the eating of a lot of fish – dried cod and herring for the poor, or vegetables – i.e. pottage.

“Exempt from the fasting laws were children, the old, pilgrims, workers, and beggars. Not exempt, however, were the poor when they had a roof over their heads.”

What I find quite interesting and slightly unclear is that the above statement of Weiss Adamson’s indicates that anyone who works is exempt from fasting – so did that mean you could eat whatever you liked if doing work? Did tilling the fields or working at a trade count? I would assume that it meant rather that the laws on timing of food was relaxed so that you could eat a bit earlier in the day if you were working.


Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times, p 188

Mortimer, Ian, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (London, 2009), p167-168


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