Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Church is the period of almost six weeks preceding Holy Week and Easter every year. This year it began on Monday, March 14. The period is one of sobriety tinged with joy. The number and length of church services is increased and abstinence from many types of food is encouraged: in particular meat and dairy products cease to be part of the diet. All of this can sound strange and unfamiliar to contemporary American ears. This was probably much less the case for some of the founders of the Virginia colony and for the literate members of English society in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. To illustrate this let us briefly review some writings from this period.
George Sandys was the youngest son of the Anglican Archbishop of York. In 1621 George left England for Virginia to serve as colonial Treasurer, and later served on the Council of State, as did Philip Ludwell III over a century later. Prior to this he had travelled widely in the Eastern Mediterranean and published an account of his journey in London in 1615 with the title The Relations of a Journey begun an. dom. 1610.
The work devotes a number of pages to the belief and practice of the Greek Church. Regarding Orthodox fasting George Sandys writes:
Four Lents have they in the year, and then a damnable sin it is to eat flesh, or fish that have blood in it (except in the Lent before Easter, when all sorts of fish may be eaten by the laity) but shellfish they eat, and the cuttle: whole blood, if I may term it, is like ink; a delicate food, and in great request.
An even more detailed description of Great Lent is found in the French language travelogue of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort 1656-1708), a botanist of some renown in his day. His work A Voyage into the Levant was translated into English in 1718 and published in London in 1741. From there copies made their way to Virginia. Tournefort informs his readers regarding the practice of the Greek Church that:
Even the laymen keep four Lents; the first last two months, and ends at Easter, for which reason they call it the great Lent, or the Easter-Lent: in the first week of this Lent, it is lawful to eat Cheese, Milk, Fish, and Eggs; all which they are forbidden during the following weeks: they feed wholly upon shellfish, and such other as they believe to be without blood, as are the Polypus and the Cuttlefish.
At this point Tournefort becomes quite captivated by the Lenten diet, perhaps mixing a scientist’s love of classification with a French penchant for epicurean delight. He goes on to specify in some detail that:
they also eat the Eggs of certain Fish salted, and especially those of the [a] Mullet and [b] Sturgeon: the first are prepared upon the Coasts [c] of Ephesus and [d] Miletus, and the others on those of the Black Sea. The Shell-fish most eaten in Greece, are the [e] red Naker, the [f] common Oisters, which are perfectly delicious, and infinitely better than the [g] red Oisters, which do not agree with all Stomachs. The Greeks also eat a Fish call’d the [h] Goats-Eyes, Muscles, Periwinckles, and Sea-Hedgehodges. The Caloyers [Ed. Orthodox monks and nuns] in Lent live almost upon nothing but Roots: the Laymen, besides the Fish aforementioned, use Pulse and Honey, and drink Wine.
Tournefort’s work also describes other aspects of the season of Great Lent, including the journeying of monks from the Holy Mountain of Athos throughout Greece and Muscovy to sell oil for the support of their monasteries and to hear confessions amongst the people.
Photo credit: Top photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University.