A Nice Place to Vomit: Notes for Mardi Gras 2015

Room to Vomit

Eat and drink, saith he to thee; But his heart is not with thee. The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up, And lose thy sweet words. [Proverbs 23:7-8].

Ancient Romans loved to eat and drink. So much so that a full stomach was not enough to keep them from prolonging their sensuous feasting. To be able to continue eating at their lavish banquets, prosperous Roman citizens would induce vomiting of their recently consumed meals to make room in their stomachs for more.

In affluent Roman houses, such as those found at Pompeii, a room was set aside for regurgitation. As the quotes below suggest, Romans enjoyed eating and they enjoyed vomiting.

Some disagreement exists about how the word “vomitorium” was used in Caesar’s time. No controversy exists, however, about the description by early Roman authors of excessive eating and purging.

… [In earlier times, Roman] women never lost their hair or suffered from pain in the feet; and yet nowadays they run short of hair and are afflicted with gout. This does not mean that woman’s physique has changed, but that it has been conquered; in rivalling male indulgences they have also rivalled the ills to which men are heirs. They keep just as late hours, and drink just as much liquor; they challenge men in wrestling and carousing; they are no less given to vomiting from distended stomachs and to thus discharging all their wine again; nor are they behind the men in gnawing ice, as a relief to their fevered digestions. [Seneca, Moral Epistles, no. XCV].

Vitellius always made three meals per day, sometimes four: breakfast, dinner and supper and a drunken revel after all. This load of victuals he could bear well enough, from a custom to which he had inured himself of frequently vomiting. [Suetonius].

From every quarter they gather together every known and unknown thing to tickle a fastidious palate; the food which their stomachs, weakened by indulgence, can scarcely retain is fetched from farthest ocean; they vomit that they may eat, they eat that they may vomit, and they do not deign even to digest the feasts for which they ransack the whole world. [Seneca, Book XII to Helvia His Mother on Consolation].

Monastic Order

The devotion and discipline of Christian monks and ascetics offered dramatic contrast to the degenerating Roman society. Monastic orders both inspired and required abstinence. They brought sacredness into eating and piety into celebrations.

Even more, the neighboring lay adherents saw in them living testimony of spiritual perseverance and commitment. Sanctity flowed from the monastery into every corner of the Roman society.

People perceived monks as trustworthy and sincere agents of God, if for no other reason than their renunciation of material comforts and worldly appetites. Their ascetic practices and spiritual exercises demonstrated to the individual and the society that conquest of physical desires was in fact possible and beneficial.

Let us fast, brethren and sisters, lest tomorrow perchance we die. Openly let us vindicate our disciplines. Sure we are that “they who are in the flesh cannot please God”; not, of course, those who are in the substance of the flesh, but in the care, the affection, the work, the will, of it. Emaciation displeases not us; for it is not by weight that God bestows flesh, any more than He does “the Spirit by measure.” [Tertullian, On Fasting].

Middle-age Spread

However, the religious are not immune to gluttony and intemperance. Monks, too, became victims of excessive eating and worldly overindulgence. Gradually the Church reduced its regulations on abstinence, while the clergy increased its drunkenness. The prophetic words of Isaiah could well apply to conditions prevailing during the Middle Ages.

Priests and prophets stagger from beer and are befuddled with wine; they reel from beer, they stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so that there is no place clean. Whom shall He teach knowledge? and whom shall He make to understand doctrine? [Isaiah 28:7-9].

The obese friars of medieval England may be humorously depicted in literature. Chaucer’s monk in The Canterbury Tales certainly did not live in accord with St Benedict’s Rule.

Fat was this lord, he stood in goodly case…
His boots were soft; his horse of great estate.
Now certainly he was a fine prelate:
He was not pale as some poor wasted ghost.
A fat swan loved he best of any roast. [Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Prologue].

However this, if fact, depicted common practices. Avarice and profligacy plagued the medieval clergy, reflecting serious decay in discipline and restraint. Their insatiable appetites alienated many sincere seekers of Truth, and contributed to the great upheaval in religious loyalties of the Reformation.

[The medieval monks’] diet has been classified as “a form of high class diet.” That would mean very few people, only the upper echelons of society, could have managed to match the monks in terms of quality and quantity of their diet … Monks weren’t eating fast food and sitting in front of the television, but in a way the unbalanced diet and relative inactivity are comparable [Philippa Patrick].

The noted scholar of monastic history, the late Benedictine monk, Adalbert de Vogüé, described the decline in fasting in his own order. He called for a return to fasting to rekindle the fire that once prevailed in monasteries throughout Europe.

… let us return from these concrete details to the essential, which is “to love fasting,” as Saint Benedict says. Today’s monks no longer practice it; they do not even know what it is. How could they “love” it? … We shall practice the fast only if we love it. But to love it we need to experience its benefits, and thus we need to practice it. Happy he who breaks out of this circle, trusting in the wisdom of the Rule and trying it! [To Love Fasting: An Observance that is Possible and Necessary Today, Adalbert de Vogüé, O.S.B., American Benedictine Review 35:3-Sept. 1984. pp. 302-312].

Cutting Edge Gluttony

To the modern man, vomiting to lengthen the enjoyment of eating appears a vulgar practice devoid of propriety and etiquette. Today’s practices are more culturally refined.

The vomitorium has been replaced by exercising equipment, health clubs and accommodating medical and pharmaceutical industries. Instead of vomiting our food to eat more, we use the most advanced technology available. We exercise, diet, alter caloric contents of food and even resort to medical procedures.

So now, we can eat until our skin erupts, our teeth rot, and our body bulges. Then, equipment can relieve the condition, cosmetics disguise the results, and surgery remove deformities. Who needs self-restraint or moderation?

As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness. [Proverbs 26:11].

Fasting is not socially convenient, politically expedient, or economically profitable. Few advocate it. And so, we remain mired in excesses, but placated by ever more ingenious medical and technological advances.

Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower the man who lives for the pursuit of pleasures, who is uncontrolled in his senses, immoderate in eating, indolent and dissipated. [The Dhammapada: Ch. 1, The Pairs].

In any event, as stained police blotters for this year’s carnivals will again show, our culture still does not offer drunken revelers a nice place to vomit.

Ascetic practices, which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God … In order to submit the will to God, we must have a will and that will must have objects. Christian renunciation does not mean stoic ‘Apathy’, but a readiness to prefer God to inferior ends which are in themselves lawful. [C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. p. 112].


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