The sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict places a premium on silence and proscribes speaking at various times, including during meals. In keeping with the spirit of this mandate, the monks of Cluny, an extremely wealthy and powerful monastery in southern Burgundy, placed a premium on silence from a very early date. The earliest descriptions of a sign language used at Cluny are recorded in two of the monastery's customaries, compiled during the last quarter of the eleventh century. A host of signals are described, but, tellingly, these lists begin with those for food. There were practical reasons for this, namely mandated silence in the refectory, but it also might evidence the relish with which monks enjoyed their food. Indeed, the translation offered here suggests that the monks ate very well.
Because the signals translated here are almost exclusively substantives, it would be nearly impossible to communicate any but the most rudimentary thoughts. That entire conversations were possible by means of gestures is suggested by contemporary criticisms of monks chattering away with hand signals. For our purposes, this would confirm the likely suspicion that the medieval monk enjoyed an even greater variety of foods than indicated here.
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