August 26, 2014

Pouqueville on Greek Fasting Practices in 1798

Francois Pouqueville in front of Ioannina (Collection du Chateau de Versailles)

When Francois Pouqueville was held hostage by the Turks in Ottoman Greece in 1798, he gained the respect of the Turks and Greeks alike as a physician, treating and curing the people who were unaware of French medical techniques. One of the practices of the impoverished and enslaved Greeks that made him question their sanity was their rigorous faithfulness and honor of the fasts of the Orthodox Church, despite having practically nothing to eat otherwise. The following is taken from his book Travels in Greece and Turkey (ch. 12):

Fasting is considered in the Greek Church as so very important a part of religion, that there are only a hundred and thirty days in the year free from it. Besides the four Lents which precede Easter, Whitsunside, the Assumption, and Christmas, they have vigils without end. Every Wednesday is a fast, because it was on that day that Judas received the money from the Jews for betraying Christ, and Friday in remembrance of the crucifixion. It is difficult to form an idea of the manner in which the Greeks live on these days, particularly during the whole of the Lent that precedes Easter. The women are then occupied in searching for snails, and gathering herbs of various kinds, often from the most rugged rocks, or from lands the most unproductive. Perhaps it is this which has given occasion to a proverb very common, that a Greek can live where an ass would be starved.

The time of Lent is one of expiation; and though all other crimes may be compromised, he who should have violated a fast, and should accuse himself of it, would scarcely be able to obtain absolution at any price. I have seen people in sickness, or women lying-in, refuse not only to eat meat, but to take a small quantity of broth, because it would be violating the fast. I have remonstrated with them in vain, representing how great a risk they were running; they answered me coolly, that what God had ordered could not be dispensed with.