The Anti-Gluttony Door in Portugal’s Alcobaça Monastery Shamed Plump Monks to Start Fasting

Con­sid­er that you eat the sins of the peo­ple

—inscrip­tion carved above the entrance to the Monastery of Alcobaça’s refec­to­ry

Appar­ent­ly, the Monastery of Alcobaça’s res­i­dent monks were eat­ing plen­ty of oth­er things, too.

Even­tu­al­ly their rep­u­ta­tion for exces­sive plump­ness became prob­lem­at­ic.

A hefty physique may have sig­ni­fied pros­per­i­ty and health in 1178 when con­struc­tion began on the UNESCO World Her­itage site, but by the 18th-cen­tu­ry, those extra rolls of flesh were con­sid­ered at odds with the Cis­ter­cian monks’ vows of obe­di­ence, pover­ty and chasti­ty.

Its larders were well stocked, thanks in part to the rich farm­land sur­round­ing the monastery.

18th-cen­tu­ry trav­el­er William Beck­ford described the kitchen in Rec­ol­lec­tions of an Excur­sion to the Monas­ter­ies of Alcobaça and Batal­ha:

On one side, loads of game and veni­son were heaped up; on the oth­er, veg­eta­bles and fruit in end­less vari­ety. Beyond a long line of stoves extend­ed a row of ovens, and close to them hillocks of wheat­en flour whiter than snow, rocks of sug­ar, jars of the purest oil, and pas­try in vast abun­dance, which a numer­ous tribe of lay broth­ers and their atten­dants were rolling out and puff­ing up into a hun­dred dif­fer­ent shapes, singing all the while as blithe­ly as larks in a corn-field.

Lat­er he has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sam­ple some of the dish­es issu­ing from that kitchen:

The ban­quet itself con­sist­ed of not only the most excel­lent usu­al fare, but rar­i­ties and del­i­ca­cies of past sea­sons and dis­tant coun­tries; exquis­ite sausages, pot­ted lam­preys, strange mess­es from the Brazils, and oth­ers still stranger from Chi­na (edi­ble birds’ nests and sharks’ fins), dressed after the lat­est mode of Macao by a Chi­nese lay broth­er. Con­fec­tionery and fruits were out of the ques­tion here; they await­ed us in an adjoin­ing still more spa­cious and sump­tu­ous apart­ment, to which we retired from the efflu­via of viands and sauces.

Lat­er in his trav­els, he is tak­en to meet a Span­ish princess, who inquires, “How did you leave the fat wad­dling monks of Alcobaça? I hope you did not run races with them.”

Per­haps such tat­tle is what con­vinced the brass that some­thing must be done.

The rem­e­dy took the form of a por­ta pega-gor­do (or “fat catch­er door”), 6′ 6″ high, but only 12.5” wide.

Keep in mind that David Bowie, at his most slen­der, had a 26” waist.

Alleged­ly, each monk was required to pass through it from the refec­to­ry to the kitchen to fetch his own meal. Those who couldn’t squeeze through were out of luck.

Did they have to sit in the refec­to­ry with their faces to the walls, silent­ly eat­ing the sins of the peo­ple (respicite quia pec­ca­ta pop­uli comedi­tis) while their slim­mer brethren filled their bel­lies, also silent­ly, face-to-the-wall, as a read­er read reli­gious texts aloud from a pul­pit?

His­to­ry is a bit unclear on this point, though Beckford’s enthu­si­asm waned when he got to the refec­to­ry:

…a square of sev­en­ty or eighty feet, begloomed by dark-coloured paint­ed win­dows, and dis­graced by tables cov­ered with not the clean­est or least unc­tu­ous linen in the world.

Accord­ing to a Ger­man Wikipedia entry, the monks passed through the por­ta pega-gor­do month­ly, rather than dai­ly, a more man­age­able mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the flesh for those with healthy appetites.

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

If you are assem­bling a buck­et list of des­ti­na­tions for when we can trav­el freely again, con­sid­er adding this beau­ti­ful Goth­ic monastery (and the cel­e­brat­ed pas­try shop across the street). Your choice whether or not to suck it in for a pho­to in front of the por­ta pega-gor­do.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Medieval Monks Com­plained About Con­stant Dis­trac­tions: Learn How They Worked to Over­come Them

Moun­tain Monks: A Vivid Short Doc­u­men­tary on the Monks Who Prac­tice an Ancient, Once-For­bid­den Reli­gion in Japan

How Tibetan Monks Use Med­i­ta­tion to Raise Their Periph­er­al Body Tem­per­a­ture 16–17 Degrees

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She most recent­ly appeared as a French Cana­di­an bear who trav­els to New York City in search of food and mean­ing in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • David says:

    David Bowie would have fit through the door with room to spare — waist mea­sure­ments are in cir­cum­fer­ence, but door mea­sure­ments are widths (or diam­e­ters, of a cir­cle). Mul­ti­ply­ing 12.5” by pi gives you ~39.27” diameter/width.

  • Terry Walsh says:

    ‘respicte quia pec­ca­ta pop­uli comedi­tis’ should be

    respicite quia pec­ca­ta pop­uli comedi­tis

    ‘con­sum­ing’ would be a bet­ter trans­la­tion.

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