...Hollywood probably has it right, friar tuck was most likely overweight.
Have you ever noticed the tendency in Hollywood or television series to depict monks, such as Friar Tuck in Robin Hood, as rather heavy set? I hadn’t; or at least it hadn’t registered until recently. Even if I had noticed this tendency I perhaps would have written it off as a lazy stereotype to be utilised for cheap gags or, in my more cynical moments, a sly dig at the opulence of the Church in the middle ages. However, there may be a little more this depiction than you might expect.
A lot of the information that a historian has regarding gluttony on the part of monks is such that one must take it with a pinch of salt. Sources such as the reports conducted by inspectors of the Monasteries on behalf of Thomas Cromwell are easy to write off. These discovered monks engaged in a whole litany of vices, with gluttony being one of the seven deadly sins. Clearly such claims cannot be taken at face value given the vested interest such visitations had in finding wrongdoing. Much the same can be said for some of the anti clerical writings of the Reformation. However, recent archaeological investigation seems to have lent at least some credence to such accusations. Excavations of the remains of monks at three London based abbeys, for example, show the incidence of obesity related joint conditions to be five times higher than in the secular population.1 Moreover, the domestic accounts of some monasteries also paint a picture of indulgence, with monks eating five eggs and 700g of meat a day at St Swithun’s Priory in Winchester!2
Such information can hardly be deemed conclusive and we should not imagine that every monk, prior and friar was corpulent. To thoughtlessly extrapolate such limited data would be to stand on shaky ground. However, it does seem that Hollywood has a little factual backing for its caricatures of Friar Tuck and other monks as people who would mind going back for seconds.
1. Gilchrist & Sloane, Requiem: The Medieval Monastic Cemetery in Britain, 2005
2. M. Whittock, Life in the Middle Ages, 2009