Fasting on the Sabbath in the Middle Ages
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the first two parts of this series, we reviewed the early history of fasting on the Sabbath. To read parts one and two, click the following links: Part 1 [click here] and Part 2 [click here].
The concept of mandatory fasting every weekly Sabbath is never suggested in the Bible. It was introduced through the heretic Marcion in the mid second century AD. Most of Christianity, including the Roman Church, initially condemned Marcion and this practice. However, the Sabbath fast was later utilized by the Roman Church as a tool to denigrate and demean the Sabbath’s importance. In the early 400s AD, Pope Innocent I made it mandatory. At times, those who refused to comply were ostracized.
In part two of the series, we reviewed how the Eastern Churches refused the practice of a mandatory Sabbath fast. The Trullan Synod was held in the early 690s AD with the approval of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian II. It condemned the Saturday fast imposed by Rome on the basis of the fourth/fifth century work called The Apostolic Canons.
After this brief review of fasting on the Sabbath, we can now move into sources in the Middle Ages on this subject. The Sabbath fast continued to appear in Church History.
Opposition to the Sabbath fast reached its height in the ninth and eleventh centuries. In 867, Photius I was the patriarch of Constantinople. This position meant to the Eastern Churches what the Pope/Bishop of Rome means to Western Churches.
With the support of the Emperor, Photius excommunicated the Western Churches. His reasoning rested on five points of disagreement. The first point listed was fasting on the Sabbath. He went so far as to say that the Latins were “…forerunners of apostasy, servants of Antichrist who deserve a thousand deaths, liars, fighters against God” (Catholic Encyclopedia: Photius of Constantinople). Of course, Photius might have said some of these things because the Pope tried to depose and excommunicate him.
This schism was healed during the patriarchy of Antony II (893-895), but this reunion did not last. The anti-Roman sentiment left by Photius’ supporters carried on for centuries into the future.
The permanent separation of Western and Eastern Churches occurred in 1053/1054. This is called the Great Schism. The patriarch Michael Cærularius sent a letter to the Pope complaining about several points of practice that he believed to be unorthodox. Among them was fasting on Sabbath. He closed all the Western Churches in Constantinople and the schism again was established.
Not long after this, Pope Gregory VII changed the Saturday fast from a complete abstention of foods to that of only meats. In the Council of Rome 1078, canon seven ruled that no one should eat meat on Saturday unless another church festival occurred on that day of the week (Mansi, 20:510).
In this same century, Saturday was dedicated by the Catholic Church to Mary. Pope Urban II, who declared the first Crusade, was behind this official declaration. At the Council of Clermont in 1095, he commanded that “It is mandatory for all Christians that they should recite the office of the Blessed virgin on every Sabbath day” (Mansi, 20:820-821). The 16th/17th century Cardinal Caesar Baronus lists this as canon 33 of the council (Annles Ecclesiastici, volume 18, 1869, p 22).
The practice of fasting from meat on the Sabbath and honoring Mary became intertwined over the following centuries. We have a timeline of some councils that confirm this conclusion.
1219 – The Council of Toulouse – Canon 3 ruled that clergy were required to go to church on Saturday to honor Mary.
1229 – Council of Toulouse – Canon 25 enforced a fine of 12 denarios if someone did not attend any of the sacred services of the church. It adds that people were required to attend services to reverence Mary on the evening of the Sabbath (Mansi, 23:200).
1337 – Council of Avignon –In canon 5, clergy in the Catholic Church were required to fast from meat on Saturdays in honor of the Virgin Mary. They hoped this would set a good example for the laity.
1351 – Council of Besiers – In canon 7, all those in the clergy were required to fast from meat on Saturdays.
1368 – Council of Lavaur – Canon 90 instructed all clergy to fast from meat on Saturdays for Mary. In canons 123 and 124, those Christians who prayed for the pope during the mass of Mary on Saturday would receive an indulgence.
1450 – Council of Constantinople – This Council was an attempt to reunite the Latin and Greek churches just before the fall of Constantinople. Among the disagreements they attempted to work out was the Saturday Fast of the Latin Churches. It was not long after this that the city of Constantinople was overtaken by Muslim invaders.
This gives you a brief history of the Sabbath fast during the Middle Ages. It became a requirement sometimes on everyone and at other times just on clergy to abstain from meat and honor Mary on the Sabbath. This is the most likely explanation as to why the Roman Catholic Church practices Saturday mass today.
Mandatory Sabbath fasting is not a practice that we should adopt. Also, the Sabbath was dedicated to God. Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, not Mary. These non-Biblical practices gradually were adopted by the Roman Church.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
President, Bible Sabbath Association (www.biblesabbath.org)