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Volume 16, Issue 5: Sheepdog

Cheese ofThe Poets of Cheese

Aaron Rench

I have a quarrel with Gilbert (Keith Chesterton). Supposedly the poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. But it appears as if the great poet himself has become partially blind to members of his own people. And though I usually find it hard to disagree with the last of the great Puritans, I must point out at least one area in which his claim of cheese and poets is slightly off the mark.

Over one thousand years ago, there was cheese in Europe. And cheese existed one-thousand years before that too. We have had cheese for a very long time, but not nachos. And we are quite familiar with the scribal work of medieval monasteries. But the cheese production of these monasteries is not so well-known.
Of course, we are familiar with the slander known as the "Dark Ages," and we know that the phrase is just a euphemism for the idea that the church kills progress and culture. And whenever a medieval achievement is too wonderful to be suppressed or hidden any longer, modern historians have developed a mathematical formula, commonly called scholarly research, which can show how it actually had a secular origin and was part of a defiant revolution against all organized religion. Cultural achievements originating in the Dark Ages are interpreted as nothing but glimmers of secular shine in a dark and specifically Christian cave. But the center of almost all cultural activity during that period was located in the church, and thus in the monasteries.
We know about much of the work which the monasteries accomplished in education, literature, music, history, art, and other various pursuits. And although we know that monks loved their food, their gastronomic accomplishments are not as well-known as their schools. Interestingly enough, the great strides in the development of cheese took place during the Middle Ages in the monasteries. Many of the cheeses that we have today were invented by and even named after monasteries. One good example is Munster cheese, invented by Benedictine monks, after they established a monastery in Alsace around the year 660. This same monastery was soon surrounded by a village, as was commonly the case, which they then named Munster. The name Munster came from the Latin word for monastery. The village was dependent upon the monastery in many ways, and this was clear by the way in which the village was named. The monks were involved in a number of farming pursuits, including dairy production. And the cows were allowed to graze in the lush pastures surrounding the village. As a cheese master will tell you, the flavor and quality of the milk have everything to do with the quality of the cheese. And because the cows grazed in fertile meadows, their milk was rich and soon produced a wonderful cheese called by the same name. This little cheese brought even more boost to the village economy. The Irish monks used Munster to help feed the poor, and also taught the local villagers how to make it. The people in turn were able to barter the cheese for the use of land which they could farm . From its inception, Munster cheese has been a symbol of prosperity, blessing, and generosity. And this is always the role of a symbol, and everything is a symbol, in the hands of any faithful poet. But this is not the only cheese which the merry men of the cloth brought into existence.
Parmesan cheese was also invented by Benedictine and Cistercian monks of the Po Valley in Italy. The production of parmesan was also the driver in the development of some of Italy's first dairies. In the twelfth century, the dairies in that region became known as the "cradle of parmigiano-reggiano." And it was the ingenious experimentation of the monks that brought about Parmesan cheese. In the monastery kitchens, the monks learned that through the process of double-heating the milk, a thick substance was produced that would later develop into Parmesan. It is even admitted by other researchers that "It was only in the setting of the Benedictine abbeys that it would have been possible to develop the sophisticated techniques used. They were derived from an attentive and meticulous observation of the bio-chemical processes that occurred as the cheese was processed and ripened."
But Munster and Parmesan cheese were not the exception for Benedictine monasteries. In fact "Many typical European cheeses are named after Benedictine monasteries of the period: Belleaye, Chaligny, Beval, Briquebec, Champaneac, Chambarand, Citeax, Cluny, Conques, Igny, Laval, Mont-Des-Cats, Munster, Saint-Maur and Tamie." Maroilles is another cheese that was invented by a monastery, and also named after it, as were the cheeses Port Salut and Saint-Nectaire.
In summary, the monasteries were almost as well known for their piety as they were for the quality of their food. Wherever monasteries went there was agricultural growth and economic blessing. Food production was something that did not happen haphazardly for the monks, and by the year 1550 there were more than fifty varieties of cheese in France. As noted elsewhere, this is why we still see packages of cheese today with pictures of red-faced, cheerful monks gracing the labels.
But why all this talk of monasteries and cheese in an article with a title like this one? The first reason is that we can always use a reminder of how the riches of civilization almost always find their source in the faithfulness of the church to the Gospel. And this is true no matter how hard modern historians work at trying to shape us into ungrateful little students of history. Christian monks were able to turn a little thing like old milk into faithfulness to God's Word by feeding the poor. And consequently, one thousand years later Munster cheese has become useful for making one spectacular cheeseburger, as my brother-in-law will testify.
But the other reason for talking this way about monks and their cheese is that too often we forget that monasteries were the creative writing schools of the Middle Ages. If you were a medieval and you wanted to get a MFA in poetry, you would have had to become a Benedictine monk to pursue such a goal. The monks were the poets of their time. I bet that the scribe/scop behind Beowulf was a Benedictine monk. John Lydgate (1370-1450) is just one example of a poet who was educated by Benedictine monks. He became a well-known poet and was also an avid fan of Chaucer. He became a priest in 1397 and later opened another school in the monastery. He was also a court poet, and wrote a poem for the coronation of Henry VI. And the education that prepared him for his poetic career was his education in the order of St. Benedict. I love the fact that even this past summer a talk was given to the Association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities by a man I had never heard of before, Gary Bouchard, in which he argues that Benedictines "may have a special responsibility to foster literary studies." Bouchard also makes an interesting point when he says, "It is no small matter that the monastic cloister is one of the last places on earth where poetry is still recited on a daily basis." In her book Poemcrazy, Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge gives us the monastic and poetic advice that "We can find poems just by listening, being a scribe and catching the words." Her advice is something that monks a thousand years ago practiced diligently. Remember this—monks were poets.
In preparation for this article, I conducted a small survey of poetry to see if Chesterton's claim would hold true. And as far as my small survey goes, he does have a point. Not too much cheese out there in the poetic landscape. But more importantly we learn that while the poets don't talk a lot about cheese, they are the ones who invented a large percentage of the cheese that we eat today, and they most certainly laid the foundation of cheese development and production for us moderns. And this pattern frequently seems to be the case. Poets are at the heart of what it means to be made in the image of God. Poets are creators, and their creations are full of surprise.

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