In almost all religions, dietary rules and food taboos play an important role. The example of the Russian Old Believers shows the importance that food practices and body images can have in differentiating them from those of other faiths.
Anyone who looks at the relevant forums on Facebook or Instagram can see that the conscious selection of food, the avoidance of food and fasting can be a means of making oneself look better and devaluing those who eat differently. The posts, sometimes written using harsh words, make it clear: nutrition is more than food intake; entire world conceptions lie behind it. Precisely because humans are omnivores, they can choose between very different foods – or decide to do without certain foods. Thus one assigns themselves to certain groups and separates oneself from others. The Reformation in Western Europe shows how historically momentous this could be – in Switzerland, for example, its beginning is marked by a case of insubordinate sausage consumption: Here in 1522, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) published his first Reformation writing, Von der Freyheit der Spysen (On the Freedom of Meals), in which he defended the book printer, Christoph Froschauer (c. 1490-1564), who had given sausages to his workers during Lent. Zwingli argued that God was indifferent to whether people ate meat or plants.
In Russia, too, questions of nutrition became questions of faith in the early modern period. This was particularly evident after the reforms of Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) in the mid-17th century. The head of the church wanted to bring the liturgy and rites of the Orthodox Church in the Moscow Empire back into line with Byzantine forms. In some aspects, this development has similarities to the Reformation. Thus, the very different religious practices of the faithful were to be unified, which in turn was to consolidate the rule of the church superiors. Because many Christians in the Moscow Empire feared being restricted in their familiar religious practices, they saw the patriarch's efforts not as a “cleansing” but rather as an attack on their faith, sometimes even as the work of the Antichrist. Driven by the idea that the church was no longer the true church, they responded to the changes with demonstrative asceticism, that is, withdrawal from worldly life, increased prayer and intense fasting. Since then, this group of Orthodox Christians called themselves “Old Believers.”
Although abstinence and fasting practices were not the subject of Nikonian reforms, they became a means of making visible and tangible the religious differences between followers of the official Orthodox Church and the Old Believers. However, because the diet of the two religious groups was very similar, mutual demarcation in this respect was difficult. As a result, the rules became more and more refined. How strictly fasting was practiced, as well as what new food taboos and table rules were introduced, marked the boundary between the Old Believers and the Reformed Orthodox, and later also within the various Old Believer groups. A look at the eating and abstinence practices thus also indicates how diverse the faith worlds were within Orthodoxy.
Rigor of fasting as a means of demarcation
The fasting periods of the Old Believers correspond to the Orthodox calendar. They also fast for about two-thirds of the year. In view of the great similarities, at first glance it is surprising that fasting practices, of all things, became a means of struggle after the Nikonian reforms. On the basis of their writings and polemics, however, it is possible to see how the Old Believers combined fasting with new objectives and stylized the body as a mark of religious difference. The Old Believers and the Nikonians competed over how rigorously fasting and religious rites were followed. Both groups wanted to present themselves as the real true believers.
The contrast between good and evil, between fasting and gluttony, is already evoked in Avvakum’s autobiography (1620-1682). While the spokesman of the Old Believers portrays his mother as a faster (postnitsa), his father is a drunkard who plunges his family into misfortune through his intemperance. Avvakum remains true to this narrative: he portrays himself and his followers as orthodox Christians who strictly observe fasting, even in captivity. His opponents, on the other hand, are weak and indulge in gluttony. He describes how he became physically weaker as a result of fasting, but it was precisely through this that he showed his strength of faith. In his petitions to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676), Avvakum argues similarly: that the Old Believers would be forced to eat unclean foods such as animal carcasses and horse meat in captivity also shows that their opponents were not true Christians. In his writings, this appears as a perfidious strategy to destroy the ritual purity of the Old Believers. Avvakum never tires of recommending fasting to his followers and telling them when to eat and when to fast. After all, asceticism must also have limits. Fasting is not allowed on Saturday and Sunday.
Avvakum also tried his hand as an art critic. He criticized the obesity depicted in the portraits of his theological opponents in contemporary icon painting as sinful and unmistakable proof of their violation of the fasting commandment. In his writings, the plump body marks membership in the church that has departed from the true faith. The emaciated body, on the other hand, is portrayed as a body pleasing to God. Leanness stands for communion with the Old Believers, who also defended the true faith with their bodies. In his writings, the body becomes a symbolic place with which the individual can join a group and distinguish himself from other communities:
Look up to the holy icons and see how they please God, as the good icon painters transcribe their likeness: face, hands, and nose, and all the senses are fine and emaciated by fasting and their suffering. But you have now changed their likeness and paint them as you are: with fat bellies, round faces, hands and feet like chair legs (stulcy).1
At a time when influences from abroad were viewed critically as a danger to the Orthodox faith, Avvakum described this new style of painting as “German” (pisannye po nemetskomu) and thus as the epitome of the foreign. Thus, even the artistic form of expression and the motifs became signs of a false faith from which it was necessary to distance oneself.
The rejection of foreigners and the fear of contact with people of other faiths can also be seen in the rules that the community of Old Believers on the Vyg River – founded in 1694 – gave itself. In the set of rules (Vygovskij ustav) written by Andrei Denisov (1674–1730), the founder of the community, fellow believers were not only commanded to fast, but also forbidden to eat alone and to keep their own food in their monastic cells. Only sick people who could not leave their cell should be allowed to eat their meals alone. Any food that was not visible to fellow believers was forbidden. Also, visiting other people's houses that were not inhabited by fellow believers was forbidden. Here, too, eating and abstinence practices created internal cohesion and external demarcation. The extent to which abstinence shaped the self-image of the Old Believers is also shown by the fact that the believers referred to one another as faster (postnik and postnitsa, depending on gender).
Food taboos and impurity
Other Old Faithful communities were also concerned with the question of how to adjust in a hostile world that they believed to be ruled by the Antichrist. How much contact with other believers and the Orthodox Church was allowed? What led to defilement? The answer was often food taboos. They also contributed to the demarcation from the Nikonians in everyday life. The Old Believers transferred the prohibitions on contact with non-Orthodox foreigners enacted in the ulozhenie – the Russian Code of Law from 1648/49 – to their fellow believers who they believed had lapsed from the true faith. However, the uncertainty as to how much contact with people of other faiths was dangerous led to various responses even within this faith group. The controversy over the question of the right faith between Nikonians and Old Believers did not resolve itself, but also led to splitting in different directions within the Old Believers. Even among the Old Believer groups, dietary rules that increasingly went beyond the usual fasting periods became the hallmark of different denominational cultures. The differentiation of the Old Believers' practices of abstinence and eating thus shows that it is precisely the rules of eating that are particularly effective in drawing boundaries: Those who cannot eat together find it difficult to trade with each other, to conclude business deals, let alone to marry and live together.
Increasingly, the Old Believers expanded the few Old Testament dietary taboos that were effective in the Orthodox faith. It was no longer only the animals mentioned in the Old Testament, such as the hare, the horse and creeping animals, that were now considered unclean. The Old Believers also saw a threat to their own purity in the foreign products introduced after the schism schism The term schism refers to a split within an established religious denomination. At a synod in 1666/67, the Russian Orthodox Church decided to exclude the Old Believers and banned them from the church. of 1667, such as coffee, tea, potatoes and sugar. Among Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, these foods were highly prized. Black tea even became the national drink. Unlike for the Old Believers, the potato, which grew underground, was not a devil's plant for Orthodox Christians. Similarly, the rumor that sugar was purified with ox blood or egg whites and was therefore impure took root among Old Believers rather than Orthodox Christians. Certain groups of Old Believers also excluded pork from their diet, which can be interpreted as a consequence of their close proximity to Jewish communities.
Not only did the dining taboos become more refined, but so to did the table rules. Increasingly, rules concerning tableware were added. In order to avoid any contamination, the Old Believers withdrew from eating too closely together: Everyone ate from their own bowl, with their own spoon. For strangers they kept a “secularized, impure” vessel. Old believers who wished to join the community of “chapel goers” (chasovennoe soglasie) even had to clean their eating utensils according to certain specifications before being accepted into the community. But, here too, bridges were built for exchange: Special cups and plates for strangers made it possible to come into contact with one another at the table without exposing oneself to the risk of contamination.
The everyday prohibitions increasingly took on the role of sacraments.2 Especially in groups among the Old Believers who did not recognize priests the dietary rules took over the function of the absent church organization, which created internal unity and external differentiation. The priestless Old Believers therefore followed even more dietary commandments in everyday life. The fact that those who ate differently were perceived as different believers was not only evident among the priestless Old Believers at the Vyg, who saw themselves as a community of fasting people. Sometimes the Old Believers (starovery) were even called “table believers” (stolovery).
The food taboos that were only introduced after the Nikonian reforms show that strict fasting as a practice of distinguishing between the Nikonians and the Old Believers was not sufficient. At the same time, one can see that theological differences were translated into everyday practices when the ritual differences alone were not very great. It was only in this way that the otherwise hard to recognize demarcation was made visible. The prohibitions on eating made the differences understandable and tangible in order to avoid points of contact and mixing with the Nikonians, and later with other Old Believer groups. At the same time, it was precisely the eating and drinking that took place on a daily basis that made it possible to retain observance over a long period of time: The food rules and taboos can be interpreted as a permanent appeal to carefully draw the lines between inside and outside, good and evil.
This appeal was particularly effective because, on the one hand, every meal offered the opportunity and necessity to prove one's adherence to principles, and on the other hand, the duties of vigilance made themselves felt directly in one's own body. At the same time, the growing number and breakdown of the rules of abstinence show that everyday rituals played a greater role in distinguishing between Old Believers and the followers of the Orthodox Church than discursive practices. The differentiation of dietary taboos in Russia since the 17th century makes it clear that eating and abstinence practices are effective identity-forming signs that can be used to make belonging and demarcation visible.