Noah’s Ark

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Noah’s Ark presents many problems for the literal-minded, not least, the food problem. It is indeed difficult to imagine how the logistics could have been handled. Bridget Ann Henisch (1967) devoted a charming and witty book, Medieval Armchair Travels, to the subject, and the rest of this entry is a quotation from that book.

Whatever the tragedies outside, the commentators kept Noah and his family much too busy to notice them. Their main job was to see that everyone was happy, clean and well-fed, the men looking after the animals, the women caring for the birds. This division of labour is remembered in a picture of the disembarkation in the Bedford Book of Hours, where it is a woman who is gently setting free a duck. No one is straining himself; indeed, Noah is having a nap, perhaps exhausted by the very thought of the strenuous timetable drawn up for him. In a Jewish story, no animal was prepared to be accommodating. Each expected to eat its favourite food at its accustomed meal-time, and so Noah raced up and down, one moment with buckets of vineshoots for elephants, the next with broken glass of which, as all agreed, ostriches were inordinately fond.

Christian commentators were less indulgent to these fads and fancies. A uniform diet of figs and chestnuts was favoured by many, led by St. Augustine, who remarked with brisk optimism:

Hungry animals will eat almost anything and of course, God … could easily have made any food pleasant and nourishing.

The City of God, Book 15, Chap. 27

Those who felt certain animals must have meat and could not be allowed to eye their neighbours, developed the theory that a special supply of sheep was loaded for them. This ingenious arrangement brought psychological as well as nutritional benefits: as the sheep were eaten, the Ark became roomier, and the irritations of close quarters were smoothed away. A Jewish storyteller partially solved the problem by making his lions seasick and unable to face more than a scrap of grass throughout the voyage.

Others dismissed the preoccupation with meat as irrelevant, in the belief that men and animals alike were vegetarians before the Flood. This was a popular idea, despite the unkind comment of Procopius that, if this were so, Abel had been wasting his time as a shepherd. After the Deluge vegetables were found to be less nourishing than before, and so God said that meat might be eaten instead, as a compensation and a reminder of the sin that had spoilt the world.

All worried about the vast quantities of food needed, and the consequent problems of storage and waste disposal in an already over-loaded Ark. Artists were much more relaxed, few bothering to squeeze in more than an occasional Lilliputian sack. Some tastefully arranged trays of fruit and vegetables lie unjostled in the larders. Under these, and inconsiderately far from the living quarters, are the stercoraria for dung and refuse.