rere sopers

It’s common advice, if not universally agreed, that large meals right before bedtime are bad for one’s health. This conviction has been around for quite a long time. Middle English educational texts warn again eating “rere sopers”, or late suppers. “rere” is the same word as the modern “rear”, evolving out of Anglo-French. (See OED rear-, comb. form) These meals were a sign of gluttony (a vice) in food and therefore, quite likely, a sign of overindulgence in life in general.

In “How the Goode Man Taght Hys Sone” (“How the Good Man taught his Son”), the fifteenth-century author warns,

And loke thou wake not to longe,
Neydur use no rere sopers to late;
For were thy complexion never so stronge,
Wyth surfett thou mayste fordo that.

(“And mind you don’t stay awake too long / nor eat rere sopers too late, / for were your complexion ever so robust, / with excess, you might do it in.”)

Other authors are no more approving, with John Lydgate, in his fifteenth-century bestseller, The Dietary, advising that his reader should “Suffre no surfitis in thyn hous at nyht, / War of rer sopers and of gret excesse.” (“Suffer no excess in your house at night, / beware of rere sopers and of great excess.”)

Finally, Robert Mannyng of Brunne’s early fourteenth-century work, Handlyng Synne, warns that “Rere sopers yn pryvyte, / with glotonye, eachone they be”. You may eat your rere soper in private, but that doesn’t make each of them any less gluttonous. Unlike the other authors, however, he continues on in more obliging detail, explaining some of the other problems with eating rere sopers, such as the danger of eating after midnight on Thursday, when Friday is a day of fasting on water and bread only. (lines 7279-7290) Really, Mannyng is an advocate of every meal in its place. Early dinners are no better than rere sopers, he believes. (l. 7292)

Rere sopers are only mentioned in order to tell the reader to not eat them, but at least, as a result, these Middle English authors provide their label for late suppers, a mealtime which, however deplored, was common enough to earn a fixed name.

3 responses to “rere sopers”

  1. Charlie Butler says:

    Interesting: I’ve never come across “rere”. Is it cognate with “rear”? You’ve also got me wondering when the idea of eating cheese – and specifically blue cheese – late at night became associated with nightmares?

  2. sworthen says:

    Yes, it’s cognate with “rear”. I don’t suppose it helps you to think of “reredos”, which is still used, i.e. a wall decoration behind (in back of) an altar.

    I didn’t know the late night blue cheese = nightmares association. Intriguing!

  3. […] (2) If you happen to be reading this over a midnight feast — rare meat and eggs, perhaps — you could name your meal a rere-supper, a now-archaic term for a (usually sumptuous) late supper. I must warn you, though, that this practice is inadvisable not just for mogwai but for people too. Dear readers, beware of rere sopers! […]

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*© S. Worthen 2009