What information do we have about early Lent fasting practices? I saw an interesting reference to Ramadan having grown out of Syrian Lent practices, but aside from that, I haven't found any good descriptions of early Christian fasting methods outside of 7th century Syria.

Generally when I read about early Christian fasting I just assume they were abstaining from food and drink for the entire period referenced but they obviously couldn't do that for 40 days and 40 nights. If the practices are poorly documented during the early church, at what point does something resembling a standardized Catholic 40 day/night fast begin to emerge?

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Early Christian Lent Fasting Practices?

In the Early Church, there was no set rule for fasting during Lent. Some fasted for one day, while others fasts for many days. The 40 day tradition of Lent that practice now took centuries to come about.

Origin of the word

The Teutonic word Lent, which we employ to denote the forty days' fast preceding Easter, originally meant no more than the spring season. Still it has been used from the Anglo-Saxon period to translate the more significant Latin term quadragesima (French carême, Italian quaresima, Spanish cuaresma), meaning the "forty days", or more literally the "fortieth day". This in turn imitated the Greek name for Lent, tessarakoste (fortieth), a word formed on the analogy of Pentecost (pentekoste), which last was in use for the Jewish festival before New Testament times. This etymology, as we shall see, is of some little importance in explaining the early developments of the Easter fast.

Origin of the custom

Some of the Fathers as early as the fifth century supported the view that this forty days' fast was of Apostolic institution. For example, St. Leo (d. 461) exhorts his hearers to abstain that they may "fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the forty days" — ut apostolica institutio quadraginta dierum jejuniis impleatur (P.L., LIV, 633), and the historian Socrates (d. 433) and St. Jerome (d. 420) use similar language (P.G., LXVII, 633; P.L., XXII, 475).

But the best modern scholars are almost unanimous in rejecting this view, for in the existing remains of the first three centuries we find both considerable diversity of practice regarding the fast before Easter and also a gradual process of development in the matter of its duration. The passage of primary importance is one quoted by Eusebius (Church History V.24) from a letter of St. Irenaeus to Pope Victor in connection with the Easter controversy. There Irenaeus says that there is not only a controversy about the time of keeping Easter but also regarding the preliminary fast. "For", he continues, "some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days, and others even for several, while others reckon forty hours both of day and night to their fast". He also urges that this variety of usage is of ancient date, which implies that there could have been no Apostolic tradition on the subject. Rufinus, who translated Eusebius into Latin towards the close of the fourth century, seems so to have punctuated this passage as to make Irenaeus say that some people fasted for forty days. Formerly some difference of opinion existed as to the proper reading, but modern criticism (e.g., in the edition of Schwartz commissioned by the Berlin Academy) pronounces strongly in favor of the text translated above. We may then fairly conclude that Irenaeus about the year 190 knew nothing of any Easter fast of forty days.

The same inference must be drawn from the language of Tertullian only a few years later. When writing as a Montanist, he contrasts the very slender term of fasting observed by the Catholics (i.e., "the days on which the bridegroom was taken away", probably meaning the Friday and Saturday of Holy Week) with the longer but still restricted period of a fortnight which was kept by the Montanists. No doubt he was referring to fasting of a very strict kind (xerophagiæ — dry fasts), but there is no indication in his works, though he wrote an entire treatise "De Jejunio", and often touches upon the subject elsewhere, that he was acquainted with any period of forty days consecrated to more or less continuous fasting (see Tertullian, On Fasting 2 and 14; cf. On Prayer 18; etc.).

Be this as it may, we find in the early years of the fourth century the first mention of the term tessarakoste. It occurs in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), where there is only question of the proper time for celebrating a synod, and it is conceivable that it may refer not to a period but to a definite festival, e.g., the Feast of the Ascension, or the Purification, which Ætheria calls quadragesimæ de Epiphania. But we have to remember that the older word, pentekoste (Pentecost) from meaning the fiftieth day, had come to denote the whole of the period (which we should call Paschal Time) between Easter Sunday and Whit-Sunday (cf. Tertullian, On Idolatry 14, — "pentecosten implere non poterunt"). In any case it is certain from the "Festal Letters" of St. Athanasius that in 331 the saint enjoined upon his flock a period of forty days of fasting preliminary to, but not inclusive of, the stricter fast of Holy Week, and secondly that in 339 the same Father, after having traveled to Rome and over the greater part of Europe, wrote in the strongest terms to urge this observance upon the people of Alexandria as one that was universally practiced, "to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days". Although Funk formerly maintained that a Lent of forty days was not known in the West before the time of St. Ambrose, this is evidence which cannot be set aside. - Lent (Catholic Encyclopaedia).

A fast of 40 hours or three days was the the original length of Lent in the Apostolic era. Christ’s time in the tomb was used as the original inspiration. Centuries later the 40 hours became 40 days.

Closer examination of the ancient sources, however, reveals a more gradual historical development. While fasting before Easter seems to have been ancient and widespread, the length of that fast varied significantly from place to place and across generations. In the latter half of the second century, for instance, Irenaeus of Lyons (in Gaul) and Tertullian (in North Africa) tell us that the preparatory fast lasted one or two days, or forty hours—commemorating what was believed to be the exact duration of Christ’s time in the tomb (3 days). By the mid-third century, Dionysius of Alexandria speaks of a fast of up to six days practiced by the devout in his see; and the Byzantine historian Socrates relates that the Christians of Rome at some point kept a fast of three weeks. 2 Only following the Council of Nicea in 325 a.d. did the length of Lent become fixed at forty days, and then only nominally. Accordingly, it was assumed that the forty-day Lent that we encoun- ter almost everywhere by the mid-fourth century must have been the result of a gradual lengthening of the pre-Easter fast by adding days and weeks to the original one or two day observance. 3 This lengthening, in turn, was thought necessary to make up for the waning zeal of the post-apostolic church and to provide a longer period of instruction for the increasing num- bers of former pagans thronging to the font for Easter baptism. Such remained the standard theory for most of the twentieth century. - The Early History of Lent

Fasting seems to be universal in preparation for Easter, but the length of fasting varied according to region as set rules had not yet been formulated.

Even the nature of the fast was not uniform in the Early Church.

Nature of the fast

Neither was there originally less divergence regarding the nature of the fast. For example, the historian Socrates (Church History V.22) tells of the practice of the fifth century: "Some abstain from every sort of creature that has life, while others of all the living creatures eat of fish only. Others eat birds as well as fish, because, according to the Mosaic account of the Creation, they too sprang from the water; others abstain from fruit covered by a hard shell and from eggs. Some eat dry bread only, others not even that; others again when they have fasted to the ninth hour (three o'clock) partake of various kinds of food". Amid this diversity some inclined to the extreme limits of rigor. Epiphanius, Palladius, and the author of the "Life of St. Melania the Younger" seem to contemplate a state of things in which ordinary Christians were expected to pass twenty-four hours or more without food of any kind, especially during Holy Week, while the more austere actually subsisted during part or the whole of Lent upon one or two meals a week (see Rampolla, "Vita di. S. Melania Giuniore", appendix xxv, p. 478). But the ordinary rule on fasting days was to take but one meal a day and that only in the evening, while meat and, in the early centuries, wine were entirely forbidden. During Holy Week, or at least on Good Friday it was common to enjoin the xerophagiæ, i.e., a diet of dry food, bread, salt, and vegetables.

There does not seem at the beginning to have been any prohibition of lacticinia, as the passage just quoted from Socrates would show. Moreover, at a somewhat later date, Bede tells us of Bishop Cedda, that during Lent he took only one meal a day consisting of "a little bread, a hen's egg, and a little milk mixed with water" (Church History III.23), while Theodulphus of Orleans in the eighth century regarded abstinence from eggs, cheese, and fish as a mark of exceptional virtue. None the less St. Gregory writing to St. Augustine of England laid down the rule, "We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs." This decision was afterwards enshrined in the "Corpus Juris", and must be regarded as the common law of the Church. Still exceptions were admitted, and dispensations to eat "lacticinia" were often granted upon condition of making a contribution to some pious work. These dispensations were known in Germany as Butterbriefe, and several churches are said to have been partly built by the proceeds of such exceptions. One of the steeples of Rouen cathedral was for this reason formerly known as the Butter Tower. This general prohibition of eggs and milk during Lent is perpetuated in the popular custom of blessing or making gifts of eggs at Easter, and in the English usage of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. - Lent (Catholic Encyclopaedia)


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