The black fast refers to an older tradition of fasting in the Catholic Church, especially during Lenten periods or other special celebrations. Up until about the 13th or 14th century, most Catholics spent all or part of Lent in a fast that featured only one meal per day, which could not include any meat, meat byproducts, or oils. Over time, additional meals or snacks were added, making the fast less rigorous. Today, the Western Catholic Church has much less challenging fast requirements for Lent, though many Eastern and Eastern Orthodox Churches may follow rules slightly resembling the black fast.
At least until the Middle Ages, the typical black fast allowed for a single meal that couldn’t include eggs, milk, or meat. Appropriate food choices were things like lentils or beans. The meal was often eaten at the end of the day, after sundown.
Some people were exempt from the fast. Very young children or the old and ill weren’t always required to participate. Most others had to observe, and the fast got very rigorous during the last week of Lent. Usually the only thing consumed during Holy Week was a single, nightly meal of bread and water, which might be accompanied by herbs and salt.
A single meal of bread may not seem too challenging, but in the historical context, numerous nights of observing the black fast could have been exceptionally punishing to the body. This is especially the case because so many people were laborers. Though Catholic leaders meant these fasts to promote inner clarity and to demonstrate duty to God, they could be difficult to bear.
This is why both Western and Eastern churches have gradually relaxed rules on the black fast, which is, incidentally, now considered an outdated term for the practice of fasting. In Roman Catholic churches, people may abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during Lent, but many eat fish, shellfish, and animal byproducts. Most people still have three meals on all days of Lent but many people do fast on all or part of Good Friday. A fast during the three hours of Good Friday is generally recommended.
Rules in Eastern churches that resemble the black fast are somewhat stricter than present Roman Catholic observances. Many churches ask congregants to abstain from meat, fish, oils, milk and eggs on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. Some members of Eastern sects also abstain from these products on all Fridays. Until the late 20th century, Fridays were considered by Roman Catholics to be a time of abstention, too. Most Roman Catholic families could eat fish on these days, but they could not eat other types of meat.