Luther was not only used to being cold and uncomfortable, he was used to being hungry. Fasting has a long tradition in Christianity, going back to Jesus’s temptation in the desert. Hermits of the Eastern church in particular were impressive in their disdain for nutriment. St. Anthony of the desert served as a model, grudgingly caring for the minimal needs of the body, sparing everything else to attend to God.
There’s always a hint of flesh-spirit dualism in fasting traditions, but we go awry if we think that this is the way it should be understood in the medieval Western Church. Fasting was a matter of obedience, a spiritual practice meant to bring the attention of all the faithful together toward Christ and to allow the setting aside of alms for the poor. If there’s a dualism, it’s one that cannot be erased from a religion that preaches the existence of the life to come: fasting, done rightly, could draw us toward that complete dependence upon God for everything—that is the essence of the heavenly kingdom.
As a member of the Augustinian Hermits, Luther’s fasting was heavily regulated. Food was not abundant or extravagant to begin with: one meal at midday consisting of bread and soup, and lighter supper before compline. There was no meat served on Friday. One could, under the spiritual direction of a confessor, engage in additional fasting—and Luther did this on many occasions—but avoiding an excess of fasting was considered a virtue. Those with ailments were exempted from this ritual. Fasting rarely meant long periods with no food at all but mostly abstention from meat. The current holdover of fish on Friday comes from the notion that it is not “meat.”
But more important for us and our journey are the two special periods of fasting in the liturgical calendar: Advent and Lent. Even today many Christians in the East, and some Roman Catholics and Protestants as well, avoid meat during Lent—again, what qualifies as “meat” varies. But in the late Middle Ages, Advent was also a fast. As during Lent, all the faithful were supposed to avoid meat during this season, as well as refrain from marrying and having sexual relations.
Luther left for Rome in the last weeks of November, 1510. This put much of his journey, and in particular the strenuous winter crossing of the Alps, smack dab in the middle of the Advent fast. As anyone who has done sustained long-distance walking can tell you, the hunger that mounts over the weeks is impressive. Such certainly would have been the case for Luther and his companion. And to make matters more cincture-tightening: their return journey—still winter in the Alps—would have taken place through the Lenten fast!
But meeting both the caloric debt and spiritual discipline of religious life required some compromises. For this reason it is expected that among the very few things Luther and company would have carried was a small piece of paper, signed by their prior, informing the religious hostels along the way that the party was on official business, in need of haste, and therefore exceptionally relieved of their obligation to fast.