Bread in medieval England

Bread was medieval England’s most important food. So much so that it gave us our words for lord (from the Anglo-Saxon “loaf-guardian,” or hlafward) and lady (“loaf-maker,” or hlaefdige). 

No, I can’t turn those into anything remotely lady- or lordlike, but they do both have an L and a D. Unless a genuine linguist or someone who learned Anglo-Saxon weighs in (and we do have one or two around here somewhere, so it’s not impossible), that’s as close as we’re likely to get. 

In the meantime, by way of proof I don’t have to mispronounce, records from medieval England, France, and Italy show soldiers, workmen, and hospital patients eating two pounds of bread a day. Or two to three pounds according to another source. That’s the same amount the nobility ate. 

So working people ate as well as the nobility? The hell they did. It’s just that aristocrats had access to meat and fish that the lower ranks could only dream of, while working people supplemented their bread with pottage.

What was pottage? If you think of it as anything that’s available, boiled, you won’t go too far wrong. April Munday did an interesting series of blog posts about making pottage from her garden, depending on what was in season and what would have been available in medieval England. The link above will take you to one of them.  

Irrelevant photo: Another of those tall white flowers I can’t identify. In fact, a whole field of them.

But everyone ate bread. Lots of bread. And the kind you ate was still a reliable marker of your class. The darker and heavier your bread, the lower down you stood in the social rankings.

No bread recipes have come down to us from the medieval period. One historian says this is because most bread was baked professionally. Others say it was so common that no recipes were needed. Which brings us to our next section:

 

A warning on sources

I’m using a range of sources here, and a lot of them are books. Remember books? They’re lovely things, but it means I’ll be short on links today. When I’m lucky, a range of sources will fill in blanks that others left, but this time they contradict each other in the most authoritative possible ways. 

We’re covering a long period of time here, from the early Anglo-Saxon era to the end of the Middle Ages, and that could account for some contradictions. Regional differences could account for others. After that, all I can offer you is a reminder that we weren’t there and social history’s a fragmentary thing. It examines things that are often considered too unimportant to document or too obvious to notice. So I’ll just throw this whole contradictory mess your way and leave you as confused as I am.

Don’t you just love being here? You read damn near two thousand words and come away knowing less than when you started.

 

A few kinds of bread

White bread was the good stuff. I’ve seen it called by a range of names, including manchet, wastell, paindemain, even  cake–a word with a Scandinavian origin that meant a small, flat bread roll. 

Paindemain–from the French for “hand bread”–may have been called that to distinguish it from trenchers, which we’ll get to later. 

The best white bread was made with the hardest and best sieved wheat flour, ground on the hardest stones so that it had the least grit in it. (Grit from grinding stones was part of cheaper bread, and some historians say a lifetime of eating it wore people’s teeth down.) It was raised with ale barm–yeast from brewing–which gives the best rise but is also unpredictable and in unskilled hands can go wrong, giving us the word barmy.

Yeast generally came from brewing beer, something that was done at home, or at least in many homes. It wasn’t universally used until the Renaissance, according to one source.

Even the loaf keeper and the loaf maker (that’s the lord and lady, in case you haven’t been taking notes) might not have had white bread every day.

Household bread was for the people a step down in the household. It was made with whole wheat flour, which might have been mixed with rye or barley. It was raised with leaven–a bit of yeasted dough saved from an earlier batch. Some books on bread baking still suggest doing this to improve the bread’s taste, although modern recipes rely on commercial yeast to do the heavy lifting.

Brown bread was made for farm workers and the lowest servants, from a mix of barley, dried peas, malt, and some whole wheat or rye flour. It was what we’d call sourdough: left overnight in a sour trough, where it picked up yeast left from earlier batches of dough. We may worship at the altar of sourdough today, but the taste wasn’t appreciated in the Middle Ages, and according to Pen Vogler in Scoff, the flour was likely to go off and given the bread a rancid taste. (Wheat germ has nutritional value but it goes bad easily. That was another benefit of white bread.)

Horse bread was what it said on the tin, food for horses, but not many people could read and tins hadn’t been invented yet anyway. In the face of famine or less widespread hard times, people ate horse bread, but it was an act of desperation.

According to a paper by Jessica Banks of Penn State University, bread could include not just rye and peas but also chestnuts, acorns, lentils, or rice. 

Rice? Yup. Starting in the eighth century, rice was grown in Spain and then in northern Italy as well. In England, it was an imported luxury and was considered the most nutritious of all grains. This wasn’t something for the poor to add to their bread. It’s not something I’ve added to bread myself and I can’t tell you what effect it has. I’d be surprised if it improves it.

For most of those, though, if you add large amounts to your bread  it won’t rise as well. Barley bread was considered second-best enough that Anglo-Saxon saints could flaunt their humility by eating it. 

According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, in The Year 1000, the bread of the early Middle Ages would have been round, coarse flatbread, and much of it would have been stale enough that you’d dip it in your pottage in self-defense. Outside the towns and cities, they say, there wouldn’t have been any call for specialized bakers baking fresh bread every day.

On the other hand, Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, says bread was cooked on a pan over a fire–a quick and logical way to bake flatbreads–or in the ashes of a fire. I’m inclined to go with Crawford on this. I’ve made flatbread. You don’t need an oven. (They weren’t introduced until the sixth century anyway.)

Another source says it was also cooked in the embers of a fire. As long as you turned it often enough, this worked. 

 

Ovens

The medieval peasant’s home had an open hearth and the fire burned on a flat rock–sometimes for decades, because starting a fire from scratch involved a lot of scratching of flint on iron or wood on wood. 

An oven, though? That would’ve been expensive, and if you could afford one you’d build it outside the house. In a town, you might build it outside the town walls. Fire was a constant threat. The Great Fire of London may have been well after the medieval period, but it started in a bakery all the same.

If you had an oven, though, you’d heat it before the food went in, then rake out the fire and put the food in, leaving the oven to cool slowly. In If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley describes having baked this way. They soaked a wooden door in water to close the oven (that kept it from catching fire) and sealed the gaps with dough. When the seal was cooked, so was the bread inside, and just enough heat was left to bake biscuits–a word that comes from the French for “second cooked.”

Or just possibly for “cooked second.” My French is somewhere between iffy and iffier, but I do know when a phrase sounds better in English.

All of this was a lot of work and not something you’d want to do for a loaf or two. You’d bake either a lot of loaves–a community’s worth of them–or none. On many manors, the lord had a bakehouse and tenants had to pay if they were going to use it. 

Ian Mortimer, in The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, says that the yeoman’s wife (remember, please, that yeo-people ranged from poor to rich) might have had her own oven but might also have taken her ground grain to the village baker every week or so. That seems to say that she wouldn’t mix or shape her own dough, although other writers have people bringing their loaves to the baker.

In towns and cities, though, people bought their bread ready made, and as guilds formed, bakers organized themselves separately into one guild for the bakers of white bread and another for the bakers of brown bread. It wasn’t until Liz the First came along that–at her insistence–they merged into a single guild.

 

Why use wheat?

Vogler makes an interesting point about England’s reliance on bread: It’s complicated to make. You have to not just grow and harvest the grain but thresh it (back-breaking work if it’s done by hand), grind it (by hand in the early Anglo-Saxon period; mostly by water mills by the time of the Norman conquest), sieve it, mix it into dough, raise it, and bake it. All of this in a country that’s not ideal for growing wheat, which wants a long, dry growing season. That rules out the north and west of the country, she says, and it doesn’t sound like the rest of the place is ideal either.

Why didn’t people rely more heavily on rye, as large parts of northern Europe did? Or like the Scots and the northern fringe of England, on oats? 

Maybe it was the allure of that light, white bread that the best wheat could produce. Maybe it was just because. Humans are a strange species.

 

Trenchers

I’ve read several explanations of what trenchers were and how they were used, and everyone at least agrees they were bread used as plates. Some writers say they were a way to use up stale bread. Others say they were thin, unleavened loaves, baked for this purpose. One says they were the blackened bottom of the loaf, because the oven couldn’t ever be cleaned completely. This was cut off and given to lower members of the household, leaving us with the phrase “the upper crust”–the people who got the top half of the loaf. 

Some say the trenchers were fed to pigs after they were used. Some say that if a household was rich enough, they’d give the used trenchers to the poor. Some say they were eaten as part of the meal. I have no evidence for this, but I’d put my money on them usually being eaten, because making bread’s a lot of work and uses a fair bit of fuel. You can feed pigs something a lot less complicated and they’ll still put on weight. Medieval people didn’t waste food.

Giving used trenchers to the poor, though, might have been a way to demonstrate your wealth as well as perform an act of charity.

The most convincing comment on trenchers is from Medieval Cookery, which says about feasts that “the common belief is that after the diners were finished with their food, the used trencher was given to the poor. While there is some documentation supporting this belief, it is somewhat confusing and may be open to question.”

*

This post is in response to an email from the baker at Evandine Sourdough Bakery, asking about medieval bread. It’s not a topic I’d thought about. Thanks for suggesting it, Aleksandra. I hope at least some of this is what you were looking for.

69 thoughts on “Bread in medieval England

  1. I remember April’s experiments with pottage, I can’t remember if she used medieval bread with it, such an interesting post. I think bread making had a resurgence during lockdown, as I couldn’t get yeast for months. I’d always thought of trenchers as alternative to plates in inns and the like, saves a lot of washing up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought about April’s posts too, and since you’ve mentioned them, here’s a link for anyone who’s interested: https://aprilmunday.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/march-pottage/. I wish I’d thought to include it in the post iteself. Maybe I’ll go back and work it in.

      The impression I’m left with is that (1) no one’s entirely sure what form of bread trenchers were and (2) they were used more widely than just at inns. When I was researching forks, I read that it was much, much later that even the rich had matching sets of cutlery for guests. That may well have been true of plates. The households of the rich were large, so eating half your meal off the other half your meal? It not only saves washing up, it saves spending money on table settings.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A lovely tribute to bread. I’m a huge bread lover and luckily Germany knows how to make one, dozens of them.
    Back home it’s still the most important food but for a different reason. It’s the food of the poor because it’s cheap and fills the stomach.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The best I can do is to remind myself that language is a liquid, not a solid. Even in a single language, vowels leapfrog over each other. “Ask” is often pronounced “aks.” And when you add in the shift from Anglo-Saxon to Norman French and eventually to Middle English–. It’s easy for the ear trained in one language to mishear the words in another one.

      Anyway, that’s the best I can do.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I started my original comment before you linked to my post and got interrupted, so thank you for thinking of me.

      The other thing I forgot to mention before I was interrupted and had to go and deal with something is that I think people were a lot more charitable in the Middle Ages and were a lot happier to help people less well off than we are. It was good for the soul, which was important, but I also think that people genuinely had a sense of community and being responsible for one another. So I think that they did give away food at the end of a meal and not just the trenchers that people had eaten from.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Charity does seem to have been built into the structure of society. And I expect the rich were less able to wall themselves off from the poor. That wouldn’t necessarily mean that they felt shame, guilt, or grief over other people’s want; poverty and riches were, I think, accepted elements in the structure of society. Or at least accepted by the rich, maybe less so by the poor, but that’s pure speculation. And the Peasant Revolt. But it does mean that the rich would have had to work harder to engage in creative denial.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, it would have been hard to ignore the poverty, but I suspect that there wasn’t such a gap between rich and poor. I’m excluding people like the king and nobles, because even rich people would have had little idea about how they lived.

          Liked by 1 person

          • In our eyes, probably not. In the eyes of people at the time, though, I expect the differences would have seemed massive. The difference between a full belly and hunger, or between meat and not hunger but no meat. The difference in power and status.

            Liked by 1 person

              • I did run into some of that when I tried to sort out who yeomen were, expecting to find a nicely packaged answer. Instead I found some who were richer than lords and some who were clinging on by their fingernails. My idea of the Middle Ages as static and well ordered went out the window.

                Still, I’d still hold that the difference between hunger and plenty would have been all-consuming–certainly to the hungry.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I suspect that when there was famine even the apparently well-off starved. I’ll add it to the list of things I want to find out when someone offers me a ride in a time machine.

                Liked by 1 person

              • A fiction writer whose name I can’t remember has a time machine series which seems to be regularly dropping people off in the wrong time of place. She does seem to have fun with it.

                Liked by 1 person

  3. A couple of decades ago, when I was teaching Chaucer to teenagers, I cooked up some medieval food for my students. I cannot attest to how authentic it was since I did not verify the accuracy of the book I used but it was a fun experiment. Some recipes were a hit but many were not, largely because they were so bland to our modern tongues.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “in the face of famine and hard times, people ate horse bread.” Hell, they ate HORSES if it was really hard times ! Or…other less palatable things.
    Loaves of bread have been found in Egyptian tombs. They sent them off with things needed in the afterlife, which was a lot like their current life. Especially if you were of the upper classes.

    It was worth the price of admission just to learn the origins of the word “barmy” I always thought it was a corruption of “balmy” but it would make more sense if that was vice-versa.

    Good for Pict for cooking historic food for her classes. Yes, that IS what kids remember. And the blandness leads to the expression of being seated “below the salt,”

    What a great post. Now I’m hungry for a sandwich.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ellen, I always love your writing. Then combine it with the subject of bread, well, I can’t NOT read it! I *don’t*, but I’m sure I *could* eat two pounds of bread a day. That would be 15 of the rolls in my current Potato Dinner Rolls post or one loaf of my Sourdough Sandwich Bread. Of course, I don’t think I’d then be able to eat enough of anything else to give me adequate nutrition, but I do so love homemade bread!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Bread in medieval England – food for all

  7. Pingback: History of Bread In Medieval England - Evendine Sourdough Bakery

  8. Pingback: Bread in medieval England — Notes from the U.K. | Vermont Folk Troth

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