Medieval Bread

In medieval times, as today, bread was a staple food for people both rich and poor. However, like the class divides, bread also varied in its forms – from the posh whiter bread to the coarse peasant breads made from mixed grains and sometimes peas as well. As usual, I had intended this to be a quick and easy post – put down the medieval names for bread and explain what they were. However, when do any of my posts turn out to be quick and easy?

I looked at several online sources for medieval bread and found that they tended to parrot each other and contained generalisations – or just plain bad research! So I had to go back to basics, look at primary sources such as the Assize of Bread and Ale of 51 Henry III  and then do the rounds of academic books to see if I could find better information. Well, I did – and I didn’t. Some of the types of bread are easy to describe but others seem to confound even historians as to what they actually might have looked/tasted like. The problem is, bread was such a common part of everyday life that it was not included in the recipe books we have from the medieval era. All we have to go on is the order of bread types and weights in the assize, and a fair bit of assumption.

But first things first… let’s look at the written record.

The Assize of Bread and Ale and Lucrum Pistoris, 51 Henry III (but without the ale bit!)

During the regnal year 51 (1266/7) of Henry III, a Statute was introduced pertinent to the trades of baking and ale making intended to standardise prices based on the price of wheat, type and size of bread. It was not at all popular among the bakers – for a start, it made it much harder to fleece the customers with underweight or poor quality goods. It probably also made it harder for them to make a good profit. The law was also enforced with the Lucrum Pistoris (Gain of the Baker – see below) which stipulated punishments of fines and a spell in the pillory for those not in compliance.

Here, then, is the text of the Assize of Bread, which I will initially work from.

When a Quarter of Wheat is sold for 12d., then Wastel Bread of a farthing shall weigh £6 and 16s. But Bread Cocket of a farthing of the same grain and bultel, shall weigh more than Wastel by 2s. And Cocket Bread made of grain of lower price, shall weigh more than Wastel by 5s. Bread made into a Simnel shall weigh 2s. less than Wastel. Bread made of the whole Wheat shall weigh a Cocket and a half, so that a Cocket shall weigh more than a Wastel by 5s. Bread of Treet shall weigh 2 wastels. And bread of common wheat shall weigh two great cockets. *

 

So, in order of size/weight, from lightest to heaviest:

A_023_bakingSimnel: Simnel is one of the mystery breads, as it was lighter than the very fine wastel bread and yet is not often mentioned in other accounts. I can only assume that it was either leavened differently, or had a different crumb – and was perhaps sold as a smaller item… a bit like a bread roll. It doesn’t seem to have much in common with today’s Simnel cakes by the way.

Wastel Bread: Wastel, although mentioned quite a bit, is another mystery. It was described as a well-sieved white bread, although does not seem to be held in such high esteem as the pandemain (the bread of the elite and so not included in the Assize). However, it is placed above cocket, the ‘normal’ white bread in its quality. In the above Assize text, cocket (see below) is described as having ‘the same grain and bultel’ as wastel. In other words, it was made from the same quality of wheat, and had the same amount of sieving as the flour used for wastel bread. What may have made the difference, was the baking process. Wastel is often described as having a biscuit like texture, so it may have been baked either at a higher temperature, or for longer than cocket loaves. This does not mean however that it was a biscuit. My bet at the moment is that it may have had a scone like texture.

Cocket Bread: The most common of white breads sold, although it seems to have been sold in two grades, with one made from fairly good quality sieved flour and the other being made from grain that had not been sifted quite as well (and so still contained some of the bran, making it heavier and darker than its more expensive namesake).

Whole wheat: This was probably similar to the wholewheat bread we have today (although without all of the additives!). It is possible that this bread was also called ‘Cheat‘ in some other accounts. It was the best of the wholewheat breads.

Treet and Common wheat: Once again, this gets a bit confusing, as all the descriptions I have seen of Treet (or Tourte) was that it was similar to our granary loaves of today – a very coarse, heavy bread in which all the usually sifted out bits were left in. As such, it was the lowest form of wheaten bread available and fairly cheap and common. The term ‘common wheat’ kind of implies the same, but as they’re listed as two separate items in the Assize, there must have been some sort of differential – maybe, like cocket, treet had an inferior version – but that is just my supposition.

Four day old tourte was used to make trenchers. Cut in half with some of the middle hollowed out, it served as a plate for the main meal – usually in wealthy houses. It acted to mop up sauces and juices from the meal and, together with any leftovers, was gathered by the household’s almoner and given to the poor. In less wealthy houses without an almoner, these ‘plates’ would be given as food for the pigs.

Other Types of Bread Not Mentioned in the Assize:

 

woman_selling_breadPandemain (paindemaigne, paynemaine): Literally, the lord’s bread – the highest quality of loaf made from the best wheat flour sifted about three times to get rid of as much bran as possible. Being of such high quality, it was reserved for the nobility and also for Communion bread. It did not appear in the Assize as it would have been baked in the ovens of large households and so would not have been on general sale to the public.

Maslin: A bread made from a mix of wheat and rye flour. It was generally made by peasants and was quite common.

Rye bread: Rye was the commonest crop grown by the peasant population and so was used often for baking bread as it was , in good harvest years anyway, readily available. It made a dark and dense loaf.

Oat cakes (havercakes, clapbread): Oat bread or oatcakes were more common in northern regions as oats grew better in a colder, wetter climate than many other crops. Conversely, oats did not thrive as readily in southern counties. These would more commonly have been baked on griddles or bakestones rather than in an oven.

Barley bread: Although less palatable a bread than wheat or rye, barley was also used in bread production, although not as often. It was a crop as widely grown as rye, but it tended to be used  for producing ale rather than bread.

Horsebread: The poorest of all breads eaten only by horses or the poorest of people. Made from the flour of milled peas and beans mixed with bran and any other scrap of flour that could be obtained.

 

Leavening of Bread

Medieval people did not have the benefit of popping to the supermarket to buy a packet of active dried yeast and so had to make their own leavening. This would either have been a sourdough starter (a mix of water and flour left to stand and ferment with the wild yeasts that exist in the air), or, more usually, an ale barm. This is the frothy stuff that can be skimmed from the top of fermenting ale. As the brewing of ale and the baking of bread tended to occur side by side and on an almost daily basis, it would have been simple for bakers to obtain it.

Baking of Bread

Medieval baker

Medieval baker

Only the most well off  houses (such as manors and demesne farmhouses) had their own bake-ovens at this period. Others had to take their bread to the local baker to be baked – at a fee of course. Many manors also had a stipulation that its tenants could only use the manor mill to mill their flour and the manor bakehouse to bake their bread, thus bringing in a tidy income.

A bake oven could either be part of a bakehouse or else stand alone. It’s cavity was generally dome shaped and before baking it was filled with faggots (bundles of twigs) or peat which was burned until the right temperature was reached. The ashes were then scraped out and the base of the oven cleaned as much as possible. The loaves were then put into the oven using flat hardwood peels (like a long, big, flat spoon). Once all the loaves were in, the oven door was placed to cover the opening and sealed with clay. Timing the cooking, as well as getting the temperature of the oven right was, to be sure, something only learned from experience. You can imagine there must have been some blackened loaves and boxed ears during apprentice years.

 

And for Bakers Who Broke the Law….Lucrum Pistoris (Gain of the Baker): 

 

And if a Baker of Brewer be convicted that they have not kept the foresaid Assizes, the First, Second and Third time they shall be amerced, according to the Quantity of their offence; and that as often as a Baker shall offend in the weight of a farthing loaf of bread not above 2s. weight, that then he be amerced as before is said; but if he exceed 2s. then he ought to undergo the judgment of the Pillory without any redemption of money. In like manner shall it be done if he offend oftentimes and will not amend, then he shall suffer the Judgment of the Body, that is to say, the Pillory if he offend in the weight of a farthing loaf under two shillings weight as is aforesaid.

 

There really is a wealth of research I’ve come across from writing this post – far more than I’ve included here. Therefore I am planning on putting together a small e-book on this topic, including a recipe for sourdough starter and some speculative bread recipes (based on practical experiments!)

Note: You will see I’ve not included manchet bread here. That is because it comes along much later – the term first being used in the 16th century.

* Weights were often recorded as pounds and shillings, which makes things look rather confusing to modern eyes. This website gives the equivalent in grams: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/history/measure.html

Sources:

Food and Feast in Medieval England (Food & Feasts) – Peter Hammond

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century – Ian Mortimer

The Great Household in Late Medieval England – C. M. Woolgar

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition (Medieval History and Archaeology) – ed. by C.M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson, and T. Waldron

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England – Peter Brears

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition (Medieval History and Archaeology) History and Recipes – Maggie Black

A Compleat Body of Arithmetic, in Four Books – edited by Samuel Jeake, accesed on Google Books: http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/A_Compleat_Body_of_Arithmetic_in_Four_Bo.html?id=zP7mAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

Prices of Corn in Oxford at the Beginning of the Fourteenth Century – William Forster Lloyd, accessed Google Books: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=gNczAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=prices+of+corn+at+the+beginning+of+the+fourteenth+century&hl=en&sa=X&ei=cV3eUs-YFtLT7AbOoIH4Cg&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=prices%20of%20corn%20at%20the%20beginning%20of%20the%20fourteenth%20century&f=false

Bread Assizes, the Original Documents – accessed at http://www.engr.psu.edu/mtah/articles/pdf/bread_assizes.pdf

A Fifteenth Century Baker’s Pricelist, MS. Douce Charters a 1, no. 62 – Claire Fennell, University of Trieste, accessed at http://www.openstarts.units.it/dspace/bitstream/10077/6280/1/03%20FENNELL.pdf

 

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8 Responses to Medieval Bread

  1. RichieP says:

    My reenactment group (Regia Anglorum) have a small dome oven which can be used for bread. After it’s been fired and the ashes removed, it can be very easy to burn loaves by misjudging the amount of time needed for the oven to cool enough for even, slower cooking. Very interesting article, thanks.
    http://oi39.tinypic.com/vxywqe.jpg

    • Julie Frusher says:

      Thanks Rich. I have a modern version of a similar oven that I will try out this year. It will be interesting to see how the experiments go. I must get around to some re-enactment events this year too…

  2. Great post Jules. If you check the Constitutio Domus Regis for 1138 there are references to bread allowances for the court. There were simnels and then ‘salt simnels’ which seem to have been to do with size rather than content. I’d need to look it up but one was larger than the other and meant to serve more than one person.

    • Julie Frusher says:

      Thanks Elizabeth – always handy to know of other sources to look at. I just wish one would turn up with the actual recipes!!! lol

  3. Tony Wait says:

    Once again a thoroughly researched topic and without doubt the most informative article on medieval bread and its production I have ever read.

  4. C says:

    Wouldn’t the “horsebread” perhaps have been the most nutritious? The pea and bean flours contain protein and carbohydrate, with the added bran and other flour which contribute to nutrition.

    • Julie Frusher says:

      It would certainly have had more nutritional value than the bread of the nobility although it would probably also depend on the quality of the peas and beans used as they were in a dried state. On the other hand it may not have had such a pleasant texture or taste as the higher quality bread. However I don’t think the people back then knew about what constituted good nutrition (not as we know it now) and were more concerned with status. Horsebread would have been a bread of last resort because of its association with the feeding of livestock – I’m sure given the choice any peasant would have chosen something a little more high status.

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