History of Bread In Medieval England

In May, I had the joy of stepping into the 13th Century and participating in a recreation of medieval living. I accompanied the reenactment group ‘The House of the Twin Tailed Lion’, who set up a wonderful medieval camp with live demonstrations of cookery, weaponry and craft. 

As a medieval baker, I served the knights delicious Pottage. Pottage was a rich and full of flavour stew, made from beef and vegetables and thickened with our trencher bread crust. I cooked it on an open fire and garnished it with freshly picked wild herbs… it took us to our 13th Century heavens. From the looks of the happy faces around me, I concluded that my mission of serving a tasty, hearty and healthy medieval meal was successful! 

Trencher bread, Evesham Medieval Market, photo credit Evendine Sourdough Bakery

I followed the advice of food historian Chris Carr, who directed me towards some wonderful books where I was able to find out about the food culture of medieval times. One of these books was ‘Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering the Cuisine of the Past’, by Maria Dembinska. I was very influenced by the books Chris suggested, and thanks to them I was able to become a 13th Century baker in May!

As my curiosity grows, my research continues. I have been in touch with Ellen Hawley, who wrote a beautiful blog post about bread from medieval times. Ellen has published three novels, The Divorce Diet (Kensington, 2015), Open Line (Coffee House Press, 2008) and Trip Sheets (Milkweed Editions, 1998). Born and raised in New York, Ellen now resides in Cornwall. Her writing attracted my attention straight away. Witty and grounded, she communicates history in a very special manner. We were conversing about research on medieval bread, and a few days later she wrote a very good blog post, which I would like to share with you:

Bread in Medieval England by Ellen Hawley

"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. (...) "

(...) 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. (...)

(...) From the Dark Ages to the Renaissance a thick slice of bread, known as a trencher and sometimes laid on a kind of wooden plate which could also be called a trencher, was the base upon which pieces of meat and their accompanying sauce were placed. One trencher served two people, who thus became literally ‘companions’, sharers of bread. The wealthier classes in the Middle Ages did not actually eat the trencher bread, even though it was soaked in good sauce, but threw it to the numerous dogs that roamed the room or the equally numerous crowd of poor people waiting outside the door. They received the trenchers as a windfall, for they were much tastier than the hunk of bread the peasant took out to the field in the day (his hot dinner, eaten in the evening, would be porridge).(...) 

A History of Food, Maguellone Toussaint-Samat, English translation 2009

I very much recommend a look into Ellen's website to read the full article, as there is much more wonderful information worth finding out about. 

Bread has been a fundamental constituent of our food culture throughout the centuries. Reading about it is wonderful, but recreating medieval bread recipes is thrilling! The smell of historic bread fills our bakery, it's a living history present in the 21st Century. I would love for you to join me in tasting this wonderful experience, as well as witnessing the historic glory of the 13th Century at the Battle of Evesham event this month. It will be another spectacular weekend full of medieval mayhem, located in the heart of Evesham. Battle re-enactments, living history camps, trade stalls, a beer tent and a grand parade! 

To see some of the inspiring video with Chris about Medieval Food please click here or check this website for more info about her work: Chris Carr

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July 27, 2021
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