By Vickie L. Ziegler
Building Community: Medieval Technology and American History (2007)
Introduction: Bread was the essential food for all classes of society in the Middle Ages. The basic element, common to every table, was the pain de mayne, the hand-bread or table loaf, a round, bellied bread to be eaten plain, however else bread was incorporated with the meal. Recent historical studies have revealed surprising similarities in the statistics for bread consumption across class and geographic boundaries, confirming the centrality of this staple food in the medieval person’s diet. Rather, differences of social status and era present themselves in the composition of that bread, as well as the source of its production.
Two main types of bread dominated the production of medieval bakeries, table bread and trenchers. This object receives frequent mention in literature, even idiomatic usage (“a good trencherman”), and occupies a position somewhere between tableware and food. The Menagier de Paris gives specifications for the desired size of a trencher: “half a foot long, by four fingers, by four fingers.” These relatively small loaves would then be turned over and over in the oven until hard, flat crusts formed on both sides, so that, when cut horizontally, the soft bread remaining would dissolve to form a relatively sturdy pair of bowls. With trenchers, staleness was actually an asset, so the menagier tells his wife to demand four-day-old trencher bread from her baker, for the best dinner party.