The history of bread dates back as far as 22 500 years ago – it was the staple of life for the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians, and was eaten throughout the Roman Empire. It was made by grinding cereal grains, such as wheat, millet or barley, into flour, then kneading it with a liquid, perhaps adding yeast to make the dough rise and lighten, and finally baking. Bread comes in all shapes and sizes, but in his book Bread: A Global History, William Rubel notes that Europe has had a “loaf-bread culture” for the last 2,000 years, while flat bread remained popular in the Middle East and Africa.
By the beginning of the Middle Ages the preference was to eat white bread made from wheat - medieval physicians also recommended it as being the healthiest – but poorer peoples would bake darker breads with oats or rye. If one needed too, people could also add rice, peas, lentils, chestnuts, acorns or other foods into the mixture. In medieval France, most people would eat a type of bread known as meslin, which was made from a mixture of wheat and rye.
Writing from Baghdad in the 10th century, Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, gives his thoughts on the best kinds of bread to eat:
Wheat bread agrees with almost everybody, particular varieties made with a generous amount of yeast and salt and allowed to fully ferment and bake well. Such breads are lighter and digest faster. Jizmazaj (thin bread with tamarisk seeds) and ruqaq (very thin bread) are by comparison less nourishing and digest much faster. Bread baked in malla (pit with hot ashes and stones), tabaq (large flat pan) and any other similar varieties that do not ferment or bake well are hard to digest and cause stomach aches. Only people used to strenuous labor can eat them more often.
Terrence Scully notes “that bread was the basis of the medieval diet” and the amount that people ate throughout Europe was remarkably similar. He finds that records from England, France and Italy that workmen, soldiers and even patients in hospitals were supposed to get about two pounds of bread per day.
Like today, breads made in the Middle Ages came in all shapes and sizes. For example, in the Polish city of Wroclaw the people could buy and eat breads such as common white bread, common rye bread, black rye bread, wheat rolls, bagels, crescent rolls and flat cakes. Besides using bread just for food, medieval people often used it as their plates: known as trenchers, these were breads that were cut into thick flat slices. Then others foods like meats or thick sauces would be served on top of them. Once the meal was finished, the bread could then be eaten, or, if you were wealthy or generous enough, was given to the poor or to animals.
Bread is a key part of the Christian religion, as Jesus gave it to his disciples at the Last Supper. The Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, is one of the principle parts of a Christian mass. However, there has been a dispute between various Christian sects on what kind of bread to use – leavened or unleavened. Eastern churches believed that only leavened loaves (bread made with yeast) could be used as Eucharists, while the Roman Catholic church made their pieces of Holy Communion from wafers of unleavened bread.
The question over what kind of bread to use remained a deep theological dispute throughout the Middle Ages, and occasionally lead to violence and condemnations of heresy. In the year 1053, Roman Catholic churches were closed in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople and their unleavened consecrated bread was trampled upon in the streets. One Byzantine church leader denounced the used of unleavened bread, writing “You call bread panis; we call it artos. This is from airoel, to raise, signifies a something elevated, lifted up, being raised and warmed by the ferment and salt; the azym, on the other hand, is lifeless as a stone or baked clay, fit only to symbolize affliction and suffering.”
See also the depictions from the Jewish Birds’ Head Haggadah on how Matzah bread was made.
How to ask for bread with your hands
The Benedictine monastery of Cluny had strict rules against talking in parts of the monastery or during particular times of the day. The monks still had to communicate with each other, and they developed a sophisticated form of sign language. An eleventh-century text describing the Cluniac sign language reveals that they had a rich vocabulary related to food, including these references to bread:
For the sign of bread
make a circle with the thumb and
its two adjacent fingers, because
bread is customarily round.
For the sign of bread, which is
cooked in water and which is better
than that served on most days,
after making the general sign for bread,
place the palm of one hand
over the outside of the other as if
oiling or wetting.
For the sign of marked bread, which is
commonly called torta, after
making the general sign of bread,
make a cross through the middle of the
palm, because bread of this type is
generally divided into quarters.
Bread was usually safe to eat, but a disease did exist, called Ergotism, which was caused by consuming rye bread that had been infected by the Claviceps purpurea fungus, also known as ergot. While it was easy to spot the signs of the fungus in rye – it turned the grain black and waxy – people did not correlate this with the disease. Others may have suspected that the unusual rye could could cause problems, but did not want to waste the grain that took months to grow.
The Annales Xantenses reports that in the year 857 “a great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.” Ina Lipkowitz explains that the
victims suffered from hallucinations, insanity, vomiting, and gangrene of the hands and feet due to constriction of blood flow to the extremities. Those afflicted felt as if they were being burned at the stake as their fingers and toes split open and dropped off, one by one. A late medieval chronicler wrote of an “invisible fire that separated the flesh from the bones and consumed it.”
It was said that 40 000 people in northern Germany were killed by the disease in the year 994. In the eleventh-century a group of lay people created an order to take care of people afflicted by the disease. They declared Saint Anthony of Egypt to be the patron saint of the order, and the disease became known as St.Anthony’s Fire. Ergotism is much rarer in the modern world, but outbreaks have occurred in less developed countries even in recent years.
Throughout the medieval world there were regulations about how to make and sell bread. Because this food was so central the people’s lives, authorities needed to make sure that even the poor could afford to buy it. In some places, the government would make sure that the price of grain did not rise too much (although this might lead grain sellers to ship their merchandise elsewhere), while in England the Assize of Bread was created in the 13th century. These laws set up price controls for bakers, which would allow someone to buy at least some quantity of bread for a penny. Every year at least the size of this bread would be set according to the price of wheat and other grains – if the grain supply was expensive, your penny would only get you a small amount of bread; if grain was plentiful, than the size of the loaf would increase.
This system would last in England for over 500 years, although bakers occasionally tried to cheat by selling bread that did not meet regulations. In fourteenth-century London, for example, bakers were caught selling bread that had been mixed with dirt or chalk or even had an iron-bar inserted into it to make it weigh more. See this lecture by Barbara Hanawalt on Fraud among the Victualers in Medieval London, which included much about bad bakers:
Medieval Bread Recipes
Wroclaw Trencher Bread
In Poland, the use of trenchers was popular in the Middle Ages. The Polish city of Wroclaw kept bread laws that specified how this bread would be made. In her book Food and Drink in Medieval Poland, Maria Dembinska has used their records to recreate the recipe for this bread:
8 cups (1kg) of stone ground rye flour
7 cups (875g) of stone ground spelt or whole club wheat flour
2 cups (500ml) thick beer
1 cup (250 ml) active beer barm or 1/2 ounce (14g) dry yeast proofed in 1 cup (250 ml) lukewarm water
4 cups (1 litre) water at room temperature
2 tablespoons of salt
Directions: Combine the flours in a mixing bowl. Measure out 7 1/2 cups (950g) and put this in a large work bowl or bread through. Combine the thick beer, yeast and water. Add this to the flour and stir to create a slurry. Cover and let stand overnight until foamy. Combine the salt with the remaining flour, and stir down the slurry. Add the salted flour to the slurry and knead into a ball of dough on a well-floured work surface. Knead for at least 20 minutes, vigorously striking the dough from time to time with a bat or long rolling pin to break down the glutten. Set aside, cover, and let the dough rise until doubled in bulk. When it is fully risen, knock down and knead again, breaking it with a bat or rolling pin as before. When the dough is soft and spongy, mold it out into 9 or 10 round loaves (each about 12 ounces or 375 g to allow for water loss during baking). Cover and let the loaves rise in a warm place until they are roughly 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter.
While the loaves are rising, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (250 degrees C). When the loaves are fully risen, set them on a greased pizza sheets and cut a small sign of the cross or some other preferred pattern into the top of each loaf. Set the loaves in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F and finish baking the bread for 10 to 20 minutes or until it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool on a rack. Do not cut the bread until it is room temperature.
Nabatean water bread (Khubz al-ma’ al-Nabati’)
Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq was commissioned to write a cookbook on the dishes and foods eaten by the Caliphs, nobles and people of Baghdad in the 10th century (probably around the 940s). Among the 600 recipes he details is several the deal with bread. Here is one that makes a specific type of flat bread:
Take 1 makkuk (7 1/2 pounds) good quality samidh flour and sift it in a big wooden bowl. Mix with it 3 uqiyyas (3 ounces) yeast, and add 30 dirhams (3 ounces) salt that has been dissolved in water and strained.
Knead the mixture into very firm dough, as firm as stone and press it well. Continue pressing it while rubbing the bottom of the dough 120 times with water in doses of 4 dirhams (1 tablespoon) each until it develops a consistency which is a little firmer than that of the zalabiya dough (about the same as pancake batter). Cover the dough and let it ferment. With the help of some oil of hulled sesame seeds divide dough into portions and shape them like firani (round and domed thick bread).
Light the tannur and wait until the fire starts to smolder gently. Wipe clean the inside of the oven [with a piece of cloth]. Rub each portion of the dough with 2 dirhams (1 teaspoon) sesame oil or zayt anfaq (olive oil extracted from unripe olives) then flatten it by hand and stick it the inside of the smoldering oven. This recipe will make 15 pieces of bread.
When you are done sticking all the portions in the tannur, cover it with its lids for a short while. As soon as the breads are set, sprinkle them lightly with water, about 1/2 kuz (1/2 cup), and return the lid as it was before. Wait for a short while, then remove the cover, and open up the bottom went hole to expose the breads to more heat. As son as they brown, take them out. Scrape their backs with a knife and wipe them with a small amount of water. Stack the breads, enclose them in a damp piece of cloth, and set them aside for an hour or so.
Serve this bread whenever you need it, it will be the best, God willing.
Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe: A Book of Essays, edited by Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York, 2002)
“A Medieval Food List from the Monastery of Cluny,” by Kirk Ambrose, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 6 (2006)
Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past, by Maria Dembinska (Philadelphia, 1999)
A Hermit’s Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages, by Andrew Jotischky (New York, 2011)
The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History with Recipes, by Hannele Klemettila (Reaktion Books, 2012)
Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language, by Ina Lipkowitz (New York, 2011)
Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen, by Nawal Nasrallah (Brill, 2007)
Bread: A Global History, by William Rubel (Reaktion Books, 2011)
The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, by Terrance Scully (Boydell, 1995)
“Assize Matters: Regulation of the Price of Bread in Medieval London”, by Gwen Seabourne, The Journal of Legal History, Vol.27:1 (2006)