Bread in the Middle Ages

Kings, knights, monks, peasants – everyone in the Middle Ages ate bread. It was also the food that caused bitter religious disputes and could make you go insane.

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. Medieval people also could choose from many varieties as well – in the Polish city of Wroclaw, one could buy white bread, rye bread, black rye bread, wheat rolls, bagels, crescent rolls or flat cakes.

The Middle Ages would see white bread made from wheat become the preferred taste – medieval physicians even recommended it as being the healthiest – but poorer peoples would bake darker breads made from oats or rye. If one needed to, they 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.

Besides being food, medieval people often used bread as their plates: known as trenchers, these were breads that were cut into thick flat slices. Then other 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 animals.

A medieval baker with his apprentice. The Bodleian Library, Oxford.
A medieval baker with his apprentice. The Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Religious strife

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 principal 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. Byzantine and 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 of what kind of bread to use remained a deep theological dispute throughout the Middle Ages, and occasionally led 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 use of unleavened bread, calling it “lifeless as a stone or baked clay, fit only to symbolize affliction and suffering.”

medieval breads from the 15th century

How to ask for bread  using sign language

The 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.

See also: We all eat white bread because of 7th-century missionaries to England

St. Anthony’s Fire

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 turns the grain black and waxy – people did not correlate this with the disease. Others may have suspected that the unusual rye could cause problems, but did not want to waste the grain that took months to grow.

Detail from the painting Temptation of St Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, showing a patient with advanced ergotism

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 in recent years.

The Assize of Bread

Throughout the medieval world there were regulations about how to make and sell bread. Because this food was so central to people’s lives, authorities needed to make sure that even the poor could afford to buy it. Some governments regulated the price of grain so it 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, forcing them to bake a loaf that could be bought for a penny. Every year at least the size of this loaf 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 the grain was plentiful, then the size of the loaf would increase.

Table of weights and measures, possibly for calculating the prices of bread or wheat, with a drawing of a balance and weights. - British Library
Table of weights and measures, possibly for calculating the prices of bread or wheat, with a drawing of a balance and weights. – British Library

This system would last in England for over 500 years, although bakers occasionally tried to cheat the system. 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 ½ 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 ½ 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 gluten. 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.

Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 9333 fol. 61r

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 tenth century. Among his 600 recipes, he details several that deal with bread. Here is one that makes a specific type of flatbread:

Take 1 makkuk (7 ½ 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 inside a 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.

Further Readings

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)