Our daily bread

“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.”

Bread in the Middle Ages

Bread is the food that marks an agricultural society out from a gatherer-hunter one. It was at the heart of the medieval diet – and religion.  The quotation above is from John’s Gospel (6:35), and the Bible is full of references to bread.  Bread is broken and shared at the Eucharist (/communion/ mass).  There are even various references to bread in the Merton cartulary.  The cartulary is the collection of land deeds and titles, gifts, contracts, etc.  And it’s in some of these contracts, or ‘corrodies’, more correctly, that bread features.  In 1281, William St Faith was appointed as a servant and given a room in the gatehouse.  He was also to have 6 miche loaves a week, two hall loaves and two chapel loaves (as well as a gallon of ale every day).

You can buy miche loaves at niche bakeries today.  They’re also called pains de campagne, or rustic bread.  The flour was mainly or perhaps wholly wheat, although rye appears in various recipes, such as this one; I’m not sure whether it was sourdough or used ale barm as a starter.  As we can guess from the number of miche loaves William was granted, it was the daily bread.

The hall and chapel loaves were more refined – Du Cange’s dictionary notes that ‘panis de aula’ (hall) was for the abbot of guest house.  Another loaf was the ‘boy’s bread’.  In about 1178, a memo about the sacristan said that

The Sacristan ought to have two servants and one boy. The servants shall have such allowance as they are used to have; the boy, ten loaves of the boys’ bread and such allowance as the boys have…

As for how bread was baked, watch the excellent Tales from the Green Valley, about 7.35 in.  As Ruth Goodman explains here, the bottom crust of the bread was rather dirty with embers.  The upper crust was the presentable side, and if you were upper crust it’s because you came high enough up the pecking order to eat it.

The Barnwell Observances (from the Augustinian priory of Barnwell, near Cambridge, in the 13th century) say that the fraterer (in charge of the refectory) should

fetch bread for the use of the brethren from the cellar, and to be careful that the bread is clean and not burnt, nor gnawed by mice, nor dirty. Before the loaves are laid on the tables, they ought to be got ready for use on the under side [?], and when laid on the tables to be properly covered up

Leftovers went to the poor.

There’s more on medieval bread here and here.

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