Medieval Bread In Britain
By Medieval times bread truly was the main stay of British life, eaten by all the economic and social levels of society on a daily basis. And, as always, what was true then, is also true now, the quality and type of bread produced is always determined by the flour used. And achieving ‘top quality’ means using fine ground flour made from wheat; but throughout much of British history this was simply not available to most people.
It was only until 20th Century, and the introduction of new farming practices, that wheat has been able to be grown all over the country in large quantities. Hence the earliest and very finest wheaten breads, pandemain (panis dominis, lord’s bread) or Manchet Bread, were part of the ruling elite’s diet, (even then the best medieval extraction process could only remove 80% of the wholemeal and bran, giving the bread an off-white colour). To truly trace the history of bread in Britain we need to look at earlier, coarser made breads, such as Rye Bread or ‘mixed breads’ such as Maslin Bread.
Baking bread has always been a relatively simple process, for thousands of years a bakestone (quite literally a flat or domed stone to bake on – purpose cast iron versions appeared from the 13th century onwards) supported over an open fire was used by most humble households, especially in baking flat breads, while later on more complex and larger brick or clay bread ovens were built for the village baker, the richer households and army barracks etc. to cope with baking leaven bread on a larger scale.
Taking the most humble farmer, as a starting point, we would see him send off grain grown on his land to the miller, have it returned as flour (minus the toll) and then have the bread baked daily by his wife (after the flour and other ingredients had been mixed and kneaded in the kneading trough or kimlin) on a bakestone over the fire, perhaps under an upturned cooking pot, with hot embers and ash placed on the bottom of the pot, to surround the bread with heat like a small bread oven. A cooking method that dates right back into the iron age.
Bread has always been graded according to the degree of refinement in terms of the quality of flour used in its dough. Bread made of pure, fine-ground and sieved wheat flour (undergoing the laborious bolting process) has always been the exception in much of Britain, and for much of its history. Most breads were commonly made from a mixture of flour made from various grains. Each different mixture giving rise to different names to the breads. A mix of wheat, barley and rye gave rise to the name of maslin bread, from the French miscelin meaning mixture, a bread eaten by servants, labourers and poorer families.
Maslin Bread was just one example, there was, from region to region, every sort of bread available, made with different grains, colours and textures, dependant on the ingredients used. Bran bread, Barley Bread and Rye Bread (made with single flour ingredients) were also often used, particularly in regions where the colder, wetter climate prevented wheat from being grown.
Growth In Importance Of Bread
As bread grew in importance, (bread also became an ingredient in cooking, thickening sauces for example) so the ruling elite’s control over it tightened. The flour mill and miller were often owned by the major landowner of the area and they would force their rural tenants to use it and thereby pay a fee or toll for its use – an oppressive system forbidding competition. But with greater wealth on offer we also see mechanisation take hold, as water and wind mills replaced earlier, smaller, traditional milling methods. While, in the growing towns, large municipal bread ovens for the poorest families to use started as a commercial industry.
Indeed the family roast, as seen in a Christmas Carol, was also often cooked in it (for those without the means of roasting meat or baking bread). And with the greater importance of bread as a food source, for rich and poor alike, so the control over the quality of the flour and baked bread was also carefully monitored. With dishonest millers and bakers heavily fined and punished if found mixing sand with the flour or selling under weight loaves etc. and thus grew the notion, common to all nations, that millers were evil men, with a German proverb lamenting, “beside every mill, stands a hill of sand”. Just read Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales, the Miller’s Tale, for an image of the miller and his standing in British society.