Bread of Medieval Britain

I’m still interested in bread (and other food staples and how they relate to food literacy and education more generally). I found an old booklet in which Maggie Black explains the breads of medieval Britain. She writes:

Bread was everyone’s staple food but the grain it was made from varied from place to place, and with one’s income. Wheat made the finest, whitest bread but only grew on good soil; and only the lord of the manor, that is the feudal holder of a large estate, could afford to have land dug over and manured for it. The commonest bread, called maslin, was made from wheat and rye flour mixed; darker loaves were made from rye flour alone. Barley and other oats were the breadcorns of the north and west where the climate was wet and cold. Nearly always, weed seeds were included with any grain, and when the harvest was poor, beans, peas and even acorns were used in the cheapest bread. a baker

The main types of bread were:

White Breads
Pandemain or paynemaine, the finest quality bread, from flour sifted two or three times.
Wastel, also first-quality bread from well-sifted flour.
Cocket, a slightly cheaper white bread which was replaced around 1500 with small loaves or rolls of top-quality white bread called manchets (hand-sized breads).

Other Breads
Cheat or whole wheat bread was whole wheat bread with the coarse bran removed.
Tourte (or trete or treet) was also called Brown Bread. It contained husk as well as flour and may have been the bread used for trenchers (see below).
Maslin, mesclin or miscellin was mixed wheat and rye bread.
Hoarse bread included peas, beans, any other grain to hand.

There were also the cheap breads ‘of all grains’, bran bread (made mostly with bran) and in the north and west especially, various kinds of barley bread and oatcakes which are still called havercakes or clapbread.

The most important use of brown bread for the wealthy was as trenchers (plates). The trenchers were made by cutting large loaves, preferably four days old, into thick slices with a slight hollow in the centre. An ordinary person would have only one or two plate trenchers for a whole meal, but a great personage would have several stacked up for him. These trenchers were gathered up in a basket and given to the poor after dinner.

Plain or toasted bread was used a great deal in cooked dishes. Breadcrumbs were a standard way of thickening sauces and of stiffening custards so that they could be sliced. Gingerbread was just a heavily spiced breadcrumb and honey mixture, heavily decorated with box leaves stuck on with whole cloves. Other cakes and buns were really just sweetened, spiced pieces of bread dough.

baker_punishmentMost country people baked their own bread, but in the towns, professional bakers operated, and were notorious as crafty swindlers. In 1267, therefore, by royal order, a set of regulations for assessing bread prices was laid down, called the Assize of Bread, to try to make sure that everyone paid a fair price for a loaf and no more. It was difficult to enforce, especially in small rural markets, but bakers who were caught flouting it were punished severely, and it was at least a responsible attempt to see that ordinary people could afford a very basic product.

Poorer people had another grievance besides bread prices; by about 1350, servants and serfs were complaining that they were only issued with coarse maslin or brown bread, and free labourers also resented not getting wheaten bread. Their masters justified it by saying that branny brown bread sustained those who did heavy manual work for long hours, but that it caused wind in people who lived sedentary lives; in fact, they really reserved it because it was a status symbol.”

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) pp.6-8 Maggie Black (1985) Food and Cooking in Medieval Britain: History and Recipes. English Heritage: Historic Buildings and Monuments: Birmingham.

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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