Friday, August 7, 2015

FRENCH BREAD HISTORY: Renaissance/sixteenth century bread

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the history of French bread. The preceding post was on late medieval bread outside Paris. Further information on bread history can be found on Facebook in the Bread History Lounge.

It is certain that bread holds the first rank among the things which feed Man.....Bread alone never displeases, in health or sickness, it is the last appetite lost, and the first recovered in illness... Bread includes in itself everything pleasant and agreeable one might taste in other foods.... Thus then as the life of Man consists above all other foods in the use of bread, who cares for his living and his health must choose bread according to his fortune, state and nature.

According to Wikipedia: “The French Renaissance traditionally extends from (roughly) the French invasion of Italy in 1494 during the reign of Charles VIII until the death of Henry IV in 1610.” That is, roughly the “long” sixteenth centuryThe French Renaissance was less spectacular than the Italian and has left, if anything, less traces on culture than the Medieval period which preceded it; it may be most useful as a way of delineating the period just after the Middle Ages.

French bread in this period had some reputation; Calanis (1553) says that Roman bakers had learned to make the best kind of bread “from a Frenchman name Jacquet”. It probably had not changed greatly since the late medieval period. Images of breads from this period vary little from medieval images, though arguably the frank hemisphere of medieval times can be seen to flatten somewhat over time, producing a slightly raised disk not very different from some Roman images. But some new terminology does begin to creep in.

This is also the period where documentation of bread-making begins to appear. Several works appeared in this period which provided more details on this than had previously appeared. Bruyerin de Champier wrote de Re Cibaria in Latin in 1560; this touched on a number of aspects of bread. Charles Etienne also wrote a work in Latin – de Nutrimentis (1550) – which explored bread but his most well known work, l'Agriculture et maison rustique, was in French. His own first edition (1564) says almost nothing about bread, but in 1570 his son-in-law, Jean Liébaut, expanded on it, drawing in part on the earlier works in Latin, and provided the most extensive look at French, or even European, bread up to that point.

Most, though not all, of what follows, comes from Liébaut. Much of this information probably applied to earlier centuries as well, just as some did to later centuries. On the other hand, mentions of things like corn (maize) follow Columbus' discovery of the New (to Europeans) World.

The types of bread

The three major types of bread were still the prime ones in Paris. In 1523, a decision of Parlement listed white bread of Chailly, pain bourgeois and pain de brode. In 1577, Henry III ordered that bakers have "three kinds of bread" for sale: "the white bread called pain de Chailly", "moderately white bread, called pain bourgeois" and "black bread, called pain de brode". The same statute notes that they may make pain de chapitre ("chapter bread"). This is in addition to the standard three breads, and corresponds to other breads of especially good quality, such as the miche and fougasse.

In listing different kinds of breads Liébaut says that the key difference is in the way they were sifted. (He refers here to the darkest bread as household bread – pain de ménage, though the meaning of the latter would vary over the centuries.)
From whole wheat, and from which nothing has been separated, is made household bread . From that from which all the coarsest bran has been removed is made pain bourgeois. From that from which all bran has been removed is made the small white loaf. From that from which the coarsest white flour has been removed, leaving the finest, is made pain de chapitre, wafers, communion wafers [pain à chanter], tarts, cakes and other pastry breads [sic]; a bread is also made of essentially pure bran, in which are still found large stalks and straw, which is for dog food.
Pain de bourgeois remained the common bread it had been in medieval times. At the start of the seventeenth century, Cotgrave would define it in English as "crible bread, between white and brown; a bread (that somewhat resembles our wheaten, or cheat) a loaf whereof is to weigh, when 'tis baked, 32 ounces”.

Though the term pain de Chapitre only appears now, both the concept and the actual object probably existed earlier. The term means “chapter bread”, referring to an ecclesiastic chapter. Le Grand d'Aussy would write in the eighteenth century that it was so named because it had been invented by a baker of the Chapter of Notre Dame; this is the most common explanation for the name. But among the breads listed in earlier records was pain de chanoine (“canon's bread”), In a record from 1261, the bread of the monks (panis conventualibus) was treated as synonymous with miche. In other words, the idea of monks' bread overall being particularly fine, and even equivalent to the finest white bread, was an established one by now. It is not unlikely that the idea of “chapter bread” was simply yet another way of referring to, basically, “food as good as the monks”. (Note that one reason monks' bread might have been finer was that they had their own bakeries and were not dependent on urban bakers for the quality of their bread.)

At the start of the next century, De Serres would say that pain de chapitre differed from pain de menage only in being flatter and less raised. Cotgrave defines pain de chapitre as "a fine white, hard-kneaded and flat manchet, weighing about 16 ounces."

In the eighteenth century, Le Grand would describe it as “very white”, but writes that “without being as hard as biscuit it was nonetheless of so hard [“firm”] a dough that one could only knead it with the feet or even with a wicker bottle or a wooden bar; as [was still done in the eighteenth century] for Italian pasta.” By his time, he writes, it was far less popular, as were all breads made from the harder (that is, less hydrated) doughs. From both Cotgrave and Le Grand then it is clear that, fine as it was, it was a harder bread than those that came later.

Also in the eighteenth century, Malouin described it in the same terms and treated it as the same as two other breads: "This bread was very famous two hundred years ago, under the name of Pain de Chapitre, or bread of Gonesse, in Paris, and Fouasse in Caen. It was the bread made with the most care: it was given as the masterpiece for the reception as a master baker."

Whether or not the bread of Gonesse was identical with pain de chapitre, it began now to have the reputation it would keep for the next two hundred years, as it began to replace the bread of Chailly as the most admired bread in Paris. In advising farmers to make money from their domestic products, Liébaut writes that they can do so "still more from the sale of bread..., as we see with the laborers of Gonesse near Paris."

In general the terms shifted in this time for an especially white bread (whether it was functionally equivalent to pain de chapitre is impossible to say). The term pain de bouche (“mouth bread”) also referred to especially good white bread, but was typically used in relation to large private households. Etienne treats this as synonymous with mollet or "Court bread", which he describes as "the lightest of all, and full of holes; carefully kneaded, full of leavening, and of well-risen dough." The term pain mollet (“softish bread”) already existed in the fourteenth century, when it appeared as a person's family name. It also appeared, but very rarely, as a standard bread in some town statutes. But only in the sixteenth century did it begin to become a common term for the best upscale bread. At the start of the seventeenth century, Cotgrave would define it as "a very light, very crusty, and savory white bread, full of eyes, leaven, and salt." By the end of that century it would have taken on a far more prominent role.

The idea of pain benit (blessed bread) was already centuries old at this point, but Liébaut might have been the first to describe it – as "badly kneaded, badly risen, and rather badly baked" and difficult to digest. This description is surprising, since in later centuries this was so like brioche that ultimately that finer bread was simply substituted for it.

Methods and materials

Liébaut is probably the first to document aspects of bread-making which are only referenced in earlier texts, including the grains and other materials used.


Liébaut defines leavening quite precisely as sourdough:
Leaven, called in Latin Fermentum, because it swells and rises over time, is a piece of dough left from the last bread-making, covered and enclosed in flour, which is soaked, to remove the excessive glutinosity and viscosity from the flour one wants to use to make dough for bread: this leavening takes on a sourness over time which brings a grace and a better taste to the bread, and so we see that the more breads have leavening, the more pleasant and healthy they are than those that have less leavening.
He explains that this was made in different ways in different regions. What is more, it varied by grain: wheat dough was used to make that for wheat bread, rye for that of rye; salt, vinegar, verjuice or the juice of wild apples could be added. It even varied by type of wheat; in examining the different wheats from different regions, he actually suggests different strengths of leavening for wheat from different regions.

He also gives details on using it. For instance, during the summer, the leavening must be refreshed with cool water at noon; and again, scrupulously, at five and at nine.

Notably, one thing he does not discuss – and which is not yet mentioned in bread trials, for instance – is the age or generation of the leavening. This would become a fundamental aspect of leavening in later French baking, but the fact that Liébaut does not even mention it suggests that it was not yet an important consideration in French bread baking.

Liébaut is also the first (since Pliny) to discuss using yeast (that is, brewer's yeast) in bread making. He points out first of all that pastrymakers used it, largely because sourdough added too distinct a taste to pastry (bearing in mind nonetheless that pastry at this point was far from the fine confection it would become). But he further writes that the Flemish used yeast (made by boiling wheat and skimming the foam that appeared on the top) which was why "their bread is much lighter than ours." As with Pliny centuries earlier, one would think that this knowledge would have led to the writer's culture using this method. Yet the French at this point were still not using yeast in bread baking.

Wheat and water

Liébaut now addresses two nuances not previously mentioned in baking: the type of wheat and the type of water. His careful analysis of the former would prove unusual and little like it is found even later; his emphasis on the importance of the type of water would be echoed by other writers going forward.

Whether these were already considered in earlier centuries and simply unrecorded, or were in fact new developments, is impossible to say. But Liébaut makes careful distinctions between the wheats from different regions and between the types of water used in making dough. In discussing the actual making of bread, Liébaut insists on the importance of the specific wheat. He almost describes it as like the grapes grown in different regions for different wines:
The most excellent, healthiest and best of all Grains for making bread is bread wheat, which, as it is different and of various sorts according to the regions, the countries, the land, the soil where it grows, and according to the care of its laborer, thus breads of different sorts, as much in flavor and taste as in nourishment, are made from it.
The best wheats of all France, he says, and the most used at Paris, were those of Beauce, [Ile de] France, Brie, Picardy, Champagne, Bassiny in Burgundy; though he allows that those of Bery, Saintonges, the Angouleme region, Limoges, Normandy, Languedoc, and Limagne of Auvergne "are not to be despised". He analyzes each of these in some detail, describing too the bread produced with the grain of each and how the grain responds to milling.

With the wheat of Beauce, for instance, “which in truth holds the first rank among all the wheats of France", the farmer's wife must be extremely careful about everything. For the wheats of other regions, he says to use less leavening, more warm water, etc. He portrays the wheat of Picardy as almost intractable, requiring "difficult" baking in a hot oven, which in turn makes it crustier, keeping the heat from penetrating inside: "This is what makes the bread always stay thick;" “a thick and coarse loaf from a dough of Picard wheat requires a longer and greater baking than a small loaf made of the wheat of Beauce or of [the Ile-de-] France.”

These remarks were probably accurate for their period. But later writers do not make such fine distinctions.

He also insists on the importance of the particular water: "Well water is the heaviest among them, thus making the bread heavier: water from a fountain or a river, being lighter..., also makes the bread lighter". In the winter, he recommends using warm water and writes more of how hard the dough must be worked than of the time at which to refresh it.

The idea that the exact type of water was an essential consideration in bread making would be a fundamental one going forward, even after Parmentier demonstrated that it had no effect.

Other touches

Liébaut provides a number of other random details which, taken together, paint a vivid picture of the bread of this period.

In discussing milling, he recommends hard millstones over soft, because the latter "always leaves some gravel while turning, which mixed into the grain take away all the grace and flavor of the bread." Which is to say that some French wheat included bits of stone from the milling. He further points out that, if in other countries wheat might be manipulated before being ground, in France: "so the wheat is, so it is sent to the mill." For better or worse...

When making bread with salt, anise or another additive, he writes, these must be added in while kneading the dough. Not only does he treat salt here as just one more additive, which may or may not be added to bread, but he makes it clear that flavorings like anise were not unusual in the bread of this period.

Once dough has been prepared, he writes, "divide it into orbicular portions, sufficiently large and thick, to be put in a reasonably heated oven so that the bread is cooked enough according to the size, thickness and quality of its dough... If the oven is too hot, the bread will be scorched on the crust, and will remain badly cooked inside.” (His mention of "orbicular" - that is, spherical - portions is a rare mention of the actual shape of the bread.)

He says that the oven is the best place to cook bread, because it heats it on all sides, but he expects that some will make bread on the hearth or on a grill, even if that leaves only one side cooked. Other sources too refer to cooking bread under the coals or under a pottery bell. While it is somewhat surprising to see these primitive methods referenced this late in French history, they probably made sense for anyone whose local lord or monastery forbade them having their own oven.

Liébaut even goes so far as to give advice about eating bread. For instance, he advises against eating the crust "even though it tastes better than the crumb" and says that its defects are why bread crust was scraped (chappelé') at the tables of great Lords. (In later centuries, the product of this scraping – the chapelure – would itself become a commercial product.) He even addresses how much bread one should eat (basically saying, “it depends....”)

Interestingly, he specifically says that bread should not be eaten warm and fresh from the oven – the reverse of Anthimus' advice centuries earlier to eat it “warm every day” (cottidie calentem) when possible. Liébaut does note however that doctors highly recommended the odor of bread coming out of the oven, sprinkled with wine, for those who were feeling poorly.

Other baked products

At this point in French history, pastry and other baked products had begun to split off from bread and were increasingly made by specialized trades separate from bread-baking. Still, Liébaut includes a number of these in his overview of bread.


Though biscuits had probably existed in France since Roman times, and certainly since the central Middle Ages, the word long referred only to the hard-baked breads which gave it its name (“twice baked”). But by this period the concept had begun to expand. Liébaut writes first of the long-standing kind, made now with rye, maslin, barley, or oats – that is, of inferior grains – "suited to feed sailors who undertake long trips at sea" because it was barely leavened and long-lasting (he also recommends it for the besieged). Another was similar, also barely leavened, but made of wheat flour, and suited to those with syphilis. Liébaut is one of the first to mention the third; that is, a luxurious form of this formerly coarse food. He describes types made with the best flour, with added sugar, cinnamon, pepper or ginger, sometimes anise, to be eaten at Lent as a dessert.

The fact that people ate these at Lent suggests some pretext at least of deprivation, but in later centuries flavored biscuits would be frankly eaten as treats.

He also says that doctors recommended biscuit to those with catarrh and gout.

Gingerbread and milk bread

After this, he mentions the spice bread of Rheims, made with honey and pepper or cinnamon; this was essentially, in Anglophone terms, gingerbread, and would be an enduring French favorite. Almost as an after-thought, he says that "courtesan bakers made bread with milk." Though this was already done in earlier centuries, at this point it was clearly considered a great luxury. It is interesting too that he does not say this in regard to pain mollet, which would be characterized by that difference later on.


In discussing pastry, Liébaut already straddles the boundary between the rich sweets that would define such products going forward and the bread-like products which were at its origin. Even a farmer's wife, he says, may want to make cake, tarts, etc, to give her master and mistress several times a year.
Such pastries are of diverse sorts according to the matter from which they are made, the manner of their baking, their appearance, the times when they are used, and the region where they are made. The matter and so to speak the base of every sort of pastry is the finest flour passed through a strainer or a fine sifter, in which several other added things diversify the pastry.

Waffles and wafers

The first examples he gives are still near descendants of bread:
One will make waffles of fine wheat flour well soaked in water and kneaded for a long time, to give it some thickness, and mixing in some finely powdered salt, then cooking all this between two irons first warmed in a moderate fire, then rubbed with walnut oil: one sees such waffles made at the entries of Churches on days of high holidays and feasts of patron saints for the most gourmet; one can make finer and softer waffles by soaking the fine flour in white wine and water mixed together, carefully kneading it: then adding egg yolks, a little sugar and salt, and baking all this between two irons, having inside several interlocking separations in the form of small squares, after having rubbed the said irons with fresh butter or olive oil; such waffles are presented as desserts at solemn banquets.
Liébaut is already calling these “waffles” (gaufres) but the distinction between a wafer (oublie) and a waffle barely existed at this point. What had been the communion wafer (also made between two hot irons) was already evolving into the richer product defined in the later part of these instructions; even the medieval wafers used for dessert probably did not have egg yolks and sugar in them.

Note that if a little sugar is added to this treat, it is still very close to a bread. Still finer variations on these had existed for several centuries, though Liébaut may be the first to provide a detailed description of a “master” for instance:
What is called a mestier in Paris is made of the same fine wheat flour soaked in water and white wine, and a little sugar added, all baked between two irons like the waffles, but not as thick: wafers are made with honey instead of sugar: missal bread otherwise called hymnal bread is similar to wafers, only no honey, sugar or any sort of leavening is added in the flour with which it is kneaded following the institution of our religion.
This last of course is the communion wafer, which arguably was the basis for all the others.

Fine pastries

Liébaut then goes on to describe other similar pastries, but which clearly came closer to today's idea of these – estriez, brideveaux, etc. He includes here marzipan, made with various types of nuts and rose sugar, and which he describes as "the healthiest". Popelins, he writes are made with the same flour, kneaded with milk, egg yolks and fresh butter (that is, already very like a brioche). Puff pastry (gateaux feuilletez) was then made with less flour and no milk. Regrettably, he does not describe the technique made to use this, though it is noteworthy that it was already made with butter.

From here he moves to tarts, beignets, etc; that is, foods closer to our modern idea of pastry. "All sorts of pastries are more for the pleasure of the mouth than for the health of the body" he adds. By the next century, such luxury sweets would be far more clearly associated with the idea of pastry.

Other uses for bread

Aside from related baked products, Liébaut mentions some other uses of bread in his time

Thin slices of toast were sometimes eaten at the end of a meal "to dry too moist a stomach" and, “principally in fat persons”, to keep foods from being distributed to parts of the body too quickly. Toast, eaten often, was even said to help lose weight. On the other hand, toast with sugar and cinnamon (not then called “cinnamon toast”) was said to help appetite.

Pieces of bread toasted on coals were called cluets and used to make “very agreeable” sauces by soaking them in wine and water, then straining them and adding spices.

Liébaut praises "washed bread" as being very beneficial to health and writes that the ancients were said to have literally washed slices of bread in water, but that "in this time... we do not wash it in water, but in meat bouillon, like that of veal or capon, perhaps out of regard for our delicacy and weakness, greater than was that of the ancients' bodies." Instead of washed bread, he writes that people of his time used panade, or pain fraisé (“ruffled bread”):
Crumble with the hands the crumb of a white bread, not fresh, but cooked the day before, or grate it finely, then soak it a few hours in warm water, or in cool water, which one changes three or four times, finally it is slowly cooked on a low coal fire in an earthen pot with buttered water, or some other fat. Those who want to make it finer, soak it, and cook it in some bouillon of capon or chicken, or other such meats. stirring it often and for a long time with a spoon.
This is said to be good for long term invalids, but also for the healthy, and for those trying to cure pox. He also recommends it for nursing babies and says that it is better than “the gruel one usually prepares for them of cow's milk and the best flour”. He adds that starch, made in bread or gruel, can have a similar effect.

Other grains than wheat

Though wheat was by far the preferred grain for bread, other grains were used, and even products which were not grains. Foremost among these were barley and rye, the two grains long associated with bread for servants and others less well off.

Liébaut describes rye bread as "very black, heavy, pasty, of a viscous essence, and melancholic;... difficult to digest [and so] suited to rustics and village folk, not great lords and people of ease"; though he adds that doctors advised such bread to the great lords at Court during the summer to "soften the stomach". Even then, the bread had to be made of well-sifted flour. To remove rye's glutinosity it was “good to mix it with barley flour, or rather wheat, or take the finest rye flour; it will have the color of wax if you put something heavy on top of it while it is hot." Rye was thought to be full of bran, which Liébaut says was also true of barley and oatmeal. The sick, instead of tisane, cider or beer, etc. could use a breaded water made with rye bread beaten into water.

He adds that the women of Lyon "to be beautiful and have nice skin, solid and succulent bodies, use only rye bread." Champier also notes that rye was used for pasties of hare, stag and similar meats (Le Grand says, “black meats”), because it better preserved them; Liébaut says simply that pastrymakers used it in general because it lasted longer.

Maslin (méteil) was typically made by mixing wheat with rye. Though in theory this would result in a lesser quality bread, Liébaut says that bread made with maslin was “one one of the best, and easier to digest”. Though he does not call it maslin, he also says that Court doctors ordered a bread made of a similar mix served to the King and great lords “to use at the start of a meal, principally in summer, to loosen the stomach”.

Barley, even the best, would yield a dry, friable bread of a harsh taste if not mixed with other grains; the same was true of secourgeon (see below). "Neither the one nor the other is good for the master, nor the farmer, rather for the servants, and then" when grain was expensive. It too was full of bran, "that is also why the bread that is made from it loosens the belly."

Bruyerin wrote that people in lower Normandy and Brittany made bread from oats “but there is no doubt that it is unpleasant.” Liébaut advises against it, not only "because it is very unpleasant", but because making flour from oats “is to deprive livestock of pasturage”. Oatmeal on the other hand was “welcome at the table of great lords”.

Millet and its close relative panic, already mentioned among the Gauls, were still common now in Gascony and Bearn. Both commoners and great lords ate it. Liébaut's description of the bread made from these is interesting not only for his own period, but for the glimpse it provides of what such bread was probably like centuries before: “It is very dry, light and easily crumbles...of a pleasant taste when it is freshly baked and well made, above all when it is eaten hot coming out of the oven; because then it has a very pleasant sweetness... [but] when it has hardened, it loses all its grace.” It lasted long enough however for bakers to take it hot from the oven and sell it in the streets.

Elsewhere he says that the people of Bearn were called “milleted” (miliacés) and describes how they made what he called miques:
They take three or four pounds of millet flour for the morning, and as many for the evening, putting this on the fire on a cauldron in which are five or six pounds of water, letting it boil, until it swells to the lip of the cauldron: and taking it off the fire, work it very well with a round stick, until the dough is broken and fine, then taking it from the cauldron, cut it with with a thread into several pieces, and eat it with cheese or salted whey.
Liébaut may be the first to write of corn bread in France, though at this point he calls corn "Turkey wheat" or even "wheat of India": "Its flour is whiter than our wheat, but the bread made from it is coarser, thicker, and more viscous substance." If it is used in times of high prices or shortages, he says, it should be mixed with wheat.

Liébaut is one of the few to mention escourgeon (also called scourgeon). This is a very poor grain which he calls a wild or degenerate wheat, then used in most of Perigord and Limousin. But in English it is called six-row barley (also, “bere”). He traces its French name to secours (“help”), saying that it is the “help” of the poor in times of shortage. As rarely as it is mentioned elsewhere, it is still found today.

He also mentions spelt, a grain once common in France, but little used at this point. He says that it makes an excellent bread, but also that the Italians then used it for “very singular” frumenty.

Liébaut refers to semolina (semoule) as the flour of a "very exquisite wheat", which did not then exist in France and was only imported (from Naples "and Italy") (though he also says it was grown in Provence, which had just become part of France in 1486). It was used to cook in beef bouillons or gruels. "It is as fine as the best flour," he says, "yet not white, but of a half-blond color". The term today refers to the middlings of durum wheat and this is probably what he then had in mind.

He also mentions sarrasin ("Saracen") wheat; that is, in English, buckwheat, which is not in fact a wheat at all. It is most known today in France for its use in crepes, largely in Brittany. In Liébaut's time it was fairly common and used for meat bouillons and gruels. He also says it was used for tartinages with cheese and butter (the French word then referred to certain flour-based treats, not the buttered bread it would suggest today).

With these grains, Liébaut also lists all the legumes which cannot be used to make bread "except in time of famine, or when grains are lacking, or extremely expensive", such as “peas, beans, rice, lentils, chickpeas, chichling vetch, lupins, phaseols [probably kidney beans at this point], vetch, fenugreek and other such". He further lists other inappropriate crops or other foods that had been used for bread "as we see in unfortunate times," including bread of oats, barley, fish dried in the Sun, acorns, chestnuts, fern roots "as has been seen in lower Brittany": "further bricks, tiles, slate, as is told of the Sancerrois, who when they were besieged, made and ate bread of slate."


This wealth of new information gives some idea not only of sixteenth century bread, but of the bread before that. It is impossible however to sort out exactly what was then new and what had not greatly changed in over a century. It is clear however that some things – such as baking under the coals – had endured since Roman times and others – new terms for the best bread, the rise of Gonesse – were just appearing. The concern for the type of water used in baking first appears now, but may have existed, undocumented, before. On the other hand, the later care about the age and generations of sourdough, for instance, does not yet seem to have been taken.

All of these are incremental concerns and the shifts in French bread-baking in this period were, in the main, subtle ones. Far more dramatic changes were to come in the next century.


Calanis, Prosperus, Traicte pour l'entretenement de sante 1553

Bruyerin, Jean-Baptiste, De re cibaria: libri XXII. 1560

Stephani, Caroli, De Nutrimentis 1550

Guénois, Pierre , L. Charondas, Jacques Jol, La grande conference des ordonnances et édicts royauxx...

de Serres, Olivier, Le théatre d'agriculture 1617

Le Grand d'Aussy's classic chapters on bread, as well as those on pastry and sweets, are now available in English:

Rose, Anthimi De observatione ciborum epistula ad Theudericum, regem Francorum 1877

For my own English  translation: Anthimus, How to Cook an Early French Peacock: De Observatione Ciborum - Roman Foodfor a Frankish King (BilingualSecond Edition) 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

FRENCH BREAD HISTORY: Late medieval bread outside Paris

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the history of French bread. The preceding post was on late medieval bread. The next is on Renaissance/16h century bread.
Further information on bread history can be found on Facebook in the Bread History Lounge.

By the late Middle Ages, Paris had attained the special status it still holds today as both the capital and the most economically important city in France. This is reflected in histories of French bread, which typically treat medieval Parisian bread as virtually synonymous with French bread. But numerous cities – and sometimes only towns – had their own bread history and some – though certainly not all – of this survives. It is found largely in municipal statutes, but also in agreements for banal mills (run by a local lord or monastery), for instance, and in other scattered records.

Some preliminary concepts

A few terms are found through these documents, often with variants, which require some explanation.

Today, the French word for a bread-baker is boulanger; this may be derived (it is uncertain) from the fact that most bread for a long time was made in the shape of a ball (boule). But early records also refer to pestoures (from pistors, the original Latin word for baker), talemeliers (“sifters”) and fourniers (oven-tenders; literally, “oven-ners”) and these terms are sometimes treated as synonymous. In local records, however, a distinction is often made between a fournier and a baker. Often the fournier (the word has no real English equivalent) literally baked or cooked what was brought to the oven (which in at least one region could include meat and fish), either by private individuals or bakers. The baker, on the other hand, might sometimes only prepare the dough or sometimes, even where fourniers existed, do the baking. 

The English word “flour” has its roots in a French term: fleur de farine. This very literally means “flower of flour”; perhaps less confusingly, “flower of meal”, or, the best (most finely sifted) flour – that is, flour that is mostly endosperm, rather than (the other two components) wheat germ and bran. In old French texts, the original term is regularly used to refer to the best flour. But in medieval texts one also finds pain de toute sa fleur (“bread of all its flower”). One might think that this meant bread from the best flour. But in fact it refers to bread made from flour which which still includes, as well as the “flower” of the wheat, most of the bran (and wheat germ); in practice, second quality flour. Similar terms exist in other local languages or dialect.  A rare reference in one record to coarse bread sens flour (“without flower”) shows that a distinction was made between brown bread which, though it had a great deal of bran, still had the endosperm in it and that which was mainly bran.

While these terms are never defined in statutes, often the relation between different qualities of bread is clear from their varying weights; for the same price, the most finely sifted bread will be the lightest, the least, the heaviest. One or more intermediary qualities will have corresponding weights.

Note however that this does not quite align with the modern idea of “extraction rate”, which refers to the percentage of the original meal which remains after various processes (true whole wheat flour should have an extraction rate of 100%). The variable in a modern extraction rate is the amount of bran and wheat germ that remains in the flour. But the reference to flour “without flower” (without endosperm) suggests that, at least sometimes, the endosperm itself was actually removed (presumably to use for the better bread) so that the worst quality bread was what remained from sifting out the “flower of the meal” for the best breads.

In addition to the standard gradations of light and dark bread, two terms are found in many, but not all, localities. One is miche. Today this typically refers to the most common large loaf in a given region (in Paris this would be the round pain de campagne or similar breads). But in the past various indicators show that it referred to an especially fine quality of bread. The other, fouace, exists in numerous variants: fouasse, fogassa, etc. Like foccacia, the term derives from the Latin focacius, meaning bread cooked on the hearth (focus). The latter was originally cooked under embers and was unlikely to have been very fine. At some point, however, the term (which made its way back into Latin in its new form) came to mean a finer bread. In some cases, in fact, it may be synonymous with miche.

One might speculate too that the fouace was at some point still made under the embers, but using especially well-bolted flour. As a practical matter, the reason for the shift in meaning is unknown.

Only some town statutes mention such superior forms of white bread. However, their absence does not mean these were not made locally. Bear in mind that monasteries and many estates had their own bakeries and in some cases the very best bread was made directly for those who would consume it.

Most French towns maintained the system found early on in Paris whereby the price remained constant for each type of loaf, but its weight varied with the price of grain. This may have been practical, even necessary, in a time when coinage was still relatively limited; the average consumer may not have walked around carrying the kind of small change required to adjust for incremental changes in price. For one thing, some people (including bakers themselves) were often paid in... bread (as when bakers or fourniers received one out of a certain number of loaves they had baked).

Whatever the case, wherever a specific weight is listed below for a bread, bear in mind that it typically would correspond to a particular price per setier or bushel of grain, and would vary as the latter changed.

The earliest statutes

The first known statutes specifically addressing bread and bakers in France come not from Paris, but from nearby Pontoise. In 1162, Louis VII declared that only “legitimate bakers” could make “either white or dark bread” in the town to sell:
Notum facimus universis presentibus et futuris nos concessisse bolengariis Pontisare quod nullus in villa faciat panem ad vendendum, nec molendinarius, nec fullo, nisi talis homo qui sit legitimus bolengarius et qui propria manu sciat facere panem et album et bisum.
We make it known to all now and in the future that we have granted to the bread bakers of Pontoise that none in the city make bread to sell, nor miller, nor fuller, but such man who be a legitimate baker and who with his own hands knows how to make bread both white and dark.

NOTE: It is strange that fullers – textile workers – would have made bread; could this be a mistranscription of a word meaning fournier? Such errors are not unknown. On the other hand, a later statute (see below) from Abbeville specifically forbids drapers from making bread, so there may have been an early link between textiles and making breads.
This is the first record of something which only incrementally became true for most of France, which was that commercial bread could only be made by professional bakers. It is probably the first mention as well of white and dark bread being the two main types.

It is also worthy of note that the Latin text uses the word bolengarius, corresponding to the French boulanger, and not pistor (the old Latin word) or any of the other terms used for a baker before boulanger became the standard one. Around 1174, Henry II (then King of England, but also Duke of Normandy) used the plural bolengariis in granting certain rights to the citizens of Rouen (Chéruel). Yet when Boileau established the first Parisian statutes for bakers in 1268, he still used the word tamelier.

Types of regional bread
In a number of local statutes, the same three grades of bread are mentioned as in Paris: the finest quality bread, an average quality bread and a poor quality bread. Some even refer to “the three types of bread”, as if assuming that these were known. The terms used however vary and it may be too that the actual breads at each level did as well. As noted above, sometimes a fourth, superior, form of white bread was mentioned. Conversely, in very poor regions, only two or even one quality of bread might be specified. The main grain used was always wheat; it is more unusual to see rye or barley officially mentioned, but where either are, the region in question probably had a larger proportion of workers, peasants or otherwise disadvantaged consumers. It was exceptional at this point for bread to be salted, so such mentions stand out. Proximity to the ocean was probably one determining factor in this regard.

In Bordeaux, a number of different statutes exist from different periods. In all, the standard white bread is called choyne. The second quality is typically called amassa, though it sometime is called bread “with all its bran” (ab tot son cot). The third is called bassalon or barsalor (probably a variant of bassalon). The statute from 1336 (the oldest) also lists fogassa; that is, a white bread even whiter than the standard white bread. This is clear from the respective weights: fogassa, twelve ounces; choyne, fourteen; amassa, sixteen; barsalor, eighteen. In 1407, the weights were: choyne, sixteen; bread with all its bran, twenty-one; bassalon, twenty-four. In 1421, these were: choyne, ten; massa, thirteen; bassalon, seventeen.

The term for the best flour was flor deu froment (“flower of wheat”). Mouthon, who has studied Bordeaux's bread in depth, says, "this yielded a very white crumb covered with a fine crust", but does not explain why this would be the case. Bread made at home was called pan d'hostau; that is, household bread, or, as the Parisians put it, pain de ménage (which in Paris became a commercial variety of bread). It was bigger than standard baker's bread; Mouthon says a fournier got ten 1.7 kilo loaves from about twenty-seven liters of bread.

All this bread was of wheat and, unlike much bread in medieval France, salted.

In neighboring areas, the picture varied a little. In La Réole, in 1255, the breads were fouace, white bread, “bolted” (balutat) bread and brown bread (pain co or “bran bread”), which (curiously) could be both bolted and not. In Langon in 1494, only white or brown bread was sold.

In Rouen, three qualities of bread were made; but the best could take various forms. A 1491 statute for Rouen orders that bakers make "good white bread, like mollet, fouache, pain de rouelle, semineaux, cernuyaus, craquelins, cretelées or other type of good bread of good wheat". Several of these, such as the craquelins, were more typically considered as pastries. The next article then states that bakers will make three kinds of bread: "white bread of the types declared above", biset ("darkish") bread and fettis (the darkest) bread (fettis seems to be the same word as the Parisian faitis). This raises the question of whether specifications for white bread in other cities simply referred to the traditional ball-shaped bread made with the best flour, or if these also implied various luxury items that simply were not specified.

In Normandy, salt was rarely used in bread. But in Lillebonne and Bolbec (between Le Havre and Rouen), the three types of bread were white bread, dark bread and salted bread. The chef d'oeuvre (the 'masterpiece' made by an aspirant to a mastery) consisted of salted white bread and dark bread. Some bakers only made faitis (the lowest quality of bread). A writer in 1933 said that the bolted bread in this period was finer than in his own.

In fourteenth century Grenoble, according to one (secondary) source, bakers sold four qualities of bread: white “mouth bread” (panis de bochâ; that is, pain de bouche) or miche, brown bread called jacobin; “reddish” bread (pain rosset), and dark bread (pain bis). Another however says that only pain de bouche and rosset were originally sold and that the other two came later.

While no explanation is given for the term jacobin, a Jacobin convent was founded in Bordeaux in 1230 and it may be that similar bread was made there (though typically monks ate finer bread).

In Nantes in 1353, both choayme and mollet bread – the two finest – were to weigh 16 ounces when the setier was at twenty sous. The next quality was called pain de griste, with the "third of the flower", to weigh twenty two ounces; then coarse bread, “without flower”, to weigh twenty seven and three quarter ounces. After this, fouaces are listed, weighing eighteen ounces – that is, they were of slightly lesser quality in this case than the two best white breads.

These statutes are some of the few too to set standards for rye bread. When the setier of rye was at ten sous, a ten denier bread was to weight forty-five ounces (obviously a big loaf).

They also allow for people who brought their unbaked dough (of rye or of wheat) to the fourniers. Some even brought to the fourniers "their flours, wheat as well as rye, still to turn, bolt, set to rise, knead, slice, weigh and put in the oven"; basically, to make the bread. Note that the fourniers did this even though there were bakers (pestours) in the region; the statutes overall are addressed, not only to bakers, but to anyone who made “sellable bread”. 

In Angoulême in 1372, a bushel of wheat was to yield thirty one denier breads “with all their flower”, each weighing seventeen ounces. The miche weighed twelve ounces (and so was effectively the finest quality bread). Dark bread weighed twenty five ounces. This is close to the weight – twenty four ounces – given for something called (exceptionally) a reparon, which was to weigh a third more than bread with all its flour. The word (which suggests “repair”) may indicate that it was made with flour left over from sifting one of the better qualities.

The same statute gives (unusually) similar figures for barley bread, which was to weigh half again as much as wheat bread with all its “flower”.

In Douai in 1496, white, brown and wastell breads were made. Wastell is a variant of gastel (gateau) and so this was a bread of superior quality, like the miche or fouace.

In 1257, the three types of bread in Marseilles were white bread, average or medium bread (panis mediano or pain mejan, an expression still used in 1917) and bread with everything (that is, bran, etc – pane cum toto).

In Perpignan two different documents give an idea of the bread produced around the late thirteenth century. In 1257 the bakers signed an agreement with the Templars, whose oven they were using. This agreement mentions white bread, fluxello bread, and "red" bread. The term fluxello appears elsewhere as flixol or fluxell which (like mollet) implies "soft", and so this bread was probably of a fine quality. The pane rosso would have been a dark bread, and the lowest quality. 

The town statutes probably date from 1276 and address, not the bakers, but the forners. They were obliged to bake a range of products, including bread, which is referred to only as bread, for both individuals and bakers. But it included at least a tortell (tourte) of the best bread (fluxol).

The oven tenders also baked (or cooked) fish, meat and flans, as well panatas, cassoles and formagades. Today, a panade is basically a bread soup. Formagade occurs in several variants; today a formatjades is a fried pastry filled with cheese. A cassole is the dish used to make a cassoulet and probably gave its name to that dish; it may have meant something like a cassoulet at the time. But for the period the only thing clear about all these references is that a variety of dishes were brought to the forners to bake or cook.

A 1269 agreement for a banal oven at Millas (near Perpignan) also mentions not only baking bread but cooking formatjades and panades. A similar agreement from 1246 for Palau (probably Palau-de-Vidre, also near Perpignan) mentions no specific breads but is very unusual in saying that the bread could be of "barley and wheat and whatever other grain".

In Poitiers towards the fifteenth century, the miche could be salted (weighing one and a half ounces for a denier) or unsalted (weighing eight ounces for four deniers; that is, at two ounces a denier, slightly more than the salted). Bread with all its flower weighed ten ounces for four deniers. A large wheat bread was made for households, weighing twelve and a half pounds for three sols four deniers, six pounds four ounces for twenty deniers and three pounds two ounces for ten deniers. Maslin bread (of wheat and rye) is also mentioned, weighing more for the same prices.

In Limoges in 1400 prices were given for wheat and rye bread. But the prices for wheat were only for different weights (five marcs [two and a half pounds] and six ounces for four deniers, two marcs and seven ounces for two deniers and one marc three and a half ounces for one denier). The statute also specified that this was to be without mixing in broad beans or anything else; such a stipulation is rare at this point.

Rye bread was made in tourtes, eight to a setier. A big tourte was to weigh thirteen and a half pounds, each, the small ones four marcs (that is, two pounds).

In Heyrieux (near Lyon) in 1389, fourniers made large breads (in grosso), of wheat or rye, meant (says a note) to last for days; the bakers baked smaller breads (in minuto).

Sometimes only two qualities of bread were made. Rents for Saint-Pere de Chartres included one very white (candidum) and one dark bread (vasselerium; that is, for vassals, and so most likely made with rye or barley). In Compiegne (in the Oise), in 1261, a priest was guaranteed both the finer bread of the monks (panis conventualibus) which was said to be commonly called miche, and common (familiaribus) bread.

Very rarely, only one quality of bread might be made. In a charter (from between 1180 and 1223) for the Picard town of Roye, bakers were forbidden to make anything but bread of 1 obole (a very low price). At the end of the fourteenth century only one type of bread was made in Montivilliers (in Upper Normandy) and an associated town, Harfleur: “coarse dense poorly baked, heavy and little risen” because most residents were poor tradespeople and laborers. The people of Harfleur objected to this limit and sought to make other types of bread.

Some other more specialized types of bread are sometimes mentioned as well.

In the twelfth century the abbey of Saint-Père of Chartres agreed with the parish priest of Chanday that they would equally share Ascension bread, and the “usual” Christmas, Easter and Ascension breads. Charters also mention Pentecost, Purification, Epiphany, and Saint-Etienne breads, all given by the faithful. These breads were also called tortelli. Christmas bread – panis natalitius – was a seniorial privilege, given by vassals.

In Falaise in 1312 bakers had to make tourteaux-Dieu for Saturday and blessed bread (pain béni) for Sunday. A tourteau was typically a large round loaf; it probably was of the best quality to be presented as a “God-tourteau”.

In 1412, the prison of Troyes and Saint-Lys gave prisoners rye bread called tranchours – that is, trenchers, a bread which typically was not eaten but used like a plate. This seems to be a rare example of this use of the term.

In 1286 in Saint-Maries-de-la-Mer, people could also have filled rolls and pastries (placenta) made, to be sold at 1 denier each.

In Dijon in the fourteenth century, gaudiers made gaude, then a special flour used to make "gauderie bread". The term gaude was later used for a kind of corn meal, so this may have been a millet flour (corn for a while was known as gros millet or "big millet").

Other sundry details
A number of other details appear in these records, some of more importance than others. Since the records overall are spotty, it is often impossible to know if similar situations to those referenced existed in other regions or not.

In later centuries, women would largely be excluded from trades, unless they were widows of tradesmen. But some records on baking suggest that this was less true as trades first became established at the end of the Middle Ages. In Montpelier in the fourteenth century, a number of apprenticeship contracts were for women, who also worked as bakers and pastry makers. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, a number of women in Bordeaux worked both as bakers and as fournières.

In Marseilles in 1257, people could sell bread without being professional bakers (which was already becoming unusual in other cities). Unbaked dough was sold as well as bread.

An 1199 regulation for Rouen stipulates that “no baker can have more than two windows for selling his bread, one in his house, one in the entry of [the church].” This reflects a situation found elsewhere, where bakers sold bread both at their own shops and in a market or another communal location. Note too that shops were said to sell from their “windows”, typically an opening onto the street, not a glass element.

In some regions, it was standard for either bakers or fourniers to pick up dough and return the baked bread to the customer. In Montolieu in 1392, the bakers at the royal ovens did this. In Picardy, in 1312, the Lord d'Anguerrans of Durcat held certain tenants responsible for the maintenance and constructions of buildings for his ovens, but at Christmas he was obliged to carry their dough to the ovens and bread back to their homes, for which help each owed a loaf, in addition to the thirtieth loaf from each batch.

On the other hand in 1391, Charles VI specifically said that porters were not customary at the oven in the town of Voisines (In Furnis Vicinarum non erunt portatores consuetudine).

In the town of Saint-Maries-de-la-Mer, porters were supposed to pick up the shaped dough and deliver the bread, but did not, obliging women to come to the two working ovens in the town. Further, the ovens were not fired when they should have been, obliging the women to wait around. In 1356, the third oven, in disrepair, was considered dangerous for the public. Two years later, an accident there hurt some women, killed others and caused one or more to miscarry.

This was not the only abuse there. The women also had to bring their own wood and to tip the fournier (both contrary to the statutes). The prior managing these ovens got one out of every twenty-two loaves for the baking and the (theoretical) pick-up and delivery.

Some other mentions are more idiosyncratic.

In fourteenth century Abbeville (in Picardy), bakers could not also be drapers. Also, bread could not be sold where wine, beer or godale was sold (a situation which probably did not endure, since taverns increasingly sold food in most regions).

In 1264. the Collegiate Church of Saint-Urbain in Troyes was granted the right to a tithe from Romilly. Ultimately however it surrendered this particular right, because the chapter was obliged to distribute Easter bread to the peasants of Romilly. But everyone in the area would show up and claim to be one, which resulted in numerous lawsuits. On February 5, 1372 a judgement was handed down declaring that the chapter would only give to true peasants of Romilly, “communing” men, women and children. The bread was to be “of such a size that a setier of wheat would give thirty loaves.”

In fifteenth century Cotentin, bread was made for poultry. It was not unusual to make bread for dogs – barley bread was a common dog food – but this mention of bread for poultry is unusual.

In Provins in 1364 bakers had the right to let pigs out twice a day “to piss” without being fined (in modern terms: the bakers had the right to walk their pigs twice a day). Tavern keeps had to send people to bakers to buy bread “depending on the number of drinkers they had in their tavern”.

This overview of various regional texts on late medieval bread shows similar general tendencies with specific variations. Clearly, the most common model was to define a scale of diminishing quality from light to dark bread. But this left room for a number of variations, both in terminology and in substance. The fact that especially fine white breads were or were not offered in commerce or that rye or barley bread was or was not officially mentioned is at least suggestive of corresponding variations in the affluence or poverty of each area. Too, various idiosyncrasies in local statutes or agreements show the uncertain state this trade was in at the end of the Middle Ages. Sometimes anyone could sell bread; sometimes only selected professionals could. Sometimes dough was picked up and delivered as baked bread, sometimes not. The pricing model of varying the weight of the bread rather than its price endured for a long time outside Paris, which in turn may hint at how coinage was used in the period. Pastries (that is, luxurious baked goods, as opposed to the pastry shells originally denoted by that term) were still confounded with bread in this period. Slim evidence suggests that women played a greater professional role before the hardening of corporate structures increasingly excluded them.

Overall then, these records show commercial bread-baking in its infancy in France, still, in many regards, feeling its way towards what would become a more structured and rigorously regulated trade.


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