Some may find it surprising that French bread even has a history, much less phases. There must be many who think the baguette and the croissant have been around since Charlemagne, or at least, for many centuries. In fact, a number of distinct phases mark French bread history, each quite complex once one digs into it. In future posts, I expect to look more closely at each, but for now here is a rough overview of these.
The Gauls and Gallo-Romans
The Gauls may hardly have eaten bread at all. They used grains, like emmer, millet and barley, which just don't rise very well. So they probably ate grains mainly as gruel, until the Greeks (it is believed) showed them how to make bread and then the Romans made bread wheat more widespread in Gaul. Some Gauls, famously, worked out that using the foam from the top of (sort of) beer - which was essentially yeast - would make bread lighter. Pliny noted this, but then left it out of the leavening methods he listed for the Romans, whose main method was sourdough. And this seems to have been the main leavening method in France for over a millenium.
The Romans made a wide variety of breads, possibly as many as one sees today in a French bakery, and very likely these were made in major Gallo-Roman cities. Certainly, bakers' trades groups (collegia) are documented in some. At least one uniquely shaped Gallo-Roman loaf has been found in a tomb.
Early medieval breads
How much such sophistication persisted under the Franks may never be known; probably the large cities, like Marseilles, which retained importance for centuries, still had urban bakers. But Gregory de Tours, for instance, only mentions bakers associated with households (a classic error cites Dagobert I as giving statutes to town bakers, but this is entirely undocumented). Bakers might have retained some sophistication, but lacking an organized system, this would have become rarer and and rarer. Two types of bread were likely to have been common: the round boule, made in ovens (simply because turning a ball of dough around in one's hands is the most natural gesture) and hearth bread, cooked under the (charcoal) coals and so very likely flat. The Romans also used a kind of bell, essentially an inverted portable oven, and that bread - also flat - may still have been made in some places.
There are no specific mentions of town bakers until sometime in the ninth century, even though Charlemagne regulated the price of grains and bread (but spoke only of people who sold bread, not bakers specifically) and one of his heirs issued an edict regulating weights and measures which directly referenced short weight in bread. It appears there was some variation in bread shapes at this point; some capital letters in manuscripts (a rare source of imagery) show breads that look somewhat like half-baguettes (though these might simply have been flat breads, viewed from the side). There are also references in Alsatian records, now or soon after, to loaves 'large enough to reach a man's knees when placed on his feet'; these were likely to have been rectangular as well (though conceivably they could have been very large round breads).
In statutes for St. Riquier, Heric cites rents due from the Bakers' Street or Neighborhood (vicus); this is the first documented medieval case of bakers acting as a group (as they would have to have to prepare the rents collectively). But no specific reference to a trades' group appears until Boileau's famous thirteenth century statutes for tradespeople.
Later medieval breads: variety appears
By then, a variety of breads were mentioned in various charters, etc: morning bread, varlets' bread, "ironed" bread, etc. Le Grand d'Aussy cites this as proof that French had already become varied at that point. But these were local references, some even confined to specific estates, and some may have referred to the same thing under different names. In general, the main distinction found at all is in the grains used to make a bread, or its quality; shape is never mentioned.
In the fourteenth century, a number of town statutes begin to appear which, under different names, define three kinds of bread: white bread (or another finest bread), bread of middling quality (less white) and dark or poor bread. These would remain the main varieties for centuries, at least in trade. Paris was one of several cities where a neighboring town - in Paris' case, Chailly and later Gonesse - was known for its finer bread and that bread too was regulated within the city. Rich households used "mouth bread" (pain de la bouche), essentially the finest table bread, as well as trenchers, hard-baked bread used for slicing and holding food. In some cases, differences in grains are specified as well (rye or barley bread was often made for servants).
This is also when images become far more common and almost uniformly show "balls" of bread. A variant on this was the tourte or tourtel, a raised disk which probably developed naturally from making balls of bread with a wider footprint. This kind of bread appears on some bakers' arms. (It would later give its name to a kind of tart as well.)
Over the fifteenth and sixteenth century, some variations can be found, but most evidence points to balls of bread, made more or less well and from different grains, being by far the most common. A fourteenth century street was called Jean Pain-Mollet, showing that the latter term already existed, but it was only in later centuries that pain mollet began to displace pain de la bouche as shorthand for the finest sort of white bread. Even this was made with sourdough. Pastrymakers used yeast, supposedly to avoid the sour taste of sourdough (curious, since the beer-skimmed yeast of the time added its own aftertaste), but bakers did not (even though it was known that the Flemish produced a lighter, finer bread doing so).
Early modern breads: pain mollet and flutes
Long breads are fitfully mentioned at the start of the seventeenth century. French - or at least Parisian - bread changed radically in this century when Marie de Medici was said to favor a bread made with milk, eggs and yeast. Similar breads were soon made, first as "the Queen's bread", and then under a variety of names. The term "pain mollet" began to refer to these collectively. The use of yeast was challenged by doctors and some bakers, leading to a famous (and somewhat comic) quarrel called "The battle of Pain Mollet". The outcome was basically that Parisian bakers were allowed to use yeast in their bread. Despite some later claims, many did, though primarily for better breads intended for wealthier customers. It was used both on its own and with sourdough.
At this point, many breads become longer. Le Grand d'Aussy claims that this was partially because of the use of yeast and partially because the French had begun (as they always have since) to appreciate the crust (which formerly had been grated off in many cases). It was now too that pains de fantaisie - fancy breads, or, literally, fantasy breads - became more common, made in various shapes and often to suit the client's taste. This was a time of fashion in France and bread-baking was as influenced by it as everything else. Breads would become popular, then disappear. Among the shapes were four-cornered ("horned") breads, artichoke-shaped breads, etc. But long and round remained the most common forms.
Several of these breads continued into the eighteenth century. This was marked by two major developments - interest in documenting trades in detail and famines. Both had a strong influence on bread-baking. In 1709, a famine led to only two types of bread being allowed. Meanwhile Malouin and Parmentier published works which examined bread-baking in a methodical way (and not incidentally documented the methods of the time). A School of Bread-Baking was established to encourage the trade. Both these writers discuss the use of yeast and also of salt, though Le Grand d'Aussy states that this was used much less in bread because of the salt tax, leading foreigners to find French bread "insipid" (he still insists that French bread was the best). Parmentier grumbles about the ball shape being abandoned and breads becoming long "like flutes". The term "flute" became a catch-all for long breads, though often of uncertain meaning.
Though eighteenth century bread was still a long way from today's, the shelves of French bakeries began to resemble those of today in their variety and even many of the breads might still look familiar. In other words, a change that had been fluid in the seventeenth century was now firmly established.
Many people still had no bread at all at times, which was one cause of the Revolution (an event which utterly failed to solve this problem). A surprising variety of breads - given that these were mainly for people of means - persisted through the Revolution, except for one ill-fated experiment in imposing "equality bread" (pain d'égalité) on everyone. The latter was hated by the poor as much as the rich. Le Grand d'Aussy may have been over-optimistic in writing that in Paris even the poor ate white bread, but it was true that increasingly they expected it and rejected attempts to provide dark bread at far lower cost.
Nineteenth century breads: Zang, the croissant and monster loaves
Parisian bread (which was never quite the same as in the more conservative provinces) predictably began in the nineteenth century much as it had been at the end of the eighteenth. Some specialty breads endured, others fell away. "Flutes" - probably short stick-like breads at this point - were prized as luxuries. There is some question as to whether salt was still rare in Parisian bread. The salt tax was gone, but salt remained expensive.
By 1839, Parisian bread was less like what it had been, but still very different from what it would be. French bakeries, rustic affairs with wooden shelves and often (because of rioting) bars on the windows, remained essentially unchanged. All this changed at the end of that year when August Zang, an Austrian artillery officer (one of those, apparently, who found Parisian bread 'insipid'), opened the first Viennese bakery in Paris. The influence of this one establishment was dramatic. The Austrian kipfel, an old favorite in Vienna, was quickly copied by French bakers, who named it for its crescent shape: croissant. But the most popular of Zang's products was simply the Vienna roll (pain viennois), based on the classic kaiser semmel (Kaiser roll), but made in various more familiar shapes. This was, for a long time, emblematic of luxurious living. Zang used the Austrian methods of including milk in his dough and using yeast. (Some have claimed since that he introduced the use of the latter in French bread, but that was already done in the seventeenth century.) In fact, his bread was largely like the pain mollet of the last century; now the term for luxurious breads became "Viennese breads", even when (like the brioche) the product was French. Even the croissant, originally, was made with the milk-based dough which typified these.
The one big innovation in these luxury breads, then, was not the use of milk or yeast, but a distinctive glaze. French bakers had produced this with an egg or milk wash for certain breads, but the Viennese had discovered that letting steam fall on the bread as it baked created the same effect. Soon, and ever since, so-called "Viennese ovens", designed to inject or retain steam, were standard in French bakeries.
Zang's bakery also reflected the elegance of the Austro-Hungarian empire: marble counters, brass fittings, enameled imagery. French bakeries began to follow suit, resulting in the lovely nineteenth century bakeries which can still be found in parts of Paris today.
Note that Zang did NOT (as has been claimed) introduce the baguette. The French of course already had their own long breads and now these became even longer, probably because French regulations excused breads outside certain parameters from price regulation. While in some cases this resulted in smaller breads, it also led to several types of extra-long breads, loaves an American tourist described as being like crow bars. These now-forgotten breads were standard in Paris for about a century.
Along with these long loaves (some of which also came in shorter sizes) the "split" (fendu) bread largely played the role that would later be that of baguette. It was the bread picked up on the way home - when, that is, a female bread porter (porteuse de pain) did not deliver the household bread.
At this point, Parisian bread-baking had become so complex that it can only be touched on here.
The twentieth century: begin the baguette
As the twentieth century arrived, very long breads were standard, but so were the fendu and a shorter form of the (often long) jocko which looked very much like a baguette. This is probably the same bread that was sometimes referred to generically as a pain de fantaisie (that is, the same name as the entire "fancy breads" category). Somewhere at the start of this century, too, some unknown person had the idea of making the croissant out of puff pastry, a French method which dated back to the Middle Ages, but had rarely been used for a separate breadstuff before. About the same time too the word viennoiserie (originally used for things like Strauss waltzes) was attached to Viennese-style products. Over time, the association of puff pastry with viennoiserie became so close that few remembered either that the original Viennese breads had been made with milk-based dough or that puff pastry was a French method.
World War I brought shortages and limitations on making finer breads. When white breads were again authorized, coincidentally, a new word began to appear in French bread regulations: baguette. To be so casually used, it must have already been in usage, but no sign of that has yet appeared in written records. The baguette as originally defined was more like today's ficelle, a thin "wand" of bread; but regulations at the start of the twenties quickly show it becoming a longer bread.
And so the twentieth century began with the re-design of the croissant and the official appearance of the baguette. The "monster" breads of the nineteenth century would last until about the Thirties before fading away. Many other changes would occur, and French bread at the start of the twenty-first century is already significantly different from that at the start of the twentieth. But numerous other sources now document those changes. The point of this brief overview has been to show the broad changes in French bread history - changes I will examine in more detail going forward.