Monday, November 24, 2014

MEDIEVAL PASTRIES: Cassemuseaux, petits choux and ratons

One of the joys of translating Le Grand d'Aussy's texts on pastry is seeing the inventory of various old pastries he mentions: échaudés, cassemuseaux, petits choux, ratons, étriers, flageols, gobets, etc. However, Le Grand mainly lists a lot of these without providing many details on them.

For things like étriers. flageols and gobets, it may never be possible to know exactly how they were made. But more information is available on others he mentions. This is certainly true of échaudés, one of the most famous medieval pastries; these however merit a whole separate article For now, let us look more closely at three of the others: cassemuseaux, ratons and petit choux.

These may all fairly be called medieval pastries, yet some lasted into the nineteenth, even the twentieth century. The rare recipes that exist for these all come from after the Middle Ages. Where (as for darioles and talmouses) both medieval and later recipes exist, the latter are always notably more sophisticated and that is no doubt true here as well. Those seeking to reproduce the medieval versions of others then must be cautious in using what recipes do survive. Too, even cursory descriptions of these vary enough to cast some doubt on their exact nature. This said, the enterprising medievalists who care to recreate these may be able to extrapolate from what they know of other pastries and cobble together credible imitations of the earlier versions.


The word cassemuseaux literally means “break muzzle”, or more colloquially, “break-snout.” (As a phrase, it means a punch in the nose.) This has led some to think it was a hard, cracker- or biscuit -like, pastry. And Rabelais does compare bone to them, further suggesting that they were rock hard. The dictionary author Furetière was of the opposite opinion, writing that the pastry was simply the softer petit choux, given an ironic name (“named by antiphrasus”). The truth, based on recipes, may lie midway between these ideas.

One related explanation for the name lies in the old practice of throwing these pastries in people's faces. For instance, in Evreux (Normandy), these were handed out on the first of May and hurled at passers-by. (If such public aggression seems very medieval, consider that still in Paris today people throw firecrackers at others on the fourteenth of July.)

Other sources say that these were given out on the feast of St. Radegund, though not if they were thrown in people's faces.

Whatever the exact origin of the name, these have been mentioned since the fourteenth century, sold apparently by wafer-makers rather than pastry cooks:
Pastry-cooks themselves, though they form only a single community, are divided into pastry-chefs properly named, (statutes of 1440, of 1497 and of 1522)... and of wafermakers (statutes of 1270, 1397, 1406) who sell cassemuseaux and wafers.
In the fifteenth century, a letter from the provost of Paris mentions them.

They were well-known enough that they are referenced in French both by their French name and by the Latin term globuli pistorii (“bakers' globules”). The latter term suggests that early on, at least, these were spherical (As it happens, the same term is sometimes used for petit choux, supporting Furetière's idea that they were the same; it is always possible too that such usage was simply inconsistent.) A Flemish-French dictionary from 1643 describes them as “ronde koexckens” (round little cakes).

The earliest recorded recipe seems to be from La Varenne (seventeenth century); this eighteenth century version is essentially taken from his:
Take pieces of beef marrow, an inch or so long; scald them in near-boiling water, then take them out of the water with a pierced spoon, drain them a little, and arrange them on a table. Powder them the best you can with a little salted spice, or a little salt or powdered cinnamon. Then promptly prepare little bases of very thin puff pastry, garnish one end with a piece of beef marrow, an inch long; and if needed, you can add more seasoned sugar as said. Then turn the other side of the base in on the marrow; wet the sides of the dough a little, in order to join the one with the other more easily. When your cassemuseaux are made, fry them in butter, or lard, and do not drain them in turning them over, and when they are fried, take them out of the frying oil with a pierced spoon, then powder them with sugar to eat them.
This is followed by a method using cheese or curds, which in fact seems to have been the most common version. 

Massialot, also from the eighteenth century, has a simpler one:
Take creamy cheese, four fresh eggs, a quarter pound of fresh butter, a half-litron of the best flour, and a little salt; make a soft dough of it all: when the dough is made, let it rest, then cut the Casse-museaux like petits-choux, and set them to bake in the oven, but very hot, and after a quarter of an hour, take them out to split them, and put in the oven to finish baking them.
A nineteenth century description does not seem very different from the earlier ones:
This name is given to little round cakes, kneaded with fresh cheese. These cakes are about the size of an old six francs piece. Towards 1830, a great many were still eaten, in summer, in the cafes of la Chatre. - The cassemuseau is known in Brittany, in the Vosges, and no doubt in many other places.
Even today recipes can be found for it, though these often hearken back to earlier times. But the pastry is no longer generally well-known.

Petits choux

In his thirteenth century rules for different trades, Boileau mentions petitz chouz as one of several pastries sold in the streets by pastrymakers' apprentices. Interestingly, the passage in question forbids masters from using apprentices in this way, partially because of “inconveniences, chance and illness” which can result, but also because it takes them away from learning their trade.

In 1555, Pierre Belon rather unexpectedly included a long list of foods in his “History of the Nature of Birds”. He mentions “nice hot petit choux” and in fact these seem to have been served hot. (But then many baked goods were.)

The term continues to appear in following centuries. It means “little cabbage” and has long been one of endearment in French. Le Grand suggests that this use of the term comes directly from the pastry; the idea is credible enough, pastry being more endearing to most people than cruciferous vegetables. Choux pastry of course has survived until the present day and appears to have evolved from the earlier types. In his 1611 French-English dictionary, Cotgrave describes this as"a kind of puffe-cakes of two sorts; the one round and plump as an apple; the other also round, but much flatter." The term “puffe-cakes” does not sound so different from the modern idea of choux pastry, but La Varenne's recipe is unlikely to yield anything too close to the modern variety. He basically treats it as as a variant on the popelin:
How to make a popelin
Take about a fist's worth of choux cheese, these are unskimmed cheeses made the same day; put these cheeses in a bowl and knead them well, adding a few pinches of the best flour; that done, break two eggs into this mixture, put in also a good handful of the best flour and a little crushed salt; then mix all these things together with the wooden paddle.
When this mixture is ready, put it on buttered paper: spread it out in the shape of a cake, and give it about the thickness of a finger, then put in the oven, and the mouth of the oven must be hot: this oven piece will be baked in a half hour, then you must take it out of the oven, and open it into two to separate the two whole crusts the one from the other, then you will put them separately the one after the other in a basin or other convenient vessel in which there is enough good melted and unsalted butter; and this butter must be refined...
Plunge the lower crust in first, and take it out a little later and drain it: then put the upper crust of the popelin into the same butter.
When these two crusts are drained, powder them well with sugar on top and underneath, and sprinkle them inside with a little rosewater, you can also garnish the inside of the lower crust, with slices of lemon peel, then you will cover it with the upper crust, well-sugared, then you will return the popelin to the entry of the oven so that the sugar glazes, and also to keep the popelin warm until you want to eat it.

How to make petits choux
One must make the dough for petits choux like that of the popelin, one must only add a little more flour.
The dough being made, lay out separately on buttered paper [an amount] about the size of an egg, more or less, make them into rounds and gild them a little and lightly, then put them in the oven.
Both the mouth of the oven and the oven must be quite hot.
When the petits choux are baked, you can cut them in half, and plunge them into butter, then prepare them as said for the popelin.
Or else you can cut the petits choux into pieces, and put them in a bowl with unsalted butter and rose water, heat them, and eat them.


The word raton means “little rat” and it is sometimes suggested that the pastry resembled that creature; but if so, this resemblance only seems to have been approximate. Scheler provides a far rarer origin for the word, tracing it to the Dutch word rate, for a honey waffle said to resemble a spleen (which the word also means in French). This might explain why descriptions of the pastry do not sound very rat-like.

A cartulary mentions “rastons” being served at dinner (the midday meal) in 1392. In his dictionary of old French, Godefroy cites references to the raton going back to 1336. He also mentions that some sources describe it as made with milk and eggs, others with cheese. Belon mentions “cheese ratons”; Cotgrave describes it as "a fashion of round and high tart, made with butter, eggs, and cheese". (Curiously, by the way, Cotgrave uses the later spelling – raton – for a little rat, but the older one – raston – for the pastry.) In his seventeenth century recipe, La Varenne says it can be made with cheese or another pie (tart) filling:
How to make ratons
Put on the worktable, for example a litron [about 0,813 liter] of fine flour, a good quarter pound of butter if you have any, and about a half ounce of salt, and a half setier [the latter about .5 liters] of warm water or about: work these things together and reduce them to a smooth paste: it must be soft: put some of this dough on buttered paper, and shape it like cakes: make them about the thickness of two teats, and about the diameter more or less of a dish, as you wish, and raise the side a little: gild or fill the raton a little with pie filling or cheese, then bake them.
La Varenne then offers a far more complex method, using eggs, almonds or macaroons (made in France with almonds), in which the dough is then essentially cooked like a pancake; but the first method was probably closer to the standard one.

Ratons too were served hot. In a late seventeenth century play, a pastry maker's boy cries them in the street: “Nice hot ratons, smoking hot, just out of the oven, two liards, two liards [small coins].”

These barely survived into the nineteenth century, at least as such. But the simple version might readily be known by other names and a rare version from 1825 describes how to make a filling with milk, flour and eggs which is essentially a custard.


For Le Grand's texts on pastry, along with bread and sweets:

Furetière, Antoine, Pierre Bayle, Henri Basnage de Beauvals, Dictionnaire universel: contenant generalement tous les mots ..., Volume 2 1701

Masson de Saint-Amand, Amand-Narcisse, Lettres d'un voyageur à l'embouchure de la Seine , contenant des détailshistoriques, anecdotiques et statistiques sur les contrées de laNormandie connues sous le nom de pays de Caux, de Lieuvin et deRoumois, dans les départemens de la Seine-Inférieure, du Calvadoset de l'Eure. 1828

Arsy, Jean-Louis d', Le grand dictionaire françois-flamen, de nouveau revû, corrigé etaugmenté de plusieurs mots et sentences 1643

Registres du Conseil de Genève. Tome 8, Volume 18-19,1906-1940

La Varenne, François Pierre de, Le Patissier Francais, 1653

Dictionnaire œconomique, contenant divers moyens d'augmenter son ..., Volume 1 1740 

Scheler, Augusten Dictionnaire d'étymologie française d'après les résultats de la science moderne 1888

Boileau, Étienne,  René de LespinasseLes métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris: XIIIe-XVIIIe siècle 1886

Godefroy, Frédéric, Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française, et de tous ses ..., Volume 6 1890

Regnard, Jean François,  Joseph Alfred X. Michiels, Œuvres complètes, avec une notice et de nombreuses notes par m ..., Volume 2 1854

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Pâte, paste, pasta, pasty, pâté... and pies.

For those who study bread, it is useful to understand the variants on the French word for dough: pâte, or in older French, pasteThe latter word, pronounced differently, became the English word for flour-based glues and things like fruit paste. It is derived from the Latin word pasta, and in fact the Italian word means exactly the same thing (pasta, though made with harder dough and in many shapes, is essentially dried dough). The French use exactly the same word as for dough for the latter (though typically in the plural: pâtes). When Le Grand d'Aussy, for instance, refers to “Italian pâtes”, he clearly means pasta, but it is also possible that in the eighteenth century he still thought of these as “Italian doughs”.
Foods encased in dough were called “doughed”: pasté or (later) pâtéThis word became “pastie” in English. The modern version has come to mean, not the dough container, but the meat preparation put inside it. Today, when meat pâté is served inside pastry, it is called pâté en croûte ("pâté in crust").
Meanwhile, originally, foods made in pasté came to be known collectively as pastisserie – that is, pastry. Those who made such foods were known, literally, as “pastryers” - pasticiers. Today we would call them “pastry-chefs”, but these artisans made far simpler fare and can more fairly be called “pastry-cooks”. In fact, one common English translation was even more pedestrian: “pie-men”. Many medieval pasties, then, were essentially what the English called “pies”.
Typically, the boundaries between all these different meanings are clear. But for period speakers, their common relationship was probably far more apparent.

The above has been adapted and extracted from the front matter to a new translation of Le Grand d'Aussy's classic chapters on bread, as well as those on pastry and sweets:

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The shifting phases of French bread history

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 and possibly flat bread, 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 rent breads 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 (curiously, 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.


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

Friday, August 22, 2014

An anniversary, an overview, a break

Last week's post was the 52nd weekly post since I revived and repurposed a moribund blog. That makes this as good a time as any to take a break, as well as a look back.

For the last year, I have tried to maintain a steady “publication” rhythm of posting each Friday evening. But when I return to this blog, I expect to follow a more occasional pace. Realistically, this will not matter to most readers; experience shows that most people find posts here long after they first go up, often through forwarding by others.

Also, when I revived this blog, it was with the view of exploring material for two different books I am working on: one on early medieval French food, the other on the history of French bread. In practice, however, I have drifted more towards the medieval side, perhaps only because research on that side is more challenging. I expect my future posts to lean more towards the bread history side. But who knows?

With this of course there will always be wild cards, as there have through this last year.

With that, a look at this past year's hits – and not.

Popular posts

By far the most popular post on this blog has been the one exploring a common myth: that people in the Middle Ages drank beer and wine to avoid bad water. This is perhaps not so surprising; most people have heard some version of this claim and more than one is surprised to see it methodically demolished. What is perhaps more surprising is that for almost two months the post was barely noticed. Then, after a brief run-up, views again froze for several weeks – until, all of a sudden, a rush of forwards drove views up by the tens of thousands over several days. After that movement peaked, the trend has been more modest, but continues apace nonetheless.

Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the most popular post after that seems to have spread with virtually no public forwards and for, honestly, completely unknown reasons. This is the post on drinks other than beer, wine and water used in the Middle Ages.

Drinks in general seem to be a popular topic – the third most popular post has been on early medieval wine. But of course wine in general is increasingly popular as an interest.

This said, the most popular post after that is on early medieval cheeses. Can't have the one without the other?

It is perhaps not so surprising that the next most popular post is on recipes from medieval medical texts. For a long time, only a handful of medieval recipe books have been known. Any new possibilities are likely to interest those seeking to make more medieval dishes, and medical works are an under-used source of recipes.

No? Really?

If the success of some posts comes as a surprise, the lack of success of others shows how hard it is to predict what others will like. Not of all these were necessary unsuccessful in terms of views, just less successful than I had initially expected.

Lancelot de Casteau's Ouverture de Cuisine (1604) is a classic of early cuisine which also happens to address Belgian cuisine specifically. But Belgian cuisine in earlier centuries is rarely documented. One would think then that an earlier work on the subject would excite both those with an interest in historical food in general and Belgians in particular. Brother Leonard's fourteenth century dietetic is such a work; it includes a wealth of details not only on the food eaten in Liège in this period, but some specific regional specialties. And it is not like the four posts examining this work have been completely ignored. But certainly they have proved less exciting to my readers in general than I might have expected.

The history of Roman aqueducts which survived into the early Middle Ages would seem to be a unique and fascinating subject, as would that of snails used as funeral ornaments. But neither has attracted much attention. The story of breads which have survived in archaeology across many centuries has begun to attract some interest, but this has taken longer than I might have expected with so unique a tale.

Since horse meat has even been in the news in recent years, one would think that the long history of eating it in France would draw general interest. But that post has had only mediocre activity.

As a general note, it is simply very hard to predict what subjects, within this narrow and somewhat esoteric domain of medieval food, will interest the most readers.

An overview of topics

Though I have not followed any planning in choosing topics for my posts, as a practical matter, the great majority explore aspects of early medieval food. These can be grouped into larger topics, as they are here. Otherwise, a number have been either on late medieval food or on aspects of the period as a whole.  

Just two posts have delved into little-known aspects of Roman food. This is still arguably related to early medieval food, since so much of the preparation remained essentially Roman.

Otherwise, a few, but, just a few posts have been about bread, and then mainly at the start.

Beyond Apicius (2): recipes from other Roman sources



The water highways of Gaul

Early Medieval French wine

Stumbling through history towards beer

Getting drunk in Medieval France

Beyond wine, water and beer: what else they drank in Medieval France

And its two follow-ups for later centuries:

The later water myths: Old Regime water after the Middle Ages

Later water myths: early America

Specific foods

The small, tart plum of my eyes

Of peas, beans, monks and kings

The meat of the matter / The matter of meat

Killing Pegasus: a history of horse meat in France

Lamprey, fish ponds, and carp

Whaling in Medieval France

Spices in France in the Dark Ages

A soup for the Bishop of Tours

Saved by fire: breads in archeology

The luxury of butter

OLD REGIME CHEESE: 1. The lost cheeses of Medieval France

OLD REGIME CHEESE: 2. What, no Camembert?


A matter of courses

At the table in early medieval France

Tableware in early Medieval France


Using coins in early medieval France

Fairs and markets in France from the Gauls to the Halles

Comparing prices in medieval France


Shifts in fasting in medieval France

Food in early monastic rules

Food of the early French saints

Christmas in early Medieval France


Sources on early medieval French food

Food in Frankish laws

Food in other Germanic codes


French cities in the Dark Ages

In defense of the Franks (and other “barbarian hordes”)

The funereal snails


The early history of the Paris Halles


A FOURTEENTH CENTURY DIETETIC: 2. Brother Leonard on diet and health

A FOURTEENTH CENTURY DIETETIC: 3. Belgian (Walloon/Liègeois) food in the fourteenth century

A FOURTEENTH CENTURY DIETETIC: 4. Brother Leonard on behavior and attitude


French hospital food in the Middle Ages

Beyond the peacocks: what most Medieval eaters actually ate

The doctor's blancmange: Medieval recipes from medical texts


Back to one bread?

What got a rise out of French bakers?

Saved by fire: breads in archeaology

The Yeast Paradox

Friday, August 15, 2014

Comparing prices in medieval France

A common question in history is “what did X cost back then in today's money?”. Those who study such things seem to feel this question can never really be answered; there are far too many variables. To cite random examples from medieval France: the size of livestock not only was very different from today's, it varied within the period; the exact weight of the pound and the exact value of particular currencies varied; quantities are not always clearly defined; the quality of products (as today) varied by region and class. Even where one has the data to adjust for all these variables, the task approaches rocket science in its complexity; but with no such precision in the underlying data.

It is also true that what information has survived has done so fitfully, so that sometimes we have figures for one region, but in a century or two only for another, or figures for one cut of beef or pork at one moment and others at another. Simply assembling sufficient like data for comparisons is often problematic.

Still, the question persists and with it attempts to answer it. One aspect of it which is the most promising is simply getting a feel for comparative values at a given moment. Even this is uncertain. What is the price of a hamburger today – that charged in a fast food restaurant or that in a luxury hotel? Similar variations exist in earlier periods, with the painful difference that often all that survives is the mention of a product with no context around it.

What follows is certainly not intended to answer such questions in any substantial way. Rather it is an overview of some of the sources available for those who care to delve further.

Germanic laws

Until the late medieval period, mentions of specific prices are very rare. For the early medieval period, they are virtually non-existent (unless one counts Diocletian's Edict, which established a Roman scale of comparison just before the medieval period itself.) But some very broad ideas of value can be deduced from the early Germanic laws. With a few exceptions, these did not define value directly; rather, they set a compensation to be paid for the theft or damage of various items. Often, in fact, this was in addition to the (unspecified) value of the item. Still the amounts charged as (very approximately) fines can be informative.

The richest source in this regard is the Salic law (the written law of the Salian Franks). This shows, in a general way, how important pork was to the Franks. The section on animals begins with a long series of articles on the theft of pigs, distinguishing these not only by age and use, but where the animal was when stolen, etc. The difference in importance between pigs and cattle is uncertain. Theft of either a suckling pig or calf cost 120 deniers, whereas for a suckling lamb it cost 7. Theft of a weaned pig 40, a one year old pig 120 (the same as for a one or two year old sheep) and a two year old pig, 600.

What exactly one can deduce from this is uncertain, though it seems that pigs were valued mainly as they grew bigger. Theft of a one year old calf also cost 600 deniers, but the difference in size means that a calf was not necessarily valued, pound for pound, more than a pig. Theft of a cow cost 1200, with her calf 1400; theft of an ox, 1400. Given their proportionate sizes (even if all this livestock was far smaller than today), pigs and cattle seem to have been equally valued overall.

Aside from the pronounced difference for sucklings, a difference appears for pigs and sheep when more than one was stolen. The theft of three to six pigs was fined 1400, beyond that 600; but the theft of two to three sheep up to forty cost 1400. Meaning sheep were valued more in the aggregate than pigs?

Goats clearly had a lower value (though even today they can be very small and at the time they may have been even smaller.) The fine for stealing a kid (120) was the same as for stealing up to three adults; only above that was it 600.

Male animals used for breeding always warranted a premium (in the fine). Theft of a billy goat cost 600. Theft of a bull who was head of a herd cost 1800 if he had been bred with “cows of three districts” 1800; 1400 if he had not yet been mated. (Experience counted for the Franks, apparently).

Note again that usually these costs were in addition to the actual value of the animals, as well as the costs of the pursuit.

Notes on cultivation are less informative. Going into a field of turnips, broad beans, peas or lentils (or similar) to steal cost 120 d. So did stealing a fruit tree outside an enclosure; inside cost 600 d. (This seems to have more to do with respect for private spaces than any inherent value.) Harvesting someone else's grapes cost 600 d and actually carrying the grapes (vinum) to their own place in a wagon 1800. (Vinum here has also been translated as “wine”, but it defies belief that anyone would have time to produce wine before carting the product off someone else's property.) This certainly seems to indicate that grapes (and the wine they produced) were considered more valuable than standard crops.

With hives, the issue of a protected space again appears. Stealing a hive from under a roof or in a locked enclosure cost 1800; while taking up to six among a large number outside a habitation cost 600. 

However taking seven or more, or if no more remained, cost 1800. Note that these amounts are comparable to those for larger or more valued animals. 

The other Germanic laws are less informative, but do include stray information on values

The Burgundian Code rarely mentions specific amounts. But it does require all golden solidi to be accepted so long as they have the right weight EXCEPT those of Ventinien (or possibly of Valence), of Geneva, of the Goths since Alaric's time and either the Ardarican or Armorican (that is, Breton) types. This implies that these were not considered trustworthy (which implies conversely that the authorities trusted most others). 

Where values appear in this and most other laws, they are in gold coins (solidi, or, in early French records, sous). Otherwise, this law offers a curious standard of value in the amounts to be paid to a seer to find:

- a slave, five solidi

- mare, two solidi, male horse three

- first class ox, two

- cow, sheep, pig, one

- goat, a third (that is, a triens or tremissis)

A creditor who took oxen as collateral when other options were available paid twelve solidi for, apparently, a pair; twenty four for two pair. This seems to have corresponded to at least a reasonable price for these, since he was not then obliged to return them.

Someone caught stealing in a vineyard during the day paid three solidi to the owner and three as a fine. Again, this suggests a high value for vines overall.

Ripuarian law has little on goods. It does set that someone who skins a dead horse, or other animal, without the owner's consent will pay 30 solidi (a high price, suggesting skins had some value).

The Bavarian law defines widely different compensations for arson. Burning the "culmen" (the decorative peak?) of a free man's house cost 40 solidi. Burning a solidly built barn surrounded by walls, 12, but a lesser one, not surrounded by walls, 6.

Burning a granary only cost 3. The same applied to structures, like bakeries, kitchens and baths, set apart because they used fire. These also were not inhabited, while on the other hand 12 were paid (it is not clear by whom, other than a free man), when a house was burned, but all the occupants were saved. The payment was specifically for the risk of death.

The law of the Alemanni speaks specifically of a first class stallion worth around 12 solidi and of an ordinary horse, worth more or less 6; also a mare worth 3. But if she leads a herd, the owner can ask up to 12. If one is nursing, 6.

Among the items a serf was obliged to provide his lord each year was a pig worth a tremissis. This probably was the average value of a pig at this point, though it is always possible that one of superior value was intended.

Note that here these are values, not fines. Killing an ox was (apparently) fined 5 triens (tremisses) for an excellent, 4 for a mediocre one and to decide for the lesser ones.

All this of course is very thin data. But realistically it is mainly what we have for this early period. The nineteenth century writer Benjamin Guérard (1797-1854) did not hesitate (however arguably) to treat the legal compositions in these laws as prices, translating them into 1844 francs. The results are not uninteresting, but should of course be regarded with great reserve:
According to the law of the Ripuarians (XXXVI, 11), the price of a good ox intended for work was 2 sous = 180 francs; of a good cow, 3 sous=270 francs...

The price set by the Burgundian Code... for an excellent horse, 10 sous = 900 francs; for an ordinary horse, 6 sous = 540 francs; for a mare, 3 sous = 270 francs (IV, 1); for a pig, a sheep or a hive, the same amount as for a cow; for a goat, a triens or 13 deniers 1/2 = 30 frances (IV, 30)

The prices set by the law of the Allamans were: for a stallion or a marach horse, 1

The price set by the Burgundian Code... for an excellent horse, 10 sous = 900 francs; for an ordinary horse, 6 sous = 540 francs; for a mare, 3 sous = 270 francs (IV, 1); for a pig, a sheep or a hive, the same amount as for a cow; for a goat, a triens or 13 deniers 1/2 = 30 frances (IV, 30>

The prices set by the law of the Allamans were: for a stallion or a marach horse, 12 sous = 1080 francs (LXIX, 1 and 2); for an ordinary horse, 6 sous=540 france, and for a mare, 3 sous = 280 f..... for a foal, 3 sous = 270 f; for a bull, the same; for a first quality cow, 14 tremissis = 120 f. and for a second quality cow, 1 sou = 90 f (LXXV); for a first quality ox, 5 tremissis = 150 francs, and for an average ox, 4 tremissis=120f (LXXVIII)....
(Guérard continues after this into random data from various subsequent sources. Readers of French might want to follow him on this fitful path.)


Charlemagne left one of the most explicit statements of comparative values for this period in his Frankfurt Capitulary of 794. First, he sets the prices for specific grains: “For a modius of oats, one denier, for a modius of barley, two, a modius of rye three, a modius of wheat four deniers”. This appears to be the first specific statement of relative grain values for the medieval period. Grains from royal domains were cheaper, implying a kind of public price subsidy: “two muids of oats or one of barley for one denier, one muid of rye for two and one of wheat for three.”

Gerard translates all this into 1844 francs: oats, 3f 50c, barley 7f, rye, 10f 50c, wheat 14f; for the royal grains, oats, 1f 75c, with multiples implied for the rest.

What follows is the first known attempt to control bread prices: “If one wants to sell it as bread, twelve loaves of wheat, each of two pounds, must be given for one denier... fifteen of rye, of two pounds each, twenty of barley, of two pounds each, twenty five of oats, of two pounds each."

The fifth capitulary of 806, from Noyon, followed a famine and specifies lesser prices for a modius of grain: oats, two, barley or spelt, three, rye, four, "prepared" wheat, six. (Peyré) (“Prepared” probably means properly sifted, etc.) It has been suggested that this was in response to the famine, but Guérard points out that the famine in question was local and that there had also been a famine in 793. So he credits the difference in price rather to a change in the modius:
This modius was newly instituted, since Charlemagne calls it modium publicum et noviter statutum. ... what previously yielded 3 modius now will give 2; which seems to indicate a newly instituted modius and with the volume of one old modius and a half; and as it is not likely that Charlemagne changed twice, and in a fairly short time, the principal measure of grains and liquids, one must believe that it is not another modius which is in question than that of 794. This last then will have been made in making only two modius of the three old one, and the latter must have been worth two thirds of the new ones.
He then goes on to look at subsequent changes in the same measure. The details would not be helpful here; above all this shows some of the issues in trying to compare like prices across even a few years. But again, Charlemagne's prices remain valuable guides to the comparative values of these grains.

The Saxon Capitulary of 797, delivered at Aix-la-Chapelle, defined the solidus for the Saxons, setting it initially as the price of a bull or cow before fattening. A bull or a cow a year old, cost 1 Saxon solidus in Autumn, when entering the stable, more when coming out in the Spring, in function of how much it had grown. It also includes prices for grain, though comparing these to Charlemagne's earlier ones is problematic; first of all, they differ for the Bortrini and those in the north (neither clearly defined). For the Bortrini, forty measures (scapilos) of wheat cost one solidos, as did twenty of rye (strangely, since rye was typically less expensive). For those of the north (Septentrionales), thirty measures of wheat and fifteen of rye were given for a solidos. Once again, the comparative values are what are of most interest here.

Where Salic law suggests the value of honey by referencing the theft of hives, this capitulary is the first to directly refer to the product, for which the Bortrini were to give one and a half buckets (siglae) for a solidus. while those of the north gave two. (This is the first indication of a price for honey in these centuries and suggests that it was very expensive, a bucket having almost the value of a bull or a cow.) The same [measure of?] ground barley and wheat was given for a solidus. (The text then specifies that twelve deniers make a solidus.)


Guérard was not the only nineteenth century writer to try to make sense of medieval prices. M. C. Leber (Jean Michel Constant Leber, 1780-1859) analyzed a number of these as part of his study of “The Growth of Private Fortune”. He translates his figures into money of roughly the same period; more precisely, 1842. Again this is above all useful for getting a sense of the comparative values, though some readers might find it interesting to translate his 1842 prices into modern ones (with all the additional imprecision that implies).

He lists a variety of wages, starting with a quote from the Journal de Paris for 1448: "A loaf a man could live on was paid a good double, of which three are worth 4d parisis." Leber makes this 8d. or about 20 centimes of 1842. (The original document includes numerous mentions of prices, for those who care to dig.) Some others he gives are:
1307 Bakers workers made, weekly, 2 sous (11 francs, 40 centimes, 1842). A blacksmith made 4 deniers a day (1 f 90c).

1408 the great officers of the king's household (great chamberlain, great butler, etc) each had 2000 l[ivres] in wages (88,000f 1842). A king's notary got 6s (13f 20c).

1437, a grape-harvester's day was paid 2d (30c 1842); a basket carrier's, 8d (1f 22c, 1842).
This is followed by selected goods:
1312 a setier of broad beans was worth 7s 3d (29f 88c). A pig, 14s 7d (60f 10c). A sheep, 6s 8d). An ox, 4l 15s (391f 88c).

1375-76 a wagonload of logs 14s (38f 50c). A pint of wine 2d 1/2 (57c). A pig, 2l 7s 1d (129f 48c). A sheep, 11s 6d 1/2 (31f 74c).

1406-15 a pig 2l (97f 80c). A sheep 10s 5d (21f 48c). A setier of peas, 1l 12s (66f). A pint of good wine 2d (34c).

1470-72 100 eggs 3s (4f 50c). A calf 15s (22f 50c).

1492-98, pint of ordinary wine, 2d 1/2 (29c). A pint of Beaune wine, 1s (1f 38c). A capon, 3s 9d (5f 15c). A pair of pigeons, 1s (1f 38c). A setier of oats, 16c (22f).
He also adds this piquant note: "In the same period, wine costing 2d 1/2 the pint, a low mass was paid 1s 3d. There were then six pints of wine to drink in the price of a XVth century mass."


Perhaps the most extensive, if widely criticized, effort in this regard comes from Georges, viscount d'Avenel (1855-1939). Avenel relentlessly inventoried prices from all manner of sources and assembled price and wage lists across centuries, translating these along the way into francs of his time. A number of criticisms have been made of his work; that in using “authentic” documents, he treated these as accurate (which of course is not the same thing); that he took the values given for products provided as rents when the standard sale prices were probably lower; etc. Presumably no serious student of the subject will proceed without seeking out the most recent work on this subject and doing all the necessary calculations to approach a meaningful result. But for the casual reader, Avenel's manically thorough lists provide a suggestive overview of comparative values. It is especially helpful in his case that he tries to convert period prices into unit prices of his own time, since the quantities in the original records vary so widely (though another critique of Avenel might be that he boldly assigns quantities to measures, like the muid/modius for instance, whose size some consider uncertain).

Below are just a few extracts from the hundreds of pages of Avenel's fourth volume which contains a whole series of tables of prices for various goods. Where possible these have been grouped by region or locality, since that is often a key variable in these costs. The period prices are indicated to give an idea of the ranges of amounts which applied for different periods, but these of course have to be related to the widely varying quantities (which can be seen in the original tables). Avenel's 1894 equivalents of the prices are probably very approximate, but have the advantage of being calculated by unit and so make comparisons across years that much simpler.

Strangely, Avenel lists prices for various pastries, but does not include prices for bread (which are easy to obtain, since they were often set by municipalities.) Otherwise, among some of the more common items, it is interesting to see the prices of pigs (long a favored food) and cattle (becoming more popular among the elite as the Middle Ages ended), as well as bacon, a staple across the centuries. Pepper had been the most expensive spice in previous centuries; salt became more expensive as more taxes applied to it. Prices for both are of interest (Avenel also includes those for a variety of spices). General prices for wine are of course of interest, but is also interesting to see those for specific wines, especially the wine of Beaune, which would be an elite favorite for centuries. Its price seems to have varied widely. Hypocras, the spiced wine which was the favored digestif for centuries, seems to have consistently been expensive relative to plain wine, even the better wines.

These are just samples of the kinds of comparisons which can be found in Avenel's data. At the same time, one should not be fooled by its apparent precision. For a modern researcher, it is one of several starting points, but not by any means definitive.


Period price
1894 price by head
8 deniers
2f 69c
3 sous
3f 66c
2 sous 6 deniers
3f 06c
3 sous
3f 25c
10 sous
6f 70c
1 livre 5 sous
15f 31c
21 sous
6f 82c
30 to 18 sous
6f 27c
14 sous
9f 38c
21 sous 6 deniers
13f 16c
2 livres 15 sous
24f 48c
2 livres
15f 06c
1 livre 18 sous
13f 02c
5 sous 6 deniers
1f 80c
17 sous
4f 50c
2 livres
6f 68c


Period price
1894 price by kilogram
2 livres
2 sous 6 deniers
1f 80c
7 deniers 1/2
1 livres 10 sous to 2 livres
1 sous 6 deniers
3 sous


Period price
1894 price by head
3 sous
12f 15c
8 sous 6 deniers
Paris region
34f 43c
15 sous
16f 30c
70 sous
65f 52c
1 livre 15 sous
20 sous
18f 72c
386 livres 109 sous
36 sous
24f 12c
3 l 2 sous 6 deniers
38f 27c
7 livres 13 sous
93f 71c
7 livres
39f 83c
16 livres
84f 64c
8 livres
26f 72c


Period price
1894 francs per kilogram
4 sous
5f 36c
4 sous
5f 40c
8 sous
14f 70c
4 sous 4 deniers
near Paris
2f 46c


Period price
1894 francs per kilogram
1 sous 9 deniers
0 04c
1 sous 5 deniers
0 03c
4 sous
0 08c
1 livre 5 sous 3 deniers
0 34c
1 livre 4 sous 8 deniers
0 28c
1 livre 4 sous
Near Paris
0 19c
1 livre 13 sous
Near Paris
0 24c
11 sous 8 derniers
0 09c


Period price
1894 francs per hectoliter
16 livres
7f 62c
100 livres
5f 10c
5 1ivres 8 sous
13f 11c
15 sous
4f 86c
4-12 deniers parisis
3 livres 8 sous
25f 36c
3 livres 4 sous
6-4 livres
15f 30c
6 livres
11f 23c
5 deniers
15f 5c

White Burgundy wine

Period price
1894 francs per hectoliter
13 livres
43f 33c

Champigny wine

Period price
1894 francs per hectoliter
13 – 16 livres

Saint-Pourçain wine

Period price
1894 francs per hectoliter
12 livres 10 sous
41f 65c
12 livres
36f 54c

Beaune wine

Period price
1894 francs per hectoliter
11 livres 15 sous
35f 78s
3 sous 9 deniers
6 livres 5 sous
16f 60c
3 livres
9f 95c
1 sous
36f 56c


Period price
1894 francs per hectoliter
10 sous
15 sous
2 livres, 5 sous to 15 sous
353f 70c
7 sous 6 deniers
110f 80c