My own focus being on French bread history, I have tended to trust others on English bread history. This includes the idea that English bread was leavened with barm (yeast), where French bread, for hundreds of years, was leavened with sourdough. Recently, I was surprised to be challenged on this point, but realized I'd never looked into the subject for myself.
NOTE: The terms "barm" is used in different ways today, when it can be distinguished from commercial yeast. But it is important to distinguish period from modern usage. In earlier centuries, barm was the ONLY yeast (that is, the foam from making beer); since then purer, commercial varieties have been developed and modern discussions address these issues in very different terms. But the term is of course used here in its earlier sense, when it was essentially synonymous with yeast.
Having begun to do so, I was struck by one thing right off: there is far less information on older English baking than there is on French. Neither culture offers any details on medieval baking, but at least in France instructions begin to appear by the sixteenth century (with Charles Estienne). By the eighteenth, these became very detailed indeed (with Malouin and Parmentier). But in England, nothing so early or so thorough seems to exist.
As a general note, in regard to the use of yeast vs. sourdough, it is important to know that the precondition to using yeast was, for centuries, the presence of brewers. One reason sourdough was the main method in France for so long is that beer there began as a regional specialty, whereas wine was, if not universal, far more widespread. Also, the Romans – who only fitfully knew of beer – used sourdough as well (per Pliny), and this despite knowing that some Gauls used the foam from beer in their bread.
In general, beer-drinking cultures have been associated with bread made with barm (yeast), while wine-drinking cultures have preferred sourdough.
In England, the earliest substantial details on breads come with the regulations called “Assises”.
From an early period of English history three articles of general consumption were the subjects of royal ordinances and parliamentary legislation, — bread, beer and ale. They are generally regulated by the same ordinance or law, and must therefore be noticed together. One of the oldest regulations on our ancient statute book was passed in the 51st Henry III. stat. 1 (1266) intituled, "The Assise of Bread and Ale."
Note that bread and ale (or beer) were all closely associated. Not that the same people made both, but clearly bakers had ready access to the barm (basically, the foam on top of top-fermented beer) used by brewers.
It is important to know that, beyond the use brewers themselves made of it, yeast was sold for various uses. In France, in the seventeenth century, when bakers began to use yeast, they often bought it from outside Paris (a practice explicitly forbidden by the first legislation on the matter). In England, a household account from the reign of Henry VIII mentions yeast for five days (costing 1 shilling, 8 pence) (Nichols). In 1615, Francis Bacon cited a case from the same era which mentions poisoned barm being used in food:
that notorious case, whereupon the statute of 22 Henry VIII., chap. 9, was made, where the intent being to poison but one or two, poison was put into a little vessel of barm that stood in the kitchen of the Bishop of Rochester's house; of which barm pottage or gruel was made, wherewith seventeen of the bishop's family were poisoned : nay, divers of the poor that came to the bishop's gate, and had the broken pottage in alms, were likewise poisoned.What did “barm pottage” taste like? A separate issue. But these examples show above all that yeast was a product, sold for various uses.
As for beer itself, it had existed in England since the Roman occupation, when some Roman soldiers drank it.
This widespread availability of yeast makes it very likely that it was used in bread. Does this mean that sourdough was not? That simply cannot be determined for earlier centuries. Certainly, sourdough has the advantage of not requiring additional material (it is made from the dough itself), but it is also true that brewing was often a domestic activity and the same people who made bread at home could as easily have made beer, and used some of the barm for their baking.
For the medieval period then, one can only point to a strong association of baking and brewing to demonstrate the likelihood that barm was used as a leavening, without discounting the possible use of sourdough in some cases.
Another consideration here is the type of bread. The earliest assizes, probably from King John in 1202, refer only
to “white bread” (albis panis) and “whole wheat bread” (panis de toto blado). When Holinshed gave an English
version of this in the sixteenth century, he called these breads “manchet” and “cheat”:
When wheat was sold for six shillings the quarter, then shall euerie loafe of fine manchet wey 41 shillings, and euerie loafe of cheat shall wey 24 shillings. When wheat is sold for fiue shillings and six pence, then manchet shall wey 20 shillings, and cheat 28 shillings....
It is not certain that these were the terms in 1202, but for several centuries, these were the two main sorts of English bread – a fine white bread and a coarse brown bread. Other terms for the first were simnel or pain de maigne/payman, for the second, cocket or tourte; wastel was sometimes between the two. A slightly more “wrought-up” version of cheat, raveled cheat, was made for the gentry. These were the main categories, although:
In Elizabeth's reign three qualities of bread only were allowed to be made by the bakers for sale, viz., white bread, wheaten and household. But elsewhere it is said that "they may bake and sell simnell bread, wastel [these sorts being sanctioned by ancient ordinances] white, wheaten, household and horsebreads;" that they "must make and bake farthing white bread, halfpenny white, penny white, halfpenny wheaten, penny wheaten bread, penny household and twopenny household loaves, and none of greater size;" — these last denominations indicating both size and price.
(Horsebread was a particularly poor type of bread made with peas, beans, oats and other items that was also literally given to horses.)
In 1615, Gervase Markham provided one of the earliest actual recipes for English breads:
For baking of bread of your simple meals [i.e. of meal of wheat unmixed with rye or barley] your best and principal bread is Manchet, which you shall bake in this manner:—First your meal being ground upon the black stones, if it be possible, which makes the whitest flour, and bolted through the finest bolting-cloth, you shall put it into a clean kimnel, and opening the flour hollow in the midst, put into it of the best ale barm the quantity three pints to a bushel of meal, with some salt to season it with ; then put in your liquor reasonable warm, and knead it very well together with both your hands and through the brake; or, for want thereof, fold it in a cloth, and with your feet tread it a good space together; then letting it lie an hour or thereabouts to swell, take it forth and mould it into manchets round and flat, scotch them about the waste to give it leave to rise, and prick it with your knife in the top, and so put it into the oven and bake it with a gentle heat.To bake the best Cheat bread, which is also simply of wheat only, you shall, after your meal is dressed and bolted through a more coarse bolter than was used for your manchets, and put also into a clean tub, trough or kimnel, take a sour leaven, that is, a piece of such like leaven saved from a former batch, and well filled with salt, and so laid up to sour; and this sour leaven you shall break into small pieces into warm water, and then strain it ; which done, make a deep hollow hole in the midst of your flour, and therein pour your strained liquor, then with your hand mix some part of the flour therewith, till the liquor be as thick as a pancake batter, then cover it all over with meal, and so let it lie all that night. The next morning stir it and all the rest of the meal well together, and with a little more warm water, barm, and salt to season it with, bring it to a perfect leaven, stiff and firm ; then knead it, break it, and tread it (as before said in the manchets) and so mould it up into reasonable big loaves, and then bake it with an indifi'erent good heat.
The manchet here is leavened entirely with barm. The cheat is leavened with sour dough (“sour leaven”), even if the latter is (unusually) reduced to a liquid first. Rather strangely though, barm is still added, but, like salt, “to season it with”. In France, it would not later be unusual to use yeast and sourdough together, but not to use one much later than the other. Was the idea here to give the cheaper, sourdough leavened, bread some of the taste of the better bread? Or did this simply “top off” the bread's rising? Either way, this again shows how universal barm was in England.
Markham also gives instructions for an even less refined bread. “Coarse Bread”, which uses peas along with wheat or rye:
For your own bread, a bread for your hind-servants, which is the coarsest bread for man's use, take of barley two bushels, of pease two pecks, of wheat or rye a peck, a peek of malt; these you shall grind altogether, and dress it through a meal sieve; then putting it into a sour-trough, set liquor on the fire, and when it boils let one put in the water, and another with a mash-rudder stir some of the flour with it, after it hath been seasoned with salt, and so let it be till next day. Then putting to the rest of the flour, work it up into stiff leaven; then mould it, and bake it into great loaves with a very strong heat.
This appears to be barely leavened at all, though the approximate method used is closer to sourdough than yeast.
By the seventeenth century, then, barm was still used for the best breads (as it later would be in France), but coarser breads could be leavened without it. It is certainly credible that this was already the case centuries earlier; there is simply no evidence of it, however, if so.
In 1676, a recipe appeared for “Lady of Amnolel's Manchet”:
Take a bushel of fine wheat-flower, 20 eggs, three pound of fresh butter ; then take as much salt and barm as to the ordinary manchet; temper it together with new milk pretty hot, then let it lie the space of half an hour to rise, so you may wor it up into bread, and bake it: let not your even be too hot. — True Gentlewoman’s Delight, 1676.
This too uses barm.
In Hannah Glasse's 1784 cookbook, she offered a recipe for “white bread” which also uses barm:
To make White-Bread, after the London Way
TAKE a bushel of the finest flour well dressed, put it in the kneading-trough at one end, take a gallon of water (which we call liquor), and some yeast; stir it into the liquor till it looks of a good brown colour and begins to curdle, strain and mix it with your flour till it is about the thickness of a seedcake; then cover it with the lid of the trough, and let it stand three hours, and as soon As you see it begin to fall, take a galIon more of liquor; weigh three quarters of a pound of salt, and with your hand mix it well with the water: strain it, and with this liquor make your dough of a moderate thickness, fit to make up into loaves; then cover it again with the lid, and let it stand three hours more. In the mean time, put the wood into the oven and heat it. It will take two hours heating. When your sponge has stood its proper time, clear the oven, and begin to make your bread. Set it in the oven, and close it up, and three hours will bake it. When once it is in, you must not open the oven till the bread is baked; and observe in summer that your water be milk-warm, and in winter as hot as you can bear your finger in it.
Note, As to the quantity of liquor your dough will take, experience will teach you in two or three times making, for all flour does not want the same quantity of liquor; and if you make any quantity, it will raise up the lid and run over.
This is followed by one for French bread, which too uses barm (though much bread in France at this point was in fact still made with sourdough). Later in the same chapter, she gives a recipe for “making Bread without Barm by the help of a Leaven”. This recipe however specifies that the original sourdough will have been ferrmented with barm. What is more, the recipe is credited to “the Dublin Society”, which means it may have come from Ireland, which is indeed said to have used sourdough.
Glasse also includes instructions “to preserve a large Stock of Yeast”, again showing how important this was in England. Though French bakers by now were using yeast for some breads, no similar domestic instructions exist in France.
What can one conclude from this fairly light evidence? Certainly, barm was widely available in England, available enough to be used beyond both brewing and baking. It was the favored leavening for the best bread. Was sour dough used for the others? From Elizabethan times on, at least, that seems to have been the case, even if some barm might be added even for these. For the medieval period, the best one can say is that it is possible, but that not the least evidence proves as much, whereas the close association of baking and brewing in the period makes it very likely that barm was used in at least some breads.
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FOR FURTHER READING:
Harland, John. The Lancashire lieutenancy under the Tudors and Stuarts 1859
Bacon, Francis, “The charge of Sir Francis Bacon, Knight, against Mr. Lumsden...” (1615) The works of Francis Bacon, lord chancellor of England, Volume 2
Holinshed, Raphael, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, Volume 2 1807
Paris, Matthew, Roger (of Wendover), Chronica Majora, 1874
“Parliament and Prices”, Blackwood Magazine, Dec 1917, v. 202
The House and Farm Accounts of the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe Hall, in the County of Lancaster, at Smithils and Gawthorpe: FromSeptember 1582 to October 1621, Volume 41 1856
Timbs, John, Things Not Generally Known Familiarly Explained, a Book for Oldand Young 1866
Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy 1784