Wednesday, April 8, 2015

FRENCH BREAD HISTORY: Early medieval bread

This is the third in a series of posts on the history of French bread. The preceding post was on Gallo-Roman bread. The next installment is on late medieval breadFurther information on bread history can be found on Facebook in the Bread History Lounge.

By the time the Franks – as well as other Germanic groups – began to replace what remained of Roman rule, bread was established as a staple of the diet in Gaul. The Germans themselves may, like the Gauls before them, have favored gruel and flatbreads. But they now ruled over Romans (that is, Gallo-Romans) and the importance of bread in Roman culture had only been strengthened by its ritual importance in Christianity. The upper classes among Germanic groups had already been influenced by Roman models; when Anthimus wrote to the Frankish king Theuderic to eat “well-leavened bread and not unleavened bread... for it if it is not well-risen, it will weigh sufficiently on the stomach,” he expected royal bakers to be able to make such bread. (This also shows that both types of bread were then current.) While various grains were still found in Gaul, bread wheat (and its cousin spelt) had become dominant. (When Anthimus discusses barley, it is as used in gruel and infusions.)
The perceptible evolution is plurisecular, it made barley, oats and spelt disappear bit by bit from human consumption.... This to the benefit of greater consumption of wheat. One is surprised at the rapidity with which spelt disappeared from our texts after the Carolingian era where it knew a period of glory that was ultimately ephemeral. The hierarchy ended by establishing itself as follows: wheat, maslin, rye and other breads.
Further changes would occur over these early centuries.

Maslin was typically a mix of wheat and rye; rye had a low status it would keep in subsequent centuries, when it was used for the bread of the poor and servants.

In 794, Charlemagne made what was probably the first attempt to regulate bread prices in France: “If one wants to sell [grain] 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 fact that this mentioned breads made from oats is surprising; in later centuries, these would be reserved for animals. But in the tenth century, Ekkehard again mentioned bread made from oats, along with that made from wheat, spelt, rye and barley.

Mentions of millet and the closely related panic wheat became rare. But Charlemagne's Capitulary de Villis mentions both as fast-day foods, suggesting they were considered humble alternatives to other grains. However, since neither leaven well, it may be that these were eaten as gruels, or at best flatbreads.

Bread then could be made from different grains, and also of different qualities; but otherwise it was only that: “bread”. Lives of saints mention their eating it (often made with barley and sometimes dipped in ashes first), lists of rents sometimes include it, Gregory of Tours mentions it in his history, but it is always only “bread” (or a “loaf”, since the same word can often mean either).

As it happens, one of the rare “close-ups” of bread to survive from this period comes from a Germanic queen living in a court with strong Gallo-Roman influence: the queen and saint Radegund. This gives us some idea of how easy bread could be to make domestically. In Fortunatus' life of his friend, he says that she made her own bread which she used to hide under the flado – that is, the flat cake (though the word would eventually evolve into “flan”). It had to be, then, flat. She made it out of barley or rye, showing how humble such grains were then considered. For Lent, she had a mill brought to her, which would have been a hand-mill. Larger mills existed – the Salic Law prescribes punishment for robbing or vandalizing them – though the water mill was still a relatively new innovation and not yet widespread.

Mentions of bread say nothing of shape. Leavened bread was very likely spherical, like the loaves seen on a Roman tomb before this period and in innumerable images from later centuries. Scattered exceptions may have been found in the later Carolingian period, when images in some capital letters in manuscripts show what might just be short but narrow breads about a foot long, like today's demi-baguette. Another comes in certain Christian images on mausoleums and in rare illustrations. This is of a round but not very raised bread lightly split by a cross. But most often, “bread” in this period probably refers to spherical or (for larger breads) hermispherical shaped loaves.

The one actual bread from this period, carbonized like most archeological bread, appears to be about a quarter of one of these larger breads, with a slight curve on the outside and, strangely, a rectangular cut into the interior. The latter may come from successive slices like the one found with this (in a Carolingian silo at Bois d'Orville in the Nineties). (ARCHÉA)

It is extremely rare to find actual images of daily life in this period, but one major exception is the ninth century Utrecht Psalter, which includes a wealth of tiny, but detailed vignettes. What appear to be loaves of bread on one table are low hemispheres with what look like curved flaps coming up from three sides, leaving an approximate triangle (with concave sides) in the middle; this was then marginally more sophisticated than the simple spheres shown in later medieval images.

We have no recipes for this early bread, but the fact that it was often given as rent strongly suggests it was made using the (originally Roman) sourdough method. Unlike yeast-leavened bread (which quickly grows stale), sourdough bread can remain edible for a week or more. It is possible that in some (no doubt northern) regions where beer was the dominant drink, some bread was still leavened, as by some Gauls, using brewer's yeast. But that was probably exceptional, if it was done at all.

Bread made on the hearth – little more than a fire at this point – and put under the coals may have been flat, though it is also possible to bake leavened lumps of dough this way.

Biscuits, blessed bread and the Host

Though bread overall was described in general terms, a few specialized breads did exist.

In America today, “biscuit” refers to a soft, often homemade bread. But the term originally means “twice-cooked”, and referred to bread which had been rebaked so that it would last longer. This did not originate in early France; Pliny describes a sailor's bread – panis nauticus – which was rebaked. Roman soldiers also had a ration of twice-cooked bread called bucellatum.

The first mention of this in France is in the rule of St. Columbanus (6th-7th c.), which, strangely, uses the Greek term for it: paximatio; the monks are to eat “greens, legumes, flour mixed with water, a little paximation”. An early ninth century chronicle, Annales Mettenses (priores) or (EarlierAnnals of Metz , describes a man attacking people with the pestle used to “break bread up into the brothers' greens”, showing that this bread was hardened. (The note that bread was used to flavor the greens is also interesting, and unique.)

A number of sources claim that Abbo used the term biscoctus in his ninth century chronicle of the siege of Paris. But this appears to be a mis-parsing of the original Latin: ut biscocti Danum deferri for vi sibi scotta Danum deferri. The specifics of a tithe from 1087 (that is, just before the First Crusade), specify that the son of the family will give “a biscuit” (unam biscoctam). This may be the first recorded use of the term itself (just) before the Crusades; it also suggests that biscuits could be fairly big (as one would expect from one given as a tithe). Otherwise it is clear that biscuit, in the sense of hardened bread, already existed in the early Middle Ages. It is likely in fact that it was simply a survival from Roman times.

In future centuries, at least two breads would be used in Catholic churches in France. One was pain bénit, or “blessed bread”, which by the seventeenth century was a special bread made, often with eggs and butter, by a congregant to be blessed and then distributed; the other of course was the Host (the communion wafer). Both of these appeared in the early Middle Ages, though under what form is not certain.

Gregory of Tours, in his Book of Miracles, mentions a “blessed bread” (benedicti panis). He also tells of a peasant getting bread from his wife and then having it blessed by a priest, making this bread a eulogy. He also writes, in his History of Franks, of “eulogies” given to a guest. These all appear to refer, simply, to normal bread blessed by a priest, though the term “eulogy” may also at this point have been used for bread used for communion. The one thing that is established at this early date is that certain breads began to be assigned a special role in Catholic practice, even if they were not yet materially different from day-to-day bread.

Though he does not give a name to it, Knotker the Stammerer describes a bishop blessing bread for Charlemagne:
Once he asked a bishop for his blessing and he thereupon, after blessing the bread, partook of it first himself and then wanted to give it to the most honourable Charles: who, however, said to him: "You may keep all the bread for yourself"; and much to the bishop's confusion he refused to receive his blessing.
It is not at all clear when a simple piece of bread, given a blessing, evolved into the special offering of later centuries, but clearly the concept was established in these early centuries.

The term oblata originally meant an offering, but soon came to refer to the Host. An eighth century account of the burial of St. Cuthbert describes an oblata being put on his body:all his body washed, a cloth put around his head, a Host set on the holy chest..." (toto corpore lavato, capite sudario circumdato, oblatis super sanctum pectus positis). In 578, the Council of Auxerre made one of several attempts to forbid giving (more explicitly) the Eucharist to the dead (non licet mortuis, nec eucharistiam nec osculum tradi).

The Host had originally been ordinary bread, but evidence now appears of a special wafer – essentially a miniature waffle – made between two hot irons and marked with specific religious imagery. A ninth century document records the vision of a certain Ildefonse (not the famous Ildefonse of Toledo) from 845. This was of "two wheels, engraved on two irons belonging to a single bread, made between two irons." These are said to be three fingers wide. The manuscript includes images of these irons, showing a variety of Christian monograms and phrases. While later wafers would bear images as well, this was essentially the wafer as it would exist for centuries.

With time, the secular version of this would become the first baked dessert in France, often cited at the end of medieval meals. Wafers in turn would become the ancestor of other sweet baked goods; that is, pastries. (The word “pastry” itself originally referred to food cooked in pastry shells, not sweets.) The appearance of the communion wafer, then, had extensive implications for secular baking history.

Public bakers and trades groups

As Gallo-Roman culture persisted, especially in the south, urban bakers probably continued to bake and sell bread in the surviving cities. But, until the end of the Carolingian period, sources for the period only mention professional bakers in monasteries and large households. Otherwise, bread was made domestically. In the south, certainly, this would have been very like those described by Gregory: some made in ovens and some under hot coals.

A commonly repeated item claims that Dagobert gave statutes to the bakers in 630; this however is a myth which can be traced back to two different sources in 1722. Whether or not public bakers survived, no written trace exists of them in France for centuries.

Note that Charlemagne's 794 edict speaks of selling bread, but does not mention this being done by a specific profession. It may be that public bakers again existed at this point, but it is equally possible that the edict was referring to anyone, even in private households, who chose to make and sell bread.

In 864, his grandson, Charles the Bald, issued the Edict of Pistres, the first to touch on the question of standard measures in France. It asks that counts and public officers have standards available for measures, based on those in his palace, so that those who “sell baked bread or meat by the piece, or wine by the sexter cannot adulterate or reduce” what they sell. It then however focuses on one profession only, going on to say that the Bishop or the Abbot or the Count in charge will be able to measure bread from bakers; and if they are found to have false weight or adulterated goods, they are to be punished. This is very suggestive of the kind of regulation which would be standard in baking throughout the later Middle Ages.

This makes it clear that public bakers now existed. Just before this (831) the monastery of St. Riquier required the vicus (street or quarter) of bakers associated with the monastery to provide one hundred loaves of bread a week to the monks. While this is not yet a reference to a guild, not only were the bakers grouped in one place, but they must have acted collectively to share this obligation. This is a rare, if significant, reference of the kind and concerns a conglomeration associated with a monastery, not a true city. But it shows that tradespeople acted collectively before the rebirth of cities and the rise of guilds.


By the early Middle Ages, then, bread in general was established as a staple of the French diet. Most was made of bread wheat or spelt, but also of rye, barley and oats, and more rarely of millet and panic wheat; emmer and einkorn had essentially disappeared. While it is possible some bread was still leavened, as by certain Gauls, with yeast, the fact that breads were often included in rents meant they were long-lasting and so almost certainly leavened with sourdough. Little is known about specific breads, but biscuits and wafers are already documented. Public bakers are again noted after Charlemagne and there is even evidence they had begun to act collectively; guilds, however, were some centuries off.


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

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