Sunday, July 12, 2015

FRENCH BREAD HISTORY: Late medieval bread outside Paris

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the history of French bread. The preceding post was on late medieval bread. The next is on Renaissance/16h century bread.
Further information on bread history can be found on Facebook in the Bread History Lounge.- If you want to MAKE medieval bread, click here.

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

Some preliminary concepts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The earliest statutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other mentions are more idiosyncratic.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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  1. Very interesting post! I have a question, and you seem like you might have some insight into it. I am studying peasant magical practices in the early 14th century in Catalonia, on the border of Spain and France. One of the cases I have found mentions a woman who "does conjurations concerning a fogaca." As far as I have discovered, a fogaca is a small loaf of bread, or possibly unbaked sourdough. Have you ever encountered any reference to beliefs about the magical power of bread?

    1. Fogace is one of many variants of the same word that became "foccacio". All are derived from the Latin word "focus", meaning hearth, and "focacius", bread cooked in one: fouace, fougasse, etc. The bread appears to have originally been the simplest form of hearth bread, cooked under the coals, but by the end of the Middle Ages was being cited as a luxury bread and may even have been made with eggs and butter in some areas.

      I have indeed run into magical uses of bread. The one that comes to mind is I believe from Normandy; floating pieces of bread on water in search of the drowned. It was also standard in many places to cut a cross into the bread, presumably giving it some protective powers. The Druids were said (though by later writers) to use bread in rites. One could also regard as magic things like the trial by brown bread where coarse bread was put in the mouth of the accused and choked the person if they were lying.
      I believe I've seen other examples, but can't recall them just now.