Monday, February 16, 2015


This is the second in a series of posts on the history of French bread. The first installment is on the bread of the Gauls. The next installment is on early medieval breadFurther information on bread history can be found on Facebook in the Bread History Lounge.

Bread was important to the Romans in a way it had not been to the Gauls. In fact, some credit the Romans with introducing bread to porridge-loving “Barbarians”; the classic dichotomy is between the bread, oil and wine of the Romans and the porridge, meat, dairy and beer of the Gauls and Germans. (Kertzer. Barbagli). This was exaggerated of course; the Romans had long eaten porridge and the Gauls not only had a form of flat bread, but may have learned to make leavened bread from the same people as the Romans: the Greeks. Still, in the broad lines, it is true that under the Romans bread first took on the importance in France which, if much diminished, it still has today.

If you are new to early French history, the first thing to know about Gaul in the period after the Roman conquest is that it was part of Rome. Today we call those who then lived in Gaul “Gallo-Romans”, but that is a modern term; to themselves and others of the time, they were simply “Romans”. Romans, it is true, who were often descended from Gauls and who even kept some awareness of their distinct identity, just as a Texan, though American, remains a Texan. But Romans nonetheless.

Cities like Paris, Lyons and Marseille were then Roman cities. Some, like early Paris, were even laid out on a Roman template, with, for instance, a forum and an amphitheater (one of which still survives in Paris). While these were not exact clones of Rome itself, the life in them was probably as like life in the capital as life in Omaha or Austin is like that in New York or Los Angeles.

This is important in reference to bread because, even where direct evidence is lacking, it would be surprising if certain key Roman institutions did NOT exist in these cities. Certainly, just enough survives to show that some did; nor is it reasonable to assume that because we lack evidence of others that they did not.

And now, the BOOK:

Before the Baguette: The History of French Bread

Also available as an epub : Smashwords ebpub version

Preview on Amazon's "Look Inside" 
or take a peek at the Table of Contents here:

The most obvious change in grains came with the new dominance of bread wheat, which became the grain most widely grown in Gaul; its close relative spelt too became more common. Barley had a poor reputation among the Romans (barley bread was given to soldiers as a punishment) and became a low status grain (Roth); Pliny: "Barley bread, which was extensively used by the ancients, has now fallen into universal disrepute, and is mostly used as a food for cattle only."

Rye, previously barely known (and then probably as a weed), began to be cultivated. Emmer, which had been one of the most common grains before the Gauls, began to disappear, but may have lingered under other names almost into the nineteenth century. (Comet)

Matterne and Lepetz provide this overview based on archeological finds from the period in the north of France:
Wheats dominate among the cereals. Two types of wheats confront each other: grains like bread wheat and husked wheats like spelt and emmer. The latter possess a half-fragile ear and resistant husks. Processing of cereals with husked grain after the harvest is thus longer and more complex than that of naked grains. Husked cereals must be beaten several times to obtain clean grain.
The cultural demands of the three wheats also differ. Spelt possesses a great rusticity and a particular tolerance for drought. It bears thin and light soils which develop a highly draining secondary substratum, which is why it was cultivated in the Bronze age in Champagne-Ardenne. Emmer requires more fertile and well prepared soils but nonetheless remains easier to cultivate than bread wheat which requires deep and well-structured soils.
The authors go on to say that wheats like bread wheat represent the greatest proportion of remains found for the whole Gallo-Roman period from the first century on. From the second century, they are especially dominant in the south of Picardy and the Paris region. Husked wheats were confined to the north of Picardy, until the fourth century, when they start to spread to the south.

Other evidence shows that bread wheat was a new arrival whose culture started to spread at the end of the first century.

Rye, initially a weed, began to be cultivated from the first century on, mainly in the Ile-de-France (greater Paris region), but may first have been used as forage for livestock.

These grains would remain the main ones in French bread making for centuries. Bread wheat and spelt would be used for the better breads; barley and rye, often in various mixtures, were used in breads for servants and the poor or those, like monks, who wanted to humble themselves.

Per Pliny, millet and panic were grown in and near Aquitaine and millet would still be found there over a millennium later, even if this never became a general French grain.

Pliny says too that Gaul gained some reputation in Rome for its grain:
The Gauls have also a kind of spelt peculiar to that country: they give it the name of "brace," while to us it is known as "sandala:" it has a grain of remarkable whiteness. Another difference, again, is the fact that it yields nearly four pounds more of bread to the modius than any other kind of spelt.
In addition to the grains grown in Gaul itself, the wealthy (as in many things) used foreign imports. Writing at the end of the imperial period, Sidonius Apollinaris apologizes to a rich friend for the simple meal he will serve him, where there will be no breads whose wheat has been gilded in the Syrtes of Libya”.

The state of flour
A modern reader, in visualizing flour and bread, will probably imagine relatively pure and homogeneous products. But even under the Romans – for a long time, France's most sophisticated rulers – flour was not necessarily appetizing. Excavations at Amiens of a large granary from this period reveal what was probably a common state of affairs in the larger cities: part of the grain had spoiled from humidity, some had begun to sprout and at least eight varieties of insects had infested it, sometimes over several generations. Note the authors "The case of Amiens is... not unique. In general, one notes, in the Roman era, obvious difficulties in keeping stocks in good condition." (Matterne, Yvinec and Gemehl) Some of these problems may have related to Roman culture itself: the tendency to centralization, for instance, which increased the need for storage. The same long distance transportation which helped increase the availability of grain may also have introduced some parasites from the East and resulted in some spoilage en route.

Overall, some, if not necessarily all, of the grain available under the Romans would have been in poor condition, resulting in a correspondingly poor bread, even with more sophisticated baking techniques. Gourevitch, having studied similar finds around the Roman empire, points out that such grain could not be properly milled. She adds further on:
Not only was the bread of the Romans not good in general, but further it was often toxic, even for the military population which power had so much interest in managing since, more and more often, the army made the emperors. if the stored cereals were bad in military granaries, if they were in the civil granaries of distant provincial cities, it is likely that they were everywhere, except perhaps in the very large cities where the circulation of goods was faster and above all in Rome where it was necessary to avoid displeasing the plebes.
Ironically, those living poorer, simpler lives in the country may have had better bread, simply because they had less grain to store and were probably obliged to renew their stock more often.

Information on Gallo-Roman bread is extremely rare. This makes it all the more extraordinary that samples of actual breads have survived.

One, found at a Roman cemetery in Saint-Memmie (in the Marne), was a flat bread (galette) made with barley and einkorn/emmer flour; it was little raised or not at all. (Heiss et al) Though it was found in a Gallo-Roman cemetery, these traits strongly suggest what the bread of the Gauls must have been like. It would in fact be surprising if such bread did not survive in some parts of Gaul.

A previous post here listed several others:
  • From the Aveyron, a large piece of a nearly circular galette, probably unleavened and made with bread wheat, about 9 cm across, with a smooth crust and a close crumb
  • In the Drome, a slightly oval loaf (9.1 by 8.3 cm), with a maximum thickness of 4.5 cm., flat on the bottom and slightly raised on top, possibly made in a mold
  • With this, remains of galettes, possibly made with sarrasin wheat, which is not otherwise noted this early in the south (today it is largely used in Brittany in crepes)
  • In Amiens, at the site of large household, ten breads, of which three were closely studied. Two were circular, about 10 cm across and 5 cm thick, with a crust clearly differentiated from the crumb. A third, more irregular in shape (about 12 cm across and 6-7 cm thick at its thickest, was probably made with well-sifted bread what or spelt and (unusually) some rye. It appears to have been made with a super-hydrated dough.
  • A particularly sophisticated bread found in a tomb in the Var, approximately round, about 5.5 inches by 4.3 inches across, an inch and a quarter thick, with two slashes on the surface roughly dividing it into thirds. It seems likely that such a bread was made by a professional or at least well-trained baker.
With the exception of the last bread, these show relatively simple, but varied forms: flat galettes, round or slightly oval loaves. All of these forms are still familiar today. UPDATE: 2/18/2015: A 2007 excavation in Reims of a burnt Gallo-Roman complex uncovered a plate of three carbonized rolls in a cellar; one, intact except for a crack, is roughly oval and the size of a hamburger.

A Christian sarcophagus in the Museum of Antiquities at Arles shows a man holding a basket of round breads about the width of a man's palm with a raised section, extending almost to the edge, divided by a cross (that is, into quarters). Variants on this bread with a cross (with, in context, its clear Christian connotation) are seen across the centuries in French imagery. This would have been a natural shape for Christians to produce.

These are the Gallo-Roman breads we can identify with some certainty. Beyond them lies the whole realm of Roman breads in general, breads which may or may not have been made in Roman Gaul. But that is a question for speculation – which is addressed here further on.

Pliny also mentions breads made in “nations that have had leisure to cultivate the arts of peace” using milk or eggs, or even butter. If such breads (or pastries) were made in Gaul, it was probably only among the wealthy. The first substantial note of such baked goods being made in France would not appear until the fourteenth century.

Making bread
Pliny mentions several ways of making bread, notably in an oven and under a bell (clibanis). The methods most likely used in Gaul were in ovens, under coals (hearth bread) or in bells. Certainly a great deal of bread – probably most – was made at home. While there is evidence that professional bakers existed in cities, no such evidence exists for the countryside and it would have been surprising – beyond private villas – for such establishments to have existed so early.

As it is, a number of querns (hand-mills) have been found in private households, indicating that they were milling their own flour and so probably making their own bread as well (Laville). The standard Roman mill was a two part column, with a slightly indented upper part which received the grain and was turned to grind it; the versions in Gaul had a slightly different and distinctive form. Pieces of such a stone mill were even found on a Gallo-Roman boat which sank near Guernsey, along with quantities of grain, showing that the crew probably made bread on-board.

Professional bakers used the same sort of mill as well; one Gallo-Roman baker was even buried in the two halves of one. (Lindet)

Gregory de Tours' two brief descriptions of home baking were written under the Franks, but are probably typical of the techniques the same Gallo-Romans had used under the Empire. In the first, he describes a woman, quite simply, putting loaves into an oven and speaks of her holding wood (no doubt a paddle). This shows that ovens existed in some Gallo-Roman households. But in the second he describes how a woman "soaked flour, made a loaf of it which she set to bake under the hot cinders after having brushed away the burning charcoal." Such hearth bread required no special equipment (even the hearth itself was essentially nothing more than a fire, banked around with stones or bricks). It would have been the most ready choice for those of limited means.

The second method would endure in France well after ovens became standard for many. In Latin, the hearth (or fire) was focus. Bread cooked in it was foccacia. This word of course had its own history in Italy. In France, it evolved into fougasse, which then found its way back into Latin as fogaza, foguaces, fogascia and similar variants. (Du Cange)

No specific clibani have been found or mentioned in Gaul, but given their portability it seems likely that they would have been used as well. (NOTE: In later hagiographies, this word is used to simply mean “oven”.)

Numerous ovens have been found at Gallo-Roman sites in France. At one site in the Haute-Garonne:
The bread oven is rather well preserved. It appears as a circular mass of compact earth more or less hard and baked about 1.30 m wide outside. Inside, a hemispheric cavity filled with earth and cinders was emptied, its upper cover having partially disappeared leaving an opening of 45 cm. At the base, the sole or floor in very baked earth having 80 cm in diameter opening on a mouth 30 cm long, 30 cm wide and 40 cm high, oriented northwest. The walls are very baked, smooth and demonstrate long use... the floor... rested on a not very dense of shards of Gaulish pottery
Elsewhere on the same site, a series of ovens had succeeded each other "because of their ephemeral lifetimes due to the structural rusticity of their construction. This are, nonetheless, good ovens easy to build and able to bake all sorts of foods."

An oven found at the site of a bathing station in the Bouches-du-Rhone was 1.7 m in diameter, with a base made of parts of a dolium (a type of large pot) and another layer using broken tiles. The top was made, as in cases elsewhere, with the reversed base of a dolium, with an opening at the top. Bouet lists several other finds of ovens in France:
In an urban context, a bakery oven functioning in the second half of the first century before J. C. was uncovered on the site of Lattes: its base was made of dolium fragments... [A discovery in the Vaucluse was of] a service room bearing to the North a half-buried dolium, a monolithic vat and, in the wall, the mouth of a bread oven 1.61 in diameter with red bricks joined by mortar. Another oven was found in the digs of the antique port quarter in Toulon:... In the rest of Gaul, another oven was found.... in Seine and Oise. It involves a circular constriction 2 m in diameter inside, built of stones and tiles, partially buried, whose peak alone must have gone beyond the old ground level; the walls were [made up of tile fragments, then two rows of bricks between three rows of stone, at the top of tiles]: the mouth was marked by a flat stone. This site was occupied from the first to the fifth centuries. At Bliesbruck (Moselle) [among a group of buildings along a street, each organized around a courtyard]... in the corner of one of the courtyards, was a set of two ovens whose soles were completely made up of tegulae bound to the clay. In the surrounding area, were found the remains of older soles and the fragments of a mill.
One reason ovens might have been mostly buried (as in the one here from Seine and Oise) was to protect them from the weather. The baker here would have worked in a lower room or depression providing access to the mouth of the oven. The baker, to bake his loaves, went down to the level of the mouth, by two or three steps forming a small staircase.” (Esperandieu)

In 1938, Esperandieu examined a find at Alesia which had been interpreted as a dolmen. He interpreted the find as an oven which, if he was right, would have corresponded to a rather modern type of oven in which the sole (a rounded flat stone) was supported on three supports, with a gap towards the back between this and the hemispherical covering of the oven, so that the fire could be lit underneath the sole and the heat would circulate up through the gap.

A third century mosaic from Saint-Romain-en-Gal shows, for January, a man making bread, using a spherical oven about three feet across with a mouth about a foot wide opening onto a rectangular work surface. An opening at the bottom holds a fire built to heat the oven. (This was not always the method used; often the fire was built in the oven itself and then raked out once it was heated.) The man (probably not a professional baker) is using a long peel to put dough into the oven.

This smaller kind of oven is the kind likely to have been used in many households.

If clibani were used, the process would have been primitive. Here is Cato's description of how to bake such bread:
LXXIV – Recipe for making depsiticus bread.
Make “well-kneaded” bread as follows. Wash your hands and the mortar [or mixing bowl] well. Put the flour in the mortar, add water bit by bit, mix all this well. Once the dough is made, shape it, bake it under the earthenware pot (bell).
In Cato's description here, one familiar step is missing: the addition of a fermenting agent. The result would have been a very heavy loaf.

A long-standing distinction between breads is based on its being leavened or not. Isidore of Seville would later classify bread as panis fermentatus, azymus and acrozymus (leavened, unleavened, slightly leavened). Historically, hearth bread has often been unleavened or slightly leavened.

The rare bread that appears in Roman images typically is swollen in a way that indicates it has been leavened. Most professionally produced bread probably was. In simple households, however, which did not necessarily have ovens, it is likely that unleavened flat bread was most common, even if such simple productions were also the least likely to noted in texts.

Pliny noted the Gaul's use of the foam from beer – that is, yeast – to leaven their bread. But one indication that this had never been widespread among the Gauls was that its use seems to have disappeared from France under Roman rule. Pliny lists a number of Roman leavening methods, including kneaded cakes of millet, wheat bran or barley which could then be moistened for use. By his time, however, the main method was to use dough from the prior batch; that, sourdough:
At the present day, however, the leaven is prepared from the meal that is used for making the bread. For this purpose, some of the meal is kneaded before adding the salt, and is then boiled to the consistency of porridge, and left till it begins to turn sour. In most cases, however, they do not warm it at all, but only make use of a little of the dough that has been kept from the day before.
Unfortunately, archeologists never seem to analyze finds of bread to determine exactly how they were leavened. But the two slashes on the round bread found in the Var are reminiscent of those found on French breads since the end of the eighteenth century. One explanation for the latter is that they were to release gases produced by using yeast, which was stronger than sourdough. Were the slashes on the Gallo-Roman bread merely decorative, or did they serve a similar purpose? If so, this would suggest that the bread was leavened with yeast, as in those referenced by Pliny.

In trying to envision the bread of this period in France, it is tempting to take what might be called the “dinosaur's skin” approach to envisioning this period.

For a long time, dinosaurs were portrayed with grey skin, presumably because no one knew what dinosaur skin looked like. In recent years, however, dinosaurs have been portrayed with the colorful, geometrically patterned skin characteristic of reptiles. Though these are imaginary patterns, they nonetheless more accurately reflect what original dinosaur skin looked like than the absence of color.

By the same token, if it is impossible to document exactly what aspects of Roman baking existed in Gaul in this period, it distorts the picture to envision a Roman Gaul where none did. Gaul was after all Roman in this period and many of its residents had been to or were even from the capital and would have sought similar fare in its cities. It is useful then to know something about Roman bread in considering that of Roman Gaul.

The Romans, lovers of novelty and luxury, had a wide variety of breads. We only know the names of some; the shapes of others are known from archeology or paintings. Breads preserved at Pompeii were slightly risen disks, about a foot across, sectioned into six parts. They were made with either wheat or chickpea flour. The playwright Plautus (earlier in history) mentions a bread three feet long. Beyond these, Pliny says, in effect, there were too many to mention:
It seems to me quite unnecessary to enter into an account of the various kinds of bread that are made. Some kinds, we find, receive their names from the dishes with which they are eaten, the oyster-bread, for instance: others, again, from their peculiar delicacy, the artolaganus, or cake-bread, for example; and others from the expedition with which they are prepared, such as the "speusticus," or " hurry-bread." Other varieties receive their names from the peculiar method of baking them, such as oven-bread [Furnaceus], tin-bread,[Artopticeus] and mouldbread.[Clibanis} It is not so very long since that we had a bread introduced from Parthia, known as water-bread,[Aquations] from a method in kneading it, of drawing out the dough by the aid of water, a process which renders it remarkably light, and full of holes, like a sponge: some call this Parthian bread. The excellence of the finest kinds of bread depends principally on the goodness of the wheat, and the fineness of the bolter. Some persons knead the dough with eggs or milk, and butter even has been employed for the purpose by nations that have had leisure to cultivate the arts of peace, and to give their attention to the art of making pastry.
It would be a long time before France itself would have so rich a variety of breads. While not all would have been found in Gaul in this period, it seems likely that demand would have existed for at least some, if only in the cities. There may even have been bakers “in the style of Rome” - this is the interpretation given (if uncertainly) to a baker's epitaph from Narbonne, which refers to him as “Roman[aniensis?] Pistor” (Marquardt)

In Rome itself, Marquardt writes not only of bakers who made bread for public distribution but also of a range of bakers who made specialized better quality breads, including those who made white bread (pistores candidarii) or bread of the finest flour (pistores similaginarii), those who made breads under bell ovens (pistores clibanarii), those who sold digestive bread (pistores pepsianii), etc. To complicate matters, the word for baker (pistor) could also refer to one who made pastry, which could be considered merely a more luxurious variety of bread.

It is possible that at least some of these specialized bakers existed in larger cities such as Paris or Lyons. But evidence of specific trades for such cities is spotty, largely based on chance finds of inscriptions. Many rich Romans – be they originally from Gaul or from the capital – had country villas in Gaul and their private bakers may also have made specialized breads.

If indeed any part of the variety of Roman breads was found in Gaul itself, this would be the last time for centuries that anything like it would exist in France. By all evidence, bread-making, like much else, became far simpler after the Romans.

Cultural shifts
In regard to grain, the Romans also brought one cultural change, though it may have been more of a shift than a true innovation. The Roman goddess Ceres took hold in the countryside. The word “cereal” is derived from this deity, who ruled over wheat. The Gauls (that is, the Celts) had their own woodland deities and probably the Roman goddess merely took over a function once occupied by some Celtic spirit. But it would not have been difficult to get a farmer to adopt the worship of one said to help the crops. Conversely, Christians would find it difficult to dislodge her cult when that of various saints was not yet established.

By the end of the Late Empire, Christianity was identified with Rome, even if the actual Christianization of Gaul had a long way to go. This added to the Roman love of bread the religious resonance of bread as the Body of Christ, so that even as the Empire declined the sense of bread as central was preserved in Gaul.

The Romans substantially changed bread in Gaul, above all by making bread wheat dominant and then simply by giving bread the importance it has had in France since. With one exception, the few breads that have survived are not complex, nor very different from many simpler breads today. There is good reason to believe more complex breads were made in the cities and perhaps private villas, but direct evidence of this has not survived. Urban bakers existed in Gaul, no doubt for the first time, and may even have had different specialties. But private households also made bread, whether they used ovens, the hearth or possibly bell ovens. To the degree that Gaulish culture survived in the countryside, the bread there may have remained fairly primitive, flatbreads made with barley, emmer or even millet.

Parasites and other impurities in grain would have had a negative impact on the quality of much of the bread that was produced. Some bread was raised with yeast (that is, the foam from beer) but this appears to have been exceptional; the main Roman leavening method was sourdough and this became the main French method. Some bread too, especially when made with grains such as millet, barley or emmer, was unleavened.

By the time the Franks and other Germanic groups replaced the Romans as masters of Gaul, bread had become central to the quasi-nation's diet, and Christianity would only reinforce that position.

Interested in bread history? Visit The Bread History Lounge on Facebook.

The History of the European Family: Family life in early modern times (1500 …), ed David I. Kertzer, Marzio Barbagli 2001 

Roth, Jonathan, Jonathan P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War: 264 B.C. - A.D. 235 1999

Pliny (the Elder), The Natural History of Pliny, Vol 4, 1856

Comet, Georges, Le paysan et son outil: essai d'histoire technique des céréales : France, VIIIe-XVe siècle, 1992

Matterne, Véronique Sébastien Lepetz, “Élevage et agriculture dans le Nord de la Gaule durant l'époque gallo-romaine : une confrontation des données archéologiques et carpologiques”, Revue archéologique de Picardie, Vol 1  2003

Apollinaire, Sidoine (saint.), Oeuvres de C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius v3 1836 245

Gourevitch, Danielle, Le pain des Romains à l'apogée de l'Empire. Bilan entomo- et botano-archéologique”, Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Vol 49 2005   

Heiss, Andreas G.,Nathalie Pouget, Julian Wiethold, Anne Delor-Ahüd and Isabelle Le Goff, “Tissue-based analysis of a charred flat bread (galette)from a Roman cemetery at Saint-Memmie (Dép. Marne,Champagne-Ardenne, north-eastern France)”, Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol 55, March 2015, Pages 71–82

Gregorius (Turonensis), Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges Florent ..., Vol 2 tr Henri Léonard Bordier

Du Cange, Charles Du Fresne, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis, Vol 3 1840-1850

Manière, Gabriel, La station gallo-romaine des Aquae siccae à Saint-Cizy (Haute-Garonne)”, Gallia, vol 38 1980

Lindet, M. L. , “Les Origines du Moulin a Grains”, Bulletin de la Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale Vol 99, Issue 2

Rule, Margaret, Jason Monaghan, AGallo-Roman trading vessel from Guernsey: the excavation and recovery of a third century shipwreck,  Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery 1993

Pavage de mosaïque représentant un "calendrier rustique", January: the bread oven

Sunday, February 8, 2015

EARLY ENGLISH BREAD: Barm or sourdough?

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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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