The Staff of Life

Maggie Black on the history of bread and breadmaking.

Derived from Western man's most abundant raw food, grass seeds and grains, bread has been since before recorded time his staple and most valued solid sustenance. Naturally, therefore, it has a vital place in our folklore and in the record of our social and political development. For this reason, I want to look, this month, at the types of bread baked and eaten in the past, at their uses and what they signified.

The first breads we know about for certain in the West were Celtic, unleavened buns of mixed whole grains; but the Romans soon greatly improved the quality and quantity of bread-corns and of bread-making equipment. They introduced club wheat, and made wheaten white and spiced, enriched breads (sometimes whitened with chalk) for the aristocracy, coarser 'military' or 'secondary' brown and bran breads from mixed grains for lesser men. Wheat was however still scanty, so their Saxon successors used more barley, and favoured the mixed wheat and rye crop called maslin as a hedge against failure of the wheat crop.

Under the Normans, the Roman social grading of breads (white for the rich, brown for the poor) was set in a fixed pattern; partly because only the rich could afford to grow wheat, partly because they charged for the use of their manorial or monastic mills and ovens. Poor countrymen therefore made branny brown bread from coarse, home-ground bread-corn. They used whatever grain grew best locally, clean rye, maslin, or the oats and barley which were the staple spring-grown grains of colder areas such as Scotland and Wales.

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