Bread was a staple and essential part of the medieval diet. The type of bread consumed depended upon the wealth of the person who purchased it.
The bread consumed in wealthy households, such as royal or noble families, was made of the finest grains, such as wheat flour. This fine bread, called manchets, was white in colour, and similar to modern-day white loaves.
The Different Types of Bread Available in the Middle Ages
People of lesser-means ate bread made from rye or barley, which was called maslin, and the poorest people would have black bread, made from whatever grains could be found, in cases of real poverty, foodstuffs such as hazelnuts, barley or oats. This bread was often one of the only foodstuffs in a poorer person’s diet.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, both leavened and unleavened bread were popular; unleavened bread was bread which was not allowed to rise. It had a flat appearance and was often used as a trencher, or plate, at mealtimes. Leavened bread was produced when bread dough was allowed to rise and cooked in an oven; unleavened bread was made by cooking in the embers of a fire.
The Medieval Miller
Because of the importance of bread in medieval times, the miller held an important and vital position in society. Early in the period, a miller ground the grains and then baked bread, but after the tenth century, the process tended to be split into two separate jobs; that of the miller and the baker.
In many cases, the right to cook bread in a public oven was one over which a lord of the manor had control. The lord of an estate could insist that each of his tenants pay for the privilege of baking bread in the estate’s oven, rather than making their own. This could be a valuable source of income for the lord, and a burden on the tenant.
As towns grew larger, bakers began, like other craftspeople, to form themselves into guilds, with laws about the sizes and prices of loaves, and about who was allowed to sell bread to the public. The first English bakers guilds were created in the reign of Henry II, in the twelfth century, and were only the second London guild to form, after weavers. Within about 100 years, the guilds had split into separate organisations for white and brown bread.
Statutes Governing the Baking of Bread in Medieval Times
England’s 1266 Assize of Bread is a good example of the type of regulation which protected consumers as the Middle Ages progressed. The statute provided for a group of men who regulated the weight, price and quality of loaves on sale to the public. Any baker found contravening the regulations could be banned from the trade for life, showing just how important bread was seen within society. The act remained in force until the nineteenth century.