Medieval Bread


A couple of months ago I touched on bread in the post about peasant food, but it really deserves a post of its own.

Bread was eaten by everyone, but not all bread was the same. Different crops were better suited to different parts of the country and wheat could not be grown everywhere. The other grain crops were rye, oats and barley.

Wheat could only be grown on good soil, so it was usually only the lord of the manor who ate white bread. Maslin was the bread eaten by most people. It was made from wheat and rye flour mixed together. Rye was used on its own to make a darker loaf.  In the cold, wet north and west of England, oats and barley were used to make bread.

The lord’s white bread was called pandemain. This was made from finely ground and sifted wheat flour. Wastel was another white bread. The wheat it was made from was not as finely sifted as that used for pandemain. The last type of white bread was cocket.

As we move through the brown breads the ingredients become increasingly unappetising. Cheat was made from whole wheat from which the bran had been removed. This was still bread for the wealthy. Tourte was made from husk and flour and was probably used for trenchers. Maslin was the next grade. Horse bread was made from any grain at hand and usually included peas and beans. As its name implies, it was intended for horses, but it could be eaten if nothing else was available. Bran bread was made mostly of bran.

Trenchers were slices of stale bread used as plates. Bread was sliced horizontally for this purpose. They were most useful for things like meat, which did not need to be eaten from a bowl. After the meal the trenchers were given to the poor.

Making bread was not a cheap business for ordinary people. The grain had to be grown or purchased. Some peasants would be paid for their labour with grain, some grew their own and some had to buy it. Once harvested or purchased, the grain had to be separated from the chaff then ground. This usually entailed some expenditure. Serfs had to take their grain to their lord’s mill and were fined if they did not. Some tried to use hand querns secretly, but these were slow and inefficient. It was generally better to take the grain to the miller and pay him to grind it.

Once ground, the flour could be made into dough. The yeast and the liquid for the dough usually came from beer. This would either be from a batch of beer that was brewing in the house or from a neighbour’s batch.

Baking the dough usually required another transaction. Few houses possessed an oven and householders who had one charged for its use or sold the bread they made to their neighbours. In some places there might be a communal oven, but using that also meant that money would change hands. A riskier option for those without an oven was to bake the bread in the embers of a fire. The bread had to be turned to make sure that it didn’t burn. Watching the bread and turning it seems to have been a task for men. If you lived in a town where there was a baker, you might not bother making bread at all, but simply go and buy a loaf. Bread prices were fixed by law.

Bread ovens were large and gave off a lot of heat, which is why most people didn’t have one. At the manor house the oven would usually be in a separate building to reduce the risk of burning down the house. A fire was built inside the oven. When the oven was hot enough the wood was raked out and the floor of the oven cleaned as well as possible without losing the heat. This was not easy, as it would have been difficult to get close enough to the oven to do much more than pull out the burning wood.

The bread was put inside the oven to bake, using long-handled paddles. Since the surface on which the bread was baked could never be completely cleaned after the fire had been removed, the bottom of the bread was usually black. This would not have appealed to the lord of the manor, so the bottom of the bread was sliced off to be eaten by the lowlier members of the household and the lord ate the upper crust, hence the eventual use of that expression to refer to those of high social standing.

For the poor, grain was more likely to be used in pottage rather than in bread. Pottage was much cheaper to make and used less grain. Bread was useful if someone was in the fields all day and needed to take something with them to eat.

This post was inspired by the cartoon antics of bread detective Ray Wry created by Clare Scott. That’s bread detective as in he’s a detective made out of bread. Thanks are also due to Ellen Hawley, from Notes from the UK, for drawing my attention to the origin of ‘upper crust’.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

30 responses to “Medieval Bread

  1. Can I love this?!Thanks April, from me and Ray Wry…very chuffed to be an inspiration 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, upper-crust. I’d never thought about the origin of this expression before, but this explanation makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does, doesn’t it. I suspect the expression itself dates from much later than the fourteenth century, but, once I knew, I had to include it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I just had to do a little browsing in the OED. (If I were shipwrecked on a desert island that’s the “book” I want with me.) It’s slanted use for “the better sort” – or those who think they are – seems to date from the 19th century, though as that entry in the OED hasn’t been updated since 1926 it may well have been around a little earlier.

        Liked by 1 person

        • If the bread was being used as a trencher, it wouldn’t matter whether the bottom was black and ashy, because the Lord and his friends weren’t going to eat the bread, only what was on top of it. If he was having bread and cheese for his breakfast, I can see that he wouldn’t want the dirty bit. The bread would still be cut horizontally, either way. I’ll try to contact the person whose book it’s in to see if they have any more information.


  3. I love the history of food – thanks for this. My husband makes all the bread in our home and I often wonder how people coped during the bread rationing that lasted in WW2 right up to the mid 50s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Bread rationing would be difficult to cope with. More difficult, I suspect, than all the other things. Goodness knows how we would cope with such a crisis now, when an even greater proportion of food is imported.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was fascinating to read. Thanks for putting this together in such an interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wicked cool! I can see how Ray Wry was an inspiration, and I’ll think of this awesome crumbs of trivia the next time I knead to make another loaf for our eldest (I’ve made bread for her a few times a week for years now). Excellent stuff, April!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. OOoh I love learning where sayings come from. The hubby is going to be amazed by my knowledge of the story behind upper crust.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This was fascinating. I’d always assumed that everyone had more or less the same diet in the middle ages. It make sense that different social classes would have access to different types of bread, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Funny how we seem to have turned full circle and white bread is now the cheaper option while all the fancy grains cost an arm and a leg.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I had no idea where the term “upper crust” came from. How fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. John kitcher

    The part about communal ovens is interesting. On a trip to Tangier in 2014, our guide took us round the old town and explained how the communities worked – this included the communal baker. All the community would bring their dough to the baker in the morning, along with their evening meal in a tagine, and would pick it later in the day. The guide was very proud to tell us that the baker knew whose bread and tagine were whose. Interesting to think about who has done better, us for moving on from communal facilities, or the Moroccans who have kept this as a way of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, John. I was surprised to learn how very late it was that “ordinary” people had ovens in their homes large enough to bake bread and pies. In, I think, the eighteenth century, many homes had no kitchen at all.


  11. Losing the Plot

    Excellent read as ever April! History and food, you can’t loose.

    Homes with ovens were rare in Ireland right up until the 18th Century, but there were a few, and as metal stoves became more widespread they began to be incorporated more into ordinary farm houses.

    On days that the oven wa going, there would be a whole series of food cooked. Starting with bread, which needs a hot oven, and ending with milk puddings once the temperature had dropped.

    Barley and oats would have been the major crops here, even still. But there’s very little tradition of yeasted breads so I’ve no recipe to swap. Having said that, I know that trenchers were definitely used in Carrickfergus Castle from 1117, so presumably the de Courcy’s and the de Lacy’s had the posh bread too

    Liked by 1 person

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