What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten?


Starter mixI was mulling over the growth of the whole ‘artisan bread’  movement as I made another batch of dough last week to cold ferment in the fridge. As I lay in bed reading one night, I started to wonder what sort of bread Chaucer would have eaten. Or Shakespeare.

That led to: how was bread made 500 years ago? 1,000? What ingredients did they use? How did the technology and techniques develop? How was yeast’s work discovered and when? How authentic is today’s bread? Aside, that is, from the  refined flour, sugar, salt and highly domesticated yeast…

So I started to do a little online research. (Visual pun: That’s my latest starter on the left, with my latest effort, a modest pan bread made from a similar starter, a bit further below).

First stop: Gode Cookery, a website dedicated to historical – Medieval to Renaissance – cooking, recipes and food. It offers both pages on Chaucer’s food, but also numerous pages and recipes for bread and here.*

Lots of material for experimentation there, but not a lot of narrative history about how bread was developed and worked. Was it kneaded, or just allowed to rise naturally? Where did yeast come from? Flour? How were loaves shaped? Cooked?

A little note I found elsewhere says the English word “lord” comes from the old English “hlaford” (“loaf ward”) which means “keeper of the bread.” Zingerman’s notes:

Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word “bread” is synonymous with “nourishment.” The English word “lord” is derived from the old English “hlaford”, meaning “keeper of the bread.” The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “companio”, meaning “one who shares bread.” And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms “dough” and “bread” for money says about our 20th-century priorities.

Starter mixBack to Chaucer. Bread is mentioned several times in the Canterbury tales. In  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer wrote:

Her board was mostly garnished, white and black,
With milk and brown bread, whereof she’d no lack,
Broiled bacon and sometimes an egg or two,
For a small dairy business did she do.

Ah, but what kind of brown bread? Was this rye or a whole wheat? In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes:

Let such be bread of purest white wheat-seed,
And let us wives be called but barley bread;
And yet with barley bread, if Mark you scan
Jesus Our Lord refreshed full many a man.

So clearly white and dark breads have different social connotations. Again, bread is mentioned in the General Prologue, in discussion of the Franklin:

He loved to dip his morning bread in wine.
A pleasing live was the custom he’d won,
For he was Epicurus’ very son,
That held opinion that plain and pure delight
Was true happiness, perfect and right.
A householder, and that a great, was he;
Saint Julian he was in his own country.
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.

Bread also appears in other tales; brief mentions, not as a centrepiece, and seldom described with any more detail. Food and drink were literary props for Chaucer, but – according to Food in the Arts – weren’t all that important to him:

Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don’t give the modern culinary historian much to work on.

Gode Cookery tells us bread was one of the :

 …most common and vital foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, it was, and has always been a daily staple of life. Essential to Medieval society, a rise in the cost of wheat or a scarcity of bread usually marked the beginning of a time of famine or economic calamity. Figures indicate that in England, the average lowly household allowed everyone about 2 to 3 pounds of wheat bread a day, while in France wheat records show that each citizen had enough wheat for about a 2-pound loaf each day. Clearly, bread was the basis of the Medieval diet. References to many varieties of bread appear throughout Chaucer’s writings.

Two to three pounds of bread a day? Of course, the loaves were smaller, and denser, not like the commercial sponge bread we have today.  Still…  This site suggests peasants ate as much as two loaves of bread every day: 2,200 to 3,000 calories in bread alone:

A prosperous English peasant in the 14th century would probably consume 2 – 3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2 -3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat. Vegetables such as onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans were staples. Fruits were available in season.

Rye could also be problematic: it is susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can drive people mad, or even kill them. It might make them appears as ‘witches,’ too (many of the famous witch hunts happened after an outbreak of ergot poisoning, it seems):

Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.

Note to self: check rye flour before using. People already think I’m crazy. No need to confirm it for them.

Historically, bread has always been an important staple in our diets, dating back as long as written history, but it hasn’t always been the bread we know today. I wanted to know more about those historical breads and whether they had any relationship to the artisanal style break I’m baking of late.

According to this site, bread made from fermented dough is an Egyptian invention, about 5,000 years old, the result of a serendipitously forgetful baker who left a dough out where wild yeasts could grow on it. Before then, it says, bread was mostly flatbread:

Historians believe that bread was invented by the Egyptians in the fifth millennium BC.
Legend would have it that an Egyptian baker who was very forgetful (improvidence sometimes being the source of invention) left his cereal paste in a corner somewhere instead of cooking it. This gave it the time to ferment, producing the world’s first leavened bread.
Egyptian territory included some very fertile land on the banks of the Nile where they soon developed cereals in abundance. We have them to thank for numerous inventions, including the flour sieve.

It carries on from there to modern times. Interesting stuff, but a little thin on detail. It says,  for example, “With advances in yeast production, modernisation of mechanical dough mixers, and important improvements to ovens the industrial era had arrived for the bread industry, for the better and sometimes for the worse.” But that doesn’t tell me what those advances were, what those improvements were, or what the ‘worse’ was. I need more.

It appears from my searches that recipes for medieval bread are not as common as those for other foods. I wonder if this might be due to the nascent bakers’ guild, formed in 1155 CE (becoming a baker’s apprentice was a seven-year commitment, so there was some vested interest in secrecy), or just that bread was so common no one paid it the same attention as, say, meat dishes. But the bread, says this farm site, was similar to today’s bread:

Medieval bread was very similar to the loaf we know today. According to historic sources, the taste was comparable to modern wholemeal bread made from stone-ground flour. Unfortunately very few original bread recipes have survived the passing of time. It can be presumed that as bread was such a staple part of the medieval diet, it was not considered necessary to include it in recipe books.

So maybe my artisanal bread isn’t too different from what Chaucer would have eaten. Aside, like I said, from all the refined, purified ingredients…

I found a recipe for “manchet bread” which has similar ingredients to the artisan bread I’m making right now, but requires kneading and no cold fermentation. It seems to be the white bread of the nobility. Here we’re told it was not a sourdough bread, but used brewers’ yeast:

Manchet Bread, unlike Maslin Bread, would not use a Sourdough Starter, it was considered too common, (the added sour taste ‘spoiled’ the bread) a brewer’s yeast (or barm) was used instead. A brewer’s yeast was the yeast carefully skimmed off the top of fermenting ale, after about its second day in the vat. With sugar and water added it could be kept for up to a week in a jar, and it was sold by the Brewer’s wife. Later on Manchet Bread would sometimes be sweetened by bakers using the addition of ingredients such as rose water, nutmeg and cinnamon.

Maslin bread is a mixed-flour bread, the brown bread commonly eaten by peasants and servants, described here. Lovefood.com says other ingredients might be added to the dough:

Other ingredients, such as potatoes, apples and turnips, were sometimes used to bulk up the dough. Certain additions, such as potatoes, give lightness, moisture and flavour to the bread and can be heartily recommended even today. Others, such as ‘flour ground from dried peas mixed with boiling water to reduce its disagreeable smell’ (Bread: A Global History, William Rubel) sound distinctly less appetising.

The Mad Baker says many breads in Chaucer’s time began with a sourdough starter, and also used brewing yeast taken from beer dregs:

What was the leavening used in medieval breads?
Generally, sourdough – much like today, they would create a culture with flour and water to attract the local yeasts. This would either be maintained as a separate culture to mix into each batch, or more often, a bit of dough was kept from one day’s batch to start the next. “Barm”, or ale yeast, was also widely used. Since producing carbonation for beer does not exhaust ale yeast, the dregs can be strained out and used to leaven bread. Bakers and brewers were often working side by side, if not the same person.
Anglo-Saxons would take beer sediment, whisk it into fresh water, and dry it on a wooden platter for later use. They also would dip birch twigs in the liquid and hang dry. I am comfortable with extrapolating that out to commercial powdered or cake yeast (although obviously it’s not the same breed…)

The Fresh Loaf forum is full of conversations about historical bread recipes; but I get distracted reading through them for the narrative (although there is a lovely recipe for an onion tart a la Chaucer). And I found a recipe for basic medieval style bread here. Authentic? I don’t know (it uses milk, and I don’t know how much milk was used in medieval baking). Another recipe – this one without milk, but using beer instead – is here.

If I wanted to go back further in culinary history,  could try a Roman bread, a sourdough for which recipes are available. It could be any of a number of grains, including  wheat, spelt, barley, millet or rice, most of which I can find locally, I believe (at the Bulk Barn). It’s not an original recipe, but rather a modern adaptation, as is the site’s recipe for a medieval bread. Unfortunately, the latter uses diced bacon (I suppose the medieval alternative for today’s shortening) and I don’t eat mammal, so that recipe is off the table.

There are recipes for older unleavened breads available. Wikipedia tells us unleavened flatbreads may be as old as 30,000 years, and grains came into prominence about 12,000 years ago, but it doesn’t talk about either the Egyptians or how yeast fermentation was developed, except that it may have been by accident:

Evidence from 30,000 years ago in Europe revealed starch residue on rocks used for pounding plants. It is possible that during this time, starch extract from the roots of plants, such as cattails and ferns, was spread on a flat rock, placed over a fire and cooked into a primitive form of flatbread. Around 10,000 BC, with the dawn of the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, grains became the mainstay of making bread. Yeast spores are ubiquitous, including the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest will become naturally leavened.

Okay. This paper talks about how wild yeasts may have been introduced and used in bread making in ancient Egypt. But emmer wheat, the oldest variety of domestic wheat known, is actually older than that, dating from about 17000 BCE. It became a staple in ancient Egyptian diets by about 2500 BCE, but is today a ‘relic” grain not cultivated to any commercial quantity. So making a really historic bread is not likely unless you can get some emmer flour.

Ancient Sumerians seem to have used beer to make bread, which means they were using the basic yeast for bread and for beer (which we  have since domesticated more fully into separate varieties for making bread and beer). The 4,000-year-old “Hymn to Ninkasi” recounts:

You are the one who handles the dough,
[and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, You are the one who handles
the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

Bread and beer seem to go hand in hand in ancient times as sources of nutrition, and the relationship remains (as seen in the comment about manchet bread, above).

Jane Howard tells us the ancient Egyptian bread was also a dental problem – coarse flour or grit in the dough I suspect:

…central to their nourishment was bread and beer. From very early on, both were consumed at every meal, by everyone, and no meal was considered complete without them. Bread, nutritionally, provided protein, starch and trace nutrients, and it also played much the same role as beer in the Egyptian economy as well as in cult rituals. However, some flour caused severe abrasion of the teeth particularly among those who depended upon bread as their main source of nourishment. But this affected all classes and even Amenhotep III suffered badly from such problems.

She goes on at length to describe some of the techniques and materials used in Egyptian baking. But I’m back at the emmer flour obstacle, although the beer link has me captivated. The Food timeline has a quote that also shows the link between beer and bread:

“It seems that the discovery of ale was stimulated by the process of bread-making. At some stage in the Neolithic era people had learned that if, instead of using ordinary grain, they used grain that had been sprouted and then dried, it made a bread that kept unusually well. Something very like this was used in brewing. The Egyptian process was to sprout the grain, dry it , crush it, mix it to a dough and partially bake it. The loaves were then broken up and put to soak in water, where they were allowed to ferment for about a day before the liquor was strained off and considered ready for drinking.”
—Food in History, Reay Tannahill [Three Rivers Press:New York] 1988 (p.48)

Biblical breads, of course, have no contemporary recipes, although some have been invented since. A lot of the breads back then were unleavened, too, which isn’t what I’m after. But ancient leavened breads often used a sourdough starter:

It was customary to grind the grain and bake fresh bread daily, and often the bread was unleavened (Heb., mats·tsah?). The flour was simply mixed with water, and no leaven was added before the kneading of the dough. In making leavened bread, the general practice was to take a piece of dough retained from a previous baking and use it as a leavening agent by crumbling it into the water prior to the mixing in of the flour. Such a mixture would be kneaded and permitted to stand until it leavened.

Back to Wikipedia, which tells us on a separate page:

The most common source of leavening in antiquity was to retain a piece of dough from the previous day to utilize as a form of sourdough starter. Pliny the Elder reported that the Gauls and Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples.” Parts of the ancient world that drank wine instead of beer used a paste composed of grape must and flour that was allowed to begin fermenting, or wheat bran steeped in wine, as a source for yeast.

Back to the sourdough, it seems. Makes sense, of course: keep the yeast alive: it was portable, could be shared, sold, traded. Wikipedia also tells us in medieval times, bread served as a plate:

In medieval Europe, bread served not only as a staple food but also as part of the table service. In the standard table setting of the day the trencher, a piece of stale bread roughly 6 inches by 4 inches (15 cm by 10 cm), was served as an absorbent plate. At the completion of a meal the trencher could then be eaten, given to the poor, or fed to the dogs. It was not until the 15th century that trenchers made of wood started to replace the bread variety.[15]
Bread was usually adulterated with hazardous materials up to the 20th century, including chalk, sawdust, alum, plaster, clay and ammonium.

That last line is a bit scary. I knew about some of these ingredients, but not all. Chalk and plaster. Yum.

Trenchers are interesting unto themselves. The History of the UK site tells us:

Contemporaneous accounts reveal a number of apparently ‘different’ breads. These include round bread rolls, flat round loaves and “trencher bread’. The word trencher comes from the French verb trenchier or trancher’ which means “to cut”.

A bread trencher is often described as a thick slice of dry stale wholemeal bread (typically four days old) used as a kind of “disposable’ dish. However, it is known that wooden platters have been in common use since the Dark Ages. And it is hard to believe that any subsistence level peasant would allow bread to go stale just to provide throw-away plates.

It likely that trencher bread was only served at feasts where a person of substance was paying the bill. For the wealthier host, bread trenchers were relatively cheap and had the bonus for of being easy to prepare and use. Meat with sauce was served directly onto the bread platter, which had a shallow hollow or “trench’ cut into the bread to retain any gravy or juices.

A number of fresh trenchers were used during an elaborate meal. The table was swept clean between each course and the servants removed ‘all broke cromys, bonys and trenchours before the secunde cours and servise be served.’

According to some sources, a trencher was typically ‘half a foot wide and four fingers tall.’ An ordinary diner made their own trencher by cutting off a very thick slice from the nearest loaf, but important guests expected to be offered a pre-cut trencher.

To prepare a trencher for someone else was considered to be a medieval courtesy. A person sufficiently distinguished to receive several trenchers would have them presented on the blade of a servant’s knife. They were then carefully arranged; sometimes side-by-side, in a square or in a small pile on the table. One might be set aside to act as a personal saltcellar. When cheese and small delicacies were served at the end of a meal it was customary to provide the guest with a final clean trencher.

‘Whanne chese ys brouhte, A trenchoure ha (have) ye clene On whiche withe clene knyf ye your chese mowe kerve.’

Time to get the goods (so to speak) from the Worshipful Company of Bakers, an English guild that dates back about 800 years, since 1155CE:

The first known records of the existence of the Bakers’ Guild are contained in the great ‘Pipe Rolls’ of Henry II which listed the yearly ‘farm’ paid to the Crown and in these it is shown that the Bakers’ of London (the BOLENGARII) paid a Mark of gold to the King’s Exchequer for their Guild from 1155 AD onwards. Only the Weaver’s guild have an entry a few years earlier in the Rolls, so the Bakers, based on these records, can claim to be the second oldest guild in London. Others, such as the Saddlers and Goldsmiths which like the Bakers may well have been forming much earlier, did not however pay the farm and were not recognised as guilds but were classed as adulterine and were fined accordingly.

Apparently the guild was split in the 14th century between brown bakers and white bakers. The Browns,

..made a more substantial and nutritious coarse, almost black, loaf of rye or barley or buckwheat etc, but as white bread gradually became more popular, considerable friction developed between the bakers of brown and those of white so that in the early years of the 14th Century they split into separate guilds.

The whites, on the other hand,

…received their first recorded Charter from Henry VII in 1486 although some historians do aver that this did but replace an earlier one granted by Edward II, probably in 1307 – before Charters were first given generally to the guilds by Edward III between 1327 – 1377. Subsequently further Charters were obtained from Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I whose Charter dated 1569 now hangs in the Ante-Room of the Hall. There are also Charters from James I and James II on the walls of the Court Room and the Guild of White-Bakers received its Grant of Incorporation as a Livery Company in 1509 from Henry VIII.

Imagine bakers duelling with baguettes, one white the other whole wheat. Great historical stuff, but shy of recipes I can replicate. However, the real bread movement site has some ideas in a PDF book I can buy online, although they seem dedicated to bakery startups. Digging around online I’ve found other UK sites: bakeryinfo, and the flour advisory consortium, among others. Not a lot of recipes for making bread, although the latter has tasty ideas for sandwiches. But good for learning about the politics of baking in Britain. Scottish bakers seem more willing to part with their recipes.

While I think I’ve learned what kind of bread Chaucer would have eaten, I have more questions about the process and styles of bread from that era. And I haven’t even dipped into Shakespeare’s breads. Or how the industrial revolution changed bread making through technology. So little time, so much to know.

Clearly I’ve meandered far off course and haven’t entirely answered my own questions.  But it has opened many doors to help me understand the history of bread (and flour and yeast). I need to do more research. I always need to do more research, it seems.


* Gode is today’s good, coming from the 14th century. Etymology online tells us “Good morning is c.1400, gode morwene.” And we also learn from other sources, “Old English g?d, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch goed and German gut.”
PS. Before the discovery and importation of maize from the Americas, the term corn used to refer to any grain, not what we think of as corn from a cob, today.

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  1. Speaking of ancient grains, I found this PDF file online:


    Quite interesting.Several ancient grains discussed, as well as the difference between spring and winter wheats.

    Then I started looking into the association between bread and tooth decay or dental problems. That leads to some odd sites, like this one:

    Which talks about phytic acid in grains and bran, which would relate to breads. It’s a bit esoteric for breadmaking, but interesting nonetheless. The author says:

    Through observation I have witnessed the powerful anti-nutritional effects of a diet high in phytate-rich grains on my family members, with many health problems as a result, including tooth decay, nutrient deficiencies, lack of appetite and digestive problems.

    Here’s a piece about ancient Egyptian breads:

    It notes:

    In addition to consisting of wheat, barley, dates or malted grain, some other ingredients were found which suggest that bread may have been a blessing as well as a curse for the ancient Egyptian people. Through x-ray analysis, experimentation involving floating crumbs in water, and microscopical examination, archaeologists have concluded that ancient Egyptian bread often contains inorganic particles of sand, rock, and dirt, making for a gritty loaf. This, combined with dental evidence paints an interesting picture of how the ancient Egyptians’ diet affected their bodies.

    It also has a recipe for making a bread based on ancient Egyptian style.

    The I found this site:


    which discusses Egyptian breads and their attendant dental problems. But further down in the post, I read this, which really made me perk up:

    John explained that he’s discovered, and had confirmed through spectral analysis, that the sourdough baking method ‘de-natures’, ie neutralises, ergot. My ears immediately pricked up because I associate ergotism very much with the mediaeval period. That’s partly because we have records of outbreaks of St Anthony’s fire, as it was known, from that era but also because various things, from the Children’s Crusade (which may be apocryphal or constructed from a variety of separate incidents), to the particularly horrific mediaeval imagery of hell.

    However here John’s key discovery about the impact of the high lactic acid levels on ergot is critical. The rye growing Germanic peoples made their bread almost exclusively from rye flour. It’s not possible to get rye to rise using the sort of yeasts produced as a by product of brewing. It requires a sourdough method, ergo (as opposed to ergot) pure rye loaves will not tend to result in ergotism – I won’t say cannot, but that is the inference.

    So to produce ergotised bread one needs a mix of rye and other flours that are sufficiently ‘light’ that they can be raised with yeast and not a sourdough leaven. In the very early mediaeval period the Normans introduced rivet wheat and rivet produced a very white flour.

    That opens a fascinating area of research… The spread of rye from Germanic to Norman and Anglo Saxon people may have created a wave of health-related problems. And perhaps the witch craze. Have to pursue that further!

  2. Not sure how accurate this is, but here’s a glossary of “Crusader” terms for breads from http://www.crusadersmedievaldirectory.com/Glossaries/Qyck%20Breads.html:

    BRAED/Bred/Brede/Bread, OE for bread, or ‘breadth’ meaning thicknes

    PANIS Latin for bread
    PANTLER/Butler prepares bread for trenchers and soft bread for sopping up food
    SOP pieces of bread toasted as croutons
    TRENCHER flat white bread used as plate to lay food on, or round brown bread hollowed out to put stews inside.
    One trencher per guest, or one brown bread bowl for every two guests to share.
    TRENCHER PLATES/Bowls baked bread used as a platter to place food on or a loaf hollowed out to put stews in
    UPPERCRUST round loaf top cut off and presented to most honored guest at banquet
    BLACK BENCORN rye and wheat grown together in one field
    BLENCORN BREAD loaves made of this mixed grain
    MAISLIN bread of mixed wheat and rye grains
    MANCHET lightly risen white loaves
    PABDEMAYN bread used with trenchers
    PAIN DEMAIN/Wastel and Cocket finest white or wheat bread
    WASTEL second best white or wheat bread PANARIUS Latin for bread seller
    PERNOLLYS loaves
    PRETZEL bread baked in shape of arms crossed in prayer
    SIMNELL white bread
    WASTLEBREAD sweet, flaky made with butter and flour

  3. Pingback: Bread, Madness and Christianity | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary

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