Saturday, 7 July 2012

Food in Days Gone-By... Flour and Bread-Crumbs

Have you ever wondered what food you would eat and how you would eat it if you lived long ago in Europe?  What and how did people eat in those famous eras such as in the Tudor or Reformation or Renaissance or even Enlightenment times (these times together are known by historians as the Early Modern Period) - eras that have become the subject of histories, stories, novels, and movies? 

Well, last semester, I had the opportunity to do a bit of research on this. So, here are some interesting things I've learned! My plan is to cover this subject in a small serial - each time covering a different kind of food or eating habit. 

By the way, I've never done anything like this before. So, please excuse any crude beginnings:)


For early-modern Europeans the staple food was bread, eaten with almost anything and at every meal. If there was other food available but there was a scarcity of bread, it was considered a famine! That's how essential it was. 

Bread, however, was not just a staple food. It also had a lot of social significance. There were three main different kinds of breads that suited three different kinds of social status. A person from any particular social class would not dream of eating bread belonging to a higher or lower status than that of his or her own! 

Imagine these three scenes (fictional characters) to find out which bread would have been eaten by whom. 

Scene 1: 

Master Giovanni
via Pinterest
Michael hurried towards the town bakery in the early hours of the morning. He had to collect a special supply of flour for Master Giovanni, Chief Cook of Lord Shaftsbury's household.  There was to be a banquet of special magnificence to be held that night with many distinguished guests invited.  Last night, Master Giovanni went into a panic when he discovered that they had ran out of the best white flour in the kitchen, purely milled with no mixed grains or any chaff. The poor man could barely sleep. Before dawn he jerked Michael  awake and sent him on this urgent errand. He had to get to the bakery before the long queues.
Finally, weary and breathless, Michael reached the bakery. 
'Mr. Jones! Mr. Jones!' he cried. 
The baker was just opening his bakery. Yes, he reached him on time. 
'What is it, Michael, my lad? Why the hurry? Hold on a minute and catch your breath....yes, that's good...well, now, what can I do for you?' 

'Please, Mr. Jones, have you got any white flour in stock? Master Giovanni needs it urgently. There's to be a banquet at the house tonight.' 

'Ah, yes...I've heard about that already. Come, with me to the back of the shop, I'm sure I've got some there.' 
Sure enough, and to Michael's relief, Mr. Jones had a large sack of the best white flour to be found in the whole county. 
Helping Michael haul the sack unto his shoulder, he bid him 'Good Day, Michael, my lad!' 
'Thanks, Mr. Jones. Good day to you, too!' 
'And greet Master Giovanni, for me,' he shouted as Michael started off.
'Yes, Mr. Jones, sir.' 

Mr. Jones, the baker, and Michael
via Pinterest
Michael set off to the Manor as quickly as possible with his heavy load. Now Master Giovanni has all the flour to make his special bread and bake all those delicious bakeries that the lord, his family, and his guests love. 


Scene 2: 

10 year-old Harry stirred and opened his eyes. He lay awake in bed for a while listening. Mother was already up. He could hear her working hard in the kitchen downstairs preparing breakfast and, probably even lunch and supper, too! 
Father had been up even earlier. He must be out in the fields by now. He had to work really hard to pay the rent on the farm and have left over to put food on the table and provide clothing for his family.
Harry groaned as he pulled himself out of the covers and shook off the sticking hay. The loft has become his bedroom now since there was no room with his younger brothers, Willie and Johnny, in the bedroom. 
He looked out of the dirty window...
'Cold and damp as usual,' he muttered to himself. 
Then he heard his mother call...
'Harry! Are y'up yet? Come down quick and h've some're father needs ya to help him with planting the lower field today.' 
'Yes, mother, coming down,' he called back as he buttoned-up his shirt and slipped down the ladder. 
Willie and Johnny were already munching at their slices of brown bread with slices of goat's cheese and drinking down their glasses of warm milk. 
mother cooking
via Pinterest
'Come on,'s a slice of bread for you, yourself now with the cheese...hurry 'aven't got all day...' his mother directed as she continued kneading the bread dough for dinner. A nice hot stew was obviously in the making as well. Evidence of turnips was all over the kitchen table!

Harry bit on his slice of bread and cheese. It was warm and good. He then paused and asked, 'Mother, Mr. Jones, the baker, once told me that Lord Shaftsbury and his family eat white bread everyday!'

Willie broke in, 'What's white bread? What does it taste like?' 
'Oh, don't you know anything,'s bread with no bran or's pure white inside and very soft and fluffy,' answered Harry with an air of possessing superior knowledge. 
'How d'ye know?' retorted Willie. 
'Mr. Jones, told me,' he shot back. 
'Really soft? Oh, I'd like to try that someday, wouldn't you like mother?' asked little Johnny. 
'Well, now, children...that's enough,' answered mother. 
brown bread
via Pinterest
'Don't even think of it, Johnny, lad. That kind'of'bread is not for our kind. Only folks up in the big manor get to eat that. We're poor farmers...brown bread with bran is what's for us,' mother explained.
'You've got be grateful to the Good Lord, though, m'boys. Never complain, eh! There can be worse. There're poorer folk than us and harder times can come to us, too,' she continued. 
'Yes, mother,' they all said in unison. 
'Now, finish up and start y're chores nice and quick.'

Stuffing their mouths with the last crumbs, they quickly dashed out the kitchen in obedience. 


Scene 3: 

Master Giovanni sighed with great relief upon seeing Michael returning with his precious load of white flour. 
'Well, done, m'boy,' he exclaimed as he helped Michael lower the sack and soon began opening it and retrieving a measure of it's precious contents for the first recipe. 

Michael was exhausted. He hadn't done so much running in a while. 
He settled down before a table at the back of the kitchen, next to the side door, to eat the little breakfast Penny, one of the kitchen staff, had left for him. Just a slice of brown bread with cheese. No ale. Master Giovanni forbade it on days like this. There was plenty of work to be done. 

Suddenly, he heard a bit of a scuffle out the side-door, then a feeble knock. 
'Oh, dear....must be Jane, the maid, with buckets of water, or it could be a beggar looking for handouts...' he muttered under his breath as he opened the door cautiously. 
Sure enough, it was the latter. A shaggy-headed, dirty-looking tramp.
'Please, sir, 'ave anything to spare a poor'old'chap?' he asked pitifully. 
'Ah, yes, sure,' said Michael, 'Just wait here a moment. Won't be long.' 
He went to a side pantry...where is that basket? Ah! Yes, here it is! Master Giovanni always kept something for such poor folk. 

He returned to the door and gave the poor chap a couple of slices of very dark brown bread. The man took it gratefully. Folks like him were used to that sort of filled with chaff and bran, it was almost black...not necessarily delicious, but filling nonetheless!  
Black Bread
via Pinterest
Michael, then went to the table and gave him some warm water, which the poor man also took gratefully and then hobbled away onto his next destination. 

End of Scenes 

Well, what do you think? Can you guess now what kind of bread was eaten be whom? This applied generally to the entire early-modern period. Not only in Britain, but throughout Europe, too. 


Albala, Ken, Eating Right in the Renaissance, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, 184-216

Camporesi,  Piero, "Bread of dreams", History Today, Apr 89, Vol. 39 Issue 4, pp. 14-21

'Culinary History: The Evolution of Cooking', Episode 2: 'Feasting in the Middle Ages' ,  written by Michele Barriere and Phillippe Allante,  Jean-Yves Huchet and Nicolas Goldzahl (Executive Producers), VM Group,  2005

'Culinary History: The Evolution of Cooking', Episode 3: 'The Delights of the Renaissance',  Written by Michele Barriere and Phillippe Allante, Executive producers: Jean-Yves Huchet and Nicolas Goldzahl, VM Group,  2005

'Culinary History: The Evolution of Cooking', Episode 4: 'Enlightened Savours' ,  Written by Michele Barriere and Phillippe Allante, Executive producers: Jean-Yves Huchet and Nicolas Goldzahl, VM Group,  2005

Montanari, Massimo, ‘To Each His Own’, in The Culture of Food, Oxford, UK & Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, p. 84-89

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E., Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008


Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting and informing post, Sarah, thank you for sharing and working so hard on it!
I am always looking for bits of information on the everyday-life of people in history. Be certain I will note this down! :)
Sullivan, in my story, probably would have been in the white bread category if there was a way to make such pure white flour available to him. He has the money for it, but whether or not it would be available - at least regularly - is a different story.
Isn't that something? I would put our family in the brown bread category....our ancestors ate regularly what we have had to learn to eat!

Thank you and the Lord Jesus bless you!

Carra - a bondservant of Jesus said...

Sarah, this is very nice. It sounds pretty accurate too... I remember being quite surprised when I was a young girl, and found out that white bread was only for the wealthy/or elite. That doesn't surprise me now at all, though. :) I think your scenes did a very good job at showing the beauty of the time periods... keep writing Sarah, for the Lord Jesus.

PS... Isn't it a sad thing that only the lower ranks got brown bread? :) It's actually much better for you!

Love in Christ,

Sarah said...

Thanks very much, April and Carra, for your encouragement!
That's the first time to attempt presenting historical information in story-form like that. It's not simple, but I felt the Lord give me the ideas. Praise Him for His goodness!

Yes, I really found this subject very fascinating. It is indeed sad that there were these social divisions that often deprived the poorer, hard-working people.

What's more surprising, though, in my view, are the philosophical and 'anatomical' ideas that were the basis to these social connotations attached to food...that certain foods were suited to certain people because their anatomy (The nobility having weaker, more delicate stomachs, and the peasants, tougher, 'rustic' stomachs')!

Yes, as you Carra, were saying, having 'finer' stomachs, and eating 'finer' foods did not mean health:)

The Lord is our provider though...'Give us this day our daily bread' He taught us to pray. Amen!

Thanks again for your encouragement:)

Love in Christ,

Shaz in Oz.CalligraphyCards said...

ah Sarah, it is always interesting to look back in the past and to see the paths they walked, and this in part reminded me of the Lord's prayer where He said "give us this day our daily bread", and it was staple in His day too, but then a very different way from now and in the period of which you write. every blessing dear sister in your history and other studies, thanks for sharing them with us, love in him Shaz.xx

Sarah said...

Thanks very much, Shaz, for your encouragement.
Yes, our Heavenly Father knows our every need and so He taught us to ask Him for our 'daily bread' (spiritual and physical).
I do find history a learning experience in God's ways and His care.

I'm grateful this post has been a blessing to you.

Miss you and hope you're well.
Much love in Him,

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