Bread has been a staple of the human diet since the first cultivation of grains, and the Middle Ages were no different. Bakers in the Middle Ages had to manage a unique and specific set of obligations and situations while providing food for their families, remaining in good favor with the monarchy, and maintaining their standing within their Bakers’ Guilds. Bakers were often times millers as well, taking on the work of milling the grains in order to prepare flour for baking.
Responsibilities of Bakers
Milling and baking were crafts governed by craft guilds. Each village or town’s guild would determine the fair price of a loaf of bread, the fines for cheating or thievery, and the quality standards the bakers must maintain for their finished products.
Bakers were generally townspeople and could earn additional income by letting their ovens to the nobles, who were required to provide public ovens for the use of their own serfs. Bakers needed to carefully manage their own obligations for daily baking for sale, daily baking for the community, and daily baking for their families with the time they leased to nobles for public usage.
Fines were steep and quality was carefully controlled by the guilds, ensuring bakers would suffer severe penalties should they cheat their customers of the bread for which they had paid. Bakers who had fallen from favor could find themselves overwhelmed by work and unable to turn a profit as a result of strict pricing regulations and the fines and levies to which they were subjected.
Types of Bread
Middle Ages bread was generally unleavened bread. The use of yeast as a leavening agent was not widespread until later in the Renaissance period. Yeast was instead reserved for pastries and desserts. Unleavened bread, however, was still made quite carefully and in many specific varieties for different customers and occasions.
Unleavened bread was dense and difficult to digest, so it was made thin. Pieces of unleavened bread were used as plates to hold the rest of the meal, which usually consisted of meat or fish. As the meal progressed and the juices from the meal soaked through the bread, the bread itself became more flavorful and easier to eat, making it often the last part of the meal to be eaten.
Even as leavened breads began to rise in popularity, unleavened bread remained a staple of the diets of rich and poor alike. Unleavened bread was made available at feasts and banquets as well, served with rich foods that would be sure to impart juices, flavors, and sauces to the bread.
Peasants ate rye or barley bread, which was dark in color and coarsely ground. Rye and barley flour, when milled, could contain pieces of tree bark, dirt, or other filler that blended unnoticeably with its darker brown color.
In response to this, white flour and its resulting white bread were developed as a way for the wealthy to feel confident they were receiving a superior product free of contaminants. This mindset persists in many people to this day, who feel that white bread is more satisfying, tastier, or more exclusive than more natural-looking, darker breads.
Individual loaves of bread varied in size, color, shape, and texture. Bakers would develop specific recipes for different members of the community based upon their own preferences and needs. These loaves came to be known by names such as king’s loaf, knight’s loaf, squire’s loaf, and so on.
Loaves of bread were usually designed to make one full portion size for an individual with a normal appetite, even with the crusts removed. In polite society, the man himself was given the loaf of bread, and would offer the crusts to the women present. Women would dip their crusts into their soups or other foods in order to soften them for eating.
Bakers in the Middle Ages also developed the first biscuits. Biscuits, in their original form, were simply bread baked twice, leaving it crispy, flaky, and easy to preserve. Biscuits remained edible for much longer periods of time than loaves of bread, making them ideal for long travels, war time, and stored supplies of food for winter months.
Challenges Faced by Bakers
In addition to keeping up-to-date on rules and regulations, maintaining strict quality guidelines, and managing their time and efforts in order to bake sufficient supplies of bread for the village, bakers faced some serious and often crippling problems.
The economic and political instability of the time, along with increased rates of disease, could easily lead to famine and starvation within a community after simply one bad growing season. Because preservatives were not available to keep bread fresh for long periods of time, there was no way to store and prepare for such occurrences. Instead, bakers had to make do with whatever ingredients were available, continuing to feed the village even if resources were low or unavailable.
During times of famine, the monarchy could, and would, step in and force bakers to make bread available at below-market prices to prevent their populace from starving. In extreme situations, a baker’s bread would simply be confiscated with no payment made and redistributed to those who needed it. Bread was a vital component of diet during the Middle Ages, and a lack of bread would rapidly lead to starvation and death rates that could rapidly decimate a village.
Unfortunately, these losses would need to come directly from the baker’s pocket and table. His own family may find themselves without bread to eat and without funding to continue acquiring the materials they need to remain in operation. Bakers in the Middle Ages were of critical importance to the health of their communities, but unfortunately, were in a position to be hurt gravely by famine and economic difficulties.
The establishment of bakers’ guilds aimed to address this problem, but created its own problems as well, by disallowing bakers to establish their own pricing or manage their own quality standards in the ways that would best allow them to earn a reasonable profit for their work.