Welcome to part 7 of the Medieval England History series. This episode will focus on another important and often overlooked role, that of the medieval baker. If you enjoy this series then please check back regularly for more entries and be sure to listen on Spotify if you would prefer. If you want to suggest an episode please do so in the comments below or use the contact page.
Bakers were a very important role in medieval England. They would be responsible for providing food (bread) to a village or more commonly, the nobles or royalty.
As mentioned in the earlier post on medieval cooks, the main staple of diet was bread. Bakers and their bread being at the heart of the majorities diet. Cereals were also an early medieval age staple, until rice and potatoes were later introduced. The poor ate barley, oat and rye. Whereas the governing ate wheat. Bread, porridge, gruel, pasta, fava beans and vegetables were eaten by all members of society.
Baker’s ovens were often separated from other buildings and occasionally located outside of city walls to reduce the risk of fires. These ovens were expensive investment and required trained operation by the bakers.
Baker’s production was heavily regulated because bread was an important staple food – eaten by all. In 1267 Henry III promulgated the Assize of Bread and Ale to impose regulations such as inspection and verification of weights and measures, and quality and price control!
Baker’s played an important role in the guild system; master bakers frequently instructed apprentices and were assisted by journeymen. In 1155 a ‘fraternity’ of bakers existed in London, and the Worshipful Company of Bakers was formed by a charter in 1486, 1569 and 1685.
At the time baker’s produced bread, preservatives were not exactly available as they are today. Because of this, during times of famine the monarch would force bakers to make bread well below the market price in order to prevent people from starving. The point of the guild was to ensure that bakers had enough bread for themselves and their families.
In order to make bread the bakers and indeed the people needed to plant and grow grain in fields. This in itself took time. So as you can imagine there would have been a market of trade involving the selling and buying of grain – which still exists today. A city or village growing its own grain would be considerably more well off in terms of bread production – provided they had a baker and ovens – if they grew their own grain. Grain was used as a currency for peasants occasionally.
After growing grain it had to be separated from the chaff and ground. Remember the Lord’s mill or miller? Well, the separation was conducted at the Lord’s mill or general miller who would grind it down for a fee. (Maybe they would accept some money or a loaf of bread afterwards?). The ground grain became flour. Flour is the key ingredient in dough, and in turn bread.
Flour was used to make dough. Another key ingredient required was yeast, and this was sourced frequently from beer. Combining the flour and yeast once could then bake the dough in an oven. Depending on where the oven was it may have cost to use it. A communal oven would charge, whereas a private oven in a castle or manor might not. Dough could also be baked on an open fire as long as it was turned frequently to prevent burning.
However, the bakers had the law on their side. Prices for oven usage was fixed by law for town bakers, meaning they could not be overcharged. So, the baker would push the dough into the ovens using a large long handled paddle. The result of using the ovens resulted in burned bottoms which were given to the peasants or servants in a manor of the Lord.
The three step process was fairly easy to understand yet bakers were so important. Without these vital people the towns and cities would have starved. Bread is still a main staple in a lot of peoples diets even in the 21st century. The process is also pretty much the same. Grown grain, turn grain to flour, combine with yeast, make the dough, bake the dough and eat.
Everyone ate bread. But not everyone ate the same bread. Although grain was used commonly so were other types of crops. Oat, rye and barley being other options available to the baker to work with depending on location and crop availability.
Medieval bread was called unleavened bread. This bread was thick and dense and difficult to digest. It was baked thin and also used as plates to hold the rest of the meals! Imagine the beef or potatoes on top of bread. Sounds like a Sunday roast!
Other cheaper bread were combined breads. Cheat was whole wheat without bran. Horse bread was made from anything and combined with peas and beans for example.
Other treats like biscuis could be made as well. Bakers would bake their breads twice, leaving it easy to preserve. The biscuits were easier to store for winter, and better suited to war and travel.
The skills required of a baker are specific and recorded for you to read. From the medieval bakers literally feeding entire towns to modern day bake offs, you can try it. I encourage you to try baking for yourself – starting from the basic bread to more complicated delicacies.