The Middle Ages was a period that seemed harsh and unruly when compared to modern times. We have obviously come a long way since those distant times, thank goodness. However, many of the fundamentals in certain trades were established during those times. Baking is one such trade.
Medieval bakers were essential as bread was a staple in The Middle Ages. Bakers were part of a guild, and their produce was heavily monitored and regulated. Bakers could be publicly shamed or fined for any bread that was not within the standard. In severe cases, their ovens would be destroyed.
In Medieval times baking was not the artistic occupation or delicious hobby it is today. Would you believe that bread, of all things, caused major controversy in religious sectors? Or that some bakers inserted iron rods into loaves of bread to meet the weight requirement? Being a baker during the Middle Ages was no cakewalk. In fact, sometimes, it could be downright dangerous.
Table of Contents
- Baking As A Trade In The Middle Ages
- The Day In The Life Of A Baker In The Middle Ages
- What Kind Of Things Were Baked?
- Baked Goods Available To Different Social Classes In The Middle Ages
Baking As A Trade In The Middle Ages
Being a baker was essential during The Middle Ages as food sources were scarce, and bread was often the only staple in many households. Like many trades during the middle ages, baker’s tasks consisted of hard labor. This trade was also heavily regulated and monitored by the higher powers. In 1267 “The Assize of Bread and Ale” law was implemented in Medieval England.
The law served as a way to regulate the quality, price, and weight of beer or bread sold. Breaking the law was not only limited to stealing bread. Bakers would also be punished if their loaf was not up to standard.
There were also punishments in place for those who broke the law. An illustration shows a baker being shamed for his “crime” by being dragged through the street on a sled with the offending loaf tied around his neck. The most common crimes that bakers were found guilty of related to violations of weight regulation and compromising the flour (e.g., adding sand to flour).
Punishments ranged from revoking a baker’s license, fining, and sometimes physical forms of punishment. In severe cases, the baker’s oven would often be destroyed as punishment. The bakers during Medieval times were part of and governed by a guild or fraternity. An example of one such guild was “The Worshipful Company of Bakers of London,” which was founded during the 12th century.
What Is A Guild System?
A guild system governs and regulates many trades. This kind of system came about during The Middle Ages. Due to the harsh times of the Medieval era, many trades required governing to operate and function smoothly. During the 14th century, The Bakers Guild was further divided into the White Bakers Guild and the Brown-Bakers Guild.
The White Bakers Guild focused on bread favored by the public but had less nutritional value. In contrast, the Brown-Bakers bread was of a more nutritious variety. The two guilds combined in 1645 to form one company. Later in 1686, a new charter was introduced, which the company still operates under to this day.
What Type Of Equipment Was Used?
Ovens in The Middle Ages were quite large, enclosed, and wood-fired. Their size allowed for them to be used communally. These ovens were considered expensive investments and had to be operated carefully. Many of the ovens were located in a separate housing, with some even being outside of the city to avoid the risk of potential fires. Long wooden paddles were used to place and remove loaves from the oven.
The Day In The Life Of A Baker In The Middle Ages
Like bakers today, the day of a Medieval baker started very early. The ovens and equipment available during those times meant that preparing and setting up for a day of baking was an uphill task. Due to the long hours of their trade, many bakers lived on-site.
Waking up well before sunrise, the bakers would gather everything needed for the day (such as wood for the oven). Some bakers kneaded the dough themselves, while others were said to have the readily kneaded and shaped loaves brought to them by peasant women.
Ordinary clothing of the time was worn during baking unless the baker was of a better social standing. In this case, aprons and hats would be worn. The baker’s diet would be the same as any other person of their social standing. Just because they had access to bread and other baked goods, this didn’t entitle bakers to a better meal than others.
To get a better picture of what went into baking a simple loaf of bread was like during those times, take a look at the YouTube video posted by IG 14tes Jahrhundert. This video will give you a glimpse into the routine of a baker in The Middle Ages. You won’t be taking your oven for granted after watching this video.
Which Ingredients Were Available In The Middle Ages?
Since bread was the most commonly baked item for the majority of The Middle Ages, various grains would be used. These grains were turned into flour, and since yeast was not widely available, beer or ale would be used as a raising agent. The most common types of grain available during this period of history were:
Wheat was not available to all of Europe’s regions due to certain areas’ soil conditions. The wheat used to make what we could classify as “white bread” was considered to be superior to other grains due to its finer texture when ground.
What Kind Of Things Were Baked?
The items produced by bakers depended entirely on the ingredients and fresh produce available to them at the time. As The Middle Ages progressed, so did the variations of bread, cakes, and biscuits. Examples of the most commonly baked items sold in The Middle Ages include:
- White bread – not unlike the white bread that we have today, with beer being used as the raising agent instead of pure yeast and refined wheat flour.
- Rye bread – made from rye. Much coarser with a tough crust and darker in color.
- Barley bread – similar in color and texture to rye bread but made from barley husk.
- Unleavened bread – bread made without a raising agent of any kind.
- Combined bread – made from a combination of various grains.
- Biscuits – made by baking bread twice until it was completely hard and dry throughout
- Cake – much denser than the cakes that we know today.
- Mince pies – crusts made from crumbs of bread and filled with meat such as mutton or beef.
Sweet baked goods were not baked the way they are today. Since many of the desserts made during this time, apart from cake, did not require oven cooking, the cooks usually made these things.
The Importance Of Bread During The Middle Ages
It is strange to think that an everyday staple such as bread could be the cause for controversy, yet in The Middle Ages, it was. In many sectors of Christianity, the “body of Christ” is symbolized with bread during Eucharist (or Holy Communion).
Denominations argued over which type of bread should be used for this portrayal during holy mass. These disputes often led to acts of violence and people being accused and even found guilty of heresy. Churches in the eastern regions firmly believed that bread should only be leavened. In contrast, the Roman Catholic churches used unleavened bread, eventually taking the form of wafers.
When Roman Catholic churches were closed, pieces of unleavened bread were scattered into the streets and stomped on. A Byzantine Church leader argued that unleavened bread was a poor representation of the body of Christ as it is “lifeless as stone, or baked clay” and is a symbol of “affliction and suffering.”
Unlike leavened bread, which contained a raising agent symbolized “something being elevated, lifted up, being raised and warmed.”
Baked Goods Available To Different Social Classes In The Middle Ages
Your class in The Middle Ages would determine the foods available to you and, therefore, what kind of bread you would be eligible to receive. The classes were divided into three sections, Upper, Middle, and Lower class.
The Upper Class consisted of Kings, Knights, Monarchs, Nobility, and Upper Clergy. The food consumed by the wealthy had more flavor and color. They ate the finest of the available baked goods. Their bread loaves were made from refined flour, and they enjoyed other baked treats such as cakes and pies (both sweet and savory).
The Middle Class was made up of lower clergy, merchants, and doctors. The lower class comprised poor farmers, workers, peasants, and serfs.
The peasants had to rely on scraps and the hardest loaves of bread made from the least refined flour. Middle and lower classes would consume mixed grain, rye, or barley bread. The middle class would have the means to afford fillings such as meat for baked goods like pies.
How Long Was The Span Of The Middle Ages?
The Middle Ages spanned from the 5th century through to the late 15th century and was not a time period that appeared across the world. Most records and information from this time are from places such as Europe, The United Kingdom, and The Middle East. America, for example, did not have a “Middle Ages” Or Medieval period that is depicted in movies, literature, and historical records.
Being a baker in The Middle Ages seemed like a wild ride. We can be grateful for everything we have learned from those times and for how far we have come in terms of technology, convenience, and nutrition knowledge.