Bread was the key staple food for medieval people and there was a surprisingly wide range of types eaten. Basically, different grains made different bread so the type you ate would generally be dictated by the grain grown in your local area.
The quality of the soil and the type of climate were the biggest influences on what grain was grown. People in generally warm, dry areas would eat bread of a very different kind to that eaten by people in colder, wetter areas.
Here are the main grains used in bread making in that period:
Wheat – this made the finest, whitest bread. Generally only eaten by wealthy landowners as it required good soil which had to be cultivated and maintained properly.
Rye – this made a darker bread. Sometimes rye was blended in with wheat to make what was known as maslin.
Barley – this and other oats were more commonly grown in wet and cold areas.
Types Of Bread
Poor harvests were commonplace in medieval times and this in turn created a shortage of grain. So poor people had to supplement the little grain they had with peas, beans and even acorns in order to make their bread. This was the cheapest type for obvious reasons.
There was a variety of names given to bread types and these included:
pandemain – deemed the best as the flour was sifted 2 or 3 times
wastel – a good quality bread
cocket – a cheaper, white bread
cheat – wholewheat with the bran removed
tourte – containing husk as well as flour (known as brown bread)
horse bread – beans, peas and any general grain was used
clapbread – barley bread or oatcakes
Pandemain, Cheat, Tourte, Clapbread, Horse Bread …. these words may sound strange today but back then they were everyday terms. Pandemain was made from wheat and mainly enjoyed by the rich whilst the general fare of the common man was a choice of tourte, horse bread or clapbread.
“The king was in his counting house, Counting out his money; The queen was in the parlour, Easting bread and honey” From “Sing A Song Of Sixpence” (see painting left)
Wealthy people actually used brown bread as plates – or trenchers as they were commonly known. Large loaves would be cut into very thick slices and a hollow made in the centre. Often after a meal where wealthy people were dining, the used trenchers would be collected and then given to the poor to eat. It may sound a little strange but people had to eat whatever they could get any decent nourishment from.
Plain or toasted bread was used a lot in cooked dishes with breadcrumbs used to thicken sauces and stiffen custards. Adding spices and a honey mixture to the breadcrumbs made gingerbread. Click here for my recipe for medieval-style gingerbread
Peasants living in the countryside generally baked their own loaves – visit the medieval bread recipes page for more on this. People living in the towns, on the other hand, were able to buy loaves from professional bakers.