Bread was the key staple food in medieval Europe and there was a surprisingly wide range of medieval bread recipes. Basically, different grains made different bread. So, the type of bread you ate would generally be dictated by the grain produced in your local area.
The quality of the soil and the type of climate were the biggest influences on the type of grain that medieval people could grow. Therefore, people in generally warm, dry areas would eat medieval bread of a very different kind to that eaten by people in colder, wetter areas.
Grains For Making Medieval Bread
Here are the main grains which medieval bakers commonly used to bake bread:
Wheat – wheat made the finest, whitest bread. Generally only wealthy landowners ate this type of medieval bread because it required good quality soil. Proper cultivation and good maintenance of the land came at a price. Only the wealthy could afford the workforce and the materials needed.
Rye – rye made a darker bread. Rye bread was common throughout medieval Europe and it is still popular today in countries like Germany. Sometimes medieval bakers would blend rye in with wheat to make what was known as maslin.
Barley – barley and other oats were more commonly grown in wet and cold areas. England is a good example and I have my own medieval barley bread recipe which uses ale and honey!
Poor harvests were commonplace in medieval times. Therefore, there was often a shortage of grain. Accordingly, poor people had to supplement the little grain they had with other ingredients. They added things like peas, beans and even acorns in order to bake an edible bread. It provided little sustenance but it was the cheapest option and all they could afford.
Types Of Medieval Bread
There was a variety of names for 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 it was the rich who enjoyed it. However, 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. Trenchers was the medieval term for them. Kitchen staff cut large loaves of bread into very thick slices and then made a hollow in the centre. Often, after a meal where wealthy people were dining, the servants collected all the used trenchers. These were then given away, usually to the poor to eat. It may sound a little strange but people had to eat whatever they could get nourishment from in medieval times.
Medieval Bread In Sauces, Custard, Desserts
It was a popular practice to use plain or toasted bread in other medieval recipes. Breadcrumbs were ideal to thicken sauces and to stiffen custard. With the addition of spices and honey, breadcrumbs could also be baked into an early form of gingerbread.
Here is my medieval gingerbread recipe.
The poor who lived in the countryside generally baked their own loaves of bread. By contrast, people living in the towns were able to buy their bread from professional bakers. My medieval bread recipes page goes into much more detail about medieval baking if want to learn more.