ML&T: One cannot live on bread alone

MedievalLifeAndTimes

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of articles about life in the medieval years (or middle ages) typically designated as the years from 500 to 1500 AD. I like historical novels in general, but I have always been fascinated by these particular (and earlier) times. For many years, I’ve read books about Arthur, Merlin, Boudicca, Avalon, druids, the Roman conquest of Britain, royalty of the times, cathedral building, and more. Some of my favorite authors who have set their stories in this time period include Jack Whyte, Manda Scott, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, Bernard Cornwell, and Ken Follett.

Many novels set in these times contain a certain amount of fantasy because much of this era is yet unknown. For example, scholars still argue as to whether King Arthur was a real person, a persona perhaps based on one or more kings of the times, or completely mythical.

Personally, I read fiction for escape and entertainment, but I also want to learn something of history. Consequently, the novel I’m currently writing is set in these times and I have to do much research to make the novel as real as possible. I’m not a historian and, okay, I admit, on occasion I may “stretch the truth” a little to make the story mine, but I always strive to keep the setting and characters plausible.

Today’s topic may seem trivial but it’s important to ensuring your characters don’t go hungry.

"Peasants breaking bread". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peasants_breaking_bread.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Peasants_breaking_bread.jpg
Peasants breaking bread“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

One area of research that arises frequently is what the people of those time ate. It seems they ate a lot of bread, sometimes making up as much as eighty percent of their daily diet. Bread has been a diet staple for millennia in one form or another and has been eaten by all classes of people from kings to the lowliest peasants. Early breads were typically, but not always, unleavened. In medieval Europe, leavened bread became more common in the later middle ages.

Upper class folks, such as manor lords and ladies, usually ate light-colored (white) mostly wheat bread, while peasants and other lower class people ate coarse dark (brown) breads made from rye or barley, and later oats. If crops were poor, peasants may have added crushed beans or peas to make up the bulk of a loaf. One type of bread commonly eaten by peasants was a mixture of wheat and rye called maslin.

Many novels or movies have knights and others eating off trenchers. A trencher is a thick slab of dry (stale, often several days old) dark bread used as an edible plate. It would soak up the gravy or meat juices to soften making it chewable.

Did people spread butter on bread? I’m not able to find a definitive answer, but it seems they may have. Otherwise, they’d dunk it in their stew to soften it.

Further reading:


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6 thoughts on “ML&T: One cannot live on bread alone”

  1. I read a lot of Medieval crime mysteries, Alys Clare and Susannah Gregory are two of my favourite authors. It’s a fascinating era. Have you seen a TV show called Secrets of the Castle? It was broadcast a few weeks ago in the UK, it follows an historian and two archaeologists as they help to build a medieval castle from scratch in France using only traditional tools and materials. It’s a real eye opener, I loved it!

  2. Fascinating, I didn’t know that about bread but the idea of spreading something on it to soften it makes sense when you think why we now days spread butter on it though ours is more for taste I would imagine than for softening. And we still use it to sop up the gravy.

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