Before the age of potatoes, bread was the staple food of England and Wales. This bread was made from barley, wheat or rye, and everyone ate it – though the type of bread you ate very much depended on your rank.
For the exceedingly rich, small loaves known as “manchets” were available. They were often sweetened, and came in rolls about the size of your hand. These people also got to eat “wastel”, a fine, milled white bread. Your quality of bread decreased as you descended down the social ladder, with the richest people eating the finest bread, and the poorest eating the coarsest.
Interestingly, the bread we consider today to be the most sophisticated – the dark, grainy, heavy breads – were generally eaten by peasants in Tudor times. Of the seven (or more) grades of bread available, these were considered to be some of the lowest. The lowest form of bread, known as “clap-bread” was made of barley or oats.
For those in the lowest social groups, bread was something that was never to go to waste. Every last inch of the loaf would be eaten accompanied by pottage or simply as a meal in its own right. This thrifty behavior was not limited to those at the bottom, though! For those in the middle and upper classes, stale bread would still not be thrown out. Instead, it would be reused as a “trencher”, a plate used to hold other foods.
In order to use stale bread as a trencher, each diner would cut his own piece from the loaf. The trencher had to be cut thickly, so as to allow a hollow to be made in the centre of the slice, and to prevent it from breaking. Diners could then tuck in to the various dishes available, placing their own servings on their trenchers. After the meal, the trencher would either be eaten, or would be given to the almoner to distribute to the poor.
It was common at this time for poorer households not to have access to their own bread oven. In these cases, having prepared their dough, the housewives would bring it to a baker. The baker would either bake the bread for her in the communal oven, charging her a fee. Alternatively, the wife could simply buy a baked loaf from the baker, although this would no doubt have cost more.
The price of a loaf of bread was set out by the Assize of Bread, which was first published in 1266. Loaves were designated by price, divided into penny, ha’penny and farthing loaves. The size and weight of these loaves varied according to the cost of grain and the baker’s profit, which was strictly regulated. If a baker broke regulations and overcharged for his bread, he would be brought before the Magistrate and his loaves would be weighed. Those who overcharged on multiple occasions could face time in the pillory. To try and avoid this fate, bakers tended to throw in an extra piece of bread. This is the origin of the phrase “baker’s dozen.”
Travelling North, things were a little different in Scotland. Scotland’s climate was not suited to the wheat varieties available at that time, favouring barley and oats instead. The oats would often be used to make bannock. This was a flattish round loaf, which would be cut into wedges known as scones. Bannock was often cooked at home, as it could be prepared on a flat stone which was placed in the open fire.
Bannocks were not only important to the nutrition of the Scottish people, but to their entire culture. These loaves would be baked to celebrate a number of traditional, pre-Christian feasts. The beginning of winter called for the baking of Samhain bannocks. Spring was celebrated with Bealtaine bannocks. Harvest was marked with Lammas bannocks.
Bannocks were made quickly and easily, requiring only oats, water, and a thin metal griddle over a fire. This seemingly gave Scottish armies a distinct advantage over the English, allowing them to travel further and last longer.