The Deep History of Women and Bread, Part One

The association between women and bread stretches back through the Middle Ages to prehistory. Women did not just make the bread that was vital to survival; the transformation of grain to flour was also women’s domain, and the labour required for this dwarfed the effort of making the bread itself.  Indeed, grinding grain probably took more of women’s time than any single other household activity, and the evolution of this task is the story of women’s lives in the early Middle Ages.

Early grinding was accomplished by various methods — pounding, saddle querns, etc. — but by the early English Middle Ages, the rotary quern was ubiquitous — a stone handmill consisting of a rotating top wheel that ground the grain against the bottom wheel.  The wheel was rotated in the direction of the sun, as admonitions against magic tell us.  Rotating it the other way was reserved for diabolical intentions.


‘Women at the Quern,’ from Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides (1772)

You can also see more querns here (Jerusalem 1985), here (Scotland 1840s), or here (India 1873). Notice that none of these women are alone. Querns are still in use in many parts of the world today, and there are numerous videos on YouTube showing them at use.  Here is one from modern India, and here’s another one.

Here is the other half of the Early English Bread Project at a quern.


This picture does not accurately depict traditional practice, because as the images above show, querns are actually operated by sitting on the ground, and traditionally by two women working together.  This was even witnessed in Matthew 24:41: “Two women shall be grinding at a mill: one shall be taken, and the other left.” A quern is ideally used by two people, to trade off the hardest grinding, or for one to pour new grain into the centre of the quern while the other one kept the quern turning.  If traditional patterns of repetitive work hold true, there may have been traditional quern-grinding songs to accompany the work, assuming they had the breath to sing them.

Grinding was so important that quernstones were unquestionably the largest item in sheer volume of trade, and I mean sheer volume literally. There was a booming import trade in lava querns from the Rhineland to England — they came only half finished, used as ballast on ships, and then were finished in England and sold around the country. For the average, non-elite household, the quernstone was probably the most expensive thing the household owned: the equivalent in modern expense and necessity to a furnace or car. The Graveney shipwreck, from around 930, shows that the ship may have contained as many as 280 quernstones, for a combined weight of as much as seven tons — and that’s only one ship. That’s a lot of women grinding flour, and that’s a lot of bread.

In the Anglo-Saxon period, the great transition is away from this domestic, home-based, communal grinding. When querns were replaced by regional mechanical mills, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, this source of women’s community disappeared.

agriculture architecture clouds countryside

Photo by Skitterphoto on

But let’s not lament this loss or glorify this home-based industry too much — the work must have been drudgery, and it probably involved multiple hours of grinding per day. It likely took as much time as cooking does now, except that there were no shortcuts available, apart from having slaves. For households with slave women, it is almost invariably the slaves who are assigned this task. This is despite the fact that grinding was arguably the most important thing that went on in the household.  It required enormous strength — when researchers analyzed the upper arm bones of women who lived from the Neolithic through the Iron Age, they found that the women of the period, who spent much of their time grinding, had bones that were 5-10% stronger than rowers from the Cambridge University women’s rowing team — and those women are impressively strong.*

However, as I say, in the later period, more water mills were established, and home grinding was replaced by suit of mill, in other words by the requirement that householders should bring their grain to the lord’s mill and have it ground for a fee, rather than doing their grinding at home. By the thirteenth century this requirement was effectively the law across the land. There are numerous early modern accounts of authorities finding contraband home querns that people were hiding, and destroying them. Incidentally, this requirement was also imposed in Scotland, where it was called thirlage, and where it was only revoked in 2004.

So what this means is that what had been a home-based, communal, women’s domain became a part of the larger economy — part of the economy of exchange, and in the domain of men. The millers were men, and the lords who controlled them were men.

So the question is: did this rob women of a communal activity and self-sufficiency, or was this a welcome relief from drudgery? One important question is: what were they doing with that extra hour or two or three per day in which they no longer had to grind? We do not know.

We do know two things. One is that in more recent, more intensively studied periods, every time a mechanical or electronic aid to women’s household work comes along, the culture responds by raising the required level of work. When sewing machines were invented, women didn’t get more free time; instead, there was soon pressure to own more outfits and changes of clothes. When vacuum cleaners were invented, houses were not cleaned more easily on the same schedule, but more frequently.

appliance carpet chores device

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The millers profited by taking a proportion of the flour ground from each household’s grain. So it may be that the time saved in not grinding at home was occupied in producing more food or income to compensate for this loss of flour.

We might also note that late medieval England is the period in which highly refined white bread (long the high-status bread) became more common. It may be that the long process of sifting flour to make white bread took up the time saved in not having to grind. In this scenario, they had the same amount of work, but with it they produced fancier bread.

Whatever filled women’s grinding time, women were identified with bread and baking. In the many medieval miracles involving bread, men are granted divine bread from heaven, but the women appear only as bread-making complainers: sometimes protesting that the communion bread can’t be the body of Christ, because it was made that morning (as in a famous miracle recounted by Gregory the Great), sometimes griping about others’ techniques, as in the case of the peasant wife who complained when King Alfred burned the cakes.

Sex and fertility also tend to creep into narratives of women and bread (as it still does — think “a bun in the oven”). And magic — but that’s a topic for next time.  Whether practicing magic or not, whether evincing yeasty fertility or not, for hundreds of years women’s lives literally consisted of the daily grind.

*On the strength women developed in grinding: Alison A Macintosh, Ron Pinhasi and Jay T. Stock, “Prehistoric women’s manual labor exceeded that of athletes through the first 5500 years of farming in Central Europe,” Science Advances 3:11 (29 Nov. 2017), DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aao3893




The Bread That Comes Down From Heaven

As we’ve established, in early medieval England, everyday bread took two forms. For most people it was an unleavened round of bread, probably about the size of a hand, cooked on the hearth. For people wealthy enough to build an oven, it was a leavened round of bread, about the same size, like a dense modern bun. This was their everyday food, enjoyed with butter, cheese, or other toppings. (More on toppings in another post.)


And they ate a lot of it, as was true throughout history. As late as eighteenth-century America, the typical person ate a pound and a half of bread per day. The Bible says that “Man cannot live on bread alone,” but note that it means that people should also live on spiritual fare, not that meat and vegetables were required. For all intents and purposes, many families effectively did live on bread alone.img_1349

As bread was so vital to life, it is fitting that it occupied such a rich place in religious life as well. To early Christians and to the early English both, the bread of the Eucharist was a force in which God expressed himself to humans, a substance that literally embodied divinity.

To recap the history of Christian communion, Jesus established the tradition at the Last Supper, for example as recounted in Luke 22:19: “And he took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.'”  Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 18.22.55

The meaning of the bread is also expressed in John 6:50-71: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

But as the institution of communion developed, the question arose: what kind of bread should be used? It seemed imperative to get this right.

The clearest decision was that the bread should be made of wheat. In numerous passages of the Bible, which explicitly or (according to medieval clerics) symbolically refer to Christ, he is compared to wheat. John 12: 23-25 says, “But Jesus answered them saying, ‘The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.” This and other passages assured that wheat should be the grain of communion bread, and it seemed appropriate that wheat was already the highest status grain.

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But should the communion bread be leavened or unleavened?  Here Western Christendom and Eastern Christendom had decidedly different opinions.

The Western Church insisted that since the Eucharist arose from the Feast of Unleavened Bread, as reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the host should be unleavened.

The Eastern Church argued that a) the Gospel of John described the Last Supper preceding the Feast of Unleavened Bread; b) that just as Christ rose, the bread used for the host should rise; and c) that leavening distinguished Christian (New Testament) practice from Jewish (superseded, Old Testament) practice. Unleavened bread was for Jewish Passover; the new religion must leaven!

No agreement was reached, and the disagreements came to a head in the Schism of 1054. The Western Church continues to use unleavened bread for the Eucharist.  The Eastern Church largely still uses leavened.

And course arguments about the content of the host are still with us, as when recently the Pope declared that the host could not be gluten-free — which sounds overly pernickety, except that it holds by the same principles the Church has spent centuries determining. For Biblical and theological reasons, the host must be made exclusively of wheat and water, and no other substances. Gluten-free bread contains filler, and filler cannot be transubstantiated into Christ.

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This means, incidentally, that people with celiac disease cannot become Catholic priests, because priests are required to take communion with hosts full of gluten.  The decree thus has the peculiar side effect of classifying Christ as an allergen.

We can tell that even early in the medieval period, the host consisted of rounds of bread, rather than some other shape. This was witnessed by a report by Ivo of St Gall, who described the exhumation and translatio of the remains of St Omar, who had died in 759. The text reported:

under the head and around the breast of the man of God rounds of bread were discovered, which in the vulgar are called offerings, and these were found to be unharmed and free from all corruption by the bishop…*

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St Cuthbert was also buried with the communion host on his breast, here indicated by the chalice. British Library Yates Thompson 26.

In the eleventh century Bernold of Constance complained about the small size of these rounds of bread, saying that they

were reduced to the likeness of coins, and to a thinness and lightness entirely foreign to the appearance of real bread and hence he contemptuously calls them infinitesimal minted wafers, ascribing a fantastic and unreal smoothness to them, unworthy for their lightness of the name of bread.**

Their size can be seen in host presses, a device used to cook and imprint a design on the host in many areas, particularly in the mid and later Middle Ages.

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An 18th-century host press.  The inner surface of the press typically has designs to be imprinted onto the host.

The modern equivalent (and descendant) of the host press is the waffle iron.

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A waffle iron from 1910 — not all that different from the host press.  Just add butter and milk to your host recipe, and voilà, a secular treat.

Although a communion wafer now looks very little like everyday bread, this was not the case at all in the medieval period. A communion wafer was just a miniature form of everyday bread, that is, rounds of unleavened bread. But the smallness of the communion wafer distinguished it from ordinary, non-godly bread. There is something about smallness that always attracts our attention and makes things seem more precious. Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 18.18.46

Think of dollhouses, or those ponies that stand three feet high, or the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute in Chicago, or the miniature books at Indiana University. Communion wafers had this extra dimension. They were visibly extraordinary as well as theologically meaningful: concentrated and powerful, a kind of pharmacological life-giving bread.

Communion wafers, then, are a miniature, godly version of everyday medieval unleavened hearthcakes.  The humble nature of their origins did not doom them to oblivion in wealthier times; instead they are a kind of medieval bread living on into the modern world.

* De miraculis S. Othmartis, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores vol. II, Scriptores rerum Sangallensium, ed. G. H. Pertz (Hannover, 1829), p. 49.

** Gerald Ellard, “Bread in the Form of a Penny,” Theological Studies 4 (1943): 319-46 at 343-44.

How to Make Everyday Anglo-Saxon Bread: Version 2 (Hearthcakes or “Kichells”)

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Those round things in the lower left are the hearthcakes.  This supposed peasant woman is admonishing King Alfred for burning them, though they don’t look burnt to me.  And why is she making peasant hearthcakes if she’s rich enough to own that fancy carved wooden thing behind her?

In the last post on everyday Anglo-Saxon bread, I talked about making bread on a bakestone or griddle on the fire. It is worth emphasizing again: for as much as eight hundred years, from the fifth century up to the thirteenth or fourteenth (and for centuries more in some areas of Britain), this would have been the familiar, everyday bread known to everyone in the kingdom. More affluent people ate leavened bread instead — or in addition. But everyone would have regarded this basic flat bread as familiar, completely normal bread. You did not need an oven to make it, and you didn’t leaven it; it was accessible to anyone, a quick, cheap, portable everyday bread.

Today we’ll look at an even more basic bread: hearthcakes or kichells cooked directly on the fire.

Before we get to the recipe, a little diversion on what to call this bread.

What do we call it?

It shows how far we have come from this easiest and most common of breads that we no longer even have a name for it. The closest equivalent is probably modern Scottish oatcakes, except that Anglo-Saxon bread would have contained some random combination of oats and barley, or of rye and wheat. And modern oatcakes usually have fat in them. And they’re smaller than Anglo-Saxon bread. Bannocks are also related, but at least in their modern form, they’re larger and thicker than Anglo-Saxon flat bread.

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Jack Monroe’s bannocks (recipe here).  Unlike most modern bannocks, these are the right size for early medieval hearthcakes.  Even for these humble bannocks, Monroe directs the reader to use a cookie cutter or a glass to get them perfectly round; it’s as if modern cooks feel pressure to emulate the unwavering standardization of industrial processing.


So there’s really no modern term for the Anglo-Saxon variety. The word “cake” has come to mean a sweet, usually non-thin bready-caky thing, so the term “hearthcakes” is a bit misleading. “Ashcakes” has the same problem, plus they weren’t always cooked in ashes. “Flatbread” suggests something flatter than Anglo-Saxon bread.

I think we’re going to have to go with “hearthcakes” for these things, but it’s not really ideal.

What did the Anglo-Saxons call them? They seem to have had three words for them. The most common Old English term was cycel (pronounced “kichell,” related to the word “cook” and all its descendents like kitchen, cookies, cake, etc.). Basically a kichell (OE cycel) was the thing you made in your kitchen (OE cycene). The word cycel/kichel/kichell was used throughout the Middle Ages and up through the eighteenth century, as shown by nineteenth-century references to the cake known as a Gods-Kichell: “It was a good old custom for God-fathers and God-mothers, every time their God-children asked them blessing, to give them a Cake, which was a Gods-Kichell…”*

A second Old English term was bannuc, the ancestor of modern bannock. A third, early Anglo-Saxon term was sol, not to be confused with the sun or with other meanings of sol. The term sol used to be a bit controversial among earlier scholars; finally the evidence to prove that it meant “bread” has turned up; but that whole story is for another day.  In any case, in the eighth century Bede wrote that the pagan Anglo-Saxons used to call February Solmonath (Sol-month): “Solmonath can be called the month of hearthcakes, which they used to offer to their gods in that month.”**  Sadly we know nothing more about this practice.

So if you were an Anglo-Saxon of the sixth or seventh century, you probably said sol, but as the centuries wore on, you referred to it as a bannuc or, most likely, as a cycel.

One Latin term was placenta. This initially sounds a bit gruesome, but was derived from the Greek plakous, “flat cake,” from which the anatomical placenta was also named. A second term was torta (the ancestor of modern tart) or tortella (the ancestor of modern tortilla), though these could also be small rounds of leavened bread, similar to buns.

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You can try making original Roman placenta here.  By the Middle Ages, the term just meant any flat cake, not the fancier multi-layered kind that this intrepid blogger has made.

How do we make it?

Today we’ll discuss making kichells the most basic way: directly on the hearth. For this you need a fireplace or a campfire.

Start by repeating the procedure for hearthcakes baked on a griddle:

  1. First you decide on your level of poverty. Remember that by our standards most Anglo-Saxons were what we would deem “poor.” You will need one of the following:

if you are very poor:

pea and/or bean flour, which you should mix with oat flour in random proportion

if you are moderately poor:

oat flour, which you should mix with barley flour in random proportions

(this mixture is now known as dredge)

if you are a reasonably prosperous yeoman farmer:

wholemeal wheat flour, which you should mix with rye flour in random proportions

(this mixture is now known as maslin). Warning: if you use wheat flour alone, your reaction will be, ‘They ate this all the time? It’s rather dull, isn’t it?”

  1. Take a couple of handfuls of flour and put in a bowl. Add enough water to make a dough that is not too sticky. Ideally you have gathered this water from a source that is not downstream from someone with dysentery, though this too could be inauthentic.  Do not add anything else. You do not need salt. You are not wealthy enough to afford fat or milk, and if you had some, you wouldn’t waste it on bread anyway.
  1.  Knead the dough until it is well mixed. You don’t need a board for this. What are you, rich, that you have boards in your house? Just pass it back and forth between your hands, squishing it as you go.
  2.  Let the fire die down to embers, maybe with a tongue or two of flame.


    Thin hearthcakes on the embers.

Version A: The Thin Version:

  1. Form some of the kneaded dough into a flat roundish disc by patting it between your hands. It should be fairly thin, as thin or a bit thicker than a modern oatcake, at most a finger high.
  2. Lay your disc on the hot embers. When it looks as if it’s getting done and is a bit burny around the edges — these crispy bits will be extra nice — turn it over until the other side is equally done. Six or seven Lord’s Prayers’ worth of time should do it. (Remember, this was how they measured duration.)  Don’t hurry over the prayers.
  3. When done, remove from fire. If any ashes remain on the bread, they can be dusted off easily — the bread will not be ashy.

Version B: The Thick, Bannock-like Version

  1. Form some of the kneaded dough into a disc two or three fingers thick. Put this on the embers once they have died down significantly. If they are too hot, the outside will cook while the inside stays doughy. You want the whole thing to cook through slowly.
  2. Turn when it seems as if it might be done on the bottom. Continue cooking until it’s probably done all through. This will require a good deal of praying, or gossiping, or other time-consuming activities. If you are sharpening your arrows against the Vikings, make sure you don’t get distracted and let the cakes burn. (Cf: King Alfred.)

This thicker hearthcake will give a softer, quite yummy texture.


These hearthcakes have some burnt bits which will provide some nice crispness when eaten.

Both of these are best when eaten hot. They should ideally be eaten with a spreadable new cheese: goat’s cheese or feta will be quite nice. Harder cheeses like Cheddar are less good with it. You want something spreadable and salty. A nice fresh butter would also be good.

Is this novel?

This bread form has been invented again and again in the history of breadmaking. The Scandinavians have held on to their own tradition in the form of flatbread, which is larger and flatter than cycels seem to have been. Bannocks, in Scotland and the north of England, are a fatter version, but remain stubbornly local. Chapatis and pita bread are similar but also flatter than a kichell.  A tortilla is a similar, thinner concoction, made with cornmeal. Another tradition is that of the Australian damper, prized because it is so easy to prepare. Here is that authoritative source, Wikipedia, on damper:

‘Damper is a traditional Australian soda bread, historically prepared by swagmen, drovers, stockmen and other travellers. It consists of a wheat flour based bread, traditionally baked in the coals of a campfire or in a camp oven. Damper is an iconic Australian dish. It is also made in camping situations in New Zealand, and has been for many decades….The basic ingredients of damper were flour, water, and sometimes milk. Baking soda could be used for leavening. The damper was normally cooked in the ashes of the camp fire. The ashes were flattened and the damper was placed in there for ten minutes to cook. Following this, the damper was covered with ashes and cooked for another 20 to 30 minutes until the damper sounded hollow when tapped. Alternatively, the damper was cooked in a greased camp oven. Damper was eaten with dried or cooked meat or golden syrup, also known as “cocky’s joy”.

‘Damper is also a popular dish with Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal women had traditionally made bush bread from seasonal grains and nuts, which they cooked in the ashes of fires…’

The disappearance of kichells from mainstream Anglo-American cooking is the result of the wealth of the modern world, and of our neverending drive for fancier, lighter, fluffier, less filling breads, almost always dandied up with seeds or fats or sweeteners. You can see how far things have gone when even the most basic poor people’s breads now have milk and leavening, such as these Drop Scones and Scots Crumpets or Beremeal (barleyflour) Bannocks. The author of these recipes even writes, “Traditionally these bannocks would have been made without wheat flour or bicarbonate of soda; fortunately I have tasted the old way so you never have to”! But believe me, bread made the old way, with nice fresh flour and none of the fripperies, is all you need.


The proof is in the eating, and these were quite nice with goat cheese.  The thicker kind have an enjoyable softness, but these are more portable.  They also fill you up so that you could make an actual meal of a small amount, unlike modern fluffier bread.  Some of these are wheat-and-rye, some are oat-and-barley.  The oat-and-barley were lower-status in the Middle Ages, but frankly we think they taste better, with a nice hint of crunchiness.

Modern bread still holds its own at breakfast in the form of toast, but at lunch it is largely a vehicle for sandwich fillings, and it appears at dinners as a deliberately unfilling stopgap before the main course. Bread has become a vestigial food. To make these hearty, basic, honest kichells is to eat the way people ate when bread was the staff of life. They return us to the vast sweep of centuries when people literally could not have lived without them.


A bonus sobering bread text from the later Middle Ages, on the “Ember Days.” The Embers Days are twelve days appointed for prayer and fasting, three days in each season, based on the date of Easter and other factors. In the Middle Ages, bread was exempt from fasting; in other words, if you were fasting you could still eat bread. Incidentally the interpretation of “Ember Days” quoted below is no longer accepted. Translation follows.

Then 3e schull know þat þes dayes byn callet Ymbryng-dayes, for, as opynion of summe ys, þay byn callet Ymbryng-dayes for encheson þat our old faders wolden ete þes dayes kakes bakyn yn þe ymbres and was callyt ‘panis subciner[ic]ius,’ ‘brede bakyn yndyr þe askes,’ and to askes schuld turne þay wyst neuer when; so þat etyng of þys bred, þay reducet to mynde how þay were but askes…

Then you shall know that that these days are called Ember Days, for, as the opinion of some is, they are called Ember Days because our fathers would eat these days’ cakes baked in the embers and they were called ‘panis subciner[ic]ius,’ ‘bread baked under the ashes,’ and they [the fathers] never knew when they [themselves] should turn to ashes; so that in the eating of this bread, they recalled to mind how they themselves were but ashes… (Mirk’s Festial, ed. T. Erbe, EETS es 96 (London, 1905), p. 254)

*Giles Jacob, The Law Dictionary, rev. T. E. Tomlin, 6 vols. (New York, 1811), vol. IV, s.v. “Kichell.”

**”Solmonath potest dici mensis placentarum quas in eo diis suis offerebant.”  Bede, De temporum ratione, c. 15 (Bedae Opera de Temporibus, ed. C. W. Jones (Cambridge, Mass, 1943), pp. 211-12).


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How to Make Anglo-Saxon Bread: Version 1

The housewife scolds King Alfred for burning the cakes. How many things are wrong with this picture? Let me count the ways. The chimney, for one. And the cakes.

The housewife scolds King Alfred for burning the cakes. How many things are wrong with this picture? Let me count the ways. The chimney, for one. And the cakes.

… nimium gaudes hos manducare calentes!
‘You’re delighted to eat them when they’re hot!’
—scolding woman to King Alfred
(Life of St. Neot version)

What is ‘original’ English bread?  What kind of bread did an average Anglo-Saxon eat?

The first thing to know is that the bread of the early English varied hugely. They used a variety of grains, three different methods of leavening (yeast, sourdough, and steam), and four or five different kinds of cooking or baking.

Which kind of bread you ate depended most on how wealthy you were. The bread that would be most familiar to us moderns was the bread of the rich: the food of kings, nobles, and abbots of wealthy monasteries. The average person didn’t have the resources to waste large parts of the flour by sifting the bran out of it, or the wealth to build or fuel an oven. They ate a humbler, cheaper, easier bread.

So the following recipe is for Anglo-Saxon everyday bread: what most Anglo-Saxons would have thought of when they heard the word bread. (Their word was hlaf in Old English [our modern loaf], panis in Latin; and these hearthcakes in particular were probably what was meant by their word cicel, pronounced ‘kitchel,’ related to the word cook.)  These are not yeast- or sourdough-raised loaves baked in an oven, but a simple hearth-cooked bread that must have served as an everyday staple for the vast majority of people in the Anglo-Saxon period. And — they’re yummy!


A bread researcher contemplates a table full of hearthcakes and modern oatcakes. Where to begin?

The recipe wasn’t written down as such, any more than modern cookbooks tell you how to put toast in the toaster. We have gleaned it from dozens of different references, many of which we’ll discuss in the coming months. But for now, on to the bread.

Because these instructions strive to be as authentic as possible, there will be no instructions about measurements or cups or weights. When the Anglo-Saxons were rich enough to own metal objects, they made brooches, not measuring spoons.

flour (see below)

1. First you need to decide on your level of poverty. Remember that by our standards most Anglo-Saxons were what we would deem ‘poor.’ You will need one of the following:

if you are very poor:
pea- and/or bean flour, which you should mix with oat flour in random proportions

if you are moderately poor:
oat flour, which you should mix with barley flour in random proportions
(this mixture is now known as dredge)

The components of modern dredge

Modern barley and oat flours: the components of dredge

if you are a reasonably prosperous yeoman farmer:
wholemeal wheat flour, which you should mix with rye flour in random proportions
(this mixture is now known as maslin)

Oats and barley often grew together, and wheat and rye often grew together, so these mixtures make sense. It was advantageous to grow two kinds of grain together, so if one failed through disease or bad weather, the other kind might still produce, and you had a better chance of not starving.

If you want to have an authentic stomach ache, you could add cockle, a troublesome weed that grew among the grain.  Excavations in York showed that tenth-century bread had enough cockle to have given the eaters digestive discomfort.

Ideally you have just ground these grains into flour with your stone quern, so it’s nice and sweet and fresh, but we’ll overlook that requirement in the interests of convenience. Incidentally, modern hand or machine home grinders heat the flour to too high a temperature to make it authentic, so don’t feel guilty if you don’t have a home grinder.

A rather fancy quern for grinding grain into flour

A rather fancy quern for grinding grain into flour.  The grain goes in the middle and comes out the sides. More on querns later, because we have Opinions about querns.

2. Take a handful or two of flour, and put it in a bowl. Add enough water to make a dough that is not too sticky. Ideally you have gathered this water from a source that is not downstream from someone with dysentery, though this too could be inauthentic.

Later medieval sources suggest that if you’re using pea flour, you might pour in boiling water, which keeps the smell down. Mmm! Sounds appetizing already! Needless to say, if you do this, let the water cool before handling the dough.

Do not add anything else. You do not need salt. Medieval butter and cheese were heavily salted to preserve them, so much so that in the later Middle Ages at least, people had to wash out their butter before use, because it was too salty to eat. My informants tell me that some modern types of Scandinavian flatbread still do not include salt, so they can be eaten with salty butter or cheese without overdoing the salt.  You do not need any fancy ingredients like fat or milk or whatnot, heaven forbid; if you could afford fancy ingredients, you’d be making rich person’s bread.

3. Put a griddle or frying pan on the fire. Do not use any fat in the pan.

4. While the griddle is getting hot, knead the dough until it is well mixed. You can do this on a board or table, or by squeezing and passing the dough back and forth from hand to hand.

The legend of Alfred and the cakes, which we’ll cover more completely another time, specifies that the dough is kneaded, as do many later flatbread traditions. In fact it is hard to get the flour well mixed with the water unless it is kneaded, and even more so if a spoon is lacking.  It seems clear to me that this is how the practice of kneading dough was ‘invented’: as a way to mix the ingredients of dough more thoroughly.

Two maslin (wheat and rye) hearthcakes cooking. The one on the left has been kneaded, the one on the right, not; the difference is apparent.

Two maslin (wheat and rye) hearthcakes cooking. The one on the left has been kneaded, the one on the right, not; the difference is apparent.

5. Form some of the kneaded dough into a flat roundish disc by patting it between your hands. It should be maybe slightly smaller than your hand, so you can squish it into flatness without it going floppy over the edge of your hand. Smaller is fine. It should be fairly thin, as thin or a bit thicker than a modern oatcake.*

6. Put your disc of flattened dough on the hot griddle, and squeeze on as many more of these ‘cakes’ as you can make, side by side. Watch them so they don’t burn (cf. Alfred & cakes). The dredge (oat and barley) bread will not rise, but the maslin (wheat and rye) bread will puff up a tiny bit from internal steam, enough to have a discernable crust and crumb.

7. When the bottom has some brownish burny spots, turn the cake over and cook it on the other side. Depending on the thickness, each side will probably take as long as it takes to say nine or ten Lord’s Prayers.** This is how they measured cooking time in the medieval period.***


A dredge (barley and oat) hearthcake ready to meet its fate. This one was extremely yummy.

8. When done, take the hearthcake off the griddle and make more until the dough is used up.

Best when eaten hot. The simplest way to eat these is with butter or cheese. The word is that Cheshire is the most nearly medieval cheese, but any kind of cheese will be good enough — the crumblier the better. That is how the Anglo-Saxons would have eaten these hearthcakes when out in the fields, or when having simple meals. More elaborate meals might have seen the bread dipped into bowls of cooked peas or beans, or into stews with meat in them (ascending up the social scale), or with bacon, which was probably the most widely preserved kind of meat, judging from later records.


Dried hearthcakes go curly if you don’t weigh them down.

The ‘cakes’ will keep indefinitely, though they need weighing down or they will go curly. They will dry out and go hard; to revive, put between layers of damp cloth for a while, or dip or soak in water or other liquid. But these dried cakes are probably for journeys; everyday bread would have been recently made, and is much better that way.

Alternate methods of cooking:

  • on a bakestone (a thin slab of rock put on top of a fire — make sure yours is safe for putting on a direct flame before you try this at home)
  • directly on the embers
  • under an inverted pot with embers stacked on top

Our next report will cover these options.

This recipe may sound grim and cardboardy and tasteless. There are reasons it was not in as high favor as light and fluffy leavened bread, but it can’t be beat for ease, especially if someone else has done the grinding, and it’s genuinely yummy, especially when hot and accompanied by cheese.

*Are modern oatcakes authentic? Not your average commercial oatcake. The ingredients of Nairn’s Oatcakes are listed as “Wholegrain oats (88%), sunflower oil, sustainable palm fruit oil, sea salt, raising agent: sodium bicarbonate.” Oil! Salt! Leavening! And some recipes have sugar! (A survey of oatcake recipes here. Note that one of the commenters suggests eating the oatcakes with peanut butter and Indian lime pickle.) Conclusion: the oatcake has come a long way from its origins.screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-15-28-33

** If you want to be wholly authentic: ‘Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum: si þin nama gehalgod to becume þin rice. Gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg. And forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum. And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele soþlice.’ (Corpus Christi College MS 140, ed. Liuzza (1994))

***Chris Kimball, the founder of Cook’s Magazine, tried to recreate a dinner from the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook, and notoriously misunderstood cooking habits by mocking a recipe for Indian pudding. The recipe calls for letting molasses drop into the pudding for as long as it takes to sing a verse of ‘Nearer my God to Thee,’ or two verses in cold weather. Kimball doesn’t see the point of this and calls it ‘silly,’ for which he himself was widely mocked. All of this occurs in his book Fannie’s Last Supper and the subsequent comments on Amazon. This is a late but not rare example of this time-honored way of measuring cooking times.




‘To keep silent, according to the Rule’s command …’: Bread in Sign Language


Information about early medieval bread comes from all kinds of unexpected sources. Possibly the least obvious is monastic sign language, but one of the times the Benedictine Rule required monks to keep silent was at meals, so that they could listen to improving readings. That meant that when lists of signs were drawn up, probably first at Cluny in France in the ninth century, they included signs for food, drink and other things a monk might want at table. All the lists share a sign for bread, and many of them also include signs for various fancy kinds of bread, or other baked goods. But the Old English one, possibly originating in Winchester in the tenth century, has only the one basic bread sign. This may just be because the English list is the shortest overall, possibly an abbreviated version of the Latin one from Cluny, but it might also tell us something about monastic dietary provision at the time: perhaps Anglo-Saxon monks just had a really boring diet compared to their continental counterparts.

Most of the fancy baked goods in the lists are fairly obscure: no recipe books survive from the early middle ages, and some of these items can scarcely be found anywhere else in contemporary sources. Fladones, for instance, are only mentioned once, apart from the sign lists, in the sixth-century Life of St Radegund by Venantius Fortunatus, where the saint tries to exercise humility, without offending her hosts, by eating rye or barley bread under cover of her flado. This confirms that a flado was a prestigious food, but we get more information about what kind from the sign lists: it apparently combined bread (or bread dough) with cheese, and the use of two hands in the sign suggests it was a double-crust item at this stage, despite the fact that the word flado eventually developed into ‘flan’ in English and other languages.


Pao de Queijo — Brazilian cheese bread.  Fladonish?

Torta means literally ‘twisted’, but gives rise to words like Torte and tortilla in modern European languages. The fact that a torta was made of rye means it was not a very high-status kind of bread, and being divided into quarters suggests it was of a fairly substantial size, although visual and archaeological evidence shows early medieval loaves as quite small. Some loaves carbonised when a house burnt down in eleventh-century Ipswich measured about 4 inches across, probably about 6 inches before the fire.

Tortula is a diminutive of torta, and this one definitely was small. According to the Vulgate, when the Israelites found manna in the desert, it looked like tortulae to them. The sign suggests it was marked with a criss-cross pattern. or maybe baked on a grid.


The sign for the tortula, bread with some kind of a crisscross pattern

Perhaps surprisingly, only one list has a sign for the communion bread. This is the longest list, from Hirsau in Germany, which provides both a general sign for unleavened bread, and one for a ‘biggish wafer’. We are left to wonder how a monk would have asked for a small one.

Here is the basic sign for bread, from the Old English list (for the Old English, see below):

‘When you want to have bread, then you put your two thumbs together, and your two index fingers in front, one against the other.’

That’s not very clear, but the Cluny bread sign is more self-explanatory (see below for the Latin):

  1. ‘For the sign of bread make one circle with either thumb and the two fingers which come next, because bread is usually round, too.’


    The basic sign for ‘bread’, suggesting that a loaf was round — and perhaps about this size?

The other signs for bread and baked goods in the Cluny list are as follows:

  1. ‘For the sign of bread which is cooked in water and is usually better than the everyday [kind], to the general sign of bread above, add this, that you put the inside of the hand on top of the outside of the other hand, and you move the top hand round like that as if you were oiling or moistening it.’
  1. ‘For the sign of bread made of rye, and which is commonly called torta, again, to the general sign of bread above, add this, that you make a cross across the palm, because that kind of bread is usually divided into four.’
  1. ‘For the sign of the tortula which is given besides the usual pound on the five principal feasts [Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Ss Peter and Paul, and the Assumption], put the two fingers that come after the thumb, slightly apart, crosswise over the two others like them on the other hand, parted in the same way.’
  1. ‘For the sign of fladones, having made the general sign of both bread and cheese, bend all the fingers of one hand and, with the hand hollow like that, put it on the surface of the other hand.’


    The sign for a ‘flado’, suggesting a rounded top

And these are the two extra signs from William of Hirsau’s list (late 11th century):

  1. ‘For the sign of a largish wafer, having made the sign of bread, put the thumb and the [finger] next to it around the eye.’
  1. ‘For the sign of unleavened bread, having made the general sign, squeeze the right hand, placed crosswise on the left, and the left the other way round.’

The sign for a (communion) wafer — is this one of the ‘biggish’ wafers?

Signs in their original languages:

Basic sign for bread in Old English:

‘Ðonne þu laf habban wylle þonne sete þu þine twegen þuman togædere and þine twegen scytefingras æðerne foran ongean oþerne.’

And in Latin, from the Cluny list:

  1. ‘Pro signo panis, fac unum circulum cum utroque pollice et his duobus digitis, qui secuntur, pro eo, quod et panis solet esse rotundus.’

The other Cluny signs:

  1. ‘Pro signo panis, qui coquitur in aqua et melior solet esse quam cotidianus generali signo panis premisso hoc adde, ut interiora manus super alterius manus exteriora ponas et ita superiorem manum quasi ungendo vel imbuendo circumferas.’
  1. ‘Pro signo panis sigalini et, qui torta vulgariter appellatur iterum generali signo premisso hoc adde, ut crucem per medium palme facias pro eo, quod id genus panis dividi solet per quadrum.’
  1. Pro signo tortule, que preter solitam libram datur in quinque principalibus festis duos digitos, qui pollicem sequuntur, paululum divisos pone oblique super duos alteros eorum similes de altera manu similiter divisos.’
  1. ‘Pro signo fladonum, premisso generali signo et panis et casei de una manu omnes digitos inflecte et ita manu cava in superficiem alterius manus pone.’

And from William of Hirsau:

  1. ‘Pro signo oblate maioris premisso panis signo pollicem et sibi proximum oculo circumpone.’
  1. ‘Pro signo panis azimi, generali signo premisso dexteram per obliquum in sinistram positam comprime sinistramque e converso.’

We’d like to thank the Latin Therapy group in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, for their help with translation and interpretation (and consumption), and especially Dr C. D. Preston for tracking down the five principal feasts.

If you want to know more about monastic sign language in the early middle ages:

All the Latin lists are edited in Walter Jarecki, Signa loquendi: Die cluniacensischen Signa-Listen eingeleitet und herausgegeben, Saecula spiritalia 4, Baden-Baden: Verlag Valentin Koerner, 1981.

The Old English one is edited by Debby Banham, Monasteriales indicia: The Old English Monastic Sign Language, Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1990.

All the lists are discussed in their wider, especially theological, context, by Scott G. Bruce, Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition c. 900–1200, Cambridge University Press, 2007.




It’s Bread, Jim, But Not As We Know It

What was the bread of the early English like? Our research hasn’t yet reached the point where we can give the last word about the bread of the Anglo-Saxons, but the basic facts are fairly clear. It’s predictable that early English bread differed in innumerable ways from the fluffy loaves of sliced white bread you find in plastic wrappers in the supermarket. What’s perhaps more surprising is that it was also quite different from the modern “artisan loaf” you find in the local bakery. Here are five main ways in which early English bread differed from modern bread, and a few topics for another day. screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-20-22-35

Ingredients.   Only the bread of the elite would have seemed familiar to modern eaters, and that means the bread of a tiny percentage of the population. This elite bread was made of wheat, or largely of wheat.  The taste and superior rise of wheat loaves put wheat at the top of the bread hierarchy, even though bread wheat was the hardest grain to grow in the English climate.  And at the top of the wheat hierarchy were white loaves, the most highly processed, most expensive, most coveted, and rarest loaves.  To most Anglo-Saxons, these were no more standard fare than modern wedding cake is standard modern supper fare.

Regular loaves were neither white nor all-wheat. Even those who were wealthy enough to afford wheat in their bread probably often mixed the wheat flour with other cereals and ingredients: rye, barley, and oats.* The bread of the poor, i.e. of most people, might be some combination of rye, barley, oats, and pulses — peas and beans. The only actual bread that has survived from Anglo-Saxon England is mixed wheat and rye. (More on this actual surviving bread in a later post.) As you went down the social scale, the bread would increasingly be made of these non-wheat options, so that most people probably ate more of these than bread wheat. Even for those who ate wheat, it might not be bread wheat like our modern wheat; they also cultivated more ancient variants, such as emmer and spelt. (Spelt, incidentally, is very yummy, not to mention that it doesn’t provoke digestive problems for people with Irritable Bowel or on the FODMAPs diet.)

It almost goes without saying that early medieval bakers used local grains, rather than cereal that had been grown at a distance, or halfway across the world.



Their bread consisted of these grains and possibly pulses, water, leavening, and sometimes salt. None of the other stuff that goes into modern bread, particularly American bread, which is notoriously sweet. For instance, this recipe for “Multigrain Bread” from Martha Stewart not only contains grains (whole wheat and white flour, bulgar, rye, oats, flaxseeds, and sunflower seeds), but also butter, honey, and egg whites. All of that is fancy modern frippery; the Anglo-Saxons never could have imagined such a thing.

Grinding. The biggest difference here is that bread was made with ultra-fresh flour, flour that had been ground very recently, often, as in more modern hand-grinding cultures, that same day. This reportedly gives the bread a remarkable sweetness. Modern commercial flour is aged at least six weeks and is often years old by the time you use it. There is also the issue of what remains after the grinding. Cereal grains are made up of three parts: the germ (the embryo, the part that sprouts), the endosperm (the rest of the inside, equivalent to the white of an egg), and the bran (the tough outside). Modern flour often has the germ removed, since that part spoils fastest. But because early English flour was used so soon after grinding, the germ could be left in. Modern flour is often “enriched” to replace the nutrients removed by processing, but early medieval flour would have retained the majority of those nutrients. Plus added protein from weevils!


This flour, hand-ground with a quern by our valiant researcher, has particles of various sizes.  You’d have to have the patience to put it through the quern a second time if you wanted finer flour.

All early medieval flour was stone-ground, either by hand-grinding with querns (stone hand-mills), or by water-mills. The differences between stone-ground flour and flour ground by modern roller milling would take up several posts on this subject alone, but suffice it to say for right now that there will be differences. Modern home-ground flour is usually ground with electric or hand grinders rather than with a quern, which produces a very fine flour, reportedly at higher temperatures — does anyone have experience with this they want to report on?

Leavening. As now, the early English had two ways of leavening bread: with yeast (in their case, left over from the ale-brewing process), or with sourdough starter. Ale-brewing produced barm, or a layer of yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which was used to leaven dough. Sourdough starter uses a culture of flour, water, and wild yeast that has been floating around the air or living on the flour; modern sourdough yeast is Saccharomyces exiguus or one or more of nineteen other varieties.**

Baking. Ovens were for the wealthy, powerful, and organized, such as monasteries. They took a lot of resources to build and to heat, and even in the later Middle Ages a whole village might share a single oven. When the baker prepared to bake, the fire was built inside first to heat the oven, and then swept out before the bread went in. This means that the bread was not baked over an active fire, but in a temperature that dropped throughout the baking.


Re-creation of an Anglo-Saxon oven at West Stow

Individual villagers seem to have cooked their bread two other ways. They might put the loaf on a bakestone — a thin, flat stone over the fire — and invert a pot over the top. They might pile fuel around it for extra heat. Or they might just put the bread on the stone or on an iron griddle and cook it that way. This would have been particularly tempting for bread that wasn’t going to rise that much anyway, such as oatcakes, or any non-wheat bread. There’s also a possibility that they buried loaves in the hearth to bake, as other cultures have done.

What this means is that bread baked as we think of it, in a large, purpose-built oven, was probably a specialty item in early England. Most bread was probably “cooked” rather than baked as we think of it.

Fluffiness. Nowadays the epitome of good bread is lightness and fluffiness. In early England these were the characteristics of the bread of the rich, and it is no coincidence that white, wheaten bread baked in a purpose-built oven — the bread of the rich — is the kind that rises the highest.   As William Rubel has pointed out in his fascinating book Bread: A Global History, this is the kind of loaf that serves as a silent brag for its owner: “I don’t have to live solely on bread.” Most bread was dark, dense, and almost meaty. A few hearty slices of that bread, maybe topped with butter or cheese if you could afford it, and you felt as though you’d had a meal.


Not Anglo-Saxon bread, not in any way.

To sum up, the average loaf was made of mixed grains, perhaps with pulses as well, and without the additives of much modern bread; the flour was ground not long before baking; the loaf was leavened with barm from brewing or from sourdough starter, and probably didn’t rise much, so that it made a moist, dense loaf; and it was baked on a hearth rather than in an oven. And it formed most of what any Anglo-Saxon ate all day.

Shape, Magic, Meaning. The shape of the loaves, the magic and charms involved in their making, and the meaning of it all — large topics for another day!

We welcome thoughts and experiences from those who have experimented with these variables!


* And another grain, recently discovered, which we will cover once the news is publicly available.

** For a list of the numerous yeasts found in modern sourdough, check the list in Bread and its Fortification: Nutrition and Health Benefits, ed. C. M. Rosell et al. (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2015), pp. 54-55, which you can get at via Google Books.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Nowadays, if it weren’t for toast and the sandwich, bread would be fairly peripheral to most of modern eating. In modern England and the United States, bread in its unadorned form has been relegated to the little restaurant basket of slices that comes while you’re waiting for the “real” meal. This forms a sharp contrast to the place of bread in human history. For the last ten thousand years or so, bread has been central to life in the West. Life was unimaginable without bread, and in many ways life was organized around it: producing it, giving it, eating it, and thinking about it. And even if the restaurant bread basket is now neglected, the centrality of bread in centuries past has determined the shape of modern life in innumerable ways.


The Norton Dog (a pub rather than a dog) tries to make the bread basket more interesting

Our project, the Early English Bread Project, aims to illuminate early English culture by shedding light on a period in which bread was central to human life and culture. We will be looking at one of the least explored parts of bread history: bread in English culture of the Anglo-Saxon period, roughly from the years 450-1100 CE (formerly known as AD). Of course our project includes the culinary aspects of bread — grains, planting, grinding, rising, condiments — but above all it explores bread as a cultural force.

Among the questions we’ll be addressing are: how did the preference for white over brown bread (prevalent in English-speaking culture until the 1980s, and still a force in the larger world) come about, when white bread was so much harder to achieve?   How did bread reflect status? How much of women’s lives were occupied with bread production? How often was bread baked, and how? What did you do if you didn’t have an oven? How did you make sure the darn thing rose? In fact, did it rise? What shape was a loaf? What did you put on it? Is it true that you can’t have bread without beer? What did a meal look like? Is it true that angels delivered bread? And that must have been pretty fabulous bread, right? What does angelic bread look like?   Is bread magical? Exactly how many ways is it magical? How does the getting of bread affect the landscape, trade, the organization of life? What about early English bread is much the same today, and what about it is very different?


Not an Anglo-Saxon angel, but he/she does have bread for the toddler Jesus to distribute

In sum, we are asking three questions about bread: What was it like? What did it do? And what did it mean?

Some of these questions are important for an understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture as a whole; some of them are merely interesting. We will tackle both the important and the interesting. Above all, bread was at the centre of a web of both social practice and moral meaning.   We will be studying bread in a 360-degree context, drawing on sources of many types. Questions of cultivation, landscape, and nutrition will rely on archaeology and paleobotany, deploying new techniques like isotope analysis. Evidence of labour and eating appear in a range of documents: law texts, wills, narrative, and church records. Literary and visual sources also reveal the role of bread in the thinking of the early English. Perhaps surprisingly, the Lives of saints are a particularly rich source of thought about bread.   Place-names show where cereals were grown and processed, and reveal changes in the environment, such as the change from home-based, women-powered hand grinding to centralised, lord-controlled water mills.  Both the literal landscape and the cultural landscape reflect the culture of bread that got its start in this early period.

Do join us for more on all these things. Plus, of course, recipes.