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.
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.
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):
- ‘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 other signs for bread and baked goods in the Cluny list are as follows:
- ‘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.’
- ‘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.’
- ‘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.’
- ‘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.’
And these are the two extra signs from William of Hirsau’s list (late 11th century):
- ‘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.’
- ‘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.’
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:
- ‘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:
- ‘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.’
- ‘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.’
- ‘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.’
- ‘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:
- ‘Pro signo oblate maioris premisso panis signo pollicem et sibi proximum oculo circumpone.’
- ‘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.