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

Photo by Pixabay on

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



6 thoughts on “The Deep History of Women and Bread, Part One

  1. This blog highlighting women’s connection to the grinding of grains with quern stones is both timely and thought-provoking for me. I’m in the process of laying out how Early Modern Scottish Highland women understood their social roles and work, often tracing the roles’ cultural continuity from Early Irish through to mid-20th C. Despite being an avid bread-baker, I hadn’t included grinding/bread baking in my layout (my research tends towards dairying) and not at all thought act of grinding being a task for two and “women’s space”!

    I’ll have to pull my copy of Pennant out and also see what other quern references I can find in it and other Scottish sources. I’m pretty certain querns were used in the Hebrides into the 20th C.

    Perhaps if I had a quern stone of my own… And a number of extra-strong female friends/relatives to work it with, I would have made these “women’s work/sphere” connections on my own but your blog has become grist for my own academic grinding (and citing). Can’t wait for the next installment!


    • Grinding flour in the Highlands might be its own category, as well — there seem to be a number of early modern references to women making bread from scratch on the spot. I mean a visitor arrives and the woman of the house dashes out to the field, gathers a little grain, processes it (which includes burning off the unneeded parts very quickly), grinds it lickety-split, adds water, shapes the dough, and cooks it on the fire, and presents it to the guest, all in about half an hour from start to finish. The visitors are typically very impressed by this. Of course it’s only enough flour for one hearthcake, so just a handful of flour — but it’s a recurring theme in the recollections of visitors. One wonders how they always had grain at the right stage of ripeness. If you find any more accounts of this, I’d love to have them.


      • Ah yes, “gradan” which is Scottish Gaelic for the quickie process of burning the presumably fresh straw that the grain (oats especially) is still attached to, resulting in it being harvested, threshed, winnowed and parched “within half an hour,” then quickly ground on the quern and made into griddle (Scots “girdle”) cakes. My trusty, “Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary notes that this was still being carried out on the Hebridean island of Uist in presumably the late 19th C. Authorities always saw it as a dreadfully wasteful process because you lost the use of the straw as it burnt to ash.

        Sandy Fenton, in one of my favorite books, “Scottish Country Life,” notes that graddaning is “always carried out by women” and documented as far back as the 16th century (Scottish records are really poor before then) through the 19th and found where the cold, damp climate requires active drying of grain before grinding. He also notes that Ireland outlawed it in the 17th C. (due to frets over loss of straw again). Oh cool… and he also references a 1768 MS account that “two women worked together in open air beside a fire of chaff” to graddan the grain, preparing it for grinding in the mill (p.94). He also comments that its 19th C survival in Uist, etc. was for making fresh bread at the start of the harvest.

        Several thoughts occur to me at the moment: 1) Highland visitors who commented on the tasty cakes might well have been visiting during the relatively dry and warm harvest season, and more germane to our Bread & Women focus here, 2) women may have found others ways to maintain their social work space and association after the act of grinding went to the male-run mills.

        P.s. On p. 100, Fenton has a 1964 picture of a working, rotary quern in the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay.


      • This is all enormously fascinating! I must gather all these references together. I was assuming that the method with graddaning was just a shortcut one went to when a guest arrived unexpectedly, rather than the usual method of harvesting and grinding. The women may have also created other women’s spaces to replace the loss of grinding, and in small communities women’s camaraderie can be easier to find. But I note that in most of the modern West, stay-at-home women (especially stay-at-home mothers) are typically the only adult in their house for most of the day, and even that staple of ’50s mockery, the women’s neighborhood coffee klatsch, has died out. And cf. the analyses of modern isolation, Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” and Johann Hari’s “Lost Connections.” So the forces of isolation have won out at last. Of course it’s not all the loss of querns! But there’s a case to be made that it was a key moment.


  2. Fascinating! I had no idea that ballast stones were connected with querns, nor about the later conversion of querns to contraband. In retrospect the latter makes sense as a way to force the use of the outside mills. I’d always assumed that the large-scale milling won out over home grinding because it was more efficient and produced finer flour, but there was clearly more at play.


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