Anglo-Saxon Bread: 1047

When I was 6 or 7 we did an experiment at school mixing water and flour together and using the glue created to stick bits of lovingly beglittered tat to other bits of beglittered tat to take home as a ‘gift’ for our parents. My mum kept all our artwork stuck to the kitchen door but now that I think of it I’m not sure I remember my handmade glue creation making the cut, which seems really unfair when you consider that a Father Christmas made by my sister out of a toilet roll tube and some glued on cotton wool enjoyed pride of place on our tree every bloody year. It wasn’t even homemade glue she used either.

Probably not the most promising anecdote to start with, but when you read on you’ll see why I was reminded of my sticky, doughy gluey childhood experiment…

Inspired by Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, I had decided to try something Anglo-Saxon. The show relies heavily on what I’m calling the 3 F’s: fighting, feeding, and, (*checks thesaurus*) fornicating.

Within the ‘feeding’ sections of the show there’s a lot of talk of meat from the Vikings, and a lot of talk about the lack of meat but unfortunate abundance of gruel from Alfred the Great, but not that much talk about bread. I’ve worked out this could be for a few reasons:

  1. The producers were trying to create a great TV drama that would grip an audience. Lengthy discussions on the nuances of bread probably weren’t considered sexy, and perhaps didn’t lead as naturally into the fornicating scenes as having yet another shirtless shot of Uhtred showing off his muscles and beautifully conditioned hair like a macho Barbie.
  2. The script writer was a coeliac with a grudge.
  3. There wasn’t really a universally accepted Anglo-Saxon term for ‘bread’ – at least not in any way that we’d use it today.
Credit: Radio Times

The importance of research.

I did a lot of research trying to work out which of the three reasons it was – hours and hours, in fact, of rewatching selected scenes with meticulous focus and attention to detail.

Eventually I decided the reason bread doesn’t get much of a mention in the show is probably because of reason 1, but the historian in me still wanted to delve into reason 3 a little more.

To really understand why there was no clear word for bread in Anglo-Saxon England you have to understand the special kind of jiggery pokery that is the evolution of the English language, which I don’t. Luckily, Dr Irina Yanushkevich does, so I’ve taken a lot of my info and processes this week from her paper ‘The Domain of Bread in Anglo-Saxon Culture’.

To cut a long story short(ish) (and hide the fact that I don’t really understand it all), the Anglo-Saxons had many words relating to different types of bread, or bread like substances, or specific ingredients used to make bread, or the tools needed to prepare bread, or the physical action of making the bread, or the times of year which you could start making bread, or the types of people who might make bread, or the sacrificial role of the bread in religious ceremonies, or how much someone wants to eat the bread or how they will pay for the bread.

Truly, if I were an Anglo-Saxon baker I’d be getting restraining orders against most of the village, so obsessed people appeared to be with bread. If I learned anything from this experiment it’s that when compared to the Anglo-Saxons, even the nation’s own self aggrandising bread whisperer Paul Hollywood pales into insignificance in terms of preoccupation with the stuff.

But where does the word bread come from?

I’m so glad you asked.

Anglo-Saxons had different breads for different people. Fine white wheat was used for the most expensive types and pea or bean flour used for the poorest. This lowly bread was also known as horsebread, and was considered fit only for animals or in times of famine. On the other hand, wheat was a labour intensive crop to grow, and riskier for farmers as it was comparatively more susceptible to damage compared to its hardier counterparts rye and barley. Breads made out of wheat therefore cost much more, eventually becoming known as a ‘cash crop’.

According to Dr. Yanushkevich, the word bread may derive from the Gothic word broe, which was related to brewing or fermenting, as baking and brewing went hand in hand at this time. The Anglo-Saxons possibly used broe to describe bread leavened with barm from fermenting beer and the word hlāf to describe bread that was unleavened. So far, so simple. The trouble is that hlāf could also be used to mean ‘food’ in general and, later, breads that were only used in religious contexts.

Still with me? Ok. Whatever you called it, bread was a pretty big deal to the Anglo-Saxons. It could be spread with butter for a quick snack after a hard day’s work of fleeing from the Vikings bravely defending England, or used to mop up sauces at a feast. Bread could even serve as plates – known as trenchers – once it had gone too hard and stale to eat (though this use was more prevalent during the later middle ages.) Therefore, the leaders of England did what all good capitalist overlords do: regulated the production and sale of it to keep the wealthy wealthy and the poor, well, poor.

Despite its obvious importance, it appears the Anglo-Saxons considered bread to be so ingrained into people’s lives that they didn’t write any recipes for it. All we have are references to the laws and customs of the time to work out how to make it.

In 1047 King Edward the Confessor enacted the Bread Purity Law. This was after his delicate royal palate had been offended by something masquerading as bread but that according to his royal highness was Definitely Not Proper Bread. The Bread Purity Law made it a crime to call anything that contained anything other than just fine flour, water, barm and salt, bread.

Unfortunately the Hovis baker’s boy had to be executed after breaching the terms of the Bread Law
Image credit: Dmitry Makeev

But you’re not using barm…

Technically, then, I should be fined 30 shillings (it being my first bread related offence) under Edward’s law as my bread didn’t contain any barm: the froth on top of fermenting beer which the Anglo-Saxons skimmed off and added as a rising agent.

The bread I made today was something that would have been an everyday quick fix to go with a main meal. This was the bread shown fleetingly in scenes of The Last Kingdom; bread that would quickly and easily feed an army, fill a belly that hadn’t eaten meat in days, and temporarily quieten an upset child.

The method.

First, I mixed 160g of white wheat flour with a pinch of salt before adding 5 or 6 tablespoons of water and stirring until it was a fairly wet dough. Now, it’s unlikely that the Anglo-Saxons making this basic type of bread would have used wheat flour; more likely they’d have used a barley or rye mixture. However, not only did Sainsbury’s flour aisle not stretch to those good honest grains (too much shelf space taken up flogging tomato and pesto bread mix, apparently) but in a recipe as sparse as this one, I felt I might as well treat myself to a better quality of flour.

Unleavened Anglo-Saxon bread was baked on flat stones or griddles placed on embers, sometimes with pans or lids placed over them to encourage steam to help them rise just a little bit. I scraped two spoons worth of it onto my griddle and put a very authentic Anglo-Saxon wok over the top to create some moisture.

After only a few minutes I was overjoyed to smell burning so I quickly whipped my wok off (not rude) and flipped the breads over for another few minutes. Then they were done.

Anglo-Saxons preferred brie with their bread, but would eat Red Leicester if they had to.

The verdict.

These were genuinely decent. More than decent, in fact – these were pretty damn good.

They tasted ever so slightly charred and a bit salty but other than that, just like bread. Pitta bread, in fact. The insides were quite fluffy despite the density of the mixture and the overall size of the bread – about the size of my palm – was just right for a snack.

I ate mine with a hunk of cheese, but I could see this working with anything really – the salt content could be altered depending on whether the breads are served with savoury or sweet accompaniments.

One thing worth mentioning is that this bread was much, much better eaten hot than it was after an hour or so. After it had cooled it was quite chewy and hard work, although to a battle-weary Anglo-Saxon that might not have mattered so much.

All in all, this experiment was a great success ending in a quick, cheap and adaptable bread recipe and a couple of day’s worth of watching The Last Kingdom on repeat for Very Important Research Reasons. Roll on series 5!

E x

Update: it has come to my attention that the Bread Purity Law may have been an internet joke, and not a true law after all. We all love a good joke, don’t we…?

Anyway, joke or not, later medieval Assizes of Bread did pretty much the same thing: attempted to regulate the sale of bread and ensure ingredients were up to scratch.

Anglo-Saxon Bread

160g plain flour
Olive oil or butter (optional)

1. Combine flour and water and mix into a fairly we dough. It should be easier to spoon than knead.

2. Heat a griddle pan or frying pan and place a little oil or butter to melt on it.

3. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of dough onto pan (or however much you want depending on how big you want your bread.) Make sure it doesn’t come up too much by flattening and spreading it with the back of a spoon.

4. Cook for 5 minutes before flipping and cooking on the other side for another 5 minutes. If dough is still pale and soft then return to pan and cook for longer.