The skill of bread baking passed quickly from Egypt to the Greek and Roman empires. The production of bread remained largely unchanged for centuries until the Industrial Revolution. The social implications of bread production and availability, however, played important roles in society throughout much of the intermediate times.
Among other social issues, a shortage of food and affordable bread is often cited as one of the catalysts of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799). The women’s march to Versailles, on October 5, 1789, was the culmination of anger and frustration over the scarceness and high prices of bread. Over 20,000 French peasants, mostly women, demanded better conditions and bread prices. King Louis XVI had little choice but to concede.
When Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in 1799, his government created specific standards for French bread, which included ingredients, weights, and baking procedures; he also took measures to stabilize grain prices. An even older law in England, the Assize of Bread and Ale, dates to 1266. This law dictated that bread weighs 400 grams, or multiples thereof. Only recently has this law been overturned.
The phrase “baker’s dozen” stems from these and similar laws. In an effort to ensure that breads met weight requirements, bakeries would regularly add an extra loaf of bread with each dozen sold. This was likely a consequence of self-preservation as much as anything. The penalties for selling underweight bread in medieval England could range from fines to prison to the pillory.
Another indication of the social importance of bread is its appearance in folk tales, rituals, and superstitions.
- Stir bread away from you for good luck.
- Eating the crust of bread will give you curly hair.
- Placing a loaf of bread upside-down on a table will bring bad luck.
- Bread and baking is a central theme in the stories and games such as the Little Red Hen, Patty Cake, and Sing a Song of Sixpence.
- Elven Lembas bread is known to maintain freshness and be nutritious, but is not known for its flavor. It is the only known food to make the trek to Mordor.
- The phrase, “It’s the best thing since sliced bread!”
Many of these songs and tales followed bread and baking into our modern world, even as bread production itself changed drastically with the switch to automated and mechanized baking facilities. The history of bread will continue in part 3 with a look at “modern” bread and bakeries.