The story behind a loaf of bread


E.Botham and Sons
In early English historical times, there were constantly recurring periods of famine, due to not enough, or too much rain, or frosts, and other natural causes.

The ruling classes, knowing that rebellion often followed famine, did their utmost to keep the price of bread from rising too high. Laws regulating its price were passed during the reign of King John (1202). Not only did the law fix the price, but it strictly allocated that price between cost of material and an allowance for necessary charges to the baker.

In 1266, the law allowed the baker twelve pence for each quarter of wheat he made into bread, split as follows:

For three servants, 4d. * The reason for this d. for sieving was, that in those days, the baker - not the miller as now - separated out the wheat flour into its white and brown categories. This does not add up to twelve pence - apparently the baker was allowed a quantity of bread and bran to make up the difference. The amounts seem tiny, but this is due to the greater value of money in those days. Weighing pieces of dough
For two boys 1d.
For salt d.
For yeast, d.
For candle d.
For wood, 2d.
For sieving, d.
* 12d (old pennies), or one shilling is worth 5p
For instance, a master carpenter would be paid only 2d. per day, ordinary woodworkers receiving only 1d. Bakers earned less than this, but they were not dependent on the weather and could always be at work, unlike the carpenters. All through English history, great efforts were made to keep the price of bread low, to maintain good quality, and to prevent corruption and dishonesty.

The bakers liked to keep the 'mystery' of the trade to themselves and to prevent unlicensed people from starting up. If a young man wanted to become a baker, he had to serve an apprenticeship of seven years. The law supported the bakers in preserving their craft to themselves, and there were statutes published with various penalties for infringement. In those days there were certain dishonest persons in the trade. We read that in 1298 heavy fines were inflicted on bakers for selling short weight bread. There are the most stringent regulations about the weight of bread today. No baker would wittingly sell underweight. Bakers are sometimes, it is true, prosecuted for so doing but this is invariably due to mischance in machinery or sometimes lack of proper supervision. The fines are pretty stiff.

Bakers at their work during the Middle Ages in England. Until Modern mechanisation,
the tools of the baker changed but little over the centuries. (From an old print.)

Bakers at their work during the Middle Ages
In 1310, a number of female bakers at Stratford were arrested for sending short weight bread to London in their long carts. As the bread was stale, however, they were let off with a reprimand, but were forced to sell their stale d. loaves at three for 1d. In 1327 a fraud was discovered at a public bakehouse where the citizens used to take their dough to have it baked. The bakers who ran the place had secret openings made in the moulding boards, and when the people's dough was placed on the boards, one of the bakers would secretly pinch off piece after piece from the uncooked loaves for their own benefit.
The Rascally Bakers in the Pillory
The Rascally Bakers in the Pillory
They were exposed and caught, the men placed in the pillory with slabs of dough round their necks, while the women were sent to the Newgate prison. You can imagine that the angry populace took full advantage of the pilloried thieves, and pelted them with any foul thing that came to hand. In the time of James the First, there are records of bakers slicing their stale bread into fingers, soaking it well in water, and mixing it with the new dough, 'to the great abuse and scandall of their Mysterie, and the wrong of his Majesties' subjects'.

Some used tricks to deceive the Bread Examiner about weight by inserting copper coins into light-weight bread, or by having correct weight loaves in the shop, and keeping light-weight goods in an inner room. But it must be said, in fairness, that the majority of bakers were, and always had been honest, and proud of their products.