The Early English Bread Project: Meanings and Materiality

Debby Banham, Cambridge
23 November 2017

Bread, as befits the ‘staff of life’, is abundantly documented in England from the later middle ages onwards, both as a physical substance and as the focus of a complex network of meanings and ideas, and has been the subject of much scholarly work. But for the early middle ages, the sources are much scantier and harder to interpret, and the volume of scholarship is accordingly much less.

In the Early English Bread Project, Professor Martha Bayless (University of Oregon) and Dr Debby Banham (Cambridge and Birkbeck) set out to remedy this situation, by bringing together as wide a variety of evidence as possible. Research has involved baking, cultivation, and conversations with millers and bakers, as well as collecting references to bread from early medieval written sources, place-names, archaeological reports and anywhere else we could find them.

This paper will discuss some of the conclusions of the project, including the variety of cereals used and the way they were processed, methods of raising dough and baking, how and when bread was eaten, ideas about bread and status, and bread and the supernatural: apart from the the eucharist, bread featured in such practices as improving the fertility of fields, curing sick horses, and possibly less reputable activities.

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