Medieval Occupations and Jobs: Baker.

Bakers were essential in the Middle Ages.

In medieval Europe, baking ovens were often separated from other buildings and sometimes located outside city walls in order to reduce the risk of fires. Ovens were expensive capital investments and required careful operation.

The production of baker’s goods was heavily regulated due to bread being an important staple food. For example, Henry III promulgated the Assize of Bread and Ale in 1267, imposing regulations such as inspection and verification of weights and measures, and quality and price control.

History of Bakers

Baking is a very old activity, because grains have been a staple food for millennia. The ancient Greeks used enclosed ovens heated by wood fires, and communities usually baked bread in a large communal oven. Athenaeus described seventy-two varieties of bread!

In ancient Rome,  bakers used honey and oil in their breads (or pastries), sometimes for the large households that they served exclusively. 

In Medieval Europe, bakers were often part of the guild system; master bakers instructed apprentices and were assisted by journeymen. A fraternity of bakers existed in London as early as 1155, and the Worshipful Company of Bakers was formed by charters dated 1486, 1569, and 1685.

Preservatives were not available to keep bread fresh for long periods of time, so during periods of famine it was common for the monarchy to force bakers to make bread available at below-market prices (or simply confiscated them) in order to prevent their populace from starving. Guilds were established in order to prevent bakers from finding themselves without bread for them and their families.

Medieval portable pie oven 1465-1475 Illumination; wood fired baking oven from 1465-1475, "A pie-baker", Konzil von Konstanz ÖNB 3044, fol. 48v.
Medieval portable pie oven 1465-1475 Illumination; wood fired baking oven from 1465-1475, "A pie-baker", Konzil von Konstanz ÖNB 3044, fol. 48v.
Female bakers 14th cent Illumination from the 14th cent Tacuinum Sanitatis BNF Latin 9333.
Female bakers 14th cent Illumination from the 14th cent Tacuinum Sanitatis BNF Latin 9333.

Types of Bread

Middle Ages bread was generally unleavened bread, the use of yeast was not widespread until later in the Renaissance period.

This type of bread was dense and difficult to digest, so it was baked thin and could be used as plates to hold the rest of the meal. As the juices from the meal soaked through the bread, it became more flavorful and easier to eat.

Peasants ate rye or barley bread, which was usually coarsely ground and had a darker brown color. White bread, considered “less contaminated”, was the one preferred by wealthier people.

The loaves of bread could significantly vary in size, color, shape, and texture, sometimes depending on the client (hence the names “king’s loaf”, “squire’s loaf”, etc). 

Buiscuits were also created in the Middle Ages by baking bread twice, which left it crispy, flaky, and easy to preserve. They were considered ideal for long travels, war, and for storing them for winter months.

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