Do we take modern day white bread for granted?
Bread is truly interwoven into the history of humanity. Evidence for primitive breadmaking goes back as far as 30,000 years ago! Starch ground out from the roots ferns and cattails would be fashioned into a crude flatbread then cooked on a flat rock over a fire.
With the advent of agriculture however, cereal grains became predominant: millet, barley, oats, rye, and wheat. Bread quickly took over as the staple food.
That held true in the Middle Ages too, when peasantry and nobles alike ate bread for sustenance. No matter who or where you were, from castles to hospitals, the daily ration was about two to three pounds of bread per person.
However, in the early Middle Ages wheat was mostly absent from breadmaking in Europe. Instead, bread was a mixture of rye, oats, and spelt. The poor would mix in acorns, chestnuts, peas and other foods to bulk it up.
It wasn’t until the English king Saberht was converted by Saint Augustine of Canterbury in 604 A.D. that wheat bread – that is, white bread – starting taking over. Why?
Augustine and his other Medieval monks used wheat to make white sacramental bread for the Eucharist, which the king took a liking to.
Saint Bede even writes of time Saberht complained the Eucharististic bread wasn’t white enough:
“And when they saw the bishop, having celebrated the solemnities of the mass in church, give the Eucharist to the people, puffed up with barbarian stupidity, they said to him, as is commonly recounted, ‘Why do you not offer us too the white bread which you also gave to our father Saba,’ for that is what they used to call him, ‘and which you have not yet stopped giving to the people in the church?'”
Thereafter, demand quickly grew for white bread by all in England. Historian Debby Banham writes:
“Even by the end of the Middle Ages, Britons of any status were used to eating wheat bread.”
In fact, it’s possible without the introduction of white sacramental bread to England, you wouldn’t be eating white bread today!
“If Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow missionaries had not brought Mediterranean eating habits to England in the early Middle Ages, bread wheat might not have achieved the dominant position it occupies today in agriculture and diet across huge areas of the world.”
So, next time you do, thank Saint Augustine and Medieval Catholic monks! 🍞