Nostalgia: Give us our daily bread

The towns people depended on communal, professional bakers.
The towns people depended on communal, professional bakers.

What follows this week is a feeble response to critical readers of my past 36 attempts to describe and explain the lives and livelihoods of the English during William Shakespeare’s time. They say that there has been too much about gentlemen and ladies and too little about labourers, servants and housewives. I will do my best, but in self-defence it has to be accepted that four centuries later we can know very little and understand even less about the vast majority of our distant forebears.

Unless they were caught breaking the law and appeared in court, millions of ordinary Elizabethan folk left little or no surviving evidence that they had ever existed. To be recorded by name you needed to be an offender! In Scarborough’s case, St Mary’s original parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials for these years were probably destroyed during the Civil Wars.

There is an abundance of primary evidence in wills, probate inventories, diaries, letters, commonplace books, printed ballads, pamphlets and tax returns, but almost invariably they concern the lifestyles of a tiny minority of literate, adult males: the poor, women and children are conspicuous by their absence. So it takes a leap of imagination for us to appreciate what it was really like for most of the four million subjects of Queen Elizabeth I.

To offer one basic example: today the average household spends about 17 per cent of its income on food, whereas 400 years ago it was as much as 80 per cent. Imagine what a difference that makes to the daily existence of our ancestors who also had to clothe, warm and shelter themselves out of the remaining 20 per cent. For the great majority, who struggled at the margins, living was a perpetual battle for survival.

Understanding the past is dogged by popular misunderstandings as well as the scarcity of reliable facts. For instance, much has been written and believed about the trade and consumption of oriental spices, such as pepper, ginger, cloves and nutmegs; but these exceedingly expensive, imported commodities were much sought after only by the very rich who could afford them. They did not enter the food stores of the many. Also, none of them could conceal the foul taste and prevent the damaging effects of eating bad meat or rotting fish. In fact, meat of any kind was a rare treat for the poorest people who would have preferred unwholesome food to starvation.

However, it is nice to know that the English Tudor household did actually invent the substantial early morning breakfast, not just for nursing mothers and the sick, but mainly for working men and women. English weather was generally thought too wet and cold for outdoor labourers to go without food for long. As early as 1540, there is a written reference to fried bacon and eggs, but poached eggs for gentlemen.

The heaviest meal, dinner, was taken at any time between 10am and midday. In aristocratic houses it was an elaborate, lengthy ritual requiring dozens of cooks and table waiters, but even in the humblest home it was preceded by grace. Bread was the staple diet: it was then the equivalent of all today’s pasta, rice and potatoes, as well as our toast and sandwiches. The average daily consumption was a two pound loaf. For the poorest there was often little more than bread. To most Elizabethans “Give us our daily bread” had a meaning all too urgent, literal and immediate. Even today we still describe principal wage earners as “breadwinners”.

Tudor breads were very different from ours. Four centuries of genetic management and foreign imports have altered the size, yield and nutritional content of our barley, rye, wheat and oat grains. Even in the past wheat was grown in many different varieties to produce bread that ranged from the best “manchet” loaves to inferior “household” and “cheat”.

Tudor methods of milling and baking were different from ours. The quality of milled flour depended crucially on the kind of millstones used by the miller. Millstone grit was so esteemed that, despite the cost, it was transported great distances to wind, water and horse mills. Mixing the flour with yeast, water and salt and kneeding the “yoke” was done entirely by skilled hand and hard work.

Most bread eaten in southern England was maslin, a mixture of wheat and rye, while further north and west, where the climate was wetter and colder, oatcake and ryebread predominated. Only the prosperous yeoman and gentry had their own baking ovens: townspeople depended on communal, professional bakers. In 1601, Scarborough had three licensed town bakers or baxters and six “country” bakers.

Tudor bread was more flavoured, heavier and denser than ours with thick crusts both top and bottom. In grand houses lower crusts were cut off for servants and “upper crusts” were reserved for their masters and mistresses.

Whereas “upper crusts” were served with a rich assortment of meats and fish, and fruits and vegetables in season, for most the common dish was “pottage”, a pot-cooked stew thickened with a variety of seasonal herbs. On traditional fasting days, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and all the days during Lent and Advent, the pottage was seasoned with fish. Sir Hugh Cholmley congratulated himself that twice a week Whitby’s poorest were treated at his Abbey house gates “with bread and gud pottage mad[e] of beefe”.

Nowadays we expect shops to offer every kind of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables throughout the year, but Tudors knew only homegrown food in season. Hens did not lay eggs during the winter; cows were dry between calves; fruit was plentiful only during the late summer and autumn.

Late spring was the time of greatest food shortages. Did you dare to eat your seed corn? Did you slaughter animals that were weak and thin with lack of fodder? Did you risk poaching fish, pigeons, geese or rabbits which rightfully belonged only to the lord of the manor? During years of harvest failure, such as 1594 to 1597, country folk were reduced to eating acorns, leaves and grass. Skeletons of these times show evidence of anaemia, rickets and scurvy caused by malnutrition.

Finally, supper, the third and last meal of the day, could be as early as 4pm in midwinter and as late as 11pm in midsummer when the working day might last 18 hours. In northern rural areas, supper was usually a porridge of oats; in towns, apprentices and labourers might try a takeaway hot pie from the local cook shop. For the five per cent who could afford it, supper was a full meal of bread and soup, followed by meats, tarts and cheese in the same order that they are still served. The medieval belief was that food was cooked and digested in the heat of the belly so that meats which needed most heat should come before sweets and dairy produce which required less.