Thanks to our helpful volunteer narrator, this entire post series is now also available in audio format!
As the third part (I, II, III, IV, A) of our look at the basic structure of food production in the pre-modern world (particularly farming grain to make bread) we’re going to finally look at how one actually farms grain to make bread. Now that we have all of our farmers in place, both the big ones and the little ones, we can get down to the earth and the mechanics of making some food. As a result, this part is going to be a bit more descriptive and a bit less analytical.
This is not going to be a how-to guide (farming is complicated), but I want to give a sense of what our cereal farmers are doing at each stage of the year, the labor and tool demands of those tasks, and how they impact farming overall, along with the major processing stages (threshing, milling, baking) and the sorts of people who were involved with them. I should note that our look at processing especially is going to be much more closely connected with the ancient and medieval Mediterranean, as a function of where I feel like I have a decent grasp on the structure of milling and baking as industries.
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((Also as a reminder, the selected bibliography for all of this is back in the first post.)
Farming in Season
Since we have our farmers in place, let’s look at the activities of a single farming season in sequence. Again, just to point out the necessary caveats,: different crops have different steps (these are the steps for wheat and barley), but also this is just a general overview and I am sure there are any number of important tasks that a farmer will spot that I’ve missed.
Now as I noted in the first post, the planting and harvest times move depending on if winter wheat was used (planted in autumn, harvested in early summer) or spring wheat (planted in spring, harvested in fall). These are actually different strains of wheat (triticum aestivum). Local soil conditions, especially seasonal moisture levels, are going to determine which variety of wheat is used. Barley likewise can be a summer crop (especially in temperate areas) or a winter crop (in very warm areas; barley tolerates salty soil and dry conditions, but does poorly in cold winters). I am going to follow the timings, roughly, for winter wheat (because it was the most common in the ancient Mediterranean, where my expertise lies). When a spring wheat or barley is used, it is sown in the spring, with weeding in the summer, and with reaping, threshing and winnowing in the fall, so if you like, you can follow along, converting over to spring wheat timings.
But with winter wheat, that means our cycle begins late in the summer, getting ready for the planting season. We have already pulled in and processed the previous harvest (in early summer), had our harvest festivals, banqueted our neighbors and are now preparing for planting. The first step is plowing. The plow – a wood or metal board pushed into the earth – carves grooves in the soil (making those distinctive little ridges in farmland) and turning up the lowest soil and putting it on top. Plow design is actually something we can observe archaeologically; plows tended to improve over time, particularly their ability to deal with heavy, dense soils (though taking a heavy, deep-soil plow into lighter shallow soil is perilous, as various farmers have found at points in history); I won’t get into the details here, but Wikipedia actually has a pretty capable list of forms. That said, while plow technology did steadily improve (only occasionally fast enough for our sources to notice, e.g. Plin. Nat. Hist. 18.172), the average peasant farmer is going to use the plow that is common in their region, which may or may not be the best for the task from a global or diachronic inventory of plow-types. Technological change for subsistence farmers was slow, so even unsuitable plows might last in regions for decades or centuries before a more suitable design was developed or imported. Whatever design you had, you were largely stuck with it, at least in a time-frame measured by decades instead of generations or centuries.
(An aside: being American, I am using the American spelling ‘plow.’ The British spelling, which you may see, is ‘plough.’ As is common, the British spelling has no particular claim to antiquity – the Old English is plōh, which in turn gives the Middle English word, spelled alternately as ‘plow,’ ‘plouh’ and ‘plough,’ among other variations. British ‘ou’ for ‘o’ spellings are frequently either Latin or Old English words originally spelled with just the ‘o’ (e.g. Latin, honor, color and here Old English plōh), which acquired their ‘u’ with the admixture of French. Not that there is anything special about Americanisms; merely to note that just because a usage is British does not make it old or original, as far as I can tell in any case the American word is about as likely to be the original older spelling as the British one)
A field was generally plowed more than once in order to get an ideal soil situation. The Romans seem to have assumed a normal field would be plowed three times before planting (with denser soils potentially requiring more runs): once to break up the soil (which will have spent the growing season compressing and hardening; you want it light and loose), then a run ‘cross-plowing’ (plow-lines perpendicular to the first effort), before the third plowing on the original direction (‘ridging’) leaving the distinctive farming ridges in the dirt. In some cases, a different plow might be used for the steps, with the first step (or first two) carried out with an ard-plow (sometimes called a ‘breaking’ plow), which has no mouldbord and so merely cuts the earth but does not invert it and the last step carried out by a mouldboard plow, which has a mouldboard designed to basically ‘flip’ the soil as it moves, exposing the clods of dirt in the lower layers to the air. The plowings could be spaced out; the advice for a fallowed field (one where there was no crop growing in the previous year) was to plow once each in spring, summer and autumn. The schedule might be compressed for rich land continually cropped.
Now as we’ve noted, the very poorest of farmers are not going to have regular access to a plow-team. While they may have used human power to move a plow, the more common expedient here was hoe-farming using hoes, digging sticks or small ‘hard ards.’ That was slow, inefficient and backbreaking work, so getting access to a plow-team was important if at all possible. Even for an animal-drawn plow (with a plow-team, normally oxen) there’s quite a lot of muscle work to be done to keep the furrows (the grooves left by the plow) straight – the straighter and more even the better – and to keep the plow down in the earth (pushing down on it may be necessary). Remember: you are not only moving the weight of the plow, but the weight of all of the earth it is turning up. This is one of the advantages of an animal plow team – oxen, being big, strong things can pull a much deeper plow. Of course a lot of land needed to get plowed and in a relatively constrained time window; as you might imagine, the fellows who might own the plow teams would thus be in a position to make sure their lands were plowed during the most favorable time windows.
Plowing does a number of important things to enable farming. The thing that everyone generally has in mind is that it upturns the earth, bringing deeper soil up; since crops exhaust the nutrients in the soil, plowing ‘shuffles the deck.’ But it also crucially cuts through the root-systems of weeds and disrupts the life-cycle of various pests (both by disrupting larva or eggs, but also by killing the plants those pests might feed on). Removing the weeds by plowing was especially important in dry climates because otherwise the roots of those weeds would bring moisture out of the ground into the leaves of the weeds where it would evaporate; killing the weeds at the roots conserved the moisture for the crop. Finally, plowing served to loosen up the dirt to allow the seeds to germinate better.
Planting and the Growing Season
Things get busy as we get to the sowing season. If the field is going to be treated with manure, that gets laid down before the final plowing (which would come around September for an autumn-planting/summer harvest), with seeds being sown with that last plowing. Manuring before the final plowing (with a mouldboard plow that upturns the soil) ensures that the nutrient-rich manure ends up buried and mixed into the soil; if left on the surface the manure will dry out and decompose, wasting the nutrient-value.
There are a number of ways to sow seeds, which vary by the available technology and ground conditions. Ideally, the farmer wants all of the seeds to be evenly and fairly densely placed, but the raw number of plants that need to be planted typically prohibits hand-placement of individual seeds. Generally the best method is for seeds to be dropped into shallow holes and then covered, called ‘seed drilling‘ – basic seed drills existed in the Bronze Age Near East (c. 1400 in Babylon) and in second century China, but never reached Europe or apparently the broader Mediterranean; the Romans seem not to know of them. Instead, seed-drilling in Europe only arrives in the early modern period. Seed-drilling allows for fairly regular lines of plants and optimal seed-depth, but wasn’t technologically an option in much of the world for most of the pre-modern period.
In places where seed-drilling devices weren’t available, seeds were sown by the broadcast method. The ground was plowed, then the seeds were thrown out over the ground (literally cast broadly; this is where our term broadcast comes from); the ridges created by plowing would cause most of the seeds to fall into the grooves (called furrows; thus a ‘furrowed’ brow being one scrunched up to create ridges and depressions that looked like a plowed field), creating very rough rows of crops once those seeds sprouted. Then the land is then harrowed (where our sense of ‘harrowing‘ comes from – seriously, so much English idiomatic expressions are farming idioms, for obvious reasons), typically with rakes and hoes to bury the seeds by flattening out the ridges (but not generally entirely erasing them) in order to cover the seeds over once they had been placed with very loose clods of earth. Farming was a skill and our sources (e.g. Plin. Nat. Hist. 18.197) are clear that a farmer is likely to have a very refined, very intentional practiced motion for broadcasting the seed, both to manage the distribution of the seeds in each cast but also the rate of sowing to ensure that the seed is evenly distributed over the whole field.
The labor demands of the plowing and planting process were pretty high (but of course varied with tool, plow and animal availability). Columella, a Roman agricultural writer, estimates roughly 4 labor days per iugerum (c. 6 days per acre) to plow and sow, compressed into the period between the September equinox (22nd or 23rd) and early December. The schedule was more demanding when we remember that weather (heavy rains especially) might ruin multiple days. After the seed was in the ground, the labor demands decrease quite a lot, but do not go away; Columella gives five days of labor per iugerum for post-sowing, pre-harvest tasks (harrowing, hoeing, weeding). Now it is important to stress that the labor demands of farming are conditioned by the need to grow plants in bulk; this may seem a strange thing to note but for many modern green-thumbs, there’s a bit of a fundamental disconnect on how different it is to grow a few dozen or even few hundred plants compared to a farmer who might be (using Columella’s figures; modern figures differ but not by nearly as much as you’d expect) sowing more than one-and-a-quarter million seeds per acre (which may neatly explain why individual seed placement is impractical!). Tending to each plant individually was simply not an option.
What is happening in the growing period? In dry climates (including most of the Mediterranean), hoeing is an important task which breaks up the upper-layer of soil above the crop, creating a layer of loose, dry earth which doesn’t conduct heat or water well and thus shields the seeds from the drying heat of the spring (keeping in the moisture it needs to grow most effectively). This had to be done with care as hoeing was best done as the tops of the crops were nearing the tops of the ridges; care had to be taken not to disturb the crop’s root systems or damage the young stems. Practices varied, but Columella suggests that wheat was generally hoed twice, but barley only once (one of many ways in which barley was less labor intensive; he also assigns it fewer days for plowing and weeding; barley was just a more tolerant crop. This was offset by it being both less tasty but also less nutritious, something that even the Romans were already aware of). This process is also going to (hopefully) disrupt the growing of weeds.
Weeding in earnest begins in the spring. Here ridging bears more advantages: while the crop sits (hopefully) at the base of the furrows, the weeds will often grow atop the ridges, where they can be easily removed. Weeding was a continual task and done by hand, removing the offending plants from the crop one by one. Weeds were a real problem for the farmer: they soak up moisture and nutrients which would otherwise go to the crop, so their removal is an important task.
I’ve given the timetable so far for a Mediterranean winter-wheat planting from autumn to summer (our harvest is just around the corner). The basic steps in North Chinese wheat agriculture were the same, but the seasonal timing was different using a spring -wheat, with plowing and planting in spring, weeding in summer, harvest in fall and storage over the winter. Which at last gets us to:
While the harvest required less total labor than plowing, it took place over a much narrower time-frame, about a month and a half for the entire harvest process (including threshing) beginning in June or July depending on the climate. This was in many ways the most vulnerable moment of the process: the grain was ripe in the fields, easily spoiled by pests, knocked down by windstorms or heavy rain, pillaged by armies and so on. Until all of that ripe, delicious wheat (and ripe, bland barley) was reaped, threshed, winnowed and stored all of those dangers remained. A quick harvest was thus very much desirable.
Reaping – the cutting down of the wheat and barley plants – was typically done with a sickle or scythe, though as I understand it the sickle was more common for grains, the scythe being more usually used on hay-grasses. There’s quite a bit of regional and temporal variation in technologies; K.D. White (Roman Farming (1970)) notes that the 19th century English scythe-using farmer could reap twice as fast as his first century, sickle-bearing Roman equivalent (with the rate of the latter supplied by Columella, though it must be noted that Columella is universally pessimistic in his statistics for wheat as he wants to convince you to farm grapes instead).
Interestingly, exactly how the reaping was done differed by area due to local conditions. Varro has this fascinating note that there were, in his day (first century BC) three methods in Italy. In Northern Italy, the stalks were cut right under the ears (the seed-bearing part) of the plant, and the rest of the plant left in the field to dry and only being cut later for use as thatch (since fodder and grazing was easy to come by in the region). Meanwhile in Southern Italy, where grazing and fodder stocks for animals were far more scarce, grains were cut close to the base, then cut again under the ears once they were down with the stalks being bundled in the field for use as fodder for animals. In Central Italy, a hybrid of these two methods was practiced. It’s pretty clear in this case the question was fodder availability, but I bring up this example just to note how much local regional variation there could be, even just within Italy, as farmers respond to local conditions. Interactions with animals can be especially complex – for instance in parts of the Roman world, it was suggested that animals should actually be grazed in wheat fields very early in the growing season, to prune down the wheat stalks, which causes them to ‘bush out’ at the base. All of which is to say, consult your neighborhood primary source for local variation before making assumptions about local systems!
There would also be stubble in the field – the roots and bits of plant below the cut of the sickle. In wetter climates, that stubble will keep growing a bit and can provide useful pasture for animals to nibble on, but in dry climates the stubble, exposed to the heat of summer (as in the Mediterranean) parches rapidly and dies. It seems that it was common in the Mediterranean to actually burn the stubble, in order to return its nutrients to the ground, but it might also be plowed under to similar effect.
Once the stalks are cut down and the ears separated, you have the straw (used, again, as fodder or thatch and thus here exiting our story) and the ears of wheat and barley themselves. These are full of seeds (the thing you want) but also a bunch of plant matter you do not want. Which brings us to the first processing step: threshing and winnowing, which I’m including here because it was typically done on the farm during the harvest (often literally simultaneously, with part of the household reaping the crop and another part of the household threshing the wheat as it came in).
Threshing comes first: this is the process of getting the edible grain out from the inedible parts of the plant, by a number of different processes that, to the untrained eye, appear to consist of simply beating the everliving hell out of the grain until it gives up and begs for mercy. There is, of course, more to it than this. Methods vary. For wheat and barley, the most common pre-modern method was threshing with flails, either unjointed (which is to say, a club) or jointed flails: the cut grain was put on the threshing floor and beaten with the flails which knocked the grain and much of the chaff (the dry, protective casing the grain-seed itself sits in) loose. The actual grain, being small and dense, falls to the base of the threshing floor; once all of the grains are free, the straw may be gently raked away, leaving just the grains and some of the chaff (much of the chaff may blow away if there is a breeze as it is very light). On larger farms, the same method might be achieved by spreading the material on the threshing floor and having it either trampled by farm animals (especially oxen) to provide the same percussive effect as the flails, or having a ‘threshing-sledge’ (a heavy wooden board with flint teeth on the underside) drawn over it by animals. Of these, as best I can tell, threshing with flails seems to have been the most common, at least in Europe and the Mediterranean where my knowledge is best.
(As an aside: truly manual threshing, where the stalks (complete with their seeds) are bundled together and beat over a surface to knock the seeds loose doesn’t seem to my knowledge to have been common with wheat or barley, but does appear to have been one of the standard methods with rice. At the same time, as far as I can tell, threshing flails were not generally used with rice. Threshing by trampling was used with both, however.)
Threshing was a long, tedious, labor-intensive process which would begin often even as the harvest was coming in and continue potentially even into the winter for families that were short on labor. Consequently, this is the moment we are mostly likely to see marginal laborers – children and in some cultures women – employed directly in agricultural labor. Even in places (like Greece and Rome) where we rarely see women in the fields (we are mostly relying on representational evidence to assess this, but textual evidence also often suggests that women engaging directly in most agricultural labor was seen as strange and a sign of severe financial distress) they frequently figure in harvest and threshing. This was an all-hands-on-deck part of the year, though – this is my purely subjective sense of the sources – in a good year it tends to be reckoned as a busy but happy time, since the period directly after the harvest generally held the year’s biggest festivals (the part where you banquet your neighbors). At the same time, we can easily imagine, in the event that the harvest has come in under expectations, the steady dread of the adults in farming families who are likely already calculating in their heads the steps they will need to take to survive until the next harvest.
But we’re not quite done with the harvest. After threshing, the grain we have is still has all sorts of things which are not grain seeds in it – potentially including pests, lots of bits of chaff, rocks off of the threshing floor and so on. That all has to be removed from the actually edible grains. One of the main worries is the grain weevil (genus curculio, after the Latin name for the bug) which might spoil the grain if not removed.
So we move on to winnowing. This can be done in two main ways, before the advent of modern machinery (winnowing machines appear in China as early as the 14th century but not in Europe until the early 18th). In the first method a winnowing basket (sometimes called a winnowing ‘fan’) is used: the threshed grain is placed in the basket, which is then shook (often raised overhead). The chaff and other not-yummy-grain-seed-things are all less dense than the grain seeds and so rise to the top of the pile as it is shaken; the basket is tilted slightly so that in rising, the chaff falls over the edge and out of the basket as it is shaken, eventually leaving just the grain on the bottom. Alternately, a ‘winnowing shovel’ can be used to throw the threshed grains up into the air during a light breeze; the straw and chaff and other impurities, being light, will be blown clear, while the heavy grains fall straight back down and form a pile at the winnower’s feet. As you’ll note, both of these processes require the grain seeds to already have been knocked loose from the chaff and straw (so that the only problem is that they are intermixed), which is why you have to both thresh and winnow, in that order. In some cases, winnowed grain might then also be passed through a sieve, particularly if it was intended for long storage, to try to weed out any lurking pests.
An interesting note here: intentional selective breeding of all kinds of staple cereal crops happens very early (we can tell because of how dramatically the strains of farmed wheat and barley change compared to their wild ancestors), but we actually have references to it in the Greek and Roman agricultural tradition: it is suggested that the heaviest grains, which will make their way to the bottom in the winnowing process, be selected as the seed grains for the following year.
Sale and Storage
What all of that process leaves us with is a pile – ideally a very large pile – of grain seeds, which are what contains all of the useful (for humans who can’t break down cellulose) nutritional value. I have always found it striking that for all of the plant in those vast fields of wheat, it is only the small batch of seeds up at the top that we actually eat.
Now we’re going to deal with (very broadly) extraction and markets next week, but I want to note that this is generally the first point in the process where we would see them. Unsurprisingly, tax collectors and merchants are uninterested in buying all of the straw and chaff: they just want the edible grains. In the entire ground-to-bread chain, this is also the best stage for long-term storage and long-distance transport: basically all of the extraneous material has been removed, but the seed is still in its little shell, which improves storage life. Now we’ll get into all of the elements of getting this stuff to non-farmers next week; I just wanted to note that this is the stage, if you are going to sell or be taxed in grain, that this would happen. This is also the point where grain is moved to the cities – milling and baking is generally done relatively close to the point of consumption. So almost any kind of trade in cereals is trade happening in threshed and winnowed (but not milled or baked) grains.
But whether the grain is now in the hands of the farmer or the merchant (or the tax-man) it is going to have to be stored in a granary. Granary design varies wildly from place to place based on local conditions and building materials, but the basic demands are constant: grain needs to be kept moderately cool, out of direct sunlight and mostly importantly very dry in order to discourage mold and pests from spoiling it. Complicating this problem, the grain is going to be bringing a fair bit of moisture with it. Thus, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, grain can’t just be sealed up inside solid containers because without air-circulation, the moisture already in the grain will lead to the growth of mold (which will in turn, due to its biological processes, heat the grain which leads to fermentation, which in this case is not desirable). Air-flow is thus essential, but has to be balanced with the avoidance of direct sunlight and keeping out pests. Thus, while grain was sometimes stored in ceramic vessels (amphora, pithoi, pots) it was (and is) most commonly kept in bags or sacks.
Consequently, some of the most common ways to build granaries is for them to be suspended slightly up off of the ground so that cooler, drier air can enter from below. A hole or window near the top of the granary allows warm air to escape; because warm air carries more moisture leaving than cold air entering (warm air can dissolve more moisture into it than cold air can), this keeps the moisture level low. This is why many traditional granaries are tall rather than wide, even in areas where space is not at a premium – a taller, thinner structure maximizes this air movement. Elevating the base of the granary also serves to discourage animals and pests from getting at the grain. While modern granaries are sometimes built on large concrete foundations to get them up off of the ground, pre-modern designs tend to use some sort of stilts.
Within that basic scheme there is a lot of variation. Roman agricultural (writers suggest the use of plaster, amurca and cement to carefully seal the granary against pests, along with high vaulted ceilings to enable the necessary air movement (with high windows facing north, presumably to avoid letting in direct sunlight). Wooden granaries elevated on ‘staddle stones’ were common in Britain, but same design features working to capture the same advantage of an elevated granary shows up in a wide variety of places, for instance the rangkiang elevated rice barns of Indonesia.
Grains still require processing in order to be eaten. Raw unmilled barley and wheat can be made edible by roasting, or better yet turned in to porridge by boiling the grains in equal parts grain and water for roughly an hour or so. For folks without the ability to mill grain into flour – particularly ancient war parties or armies on the move – that was enough to render the grains edible, at least. But turning grain into bread has nutritional advantages, breaking down some of the harder to digest plant compounds and cell-walls, thus allowing the human body to derive more nutrition from the bread itself than it would from the grains. Consequently, more logistically sophisticated ancient and pre-modern armies often brought portable milling and baking equipment with them so that they could readily process captured grain (which is going to be stored, as noted above, as grain seeds) first into flour and then into delicious, nutritious bread.
Milling is a mechanical process by which the grains are crushed down to a powder, called flour. As with farming above, milling is one of those processes that seems simple and easy until you remember the scale it has to be done at. As you may recall from the first part, a single five-person family might have consumed around 1,750 liters of grain (by volume, of course) which might in turn mean something on the order of twenty-million seeds which need to be crushed and ground into powder. Obviously, this needs to be done en masse. A simple hand mortar-and-pestle isn’t going to get the job done. Instead, much larger stone grinders are used to pulverize the grains into flour.
The earliest method used to do this seems to have been the saddle quern (terminology note: the word ‘quern’ can mean both an entire small grinding assembly or merely the bottom, non-moving element); a saddle quern consists of a larger, elongated bowl-shaped rock (so that there is a depression to place the grains in) and a second stone shaped to fit that depression which can then be pushed up and down the long depression in the quern-stone to grind the grain underneath it.
By the iron age, we see the appearance of rotary querns (Wikipedia actually has a wonderful video of one of these, a Nepalese rotary quern, in use). Also made of two stones, the lower of which (the stationary quern-stone) does not move. The second stone, which typically fits into a pivot on the quern-stone is called the muller, millstone or (occasionally) grindstone and is typically quite heavy. The lower stone is usually ever so slightly concave and the upper stone ever so slightly convex. Typically the a rough-surfaced, somewhat porous kind of stone (like basalt) was used in order to aid the grinding action. The grain is put between the two stones (often through a conical hopper in the center of the grindstone) and the millstone is rotated (usually by means of a hand-grip lever). The rotary motion, combined with the weight of the grindstone, is what grinds the grain down to flour – the big advantage over the saddle quern is that whereas the crushing force in the saddle quern is supplied almost entirely by the operator, in the rotary quern, much of that energy comes from the weight of the millstone pressing down and the operator merely needs to provide rotary motion to agitate the milling action. Moreover, a rotary quern may be operated continuously; the millstone is shaped so that the ground flour is pushed out at the edges, while unmilled grain can be continually fed in through the top.
It is also far, far easier to scale up the size of a rotary quern, because the only limit to the grinding area (dictated by the radius of the quern-stone and millstone) is the ability to supply energy to turn the increasingly massive and heavy stones against each other. Initially this was still muscle power: by attaching longer beams to the grindstone (which in these larger designs is generally a heavy circular disk), many humans or animals could push the grindstone around at once. The underside of the millstone for these larger mills was ‘dressed’ by carving furrows into it, typically arranged so that ground flour is pushed to the outside of the mill. The actual operation of a mill is, I should note, more complex than what I am describing; the miller has to control the separation of the stones and the rate at which grain is fed into the mill. But we’re here for the basics.
The next major change in milling technology came with the application of a power source other than human or animal power. Water mills first become widespread in Europe during the Roman Imperial period and Vitruvius, a Roman architect and military engineer, describes their operation to us. The technical challenge of using water efficiently was in a gearing system to allow a vertical water-wheel to power a horizontal millstone. Windmills first appear in Central Asia in the 9th century and spread out from there.
(As an aside, you may ask: wouldn’t this process result in small bits of the millstone being ground down by the grinding process, breaking off in tiny bits and ending up in the flour? And the answer is yes! One of the key ‘quality’ markers of bread was the likelihood of you finding a bit of mill in it when you bit in.)
Now what the mill’s grinding has produced is flour, which is still not really directly edible (although you can also make porridge out of it). To turn that into bread, we need to take that flour, add water (and normally yeast, if we want the bread to rise) and then expose it to some heat. Early baking probably used airborne yeast spores, with dough leavening naturally when left out. Beer production might also provide yeast (by skimming the foam produced) for bread-making, which seems to be how yeast for baking was acquired in Egypt in the Bronze Age (to the point that a bakery and a brewery were seen as linked industries) and according to the Roman Pliny the Elder, also what was done in pre-Roman and Roman Spain and Gaul. In much of the rest of the Mediterranean, a paste of flour or wheat-bran mixed with wine or grape juice in the process of fermentation might be used as a source for yeast. Naturally, you can also use dough that already has yeast in it as a starter, as with modern sourdough.
Baking could, of course, be done in the home on the family hearth. The dough was kneaded and then could be cooked in an oven or exposed to the embers of a fire. The exact style of ovens or indeed the shape of the loaves of bread varied from place to place and period to period. The first ovens of the style we would easily recognize – fire below, doors in the front, pre-heated – seem to be Greek (M. Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food (2009), 202). We see molds used to shape bread as early as the 25th century BCE in Egypt, but the most common bread-shape in antiquity is still the round, fairly flat loaf (like the French boule) one gets when the dough is kneaded into a ball before being baked. This was a shape so ubiquitous and easily recognizable that it often appears as a simple symbol for bread more commonly (the way a modern bread-slice is sometimes used) – for example making a circle with the thumb and fingers was the sign of bread “because bread is customarily round” in Cluniac monasteries in the 11th century.
In the ancient and medieval Mediterranean, household bread production was normally a strongly gendered activity, with kneading and baking being done primarily by the women of the household (whereas, in contrast, commercial baking was generally done by men – a trend we will see repeat in industry after industry where the household version was gendered female but the commercial version was gendered male and often of higher social status).
Mass-scale commercial baking is, unsurprisingly, connected with intensifying urbanism. Bakeries in major cities, like Athens or Rome, could be large commercial operations, selling food to the general population (although not generally to the elite; a Roman large landholder likely had his own bakery and mill on his vast estate – buying food in the market was sometimes called out as shameful for such men, since it indicated a lack of confidence in their own estate’s produce and an inappropriate reliance on markets. More on that next week).
Millers and Bakers
Now I want to pause for a moment here because we’ve introduced a whole bunch of non-farmers in our millers, mill-workers (you’ll see why I separate them in a moment) and bakers. And I think it is worth talking about how they fit into these societies generally. My focus here is going to be fairly narrowly in ancient and medieval Europe, because that’s where I know the evidence best, but my sense is that the same patterns replicate more generally.
Let’s start at the bottom with the mill-workers, by which I mean the fellows who – especially when mills are still muscle powered – are supplying the muscle power. The social status of mill workers was often very low. In the Ancient Mediterranean, when most mill-power was still supplied by muscle power, being ‘sent to the mills’ to work was a severe punishment, often meted out to the very poor or enslaved persons. More than one Latin student has been profoundly confused by enslaved persons in Roman literature (especially Roman comedy, with heavily features enslaved protagonists) being threatened by being sent in pistrinum, which gets translated as “to the bakery” by the hapless student (Roman milling and bakery was often done in the same facility, so ‘bakery’ is often the first translation a dictionary offers for ‘pistrinum‘), when what is meant is “to the gristmill” to work turning the millstone. Such labor was brutal and backbreaking; moreover the continual inhalation of pulverized grain dust damages the lungs. Being thus sent in pistrinum was essentially a deferred death sentence, much like being sent to work in mining. Consequently, in large, muscle-powered mills, the fellows actually turning the millstone were likely to be captives, criminals or enslaved persons (often being punished for some transgression), or else very desperately poor; in any of these cases they probably had sadly short lives. Animals seem to have been more frequently used than enslaved persons, however – particularly donkeys, to the point that the word molarius in Latin (which literally just means ‘a mill-thing’) came to mean “a mill-turning donkey” because the association was so common. Of the beasts of burden, it seems worthy to note, the donkey was also among the lowest in status; so even the animal mill-workers weren’t well off! We get a description of the treatment of a molarius in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (often known by the title The Golden Ass) and it is hardly humane animal treatment, even by ancient standards.
At the same time, owning a pistrinum could be quite lucrative; one need only look at the famous Tomb of the Erysaces the Baker (pictured below) outside of Rome to see that. Millers, the fellows who owned and operated the mills – as distinct from mill-workers (the poor sods turning the millstone) – were often commoners of somewhat elevated status and wealth. The pistores in Rome – which included bakers and millers – had their own guild (called a collegium, from where we get college and colleague); their essential role in food production gave them a degree of political power. In medieval Europe, millers were usually a fair bit wealthier than the peasants around them, leading to sayings like something being “worth a miller’s thumb.” As noted briefly above, actually running the mill – making sure the grain was fed at the right rate, controlling the separation of the millstones, and so on – was a highly skilled task if you wanted to ensure high quality flour. The same, of course, was true of baking the bread itself. These were skilled occupations and as a result enjoyed a certain level of status, albeit still belonging generally to the commons. The miller or the baker was perhaps a head above the peasantry, but usually only a head and still very much a member of the lower classes in other respects, except in the rare cases he might become truly wealthy.
That said, state power often tended to interact quite a lot with both mills and bakeries. The food supply was, of course, of crucial interest to whoever held political power. Consequently the pistores of Rome, for instance, had (from Augustus onward) a special political appointee, the Praefectus Annonae overseeing them, himself an official of sufficient importance that we actually know the names of quite a lot of them. These praefects were very much not bakers but members of Rome’s wealthy, leisured landholding aristocracy serving in political office for political gain. During the European middle ages it was common, though by no means universal, for the local mill and/or bakery to be directly controlled or owned by the local lord; in many places it thus became illegal to mill grain anywhere else and millers were sometimes empowered by local political authorities to destroy the millstones of any illegal mills that challenged the lord’s monopoly (which in turn enabled him to extract resources from the countryside)!
For the actual millers and bakers, this must have often been a double-edged sword: on the one hand, that close political attention often meant greater political influence, but it also meant more direct intervention in their business by far more powerful individuals in the society. The impact of that second thing should not be overstated: the social status gap between a Roman praefectus or a Scottish baron and an individual miller or baker was vast and the former could bring down tremendous power on the latter if they wanted to. Roman emperors and medieval kings could and did fix prices for grain and bread, for instance, in ways that could not have been fantastic for the fellows doing that work. I feel the need to point out that price-fixing schemes of these sort do not actually work. Nevertheless, again, we ought to imagine the average miller or baker to be in a better position relative to those powers, certainly, than the badly exploited small farmers of last week.
Where I really want to bring the focus of this post to at the end is not the processes – although we’ve talked a lot about the processes, by necessity – but the people. As we’ve discussed before, there is a tendency when popular culture represents the past to erase not merely the farmers, but most of the commons generally. Castles seem to be filled with a few servants, a whole bunch of knights and lords and perhaps, if we are lucky, a single blacksmith that somehow makes all of their tools (we’ll dispense with the solitary master-armorer in a later series).
But the actual human landscape of the pre-modern period was defined – in agrarian societies, at least – by vast numbers of farms and farmers. Their work proceeded on this cyclical basis, from plowing to sowing to weeding to harvesting and threshing to storage and then back again. Religious observances and social festivals were in turn organized around that calendar (it is not an accident how many Holy Days and big festivals seem to cluster around the harvest season in late Autumn/early Winter, or in Spring). The uneven labor demands of this cycle (intense in plowing and reaping, but easier in between) in turn also provided for the background hum of much early urban life, where the ‘cities’ were for the most part just large towns surrounded by farmland (where often the folks living in the cities might work farmland just outside of the gates). People looked forward to festivals and events organized along the agricultural calendar, to the opportunities a good harvest might provide them to do things like get married or expand their farms. The human drama that defines our lives was no less real for the men and women who toiled in the fields or the farmhouses.
And of course all of this activity was necessary to support literally any other kind of activity.
Next week, we’ll finish our look at cereal farming and bread by looking at those folks – all of the other non-farmers – and how they fit into this system.