Sunday, August 28, 2016

Medieval bread

As I noted in an earlier post, the basis of the medieval diet for both peasants and aristocrats was bread.  Low carb, gluten free, and "paleo" diets would have seemed completely bizarre.  I guess people with celiac disease, full-blown gluten allergy, would have been in serious trouble in the Middle Ages.

Ideally bread was made from wheat, but rye and barley were also used, especially in more northern climates where wheat did not grow as well.  Medieval wheat was "winter wheat," planted in late fall, so it would grow very slowly over the winter and then quickly in the spring, being ready to harvest in early summer.  Rye and barley, on the other hand, are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, so they could supplement a poor wheat harvest.

Wheat, and other similar grassy grains, produces a seed head which is both the grain we eat and the seed for next year.  The medieval farmer always hoped to get a lot more grains of wheat back than what he planted.  In modern agriculture, the ratio is generally 20 to 1 or better, grains harvested to seeds planted.  The return for medieval farmers, without modern fertilizers or specially developed strains, was much worse. They especially feared getting down to a ratio of 2:1.  With a 2:1 ratio, one harvested two grains for every one planted.  That meant you ate half the crop and saved the rest for seed for next year.  Probably half the crop wasn't enough food to last all year.  Then you ate some of the seed, meaning not enough to plant for next year.  Starve now, or starve next year.

Wheat had to be threshed, that is beaten, to get the seeds off the stems, then the "wheat was separated from the chaff" (people in Biblical times had the same issues).  Preferably one's bread didn't end up with bits of stem or seed coating.  However, the wheat germ was not removed, as in modern white flour.  What medieval people called white bread was all-wheat (as opposed to partly rye or barley), with no bits of chaff left in to make it more filling (but less nutritious).

There was a thirteenth-century story of someone asking to become a monk.  As part of the process of joining the monastery, he was asked why he sought the monastic life, with the expected answer something like, "To honor God and atone for my sins."  But he answered, "I want white bread and plenty of it!"  (Monks kept the chaff out of their bread.)

Wheat had to be ground into flour before it could be baked into bread.  Once wind and water mills replaced the hand mills that had been used under the Roman Empire, a big sack of grain could be quickly and efficiently made into flour.  Bread had to baked every day, because (like bread in modern France) it would stale very quickly.  It was all sour dough bread, because there were no handy little foil packets of yeast.  The ingredients were just flour, water, and a little salt.

People could bake their own bread, but most villages had a bakehouse, where one could buy one's bread.  Indeed, bread was the one food that peasants would regularly buy rather than produce themselves.  (They could sell their flour to the baker.)  The bakehouse and the brewhouse, where beer was brewed, were often run as a combo, by a husband and wife team.  He would bake, she would brew.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Processed food

Today a lot of people say they want to eat simple, unprocessed food.  Medieval people, however, might have killed for an Oreo™.

One of the biggest differences between the medieval diet (which actually continued up into the nineteenth century for most people) and the modern western diet is processed food.  Unless you are taking fresh meat and fruits and vegetables and eating them after minimal cooking, you are eating processed food.  We don't even think about it.  In fact, a lot of what passes as "fresh, simple, healthy" food is processed.  Think orange juice.  It's pasteurized and has ingredients like calcium added.  Think vegetable oil.  How did it get from the soy bean to your bottle?  Think oatmeal.  Surely the oats didn't grow in the form of little flakes, and clearly something happened to it so it can cook in 5 minutes.  Think sliced turkey from the deli.  Have a close look at the list of ingredients.  And don't even get me started on hot dogs.

Now of course processing is not automatically bad.  Unpasteurized milk used to spread tuberculosis.  Processing reduces spoilage.  And people can have a much more varied diet when a variety of foods are available--the kind we take for granted in a grocery store, which would have left medieval people stunned (see more here).  And especially processed food means that people have time to do all sorts of things during the day besides grow, gather, and prepare food.  Pre-modern people, especially women, would have spent a major part of the day in food preparation.  Farming, producing food, is a full-time job as any farmer will tell you, and in the Middle Ages the great majority of the population farmed.

Medieval people also ate almost entirely locally produced food, except for spices.  Again, we tend not to think very much about how many of our berries come from South America, tomatoes from Mexico, peppers from Holland.  And even American-grown food probably came from California.  Are you in California?  In the central valley? (LA and San Fran don't count).  So trucks if not indeed airplanes were involved in bringing you your fresh, simple fruits and vegetables.

Here the advantage is that we can get fresh fruits and vegetables year round.  Medieval people could not, unless you count parsnips and maybe cabbage as fresh fruits and vegetables.  The moral of the story seems to be that we need modern technology and processing to eat a simple, wholesome diet.

I thought about this while making chocolate cake.  I personally think my chocolate cake, made "from scratch," is far superior to nasty processed cake you'd buy in the store.  Yes, only simple, wholesome ingredients, just like a medieval cook.  First the unsweetened chocolate--whoops, it comes from the tropics of South America (and was thus unknown in the Middle Ages) and was processed from cocoa beans into handy little squares.  Then butter--well, I didn't churn it, and it probably came from out of state, but it's "like" simple food.  Then eggs.  Eggs!  Yes!  Unprocessed, just sitting there.  (Well, the hens were probably on a factory farm.  Let's move on.)  Flour is simple and wholesome--except that I didn't grow the wheat or thresh it or grind it or bleach it or put into white paper bags.  Buttermilk--well, if I'd had a cow, and if I was churning my own butter (see above), I'd have buttermilk, that which is left in the churn after taking out the butter.  A big if.  We need some sugar--sugar cane doesn't grow around here, and the sugar in the box doesn't exactly resemble sugar cane.  Let's assume we can pass baking powder off as a spice (medieval people had spice).  The frosting has more chocolate, some vanilla (it's okay, it's like a spice), and powdered sugar.  We already dealt with sugar--except that powdered sugar also has corn starch, which comes from corn (not a medieval plant), and doesn't look like corn on the cob.  There we are!  A delicious chocolate cake just like medieval people would make (except they didn't have chocolate or sugar--but they had flour!).

If they'd kill for an Oreo, just think what they'd do for chocolate cake!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Merovingians

Most Americans have never heard of the Merovingians.  French schoolchildren, however, can tell you that they were the first dynasty that ruled France, starting with Clovis at the end of the fifth century.

As I discussed in an earlier post on the so-called "fall of Rome,"a number of Germanic tribes settled in the Roman Empire, including the Franks, who settled in Roman Gaul--the territory now called France in their honor.  The Franks dropped their Germanic language like a hot potato, which is why modern French is a Latin-based ("Romance") language.  They also quickly abandoned their paganism for Christianity.

The Merovingians were the ruling family of the Franks, so called from Meroveus, son of the sea-serpent.  The story is that one of the early Frankish queens was out for a swim, got caught in a riptide, got rescued by a friendly sea monster, and decided he was totally hot.  One thing led to another.  Her husband the king, apparently, was cool with this.

The historical Merovingians really start with Clovis, first king of the line to convert to Christianity in 496.  His wife Clotilda, already a Christian, seems to have been the major influence, though Clovis also appeared to grasp that he would be a lot more successful if Gaul's bishops supported him.  There had been a lot of separate little kingdoms in what is now France, but he conquered them all.  This is why he gets to be "first king of France" (481-511; there is some debate about the exact dates).

The above image is a somewhat later ivory depicting Clovis's baptism.

Clovis's descendants ruled what is now France for almost three centuries, until the last king of the line, Childeric III, was deposed by Charlemagne's father in 751, who them became king of the Franks himself.  Charlemagne's court seem to have feared, after the fact, that maybe this wasn't quite as legitimate as one would have hoped.  They created a determined story of Merovingian weakness and decadence (to justify the deposition), which historians then tended to believe for the next 1200 years, although recently scholars have begun rehabilitating the Merovingians.

They were certainly a violent crew, but they were also highly literate--one of them tried to introduce new letters into the Roman alphabet for sounds the alphabet didn't cover (like th)--were very supportive of the church, and did their best to be Roman.  Clovis represented himself on his coins as looking like a Roman emperor and was intensely proud of being named a consul by the emperor in Constantinople.  He sponsored the writing down of ancient Frankish law (called Salic law) in Latin, in imitation of Roman law.

All Frankish kings divided their kingdoms between their sons, who then all decided that Brother was the enemy.  This wasn't just the Merovingians--the Carolingians, Charlemagne's dynasty, did the same thing.

Interestingly, although Charlemagne's court tried to denigrate the Merovingian dynasty, he himself named his son Louis for Clovis (take the C off Clovis and you'll see what I mean).  Louis then became the most common French royal name until the monarchy finally ended in the nineteenth century.

Saturday, August 6, 2016


The city of Troyes is primarily known for creating three things:  champagne, knitting, and weighing gold.  Two of these are medieval.

Let's start with the one that isn't medieval:  the drink champagne.  It is named for the region, Champagne, which has been called that since the Middle Ages (Campania in Latin).  In the twelfth century the counts of Champagne, who controlled more territory directly than did the kings of France, made Troyes their capital.  Troyes, along with several other cities of the region, held major trade fairs where wool from northern England, spices from the far East, and everything in between was traded.

But what does this have to do with the bubbly drink, you say?  Sparkling wine was invented in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, traditionally by the monk Dom Pérignon (in a monastery outside of Troyes) although probably several different people came up with it independently (and accidentally).  Modern bottling methods were required to hold in all those bubbles--medieval wine was kept in barrels which would have exploded.  By the way, it's only really champagne if made in Champagne.

Let's get back to the trade fairs.  Every city had its own system of weights and measures--it would have hurt their civic pride to use somebody else's measures.  The weighing system of Troyes became known, not surprisingly, as troy weight.  Although most of the world uses the metric system (grams and kilograms), and the British and Americans use British (also known as avoirdupois) pounds with 16 ounces to the pound, gold is still specified in troy weight.  There are 12, rather than 16, troy ounces in a troy pound.  Silver and gem stones are also often specified in troy ounces.

The city of Troyes also claims to be the home of knitting.  In weaving, parallel threads, all running one direction, have another set of parallel threads woven through them perpendicularly.  Weaving requires some sort of loom.  Knitting, on the other hand, is based on a single thread (or yarn) looped and knotted around itself, usually using knitting needles.  There are a few indications of some version of knitting going back to antiquity, but medieval cloth was woven, not knitted.  But in the late Middle Ages knit objects begin to appear.  The process is especially good for things like stockings and gloves that need flexibility, which knit fabric does much better than woven.  The city of Troyes developed a true knitting industry by the late Middle Ages.  The French word for knit (tricot) derives from the Latin for Troyes (Trecassium).  (The English word knit is related to the word knot.)

And then there's Chrétien de Troyes, who essentially invented stories of Arthur, Lancelot, and the Round Table in the late twelfth century.  Visit Troyes.  It's a delightful city.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Olympics and the Ancient Greeks

Although this is mostly a life in the Middle Ages blog, with the Olympics getting started very soon, it seemed a good time to discuss their ancient origins.

The modern Olympic games (founded 1894) were inspired by the Olympian games of ancient Greece, hence the name "Olympic."  But other than a general inspiration of having people from different states compete in athletic contests, they're really very different.  And there was a millennium and a half gap between the end of the original Olympian games (or their Roman successors) and modern Olympics.

The original Olympian games were created as a ceremony to honor the Olympian gods (the 12 big ones you normally hear about, Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Artemis, and so on, but especially Zeus).  We don't usually think of sporting events as religious ceremony, but the ancient Greeks did.  Any sort of contest could be done in the gods' honor.  Athens, for example, had annual play-writing contests in honor of the god Dionysus.

Starting in the eighth century BC (the traditional date is 776 BC), Olympian games were held every four years.  Wars would stop for the duration of the games.  The various city states into which Greece was divided would all compete, for the glory of their city.  There were no medals, only an olive leaf wreath for the winner, and no second or third places.  You either won by coming in first or else you lost.  In spite of all their differences (and wars), Greek cities were united by coming together for the games.

The events were primarily of activities that would be useful in war, things like running, jumping, throwing spears, throwing the discus (which could be a deadly weapon), wrestling, and chariot racing.  There was even a race run wearing armor.  Women did not normally compete, although there was sometimes a foot race for girls.

The competitors were all amateurs in the sense that modern sports have forgotten--they spent most of their life doing ordinary things, not full-time athletic training.  If they won, however, they would be richly rewarded by their city.

Competition was in the nude for most events.  (Have you ever wondered why you never see Greco-Roman wrestling on TV? just joking!)  There were several explanations for the nudity.  A common story was that the men originally competed in breeches, until one time one's waistband snapped.  He then either ran faster nude and won, or else got tangled up, fell to the ground, hit his head, and died, depending on which version you believed.  The more likely explanation is that the Greeks weren't all that big on clothing anyway and considered a manly body worth putting on display.

The Romans took over much of Greek culture when they conquered the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and they originally continued the games.  They introduced a number of events for women, though these seem to have been more a chance for the spectators to enjoy the sight of flashing legs (the women competed in short tunics) than genuine athletic contests.

The emperor Theodosius eventually ended the games in 393 AD, as part of a campaign to make Christianity the Roman state religion and end all old pagan ceremonies.  But when the modern Olympics were created, the modern Greeks were eager to claim them as their heritage.  Greece ("Hellas" as they themselves call their country) has its athletes march in first.

And they make sure that the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia is called "the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia," not just "Macedonia."  For the Greeks, the name Macedonia evokes the northern part of Greece (bordering the former Yugoslav republic), where Alexander the Great came from, and they don't want "some Slavs" (as they would think of them) bearing a national name that to them is emphatically Greek.

In the US, we lose track of history before WW II, or even the Vietnam War.  The rest of the world has much longer memories.