The Consumption of Field Crops in Late Medieval England

It is hard to avoid platitudes when describing the place of grain in medieval diet, for in both absolute and relative terms it towered over any other foodstuff. This may not have been the case in every part of medieval Britain, as Gerald of Wales informs us in his Description of Wales of c.1200,1 but for the vast majority of people in England grain provided the bulk of their calorific intake. It has been estimated that at the start of the fourteenth century grain accounted for up to 80 per cent of a harvest worker's calories and 78 per cent of a soldier's; even among the lay nobility of medieval England, grain provided 65-70 per cent of their energy intake.2

Medieval people consumed grain in three main ways: as bread, as ale, and— among the poorer sections of society—in pottage, a thick soup. On balance, bread was the most important—the monks of Westminster Abbey, for instance, gained 35-46 per cent of their calories in this way at the turn of the sixteenth century3—but, for many, ale was not far behind. The basic allowance for these monks was a gallon per monk per day, and great households consumed ale in vast quantities: Henry de Lacy bought an average of 85 gallons of ale a day for his household in 1299, while at Framlingham Castle 78 gallons were consumed per day in 1385-6.4 A sharper picture of consumption per person emerges from the allowances of food and drink given to lay folk who retired to monastic houses. At Selby Abbey in 1272, for example, Adam of Fleyburgh and his wife Emma received two white loaves, one brown loaf, and two gallons of ale every day.5

We have a great deal of written information about the production of crops from the thirteenth century onwards and this has understandably been the focus of much historical work, but we know less about the consumption of these

1 Quoted in Hallam (1988<i: 841). 2 Murphy (1998: 120).

4 Harvey (1993: 58); Woolgar (1992-3: i. 164-7); Ridgard (1985: 109).

foodstuffs at that time. The main aim of the present chapter is to explore the documentary evidence that survives for the consumption of grain, looking in particular at the types of crops that were consumed, the process of turning grain into bread and ale, consumption at different levels of society, and how the consumption of bread and ale varied over time; it is in these areas that historical evidence has much to offer that cannot be gleaned from other sources. Archaeological evidence, especially archaeobotanical evidence, is crucial to our understanding of field crops and plants for the centuries preceding this and broadens our interpretation of plant foods in the later medieval period. While this chapter therefore focuses on the historical evidence for field crops for the period 1250 to 1540 and the next chapter looks at the evidence for horticulture in broadly the same period, Chapter 4 reviews the archaeobotanical evidence for both over a longer timescale.

From grain to bread and ale

Table 2.1 shows the main field crops cultivated in medieval England and their major uses. Medieval documents are usually precise when it comes to distinguishing one type of crop from another, but unfortunately provide only rare glimpses of the botanical diversity that doubtless existed within each of these categories. For example, although in the early sixteenth century Fitzherbert mentioned seven different types of wheat,6 manorial records uniformly refer to wheat by only one name: frumentum. For other crops, there is occasionally more information. Spring-sown barley, referred to as ordeum, was grown to a much greater extent than its winter-sown variety, bere, but the latter was not unknown and at Wisbech was divided into two types, hastibere and rackbere.7 Similarly, oats (avena) were sometimes divided in manorial accounts into large and small oats, the latter probably being synonymous with 'naked oats' or 'pillcorn'.8 As we see in Table 4.3, which shows the species found on excavated medieval sites, the types of cereals identified by estate managers and farmers did not correspond exactly with the botanical species. The different types of wheat, for instance, may refer to mixtures of bread and rivet wheat, but may also refer to different landraces of wheat. Similarly, the two types of oats recognized may correspond to the two botanical species, common and bristle oats, but may refer to landraces of the common oat, which was much more prevalent. Peas (pisa), beans (faba), and vetches (vicia) were all cultivated in this period as well, the last mainly for fodder and probably not for human consumption. Peas were occasionally distinguished by their colour, presumably when dry: white, black, green, and grey.9 Medieval farmers commonly planted mixtures of these different crops, particularly

7 Polbere is also mentioned and may be synonymous with rackbere: CUL, EDR D8/1/5-6.

Table 2.1. The composition of the medieval crops referred to in documents and their uses

Sowing Nature Crop season


Main uses

Winter Pure Wheat

Bread, ale

Bread, thatch, fodder Ale, bread, fodder

Winter barley

Mixed Maslin/mancorn Mixtil Spring Pure Oats

Wheat/rye Bread

Wheat/winter barley Bread, ale

Pottage, fodder, ale, thatch, bread

Spring barley

Legumes (Beans, peas,

Ale, bread, pottage, fodder Fodder, nitrogen-fixing, vetches)

pottage, bread, vegetables

Mixed Dredge Spring barley/oats

Bulmong/harascum Oats/beans/peas Mengrell/ Oats/legumes pulmentum (inc. vetch)

Fodder, nitrogen-fixing, pottage Fodder, nitrogen-fixing, pottage

Note: See also Table 4.1.

winter-sown 'maslin', a mixture of rye (siligo) and wheat, and spring-sown 'dredge', a mixture of barley and oats.

The written record is more explicit about the uses to which the various crops were put. Much as today, wheat was considered the premier bread grain, producing the whitest and lightest loaf, though almost all the other crops were used for this purpose as well. Rye—which could successfully be grown in comparatively adverse environments—and maslin were used to produce loaves of a darker hue and inferior value, while barley and oats were milled and baked to produce coarse, cheap bread; even dried and ground-up peas and beans were used in the cheapest of loaves. In terms of ale production, barley was thought to produce the best malt and was used in quantity for this purpose, although other grains, especially oats—which were more tolerant of growing conditions than any other crop—and dredge, were used as well. Ale brewed from malted oats was particularly common in the north and south-west of England, although it appears to have been something of an acquired taste: in the sixteenth century Cornish ale was said to be 'lyke wash as pygges had wrestled dyrn'.10 Wheat was occasionally malted for ale as well during the Middle Ages, producing a far superior brew. The main cereal ingredient of pottage was usually oats, small oats (avene minute) being easy to turn into oatmeal without need of a mill, though husked barley might also be consumed in this way. Peas and beans were often added to pottage, but at Cuxham in 1289-90, peas were simply provided 'as vegetables for the famuli', the permanent staff on the lord's demesne farm.11

Pottage was comparatively simple to make, while the production of bread and ale was more complex. The first stage in bread making is to mill the grain, producing coarse flour on the one hand and bran on the other. Wheat flour was sometimes then sieved or 'bolted' to make certain types of bread, every bushel of wheat producing an estimated 34.5 lb of fine flour.12 Nevertheless, medieval methods of milling—and perhaps also the different botanical characteristics of the crop—produced a coarser, less absorbent flour than today, and the water content of medieval dough was consequently comparatively low.13 Only the wealthiest households and demesne farms baked bread in their own purpose-built bakehouses; even Dame Katherine de Norwich paid to have her loaves baked in 1337 at 4d. per quarter.14 In great households, baking was done in batches, six times a month in Alice de Bryene's household in 1412-13 (averaging 297 loaves each time), but more frequently in larger households: the Abbot of Peterborough's kitchen, for instance, baked more than eleven times a month in 1371 (averaging 410 loaves each time).15 The quality of the bread was chiefly affected by the crop from which the flour was derived. Yet various qualities of bread could be produced from wheat alone, depending on the quality of the grain, the extent to which the flour had been sieved, and the amount of bran that was discarded (Plate 2.1). In Alice de Bryene's household, 89 per cent of wheaten loaves produced were white, the remainder black, probably having a much higher bran content.16 The nature of the bread also depended on oven temperature. At Westminster Abbey, ten faggots were used as fuel to make 100 loaves of standard wheaten bread, but in making high-quality wastel bread, the biscuity texture of which required a much hotter oven, thirty faggots were required per 100 loaves.17

Medieval loaves not only differed in nature, but they varied considerably in size and weight too. For example, the loaves distributed to paupers by Katherine de Norwich in 1336-7 were comparatively small, each probably weighing 1.22 lb on average. Bread baked for customary workers on demesne farms was generally bigger and heavier: in the early fourteenth century, the loaves baked for harvest workers at Wisbech weighed 2.88 lb each, while those for plough boons at Hinderclay weighed 3.58 lb.18 The weight of loaves also varied over time. This was chiefly a result of the assize of bread of 1256, under which the cost of a loaf to the buyer remained the same from year to year through a system which ensured that the weight of a loaf changed in inverse proportion to the price of grain. Thus, when the price of wheat stood at 4s. per quarter, the assize dictated that 284 wastel loaves should be baked from a quarter of wheat, each weighing

12 Prestwich (1967: 537). 13 Campbell, Galloway, Keene and Murphy (1993: 191).

14 Woolgar (1992-3: i. 203-25). 15 Dale and Redstone (1931: 1-102); Greatrex (1984: 56-83).

16 Dale and Redstone (1931: 1-102, 128). 17 Harvey (1993: 59).

18 Woolgar (1992-3: i. 179-227); CUL, EDR D8/1/5-19; Chicago University Library, Bacon 416,

435-44. These weights have been calculated on the assumption that a bushel of mixed grain produced

57.6 lb of coarse bread: Campbell, Galloway, Keene, and Murphy (1993: 191).

Bread And Ale Medieval
Plate 2.1 The Feeding of the Five Thousand, a detail from the Westminster Abbey Retable, c.1270-80. The round loaves were typical of the bread in aristocratic households and elsewhere. Photograph: © Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey.

on average 1.48 lb; but when the price of wheat stood at 6s. per quarter, 453 wastel loaves were to be baked from each quarter, each loaf weighing 0.93 lb.19 When we have data about the number of loaves baked for private consumption rather than for sale, variation over time is also evident (Table 2.2). In general the weight of these aristocratic wheaten loaves lay between that of today's large and small loaves, though it seems to have become increasingly fashionable to serve loaves that were at the lower end of the scale.

To produce ale, grain was first soaked to allow it to germinate and release natural sugars, and then heated in a kiln to prevent further germination; at Cuxham, the demesne had a separate malting oven, which was slower burning and thus cooler than the bread oven.20 Then in the brewhouse, which at Hanley Castle was equipped with large vats and a lead-lined cistern,21 the malt was

19 Davis (2004: 479). 20 P. D. A. Harvey (1965: 37-8). 21 Woolgar (1999: 144).

Table 2.2. Approximate weight of wheaten loaves baked for eleven great households



Loaves per quarter Approximate weight per loaf (lb)

1240-2 Bishop of Lincoln

1299 Henry de Lacy

1336-7 Dame Katherine de Norwich

180 235 281

1337-8 Bishop of Bath and Wells

1370-1 Abbot of Peterborough

1378 Earl of March

1381-4 Bishop of Ely

1382-3 Sir William Waleys 1385-6 Countess of Norfolk 1412-13 Dame Alice de Bryene 1431-2 Earl of Oxford

253 256 297 312


237 275



Note: The weight per loaf has been calculated on the assumption that each bushel of wheat produced 34.5 lb of fine flour and that the weight of water added to make dough was cancelled out by the loss of weight during baking.

Sources: Dale and Redstone (1931: 1-102); Greatrex (1984: 56-83); Ridgard (1985: 106); Woolgar (1992-3: i. 165-7, 180-225, 256, 259-61; 11. 539); Woolgar (1999: 124).

crushed and mixed with hot water to allow the sugars to dissolve; finally the liquid was drained off, cooled, and allowed to ferment. Ale did not have good keeping qualities and was thus brewed regularly, although the frequency varied from one household to another, from on average 2.7 times a month in Katherine de Norwich's household in 1336-7 to 6.4 times a month at Bolton Priory in 1307-8.22 It has been estimated that the brewhouse at Castle Acre Priory was capable of making 700 gallons of ale at each brewing, while those belonging to Katherine de Norwich and Alice de Bryene produced approximately 130-40 gallons a time.23 Several strengths and qualities of ale were often produced—for instance, three at Dunstable Priory24—though in general much depended on the number of gallons brewed per quarter of malt. Between 50 and 75 gallons of ale per quarter was usual, although there is some suggestion that a taste for stronger ale developed in the later Middle Ages: in the 1330s, for instance, two households produced 60-75 gallons per quarter; in the 1380s, two other households were producing 53-6 gallons per quarter; and in 1500 the monks of Westminster Abbey produced 45-50 gallons per quarter.25 Indeed, the strongest ale in the later Middle Ages may not have been dissimilar in strength to some modern beer; after all, in Piers Plowman, Glutton collapsed drunk with just over a gallon of ale inside him.26 Nor is this the only recognizable feature of medieval drinking, for medieval ale was also cheaper the further north you were: on a journey from Hertfordshire to Scotland in 1378, the Earl of March was able to buy a gallon of

22 Woolgar (1992-3: i. 180-226); Kershaw (1973a: 147).

23 Wilcox (2002: 51); Woolgar (1992-3: i. 180-226); Dale and Redstone (1931: 1-102).

25 Bennett (1996: 18); Woolgar (1992-3: i. 180-226, 259-61); Ridgard (1985: 108); Harvey (1993: 58).

ale for 2d. between Royston and Pontefract, for VAd. between Boroughbridge and Newcastle, and for ld. between Morpeth and Jedburgh.27

The nature of bread and ale before the Black Death

The bread consumed by the great lay and ecclesiastical lords of medieval England was made almost exclusively from wheat. Although they sometimes had to make do with maslin, wheat was also the bread grain of choice among lesser lords: Lionel de Bradenham's household received 183/4-251/2 quarters of wheat a year from his only demesne farm of Langenhoe; and the lord of High Hall manor in Walsham-le-Willows had 'white bread' stolen from his bakehouse in 1344.28 Lower down the social ladder the balance shifted markedly towards other grains, especially at the beginning of the fourteenth century, a time of great pressure on resources and immense social stress. Even in London, bakers of brown loaves outnumbered bakers of white in 1304, while a resident of Lynn seems to have consumed mainly rye bread.29 For peasants in the countryside, white bread must have been a rare treat at this time. Harvest workers in some counties, such as Oxfordshire and Sussex, were given wheaten bread, but in many parts of the country harvest loaves were of a lower quality. Bread for harvest boons at Mildenhall was composed chiefly of maslin and rye and at Hinderclay mostly of rye and barley, but on other manors barley bread was the norm: barley made up 94 per cent of the harvest bread at Sedgeford in 1256, and was the only bread grain given to the harvest boon workers at Crawley and Bishopstone in 1302.30 Similarly, in 1328, a maintenance agreement for a retired peasant from Oakington laid down that his annual grain allowance should consist of two bushels of wheat, two of rye, four of barley, and four of peas, all of which was probably consumed as bread or pottage.31

Even so, maintenance agreements and harvest bread are unlikely to be representative of the normal diet of most peasants; a more accurate sense of the nature of their bread intake can be gained from the provisions given to famuli on demesne farms. In 1346-7, famuli at Cuxham were given grain composed of 50 per cent curallum, the poorest part of threshed wheat, 29 per cent barley, and 21 per cent peas; in 1297-8, the famuli at Wellingborough received 45 per cent rye, 33 per cent barley, and 22 per cent bulmong, a mixture of oats, beans, and peas; in 1324-5, the bread consumed by famuli at Framlingham must have been even coarser still, their allowance made up of 70 per cent barley, 25 per cent beans and peas, and 5 per cent curallum.32 Alms payments provide some insight into the crops consumed by the poorest members of medieval society. Katherine de Norwich provided wastel bread for the poor on Good Friday 1337, but most

28 Woolgar (1999: 124); Britnell (1966: 380-1); Lock (1998: 274).

29 Campbell, Galloway, Keene, and Murphy (1993: 26); Hanawalt (1976: 118).

30 Dyer (1994b: 83, 88); Chicago University Library, Bacon 416, 436-44; Page (1996: 75, 89).

31 Dyer (1998b: 55-6). 32 Harvey (1976: 423); Page (1936: 77); Ridgard (1985: 71).

alms were of a much more lowly form: a pottage made from peas was given in alms at Wellingborough in 1321-2; beans were given to the poor at St Leonard's Hospital, York, in 1324; while in 1346 the alms payments made by Norwich Cathedral Priory consisted of 46 per cent barley, 23 per cent peas, 23 per cent rye, and 8 per cent wheat.33 Despite its standing today, bran was baked into bread either for horses or for the very poor.34

A similar diversity is apparent in the character of ale consumed during this period. Massive quantities of barley were clearly malted for brewing, for manorial accounts show barley being processed on demesne farms and either sent for the use of the lord's household or sold at market, and other accounts record barley malt arriving at the estate centre. The Norwich Cathedral Priory manors of Sedgeford, Martham, and Hemsby, for example, malted 33, 57, and 70 per cent of their available barley (after deduction of tithe and seed), and the Priory's granger annually accounted for up to 2,020 quarters of barley malt received from the estate in the late thirteenth century.35 Even some wheat was malted for ale, for instance for the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral in 1286,36 but such an extravagant use of this grain was probably rare at this time. A considerable proportion of the ale brewed before the Black Death was in fact derived from inferior grains. In providing for their servants as well as for themselves and their guests, many great landlords malted a mixture of grains: in 1297-8, for example, the malt sent from Wellingborough to Crowland Abbey consisted of 40 quarters of dredge, 32 quarters of barley, and 30 quarters of oats; and in 1287 Glastonbury Abbey received 328 quarters of barley, 364 quarters of wheat, and 825 quarters of oats from its estate for making ale.37 Though lords were invariably keen to maintain the high quality of the bread that they ate, some even growing wheat in environments ill suited to its cultivation, more were prepared to compromise in terms of the quality of ale. The canons of Bolton Priory, for example, grew wheat for their bread, but made their ale almost entirely from oats, which—though inferior to barley as a brewing grain—could be grown in the most testing conditions.38

Compromise in this respect was even more of a feature lower down the social scale. While good-quality ale was clearly consumed by some country folk, we should not assume that this was generally the case. It is unsurprising to find oaten ale on the manor of Cockerham in the 1320s, but even in Norfolk the rent paid by a twelfth-century tenant of the abbey of St Benet of Holme included six times as much malted oats as malted barley.39 In fact, by the beginning of the fourteenth century many rural poor may not have drunk ale on a regular basis at all. Quarter for quarter, ale provides considerably fewer calories than bread or pottage, and many peasants may have been forced by their circumstances to consume grain in

33 Woolgar (1992-3: i. 223); Page (1936: 130); Ashley (1928: 104, 106).

34 Richardson and Sayles (1955-83: i. 258).

35 Campbell (2000: 200, 223). 36 Campbell, Galloway, Keene, and Murphy (1993: 203-4).

37 Page (1936: 76-7); Campbell, Galloway, Keene, and Murphy (1993: 203-4); Hallam (1988c: 368).

38 Kershaw (1973a: 146). 39 Bailey (2002: 66); Hallam (1988&: 294).

as efficient a form as possible. Indeed, the Oakington maintenance agreement of 1328 would not have provided sufficient calories if all the barley had been consumed as ale.40

Patterns of consumption naturally have important implications for crop choice and vice versa. Wheat, for instance, would probably have been found to a much greater extent on demesne farms than on peasant land. Indeed, in the 1283 tax returns for the village of Ingham, wheat comprised 12.8 per cent of the lord's crops, but only 0.4 per cent of the peasants'.41 Generally, peasants focused their attentions on inferior bread grains. On the Bishop of Winchester's manor of Burghclere, for example, payments made by peasants for grinding their corn at the lord's mill in 1301-2 included 158 bushels of maslin but only 2 bushels of wheat.42 In many areas, peasants must have made their bread and pottage from barley. On a Hampshire manor of Winchester Cathedral Priory in 1338, wheat, barley, and oats were all important crops on the demesne, but the issue of the parsonage, presumably consisting largely of tithe corn collected from villagers' lands, contained twice as much barley as either wheat or oats.43 Peasant payments for grinding corn sometimes provide a clear indication of how this barley was consumed; in Hampshire, for instance, some malt was ground in preparation for brewing, but a much larger amount of unmalted barley was often milled into flour.44 Equally illuminating are the cropping data for the 1,238 households in the Suffolk Hundred of Blackbourne assessed for the 1283 tax (Fig. 2.1). Barley was hugely prominent in both Breckland and non-Breckland households; some may have been sold or given to the lord as rent in kind, but much was probably consumed as bread, for it is notable that the wealthier the household the lower the proportion of barley and the higher the proportion of wheat or rye. Barley may have made comparatively coarse bread, but its flour extraction rate was virtually identical to other grains and its yields were often considerably higher than those of other crops: on the demesne of Hinderclay (also in Blackbourne Hundred) net barley yields before the Black Death were 31 per cent higher than wheat yields.45

The significance of these points extends beyond our understanding of diet and farming. Most historians agree that the population of medieval England peaked at between five and six million in 1300, but—based on the amount of grain, and thus calories, that the country could produce—Bruce Campbell has challenged this, arguing that the population at that time cannot have been higher than 4-4.25 million.46 However, his calculations are based on demesne yields and cropping proportions, and on the assumption that all barley and dredge was brewed for ale (ale has a kilocalorie extraction rate of 30 per cent, rather than 78 per cent for barley flour). It now seems probable that peasant yields were significantly higher than those from demesnes,47 and peasants produced and consumed crops in

40 Dyer (1998b: 56). 41 Bailey (1989: 141). 42 Page (1996: 117).

43 Hallam (1988c: 357). 44 Page (1996: 241, 247, 274-5, 316, 326).

45 Campbell (2000: 215); Chicago University Library, Bacon 416, 423-65.

46 Campbell (2000: 386-410). 47 Stone (2005: 262-72).

Fig. 2.1 Proportions of field crops in peasant households in Blackbourne Hundred in Suffolk, 1283. Top: 280 Breckland households; bottom: 958 non-Breckland households

a 50

  • Wheat □ Rye
  • Barley □ Oats □ Peas and beans


  • Wheat □ Rye
  • Barley □ Oats □ Peas and beans

£1-£2 £2-£3 £3-£4 £4-£6 Household wealth (value of moveable goods)

different proportions from lords. By using assumptions that take account of these differences, a new population estimate of nearly 5.5 million is reached, which fits very well with orthodox demographic estimates (Table 2.3).

Change over time

The consumption of bread and ale changed considerably over time, even in the short term. In great households, bread consumption could vary significantly from meal to meal and day to day. In 1412-13, for example, Alice de Bryene's household consumed more bread at meals on fish days: an average of 1.14 lb of bread was consumed per person per meal on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, and

Table 2.3. A re-estimate of national grain output and the population it was capable of feeding, C.1300


Rye and rye mixtures

Barley and dredge



Percentage national






grain areaa

Total national grain






area (million acres)

Net yield per acre






Total net grain output






(million qtrs)

Kilocalories per






Total net kilocalorie






grain output (million)


100% bread

100% bread

50% ale 40% bread 10% pottage

57% pottage 10% ale 33% fodder

Food extraction rate





Total net food output






(million kcal)

Less 10%







Total daily supply of






kilocalories (million)

Total population in millions capable of being fed at 1,500 kcal per person per day


Notes: This table uses the framework in Campbell (2000) for estimating population, but adjusts his assumptions in the following ways:

a National grain area takes account of peasant crop preferences, using the 1283 tax returns for Blackbourne Hundred (Suffolk), the pre-plague yield figures for the East Anglian Breckland and for Hinderclay (Suffolk), with a weighting of 80% peasant land and 20% demesne land.

b Net yields per acre are inflated by 11% to reflect higher peasant yields, on the assumption that yields on half yardlands would have been 10% higher and those on smaller holdings 25% higher than those on demesnes; the weighting of size of tenant holdings is taken from the Hundred Rolls of 1279-80.

c The use of grain reflects the likelihood that peasants consumed much of their barley as bread and pottage, and that some oats were brewed into ale.

Sources: Campbell (2000: 222-4, 392-3); Miyoshi (1981: 53); Bailey (1989: 103-5); Chicago University Library, Bacon 416, 423-65; Dyer (1998a: 119).

Thursdays, but this increased to 1.36 lb on Fridays. However, as many members of the household may have had only one meal on Fridays, the amount of bread they consumed per day was probably higher when meat was eaten. Likewise, the consumption of bread at each meal increased steadily during Lent, when the household abstained from meat (Fig. 2.2), although for the same reason consumption per day may often have been reduced at this time. Nor did the nature or consumption of ale remain constant over the course of a year. In this household, ale was made half from barley and half from dredge between 3 October 1412 and 11 January 1413, but just from barley between 12 January and 1 March. Then a stock of 'new' barley and dredge was begun, and the half and half mixture

  1. 2.2 The consumption of bread in the household of Dame Alice de Bryene, February to May 1413
  2. 2.2 The consumption of bread in the household of Dame Alice de Bryene, February to May 1413
Famine 1315 Bread
Source: Dale and Redstone (1931: 36-68).

was resumed.48 The quantity of ale consumed by a household also fluctuated during the course of a year, rising considerably during the Christmas period. For example, in the Bishop of Salisbury's household, 42 gallons of ale were consumed daily between 1 October and 24 December 1406, but from Christmas Day to Epiphany this rose to 100 gallons.49

Harvest failure, of course, prompted sudden changes in patterns of consumption, notably during the Great Famine of 1315-17. At Bolton Priory, the amount of grain provided for making bread and ale plummeted at this time and its composition was adjusted: bread for these monks was normally made out of wheat, but in 1315-16 13 per cent of their bread was made from mixed grains and in the following year 21 per cent.50 Lower down the social scale the problems were magnified and the response more dramatic. The grain allowance for famuli at West Wratting changed from 65.9 per cent rye, 25.6 per cent wheat, and 8.5 per cent barley in 1313 to 45.5 per cent rye, 43.4 per cent barley, 7 per cent beans, and 4.2 per cent wheat three years later, while harvest workers at Wisbech were given only bread made from winter barley in the years 1314-20.51 Significantly, crimes of desperation were common in these years. In a case from 15 March 1316, a Norfolk plasterer was accused of breaking into the house of a fisherman to steal just a pennyworth of bread.52 Later on that year, at Wakefield, a father and son attacked and drew blood from Thomas son of Peter to steal just three sheaves of barley.53

The Black Death of 1348-9 brought rising standards of living for many of the survivors and ushered in an era of significant changes in consumption. Qualitative

48 Dale and Redstone (1931: 1-102). 49 Woolgar (1992-3: i. 264-320).

50 Kershaw (1973a: 144-7). 51 Palmer (1927: 66); CUL, EDR D8/1/1-4.

change is evident at the highest levels of society: in the 1380s, the Bishop of Ely had fresh bread baked for him every day; in 1416-17, the household of Robert Waterton of Methley baked considerable quantities of pain-demaine, the loaf of medieval kings; and by the end of the Middle Ages, the monks of Westminster Abbey not only consumed wheaten bread, but on special occasions wastel bread and sometimes enriched buns as well, and by then their ale was made almost exclusively from barley malt.54 But the transformation was more emphatic for workers. In 1394, one Lincolnshire ploughman was given fifteen loaves of bread a week, seven of them made from wheat.55 Harvest workers at Sedgeford received more ale and ate much higher-quality bread: in 1256 they received 2.8 pints of ale per person-day and their bread was composed mainly of barley; by 1424 they were each getting 6.4 pints of ale a day and their bread was entirely wheaten.56 The diet of the famuli also improved: at Cuxham, for example, the use of peas and curallum ceased at the Black Death and the provision of pure wheat increased.57 In village markets, too, the quality of wares improved. In 1374, for instance, 'cokett', 'treat', and 'wastall' loaves were all being sold in Pershore.58 According to Langland, even beggars now turned up their noses at bread made from beans, holding out instead for the finest breads and best ales.59

People's expectations were clearly increasing, a phenomenon which is most readily appreciable in terms of ale consumption. At Appledram, for example, more ale had to be bought in 1354 'because the reap-reeve would not drink anything but ale in the whole of the harvest-time'.60 The general quality of the drink itself also improved. Barley consolidated its position as the main malting grain, although some high-quality wheaten ale was also produced: in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, 15 per cent of manors in the ten counties around London malted wheat, while on the estate of Tavistock Abbey, wheat malt was even produced for farm labourers at Christmas and Easter.61 Hopped beer also began to appear in the later Middle Ages. While it never threatened the dominance of ale in this period, it is indicative of changing consumption that two barrels 'de Holond beer' were bought for the daughters of the Duchess of Clarence in 1419-21, and that the Duke of Norfolk purchased 562 lb of hops in 1481 to make his own beer.62 In fact, brewing became increasingly professional at this time, and alehouses a more permanent feature both of the landscape and of people's lives.63 In 1365, even the statutes governing a chantry in Chesterfield had to be amended so that 'Where the ordinances say that the chaplain shall totally abstain from visiting taverns, this is to be understood as meaning that he shall not visit them habitually.'64 Increased consumption meant increased production as well. At Castle Acre Priory,

57 Harvey (1976: 423, 440, 456, 466, 475, 489, 538, 584).

58 Dyer (1998b: 68). 59 Schmidt (1992: 73). 60 Dyer (1994b: 96).

62 Woolgar (1992-3: ii. 672); Woolgar (1999: 128). 63 Clark (1983: 20-38).

Castle Acre Priory Kiln
Plate 2.2 The kilnhouse in the grain-processing complex at Castle Acre Priory, c.1360-1400. Adjacent were a granary, malthouse, and brewhouse. Photograph: C. M. Woolgar.

the grain-processing complex, including a malthouse and kilnhouse (Plate 2.2), was expanded in c. 1360, presumably in part as a commercial enterprise, while sales of malt from Bromholm Priory brought in £54 4s. 8d. in 1416-17.65

Changes in the consumption of both bread and ale were also reflected in agriculture. Nationally, the proportion of demesne land under rye and maslin shrank from 17 per cent at the start of the fourteenth century to 7 per cent a century later, while the proportion of land occupied by brewing grains rose from 18 per cent to 27 per cent. Indeed, in 1391-2 all of Merton College's local demesne at Holywell was under barley, presumably to make ale for the fellows and undergraduates.66 Similar changes in the cultivation of bread grains occurred on peasant land. In contrast to the low proportion of wheat and high proportion of inferior bread grains found around 1300, tithe corn at Oakham in the early 1350s contained 22.5 per cent wheat and 2.9 per cent rye.67 In 1380, 40 per cent of one 12.5-acre holding at Hesleden was devoted to wheat.68 Probably the clearest indication of change in peasant consumption and production comes from the proportions of corn ground at the lord's mill. On the Bishop of Winchester's estate, the mills on the manor of Taunton had produced 15 per cent wheat, 31 per cent maslin, and 53 per cent malt in 1301-2, but in 1409-10 this had changed to 24 per cent wheat, 15 per cent maslin, and 61 per cent malt.

65 Wilcox (2002: 47); Redstone (1944: 59-61). 66 Campbell (2000: 240, 291).

Likewise, the Bishop's mill at Downton produced 8 per cent wheat, 40 per cent malt, and 50 per cent barley at the start of the fourteenth century but 15 per cent wheat, 58 per cent malt, and 25 per cent barley a century later.69 Similarly, the accounts for the manor of St Columb show that by the mid-fifteenth century 'wheaten bread predominated in the diet and barley had partially replaced oats in brewing'.70

The later Middle Ages saw many shifts in the consumption and production of field crops, but change was not always wholesale or swift. In parts of the southwest, for example, the malting of oats for ale and the baking of rye for bread persisted, seemingly out of preference rather than as a result of environmental constraints.71 Similarly, both brown and white bread were made in the Abbot of Peterborough's kitchens in 1370-1 (although a large number of the brown loaves were doubtless consumed by the Abbot's forty-nine mastiffs), and was sold by the bakers of Tamworth and Leicester in the fifteenth century. Even in the early sixteenth century, the monks at Thetford Priory consumed bread made from 55 per cent wheat, 43 per cent rye, and 2 per cent barley.72 In this context, we should not forget the subtlety of Chaucer's characterization of grain consumption, for while the Cambridge scholars in the Reeve's Tale took wheat and malt to be milled, the friar in the Summoner's Tale begged for 'a bushel whete, or malt, or rye', and the poor widow of the Nun's Priest's Tale still made do with 'milk and broun bread'.73


While documentary evidence allows us to reconstruct agricultural production in late medieval England in great detail, manorial records, household accounts, and other sources, including surviving grains themselves, cast considerable light on the consumption of field crops. It is well known that grain, whether consumed in the form of bread, ale, or pottage, contributed more to the calorific intake of medieval people than any other foodstuff, but it was also the case that the nature and scale of consumption varied significantly from person to person and over time. Indeed, for much of the Middle Ages, wheaten bread and ale brewed from barley were chiefly the preserve of relatively high social groups. When pressure on agricultural resources was greatest, at the turn of the fourteenth century, most of the population would have eaten much coarser bread, made from barley, rye, and legumes, consumed little ale, and gained a considerable proportion of their calories from pottage. Even some lords were forced to compromise on the quality of their ale at this time, though it was only economic

72 Greatrex (1984: 56-83); Davis (2004: 487); Dymond (1995-6).

disasters such as the run of poor harvests in the 1310s that compelled them to reduce the quality of their bread as well. Documentary sources allow us to glimpse daily and weekly variations in the consumption of bread and ale, too, but by far the most significant temporal shift was the longer-term change in the aftermath of the Black Death. The standard of living of many people had improved by the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and this is reflected not just in the greater quantity of bread and ale that they consumed but also in its superior quality. In the higher echelons of society there is even evidence that fresh bread was consumed on a more regular basis and that the strength of ale increased as production could afford to employ more grain. These variations in patterns of consumption naturally affected agricultural production. Because of the nature of medieval documents it is frequently the case that inferences about consumption are drawn from patterns in production. Yet this brief survey of the historical evidence for the consumption of field crops suggests that this should be a two-way process. Most importantly, differing patterns of consumption imply that the agricultural profile of lords and peasants must have been very different, a conclusion that has significant implications for our understanding of the medieval economy at the broadest of levels.

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