Imagine for a moment you’re a common Medieval peasant. You need to eat, just like we do. But you most likely don’t have an oven. After all, ovens are these great, hulking metal things – they’re large, expensive, and hard to use. If you’re cooking at home, you’re cooking in a pot over the fire.
But we all need our carbohydrates – and in Medieval times, the most accessible was wheat, milled into flour and cooked into bread.
If you were lucky, you lived in a place with a communal mill and shared oven – provided by your lord if you lived on an estate, or by the city if you lived in an urban area. But most people weren’t lucky – and even if you were in this situation, you’d have to buy the wheat and have the knowledge and the strength to mill and bake a loaf from scratch.
So most of the time, to get your bread, you had to go to the baker.
In Medieval times, bakers and millers had a terrible reputation – they were seen as corrupt, mean, and mischevious, ready to swindle you at any moment. Why?
Medieval agriculture, advanced as it was (there’s more woodland in England today than there was in 1300), was unreliable. A bad season could really dent the food supply, and the price of grain was ever-changing – and so was the price of bread. Naturally, people disliked this – especially when the bakers worked together, cartel-like, to set a minimum loaf price.
The government was aware of the problem – so in 1266, we see the appearance of the first law that regulated food in England: the Assize of Bread. To begin with, these were sporadic laws, used mostly to ensure the army didn’t have to pay too much for bread when it passed through towns and villages. By the 1300s, though, the law had become permanent, and applied across the country.
The idea was simple: the price of bread would never change, no matter what the price of grain. This meant that wherever you went in Medieval England, you’d always pay the same price for a loaf – some much-needed stability in the life of an average peasant. Instead, the thing that changed was the weight of the loaf, which was also regulated.
So while, in hard times, your loaf of bread might be smaller than in bountiful harvest years, you could head to the market with the exact amount you needed to buy a loaf of bread – and be confident that it would cost that much, and that the baker couldn’t swindle you out of your money.
The law itself is a bit of a mess – because how do you regulate the price and weight of things without a defined system of weights and measures? So, confusingly, the weights of different loaves for different wheat prices are measured… in the weight of coins.
The interesting thing, though, is that the law stuck around. In fact, it was basically unchanged for hundreds of years – and bakers still had to follow it, or risk being punished. It was amended in the early 1800s to state that loaves had to be sold by the pound, before it was effectively abolished. However, a law remained that regulated the weights of British bread products for long after. Since the country converted to grams, all breads – from traditional loaves to baguettes – had to weigh either 400g or 800g, and bakeries were regularly inspected to ensure they stuck to the regulations.
When did they finally come to an end?
The law was eventually overwritten by an EU law, and since 2008, bakeries have been able to produce breads of any weight they want.
Eight centuries. Not a bad run for England’s first piece of food regulation!