Thursday, 18 February 2016

The best bread money could buy

Peasant and horse team harrowing the fields before sowing wheat (Luttrell Psalter 1325-1335)

In Medieval times a large part of the everyone's diet, no matter their rank in society, was cereal-based. Coarsley ground cereals were thrown into the cooking pot or cauldron. Producing a cereal based porridge or "mash". Or for a pottage, added to roots, leaves and pulses (peas, beans etc). Meat would have been an optional luxury - but only on the relatively few days in the year when the medieval church allowed its consumption. 

 And of course cereals were used to make bread. Commonly grown cereals in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were rye, buckwheat, spelt, millet, barley, oats and wheat. Cereals were a valuable commodity and a failed harvest was a disaster. 

MedievalMorsels' white wheat bread, "manchet" for a Tudor dollhouse manor or castle

But it was wheat that was especially vaued in Medieval society. It produced a white flour when finely milled and was thus three times as expensive as other grains. Wheat was traded to nearby towns to satisfy the overwhelming demand for use in bread making for the noble and aspiring merchant classes. For the estate dwelling, indentured peasant however bread made from any finely ground cereal was a non-attainable luxury...
Luxury wheat bread for a 12th scale Tudor Elizabethan dollshouse 

Luttrell Psalter - peasant sowing wheat on the estate 

 Peasants then would not have eaten their cereals as bread. And they certainly could not have afforded coarse wheatmeal for their cooking pot. In the rural villages it was only on nobles' estates or the monastery, priory or abbey land holdings where the mill ground and sold. The landlord's cereal meal and flours were baked in his ovens. The humble peasant would need to set his sights lower. He might afford some  inexpensive grain to pound at home. Buckwheat - which would grow just about anywhere - was a favourite for porridge and "pan"cakes. A “maza” - an unleavened cereal meal dough or paste, thicker than porridge - could be shaped and baked on a stone or in the embers of the fire..

 Never mind the fact that  it was the estate peasants who sowed the fields and harvested, stacked and threshed the grains - including valuable wheat - for his landlord. 

The estate wheat harvest, all the peasants involved

Threshing estate wheat
If a peasant was lucky enough to work directly as part of the manor household, lesser quality rye or "maslin" or mixed grain bread would be baked for the servants, in addition to the higher quality household "manchet" bread for the noble masters. 

Charitable hand-outs of used bread trenchers (akin to bread plates) were distributed as alms at the manor gates. Such bread handouts could be used as sops or soppes in a bowl with a thin gruel or pottage served on top, the forerunner of today’s similarly named "soup". In fact, reflecting on this origin, bread is a key ingredient of the classic French onion soup even today.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Historic Reprieve for Parchment in the UK!

At last! Today we were graciously informed over the airwaves that the use of parchment will be continued in Parliament, continuing a tradition of a mere 800 years (and more). There is to be a reprieve and in the UK we can continue to "keep  history to hand" for millennia to come. 

Common sense, exhibited by those representing the House of Commons or at least it's Cabinet Office, and more importantly a sense of history have prevailed. The House of Lords' recommendation to save a mere £80k by discontinuing the use of vellum (calfskin) or other parchment skins (sheep, goat) has been ignored. Savings will be found to fund the cost (Ed: what about an application to the Heritage /Lottery Fund anyone? Would that embarrass the House of Lords?)

As a representative of William Cowley (est. 1870), the last remaining Vellum maker and Parchmenter in the UK and one of only four in the world, reminded us - parchment keeps for at least 5000 years and needs no special conservation -the Dead Sea scrolls dating from 435 BCE were discovered in a cave. We cannot be sure, but Archive quality paper may last only 500 years at best. Cowley remarked that a small number of people (Ed: be they ignoble Lords perchance?) seemed to have decided that in the future ordinary people should not touch history. Vellum or prachment has provided us with more understanding of earlier civilisations than any other historical artefact.

MedievalMorsels  followed the issue back in October 2015 but did not thoroughly got under the skin of this problem....sharing its findings as a post be:

"Earlier this month House of Lords Committee recommended to the UK’s House of Commons that Parliament should no longer print the official copies of its Acts on Vellum. Instead, as a cost cutting exercise, it is suggested that record copies of Acts of Parliament  should instead be printed on archival quality paper. As now, one copy would continue to be stored in the Parliamentary Archives and the other sent to The National Archives (which has already stated that it does not require a copy on Vellum).

So it boils down to whether ‘recorded history’ will be accessible to those who follow many generations into the future. Archival quality paper has proven 250 years life expectancy and, we are told, a probable 500 year life expectancy. Centuries ahead it seems likely that posterity may not have Vellum or Parchment for to pore (?paw) over. But will it have an otherwise preserved written record?

What exactly is Vellum, and what is Parchment and what is the difference? The term parchment is a general term for an animal skin which has been prepared for writing or printing. Parchment has been made for centuries, and is usually calf, goat, or sheep skin. The term vellum from the French veau refers to a parchment made from calf skin. But even as early as the 16th century in England there has been some confusion in use of the terms.  So we had better leave it at that.

The manufacture of Parchment  involves removing the skin of an animal of any hair or flesh, stretching it on a wooden frame where the parchment maker scrapes the surface of the skin with a special curved knife. To create tension in the skin scraping is alternated by wetting and drying the skin. The Parchment must be scraped, wetted and dried several times to bring it to the right thickness and tautness for calligraphy or printing.

Parchment has traditionally been used instead of paper for important documents such as maps, religious texts, public laws, indentures, and land records as it has always been considered a strong and stable material. Even in the US the five pages of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Articles of Confederation are written on Parchment.

Back in the UK, parchmenters William Cowley (est. 1870) provided the largest calfskin ever for use in the magnificent re-creation of a Mappa Mundi, commissioned by English Heritage, which hangs in the refurbished Great Tower of Dover Castle. Cowleys is one of only four parcmenters in the world and probably the last to produce skins using traditional craft tools and skills. Their Vellum sheets can take up to six weeks to produce and are sold to practitioners, conservationists, bookbinders, museums and libraries all over the world. No air conditioners or hermetically sealed rooms for Vellum! (Or Parchment? Ed.).

"Going goat" is still a phrase used in Whitehall to describe the moment when the Queen's Speech has to be finalised and sent to the Palace for Her Majesty's approval. But the Monarch’s speeches, formerly printed on goatskin Parchment we must assume, are presently printed on sheepskin Parchment! And now will be for thhe future...

Now (Ed: October 2015) I have been unable to find out how the Parliamentary Acts question was finally resolved in the Commons. Lets leave the last, spoken, word to William Cowley: "There is bitter irony that the very year we celebrated 800 years of Magna Carta, we may also witness the end of recording Acts on Vellum. Vellum has excellent 'green' credentials, needs no specialist aftercare, and has provided us with more understanding of earlier civilisations than any other historical artefact." "