The practical and metaphorical place of bread in medieval European thought is rarely considered, making Lucia Travaini’s article valuable for its rarity as well as for its insight.
- Lucia Travaini, ‘Coins as Bread. Bread as Coins’, The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-), Vol. 173 (2013), pp. 187-200. (JSTOR)
We may conveniently (if informally) group under three headings the various allusions in written and in pictorial sources as: pragmatic, spiritualised or coarse. All three are present in post from the British Library’s manuscript’s blog though implications of the ‘coarse’ image – which I’ll explain below – pass unmentioned there.
- ‘The Great Medieval Bake-Off‘ Medieval Manuscripts blog (24th. August, 2016)
Monastic as well as ordinary works may treat the making of bread in practical terms. So, too, Isidore lists six types of bread available in his time ( Book XX.ii. 15-17), the terms referring to grade or method of preparation. Isidore was probably accustomed to eat wheaten bread, rye being less often grown in Visigothic Spain than it was further north. (More on this when we come to Book XX).
Bread was the quintessential sacred offering – which attitude the Christian west had from its study of Jewish religious works. Isidore would know the roots of that tradition, and one can appreciate his Christian thinking by the content in an article from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.
- ‘Loaves of Proposition‘ in the Catholic Encylopaedia online.
Termed ‘shewbread’ in medieval English, these ‘loaves of proposition’ are also prominent in an incident from the story of David. Before becoming king of Israel, David and his soldiers found themselves desperately short of food, and on begging bread from the priest Abimalech were given the previous day’s holy bread.
That incident is included amid a general theme of violence and slaughter, on the ivory cover made for the Melisende Psalter. The Psalter was made in Jerusalem for one of the occupying forces. Dated to between 1131 and 1143 it is inscribed ‘Basileus me fecit’ . We would know, in any case, that it had not been made by a Jew, for the table on which the bread was laid was not a sacrificial altar of this sort, and the Law required each loaf to be laid so as not to touch the next.
In the next illustration, in a manuscript made c. 1108- before c. 1122, (Royal MS 6 C VI f.6r) we find a fair knowledge of near eastern costume and custom. The bread being offered to Job is shown as a small, flat, round loaf, from which Job is offered quarter. The maker was not unaware of the implied pun, and shows Job measuring the ‘bread of bitterness’ which is also the ‘bread of mercy’.
We are given a markedly different perspective by imagery intended for a lay audience and here found in work linked to the University of Paris. The associated texts are of impeccable sobriety. Though made in southern France, the informing language for this image appears, nonetheless, to be English for (as we see from Chaucer) contemporary English might both say and write ‘breed’ for ‘bread’ and in the Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale virgins suitable for ‘breeding’ are specifically likened to wheaten bread, while wives are ‘barley’ bread. Modern English slang still speaks of breasts’ being ‘kneaded’ and of pregnancy as ‘a bun in the oven’. The artist leaves one in no doubt about the parallel.
Isidore, surely, would not approve. But perhaps popular association of lust with bread-making was very general; it may explain the expression on this basker’s face.
- Statue of Isidore of Seville: made in 1892 by José Alcoverro. now outside the Biblioteca Nacional de España, in Madrid, Image courtesy of wiki commons.
- ivy motif: detail from Brit.Lib. Royal MS 19 A XIX f.4.
- twisted columns: source unspecified.
- band – interlace – edited from a detail in BNF Paris 9332, f.140 r.
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