Half a Loaf is Better Than None

bread 1281053 640BreadBread has had a critically important role in human history for at least 10,000 years. With the beginning of the Neolithic Age and the spread of agriculture, cereals were produced and bread was part of the staple menu. As yeast spores are everywhere, any dough made from grain that is left to rest will rise naturally to become leavened. Bread was massively important, allowing people to become farmers and to give up a life of foraging, hunting and gathering. Families could become bigger and agricultural societies could grow and specialise. In the Greek world, the staple food of the meal was σίτος "sitos", which meant "bread", whilst everything else was lowly ὄψον "opson" which meant "condiment" or "relish". In the Middle Ages, bread was not only food, but also tableware. A large piece of stale bread was hollowed out in the middle and was used as a sort of absorbent plate. At the end of the meal, these trenchers, ancestors of modern cheeseboards, were given as alms to the poor or fed to the dogs.


Loaves and bread cause problems for English language learners. A loaf is countable, whereas bread is not, and what English speakers casually call "a loaf" is what speakers of other languages would simply call "a bread", as in French un pain, Bulgarian един хляб, Danish et brød etc. Yet, while these languages can have one bread, two breads, three breads, four breads, English must count out loaves to get "thirteen loaves in a baker's dozen". This expression comes from the action of King Henry III (reigned 1216-1272), who introduced standard weights for loaves to prevent slippery English bakers from selling short weight. Punishments for selling short measures could be brutal, so medieval bakers would give thirteen loaves to customers as opposed to twelve so as to ensure they were not fined, pilloried, jailed or flogged for this offence.


"What is this loaf anyway?" scornful Bulgarian students have asked me for the past twelve years, as did the Czechs I taught before them. The answer, dear students, is the same as your beloved chleb (Czech) or хляб /hljab/ (Bulgarian) as the word root is the same, Proto-Germanic *(k)hlaibaz. This root gave Old English hlaf, Old Norse hleifr and Gothic "hlaifs" "bread, loaf baked in an oven". Many Gothic and other Germanic words were borrowed by the Slavs, Proto-Slavic xlěbъ being one of them. As can be seen, this is very close to Old English hlaf. After the Old English period, the consonant cluster hl-was reduced to l-, giving us Middle English laf and Modern English loaf. The Anglo-Saxons also celebrated hlaf-mas, "loaf-mass", the festival of the new wheat harvest, every August 1st. On this day, it was traditional for a loaf made from the new crop to be taken to church and blessed. This festival survives in some areas of English and Scotland as Lammas, although it is also celebrated by Wiccans and other neo-pagans as the harvest festival of Lughnasadh and is believed to be of pagan origin.


Bread: Everything I Own


By the 13th century, bread had replaced hlaf as the generic term for "bread". There are two theories regarding the origin of the word bread. One theory is that it is from Proto-Germanic *brautham, which would mean it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root of brew, *bhreu, thus connected to Old English beorma "yeast" and so referred to the leavening process. An alternative theory posits that bread comes from Proto-Germanic *braudaz, “broken piece, fragment”, from PIE *bhera- ‎“split, break off” and so means "piece of food" and is connected to Old English breotan "break off" related to break and brittle. Cognates of bread abound, especially in Germanic languages e.g. Brot (German) and brauð (Icelandic), but there is also Albanian brydh "crumb" and Latin frustum "crumb, morsel" amongst many others.


695px BriocheBrioche: let them eat cake!For many cultures, bread equates to power - the person who controls the bread supply is the master of the household. The Old English hlafweard was the "loafward" - the ward of the loaves. Hlafweard was then reduced to hlaford "master of the household, superior". With the reduction of the hl- cluster to l-, this became laford/lowerd and by the close of the Middle English period, the word had morphed to the familiar lord. Lady took a similar route to reach its current form. The second element of Old English hlæfdige is equivalent to "kneader, maker of dough", which later acquired the meaning of "maid, female servant". Dæge moved via deie to dey and with the loss of the initial h- and the 14th century loss of the medial f- hlæfdige became lady. So next time you feel intimidated or envious of "my lords and ladies" remember that they are basically "my breadkeepers and doughkneaders!" At least bread guardians and bread kneaders had some respected function, though. The Old English term for "household servant" was hlafæta, "loaf-eater", reflecting the disdain felt by the aristocracy for each of their domestic minions as "another mouth to feed".


Some cultures place such a high value on bread that bread is life itself - the Arabic word for life, عَيْش "aish" means both "life" and "bread", while رزق "rizq" means both "livelihood" and "bread". Bread has been such an appreciated commodity that conventional wisdom holds that "half a loaf is better than none" or similarly that "half a loaf is better than no bread". In English speaking cultures, the value of bread is highlighted by the fact that bread and dough are also slang terms for "money" and the individual who puts bread on the table has gone out to earn the cash: he or she is the breadwinner. Bread is also a peace offering, a symbol of friendship and a sacrament. When former enemies "break bread" together, they are signalling an end to strife. In Slavic countries, bread and salt is offered as a sign of welcome to esteemed and respected guests. The Russian хлебосольный /xlebəʊsɒləni:/ “bread-salt” actually means “hospitable”. Similarly, the word “companion” derives from the Latin com + panis, literally “with bread”, as does the French word copain "friend, boyfriend". Hence, a companion would be a messmate, someone you would keep company with – a close associate with whom you would share your bread. Bread is also a fundamental element of several religions. For example, millions of Christians exhort God to “give us this day our daily bread”, while bread symbolises Christ’s body in the Eucharist rite.  


A lack of bread for the peasantry and working classes could spell serious trouble for the ruling powers. Bread riots were a factor in both the French and Russian Revolutions. In Ancien Regime France, the King safeguarded the supply of bread to the peasantry and was thus affectionately nicknamed "le premier boulanger du royaume" or "first baker of the kingdom" by his subjects. However, in 1775, bread prices rocketed as grain was in short supply and severe hardship was the result. This led to the conspiracy theory that there was a Pacte de Famine in that grain was being withheld from the peasants to serve the vested interests of Louis XVI and privileged groups. The consequence of this was the so-called Flour War - a series of riots due to the lack of bread. This is seen as a harbinger of the French Revolution as the first popular uprising against Louis XVI and specifically the "laissez-faire" free trade in grain. However, Louis XVI's Queen, Marie Antoinette almost certainly did not say the equivalent of "let them eat cake" upon learning that the peasants had no bread. In fact, Rousseau wrote about a "great princess" who had said: "qu’ils mangent de la brioche" actually "let them eat brioche" - a more expensive bread, but certainly not cake - as early as 1765, when Marie-Antoinette was only nine years old. It seems that the prime suspect for this throwaway remark was Marie-Thérèse, the first wife of Louis XIV, showing a callous disregard to the fate of starving peasants almost a hundred years earlier.


The parallels between the Flour Wars and the situation in Russia in 1917 are marked. February 1917 saw riots in Petrograd (St Petersburg) due to the shortage of bread and flour. This was one of many factors that led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the end of the Russian monarchy in the first Russian Revolution. The second revolution wasn't far behind, speedily brought on by the disastrous conditions in Russia throughout 1917: fierce anti-war sentiment, falling wages, food shortages, mass unemployment and spiralling living costs.  In October 1917, Vladimir Lenin promised the Russian people an end to war, an end to the great disparities in wealth in the country, and food for the common citizen with his stirring "Peace! Land! Bread!" speech. The October Revolution was successful and the Bolsheviks took control, paving the way for the establishment of the Soviet Union. 


Histeria: trivialising the issue somewhat 


Now it's time to test you on your bread knowledge and to see if you've been paying attention with this breadtastic quiz!


1.    Literally, what does "companion" mean? questionmark 

a)   The squire of D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers   b)   bread fellow   c)   campaign manager   d)   bread basket


2.    Which festival is celebrated on August 1st? questionmark 

a)   Whitsuntide   b)   Lammas   c)  Michaelmas   d)   Candlemas


3.   Which of these surnames is the odd one out?  questionmark 

a)   Boulanger   b)   Becker   c)   Kasabian   d)   Pistorius


4.   Which of these is the female form of the English surname Baker?  questionmark 

a)   Baxter   b)   Bakerette   c)   Barker   d)   Backache


5.   The Bulgarian name for a baker is хлебар /hlebar/, but what does the female form хлебарка /hlebarka/ mean? questionmark 

a)   kneader   b)   doughnut   c)   bread bin   d)   cockroach


6.   Which former Arsenal and Barcelona footballer has won 69 international caps for Belarus? questionmark 

a)   Loaf Erikssen   b)   Alexander Hleb   c)   Chleb Soda   d)   Yuri Bakeoff


7.   The Russian хлебосольный /xlebəʊsɒləni:/ “bread-salt” is an adjective. What does it mean? questionmark 

a)   hospitable   b)   dexterous   c)   baked  d)   superfluous


8.   Which "bread" rather than "cake did Rousseau's "great princess" suggest that the peasants should eat?   questionmark 

a)   croissant   b)   petit pain au chocolat   c)  baguette   d)   brioche


Joe Dassin: Le petit pain au chocolat


9.   The Roman satirical poet Juvenal mocked the Roman masses and scorned their lack of political involvement. He said they were only interested in what? questionmark 

a)   bread and butter   b)   bread and circuses  c)   bread and gladiators   d)   bread and wine


10.   Spanish intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries also criticised the masses for being interested only in pan y toros. Bread, and what else?  questionmark 

a)   football   b)   sunbathing   c)   bulls   d)   dancing


That brings us to the end of this bready blog. I hope it was diverting, even if it didn't reach the heady heights of "the best thing since sliced bread"!




Brioche: Brioche, by Rainer Zenz. From de:Bild:Brioche.jpg. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brioche.jpg


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