Les Très Riches Heure du duc de Berry august-detail

Bean’s Bread, Pease Loaf and Lammastide

Lammastide means the time has come for hlafmaesse or ‘loaf-mass’, the ancient offering to God of the first bread of the season. What came before was a meagre time.

Hunger in haste then · seized Waste by the maw
And wrung him so by the belly · that both his eyes watered;
The Breton he buffeted · about the cheeks
That he looked lantern-jawed · all his life after.
He beat them so both · that he near burst their ribs;
Had not Piers with a pease-loaf · prayed Hunger to cease
They had been buried both · believe thou none other!
`Suffer them to live,’ he said · `let them eat with the hogs
Or else beans and bran · baked up together,
Or else milk and mean ale’ · thus prayed Piers for them.

Loungers for fear thereof · fled into barns
And flapped on with flails · from morning till eve,
So that Hunger less hardily · looked upon them,
For a potful of pease · that Piers had made.

(From Piers the Plowman, Passus VI by William Langland c 1332 – c. 1400)

labourer with a spade from Piers Plowman. Source: Bodleian MSDouce 104, f 039r
Labourer with a spade from Piers Plowman. Source: Bodleian Library, MSDouce 104, f 039r/wikipedia

August is – as any medieval calendar will inform us – the proper time for harvesting the fields and bring the wheat – the bread grain beneath the shelter of the roof of the barn. And hard they had to work in the Middle Ages to get that far. If not we know the fate, which awaited them – bread baked of beans and bran and loaves of peas if not just at potful of gruel made thereof. Elsewhere in the poem we hear about bread for horses and hounds…

The question was of course if this really was that harsh? Modern day vegans will know that split peas are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. It is also a good source of protein, thiamin, folate and manganese, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber. In fact. peas and beans are very healthy and an important staple for anyone dispensing with – or if in the middle ages – lacking sources of animal protein. Rather, we would consider it a fine alternative to the bread, which we are taught to suspense with, even if it is whole grain and made of rye or a mixture of rye, barley, oat and wheat.

However, seen from a medieval point of view peas and beans had one failure: they are low in calories. Bread is simply double up. And if you are mowing the hay, harvesting the field and beginning on the long hard work of “flapping on with flails” as Langland wrote, there is no mercy: you need calories.

Which is why, of course, the first newly baked bread was brought to church in order to be sacrificed and blessed.

Not much about the popular festivals during Lammas Tide can be found in medieval sources, but a bit later we hear about harvest suppers, harvest queens and festivities when the last load of corn was brought in draped in garlands. Often the last sheaf was woven into images. Another cause for celebration was the opening of the gates, when cattle and sheep were let into the fallow fields and Lammas Meadows.

However, all this must wait until the end of the harvest. Until then, the diet should consist of bread made of all sorts of course ingredients. Here is genuine hunger version:

Hunger Bread

Bread of barley with fresh cheese3-4 dl. water
50 g yeast (fresh)
1 egg
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp salt
2 dl. whole barley kernels soaked in boiling water, and then drained.
2,5 dl barley flour
0,5 dl split peas ground by hand (or in an electric coffee grinder)
4 dl whole grain wheat flour

Mix the water, yeast, egg, honey and salt  and stir well. Then knead with the barley kernels, the flour and the ground peas. When thoroughly worked together, fill the dough into a buttered oblong baking tin and let it rest for half an hour. Place it in a cold oven and turn it on to 225 C. Bake it for 35 min, then take it out of the oven and the tin; return the loaf to the oven for another 5 -10 min. Let it cool before slicing it.

Serve it with homemade butter or fresh cheese.

Recipe for Hunger Bread is Inspired by Dagligt Liv I Norden I det 16. Århundrede by Troels Troels-Lund, Copenhagen 1914.)


The “Hungry Gap”, crop failure, and famine: the fourteenth-century agricultural crisis and Piers Lowman.
By Robert Worth Frank, Jr.
In: The Yearbook of Langland Studies, 1990, Vol 4, pp. 87 – 104

The domain of “bread” in Anglo-Saxon Culture
By I Yanushkevich.
In Acta Linguistica, 2010, vol 4, no. 2. Pp. 99 – 107