All about medieval English grains

This is an excerpt from my research into high medieval English pastry. For more information and a full bibliography, see “Raising a Coffin” and “Crustardes of Flessh” on the Files page.

A wheat thresher
A wheat thresher

One potential source of information on medieval cereal crops is blackened roof thatch from standing medieval buildings. Layers of soot-blackened thatch survive on some medieval English buildings dating from the medieval period (specifically the 14th and 15th centuries) and John Letts (see sources) has examined over 200 samples, all originating from the South of England and most coming from Devon. (Typically roofs in the north of England were thatched with water reed or sedge [Ambrose and Letch].)  These samples have preserved not only grain-bearing plants (with both the ears and straw intact), but also crop weeds and other vegetables. These roof samples provide us with a glimpse into complete medieval fields, and allow us to see how crops changed over time. The most significant finding is the diversity of crops within a medieval field:

Most samples contain ‘land race’ mixtures of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), English rivet wheat (Triticum turgidum) and rye (Secale cereale) which grew to 6ft (1.8m) or more in height – far taller than modern varieties – as well as barley (Hordeam vulgare) and oats (Avena spp). Land races evolve over many centuries when crops are grown in heterogeneous conditions, year after year, from seed saved from the previous year’s crop. The result is that every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease. (Letts)

The most abundant grain in these samples was bread wheat, although this study does not specify any specific recognizable varieties of bread wheat or characteristics such as grain color, etc. One significant difference between modern wheat crops and the evidence from roof thatching is the presence of rivet wheat among the medieval samples. Although rivet wheat is no longer grown commercially on any significant scale, 60% of the roof samples contained at least some rivet wheat. (ibid) Rivet wheat tends to produce high quality thatching straw, so it is possible that it was of greater importance historically for this reason. As many of the roof samples are composed of threshed straw and threshing waste, it is reasonable to conclude that these samples accurately reflect food crops.

Within this threshing waste additional plant taxa are found, including legumes such as broad beans and field peas (both important foods medievally and most likely left over or introduced via other crop rotations) as well as numerous weed species, again indicating that medieval fields were significantly more diverse than modern fields. It is possible that seeds from some of these plants may have been milled along with the wheat grains, although the impact on the finished flour would presumably be negligible. (ibid)

Modern wheat (and other cereal grains) are grown as monocultures, vastly different from the diversity of medieval fields. The stark reality is modern wheat bears very little resemblance to its medieval ancestors (for discussion of genetic changes in wheat over time, see Haudry et al and Peleg et al in sources). The number of wheat varieties grown in the UK has dropped precipitously since World War II (Ambrose and Letch): in the 1830s, some 150 named wheat landrace varieties were described, and in the 1920s and -30s 63 wheats from across the UK were collected, classified, and catalogued. But by 2003, only three landraces were recorded (specifically as being grown for thatching). (ibid) Typically early landraces referenced place names, and it is highly likely that each region in England had a unique wheat variety historically.

Although medieval records differentiate between types of crops (e.g. wheat vs. rye), they do not differentiate between varieties within a crop. For example, wheat is universally referred to as frumentum in manorial records of the period (Stone). 16th century written accounts differentiate between different varieties of wheat, but I have found little evidence as to when these varieties appeared or whether medieval people used different wheat varieties for different purposes. Generally the evidence suggests that any single field would contain a mixture of genetically distinct wheat plants and different areas would have their own unique wheat variety, so it is unlikely that the universal term implies that wheat was a homogeneous crop. The lack of distinction between different wheat varieties could suggest that people simply used whatever wheat was available to them for any given purpose rather than using individual varieties purposefully.

This lack of information about medieval wheat varieties is frustrating for the modern cook, as different varieties of wheat have vastly different properties. Since wheat would have been the flour used for pies prepared in high status contexts, I felt I needed to find additional information about the qualities of medieval wheat flour. The major distinction between modern wheat varieties is between hard red and soft white wheat. Hard red wheat is higher in gluten and preferred for bread baking, while soft white wheat is higher in starch and is preferred for, among other things, pie crusts. Even when late medieval or post-medieval texts describe particular varieties of different cereal crops, it is essentially impossible to correlate these characteristics with modern varieties (Moffet).

Other written sources do not provide any more clarity. In his translation of Galen’s On the Properties of Foodstuffs, Powell notes that the different varieties of wheat known to Galen were einkorn, emmer, durum, and bread wheat, but does not distinguish between different varieties of bread wheat (T. aestivum). By the very end of the 16th century, John Gerarde in his Herball mentions white wheat, red wheat, and flat wheat by name; from the description and its accompanying picture flat wheat may refer to rivet wheat. It is not clear if the white and red wheat of Gerarde correspond to the varieties of the same names of today, or if they do when these varieties appeared.

There are a few things we do know for certain: medieval wheat was a winter crop, and was bred from ancestral wheats such as einkorn, emmer, and spelt. Both hard red and soft white wheat are winter crops (although there is also a spring hard red wheat). In comparing different modern and historical wheat varieties, one can see how each varies in macronutrient composition, which can allow us to make some educated guesses about medieval wheat. All data are from the USDA unless otherwise specified:

All values are per 100g Einkorn* Emmer** Spelt Soft White Hard Red
Water N.D. N.D. 11.02 10.42 13.10
kCal 347 362 338 340 327
Protein*** (g) 18.2 12.77 14.57 10.69 12.61
Total lipids (g) 2.48 2.13 2.43 1.99 1.54
Carbohydrate (g) [65.5 g starch] 72.34 70.19 75.36 71.18
Fiber (g) 8.7 10.6 10.7 12.7 12.2
Sugars (g) 2.67 N.D. 6.82 0.41 0.41

*No USDA data available. Data given are from http://www.einkorn.com/wp-content/…/Grain-Nutrition-Comparison-Matrix.pdf.
**No USDA data available. Data given are from http://www.bluebirdgrainfarms.com/nutritional-information.html
***Total, so includes both gluten and other proteins.

It is interesting to note that all of the “ancient” wheat varieties (as they are grown today; these are not living fossils, but modern crops that have certainly undergone evolutionary changes from their ancestral forms) contain a greater amount of protein even than modern hard red wheat. However, the gluten content in historical grains is said to be lower than the gluten content in modern wheat, as breeding wheat to contain more gluten (for better bread baking) has been a major aim of industrialized agriculture. Spelt in particular is generally considered poor for bread baking by modern bakers. This suggests to me that medieval bread wheat would have tended to have less gluten than modern hard bread wheat. I was unable to find macronutrient data on rivet wheat (T. turgidum), but I did find a reference to it being “better suited to biscuit- than to bread-baking” (Hamerow et al) which suggests a relatively low gluten to starch ratio.

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Author: eulalia

I'm a foodie, medievalist, crafter, and gardener living in beautiful Portland, Oregon.

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