Bread for the Troops

Recently there was a discussion among SFCanada members regarding historical authenticity and credible fantasy in writing fiction. In light of that discussion, I thought I’d revive an essay I wrote back in 1997 for Serve it Forth, an historical culinary periodical.

In our pursuit of foods medieval we look to the recipes left by those great cooks of the time, recipes which were designed and prepared for the glittering aristocracy. But what of the peasantry? What of the armies? What did they eat?

These questions are ones which have interested both my husband and me for the past few years. He pursues the persona of a 14th century English archer, and in his quest for historical re-creation he attempts to carry in his lunch sack foodstuffs in keeping with his character.

While I packed a baguette in his lunch one day, he asked if that was the sort of bread of which archers would avail themselves. I couldn’t answer definitely. And so our journey into the world of campaign bread began.

There were many questions we needed to answer: Did the troops in fact consume bread, or did they subsist off of gruel and frumenty? If they did consume bread, was it transported with them in the supply train? Was it foraged or stolen as they passed through? Did they bake it along the way? In what was it baked? And what type of bread was it? Flatbread? Leavened? Fine wheaten or rye or oat?

In Robert Hardy’s impeccably researched book, Longbow , he quotes an order given by Edward III, king of England: “The county of Lincoln, in Crecy year, sent to William de Kelleseye, the king’s receiver of victuals at Boston and Hull, 552 1/2 quarters of flour at 3 shillings or 4 shillings a quarter, packed in 87 tuns, 300 quarters of oats, 135 carcasses of salt pork, 213 carcasses of sheep, 32 sides of beef, 12 weys of cheese (312 stones) and 100 quarters of peas and beans.”

Note the inclusion of all that flour and oats. The oats were certainly not for the horses, as provisioning for them would have fallen under another authority. So, then, one must ask: For what were they carrying all that flour? It seems likely they carried it to make bread.

The oats could have been cooked into a frumenty/porridgy sort of stick-to-your-ribs-fill-up-the-belly glop; however, because of the mention of oatcakes being provided as part of the provisioning for the first part of the journey, one might reasonably assume a goodly portion of the oats were for oatcakes. Oatcakes are considered a flatbread. Here, then, is reasonable proof bread, both loaves and flatbreads, were baked and consumed.

That bread was seldom baked by the armies of this time? Perhaps, but Hardy states (page 82) regarding the provisioning of the army for Crecy: “There were huge quantities of beef, pork and mutton, salted and fresh, more often salted because of the difficulties of storage, flitches of bacon, masses of cheese, oat and wheat cakes and loaves, peas and beans, and fish (usually dried ‘stockfish’ or herrings) which were caught in home waters, or imported, often from Gascony, an English dominion and ally in the French wars.”

This supposition is supported by Christopher Rothero in his book The Armies of Crecy and Poitiers, and also by Clive Bartlett in his book English Longbowman.

Bartlett, however, goes on to state that an English soldier was expected to pay for his own food, for which he was provided an allowance in his daily pay. If he took his food himself, or was issued with rations, his wage was lowered accordingly.

The soldier bought his food along the way from victualers who traveled with and supplied the army, and who were strictly regulated by laws enforced by the Clerk of the Market. In fact, the English were apparently very good about their provisioning, in particular, Edward III. There is even an account of a Venetian diplomat commenting on the English army’s preoccupation with eating well. Bread, it seems, was an important part of this. There are surviving records of Henry V’s orders to have the brewers and bakers of Southampton, Winchester and the surrounding area bake and brew to provide sufficient provision upon embarkation.

As to how the soldiers cooked their meals, there is some speculation by Barlett a unit, or household, would bring their own gear, or that a particularly benevolent lord might have deigned to share his portable oven with his men. Given the attitude of the knighthood to the common foot, and most particularly the archers, it seems unlikely many of the regulars benefited at all.

There were camp followers, and often it seems wives went with their husbands. Still, there are no records of the day to day life of the foot.

Once more I turned to Hardy, as he is internationally renown as a leading expert on the English longbow and the entire social and military history surrounding it.

According to Hardy, foodstuffs were more often paid for than stolen, although I won’t be so naive as to state the English army were so virtuous as to refrain from availing themselves of goods which were not for sale, or making offers the townsfolk could not refuse. Certainly Henry, during the Agincourt campaign, became adept at this.

Before one draws the conclusion, however, no bread was baked along the way during the Agincourt campaign, one must first review the inventories of raw goods which were also taken on campaign. Henry V was certainly a brilliant war king, and as such, would have realized he couldn’t possibly take all prepared provisions for the war, nor could he necessarily rely upon purchase of goods once in hostile territory. He had only to look at Edward III’s difficulties against Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France, who employed a scorched earth policy.

An army moves on its stomach. Any good war general knows that. And Henry V, being a good war general, certainly would have attempted to ensure his men were fed. It was his inability to ensure they were fed which could have easily led to his downfall. Throughout the Agincourt campaign there are references to the shortage of food and supplies. He thought he had brought enough raw materials with him. He hadn’t. And because the French were unwilling to sell him either baked bread or the materials with which to bake bread, he was forced to a heavy hand.

Bennett writes of Henry’s arrival at Arques: “The castellan refused to allow the English to take sustenance but soon caved in when Henry threatened to burn the town. It is unclear just how much the French had pursued a ‘scorched earth’ policy, but if they had, Henry must have been aware of the danger the supply situation posed.”

Again the problem of food arises, “From Pont to Metz to Boves, where Henry spent the night of the 16th, is only a short march of some nine or ten miles. It is not clear why Henry slowed his march at this point. Lack of supplies could have been the reason, though. The army had by now exhausted the food it had brought from Harfleur.” Bennett quotes Chaplain, an eyewitness: “We then expected nothing else, but that after having finished our week’s provisions and consumed our food, the enemy by craftily hastening on ahead and laying waste the country before us, would weaken us by famine … and overthrow us who were so very few, and wearied with much fatigue, and weak from lack of food.”

Now, one might argue there was no bread baked during this campaign. Very possibly. But why, when it seems during the Crecy campaign bread was baked along the way? Was it because Henry hoped for a swift, overwhelming campaign? Strike, win and retreat? It would seem so. Right from the time his army left Harfleur they moved at an incredible pace. They had one week’s rations. It should have been enough. He would be moving too swiftly for a supply train to follow. And hence the reason his men arrived at that final, stunning battle weakened not only from dysentery they contracted at Harfleur, but from hunger caused by a campaign much longer than had been anticipated.

There are enough references to the raw materials for bread being brought on many different campaigns throughout the 100 Years War to support the likelihood of bread being baked on campaign. There are notable exceptions, yes. But their existence does not exclude the former.

So now the problem of what was that bread like? Because of cost, and because these war kings were dealing with an army consisting primarily of peasant class foot, it seems reasonable to assume the flour which was shipped was not only wheat, for which we have proof, but likely of rye and barley as well.

We already know the troops ate oatcakes. It seems reasonable any simple oatcake recipe existing in our store of medieval and renaissance cookbooks, perhaps even in modern cookbooks, would be similar to the oatcakes of these military campaigns.

As to the bread, well, from what we do know about leavenings, it seems likely sourdough and barm were used as leavenings.

In an attempt to create recipes which were reasonable extrapolations of the campaign breads, I came up with the following variations.
Campaign Flatbread

2 cups dark rye flour
1 cup legume flour (made from 1/4 cup dried soup legumes, 1/2 cup navy beans & 1/2 cup kidney beans, all ground in the food chopper to a fine flour)
1 tsp sea salt (although they would have used rock salt, if they could have afforded it)
1/2 cup natural white vinegar
2 tbs wild flower honey
1 cup tap water

Mix first three ingredients together in a bowl. Combine last three ingredients. Make a well in the flour mixture and add liquid all at once and stir vigorously in one direction to develop the gluten. Turn out dough onto a floured board and knead. Divide into eight sections and flatten each with the heel of your hand and pat out into disks about 1/4″ thick. Place in a heated iron skillet and cook about two minutes on each side.

Alternatively, preheat oven to 450F and place unglazed quarry tiles (or baking sheets if you have no quarry tiles) about one inch apart on the middle rack of the oven. This somewhat recreates a stone oven.

Bake flatbreads for about five minutes. Cool on rack.

Variation: substitute nut flour (hazelnut, beech, acorn or even walnut) for the legume flour for a sweeter, less bitter, bread.

Flatbreads can also be successfully baked on a Norse style skillet or on preheated granite baking tiles over an open fire.
Beer Bread

6 to 8 cups hard white flour
2 cups brown ale sediment as leavening agent (barm)
3 cups barley and malt mash from a beer batch
3 cups rolled oats

Combine mash and oats with 5 cups of flour. Add the sediment and combine well, stirring in one direction to develop gluten. Turn out dough onto a heavily floured board and knead, drawing in approximately another 3 cups of flour. It will have the consistency of a heavy biscuit dough.

Shape into a smooth ball and place in a lightly oiled large bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm, humid place until about double in bulk, about two hours.

Punch down and divide into four loaves. Place loaves in lightly oiled bread pans, cover and let rise in a warm, humid place for about one hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and bake loaves for approximately one hour.

I have also successfully baked this bread in a cast iron baker over an open fire, and in a wood-fired granite oven.
Barley & Rye Bread
2 cups coarse barley meal
1 cup cracked wheat
4 – 6 cups dark rye flour
1 cup barm
2 cups warm water

Soak barley and cracked wheat in 2 cups of warm water. In a large bowl measure out flour. Drain barley and cracked wheat; add to rye flour. Add barm to mixture and stir until too stiff to work. Turn out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Let rise, covered, about two hours until double in size. Punch down and shape into round loaf. Cover and let rise one hour. Bake at 400F in a preheated oven, about one hour.
I have also successfully baked this bread in a cast iron baker over an open fire, and in a wood-fired granite oven.


Clive Bartlett, English Longbowman 1330-1515, Osprey Books, 1995
Christopher Rothero, The Armies of Crecy and Poitiers, Osprey Books, 1981
Matthew Bennett, Agincourt 1415, Osprey Books, 1991
Robert Hardy, Longbow, Bois d’Arc Press, 1992
Rochele Lucky, Cookery in the Middle Ages, Weather Bird Press, 1978