Some form of public health regulations have undoubtedly been around since the start of urbanization. For bakers, the easiest rules to impose were those regarding bread weights and prices. Requirements on bread prices, quality, weight, and freshness have been documented to well before our period. The Roman emperor Aurelian set minimum weights and maximum prices around 275 AD and the emperor Constantine enacted similar laws in 330. (1) Charlemagne personally set maximum prices for bread during a famine in 794. Generally, however, regulation was enforced at the local level. Standards varied from town to town according to grain availability and tastes. For example, the Winchester Assize of 1203 stated that "white bread made in our city of Winchester shall weigh thirty shillings, but black bread sixty-five shillings."
The most widespread regulation was the "Assize of Bread". This English law of 1266 attempted to standardize the various local policies - although in practice, it was not any simpler. The Assize directed bakers to make a common weight of bread known as a penny loaf. However, the loaf could vary in weight, and thus price, according to the type of flour used: the white loaf was made from the finest white flour available; the "wheaten" loaf was coarser, and weighed half again as much; "household" loaves were approximately double white loaves, made from unbolted flour "as it cometh from the mill." This sounds fairly clear, but bread weights were inconsistently based on the going local rate of grain, and weights differed throughout the country. The Judgment of the Pillory was a law spelling out procedures to investigate and punish offenders.
In times of famine or grain shortages, municipal authorities had the power to "take over" bakers and force them to operate at below-market rates. Bakers in this situation were not allowed to raise prices even though their ingredients were more expensive. Sometimes bread was simply confiscated to feed the town. For example, famine threatened northwest England in 1479. The local bakers were ordered to work for free and sell their bread at a very low cost. Those who refused were imprisoned and other townsfolk were recruited to bake in their place. Similar regulations were common throughout Europe. Because bread weights were generally tied to grain prices, bakers were often forbidden to sell or mill grain. This theoretically would discourage baker fraud; it actually had the practical effect of encouraging millers to organize. It also tended to congregate bakers in a few town areas near millers and the wheat markets. This was promoted by authorities as it made inspections easier for them.
One of the most common ways to ensure that only authorized bakers sold bread was the use of a baker's mark. These started around the thirteenth century in France, and were in use nearly everywhere in Europe by the fifteenth century. Marks were registered with the local authorities and were made from wood or metal. The marks appear to be dies that stamped the underside of bread before cooking. In this manner the maker could be identified if the loaf was underweight or of inferior flour; in addition, bread sold without its mark levied heavy fines. (Innkeepers were the most common culprits.) While there were not many limits on what symbols could be used on a baker's mark, simple motifs were the most common: flowers, animals, letters of the alphabet. Since bread expands as it rises and cooks, anything complex quickly becomes unrecognizable.
Obviously a baker's life was not easy. The work was hard, the hours terrible, and the laws numerous and constantly changing. Bakers fought back by organizing themselves into guilds, to limit the markets and increase their profits.
The oldest documented bakers' guild was in the town of Pontoise, France. Louis VII directly chartered the group in 1162 as a guild, giving them the exclusive right to sell bread within the city. In exchange, they had to pay a yearly tax of a "hogshead of good wine" to the king. The bakers also managed to secure a virtual monopoly on both baking and selling, by limiting oven construction in the town. Since much less knowledge was required to bake bread (as opposed to metalworking, for example) this allowed the guild to select who could join. This was to be a defining feature of later guilds in all trades.
Perhaps inevitably, bakers' guilds became more structured as they developed. By the end of the sixteenth century the associations had formulated precise written rules for who could join and what under conditions. Apprenticeships were limited to males, generally for two to four years. (2) During this time, the boy was the sole responsibility of the master. The apprentice lived and worked full time at the bakery. In exchange, the master provided clothes and a basic standard of living and health. In France, the master was also responsible for the "moral education" of the apprentice. Each master was allowed only one apprentice at a time - excluding family members. While the guilds publicly claimed that this was to protect the apprentice's well-being, it is more likely that this was a way to prevent the market from being saturated with new bakers. The idea of a "masterpiece" required for graduation or admittance as a full guild member did not develop until late in the period. The earliest documentation of this is in 1431 and it does not seem to be common until the sixteenth century.
While guild membership was officially limited to men, women were heavily involved in the baking itself. (In fact, the English word for "lady" comes from the Saxon "hlæfdige", or "bread-kneader".) The assembly-line nature of large-scale bread making requires all available hands to work efficiently. Also, much of the process can be learned easily on the spot. Family members were specifically exempted from apprentice counts and so could be openly used at all times. Women thus had a greater voice (if still unofficial) than in many other craft guilds.
Bakers' guilds also had some impact on bread regulations and enforcement. The best documented effect is corruption: prices were regulated and did not necessarily cover costs. A bribe to the officials could work wonders. In fifteenth century Rouen, France, the
The English Assize of Bread and similar rules fixed bread prices according to weights and flour quality. However, adjustments were slow, made only when local authorities considered it necessary. Thus cost allowances lagged behind changes in ingredient prices even in the best of situations. Guilds provided a (relatively) unified voice to call for corrections. Frequently they were ignored, as towns felt it was more important to keep bread prices low. The bakers' guild in Coventry, on the other hand, managed to get a price increase in 1484 by temporarily seceding from the town! With this sort of threat authorities tended to back down. Not always, however - the bakers' guild in fifteenth century Dijon tried the same tack. The town council let them know that a group of merchants was perfectly willing to take over baking the town's bread at the current rates.
Bakers' guilds did not exercise a complete monopoly. Outside towns, small villages and manors baked their own bread; bakers there were too diffused to organize a guild. When non-guild bakers from the country sold bread in the town, they provided stiff competition. Town officials encouraged this as a way to keep prices down - in Italy, country bakers were specifically exempted from inspections or fines for underweight bread. In the town of York in 1482, the local guild complained that this policy was abused: competitors were able to sell bread without joining the guild, by calling their loaves "country bread."
The downside of guilds was that they provided an easier target for public outrage. Punishing bakers who had sold underweight or defective loaves became a public spectacle. In Paris of 1521 the authorities made three men run the streets of Paris naked and with shaved heads. They had to carry lit candles and cry out "Mercy from God, the Virgin Mary, and the King for the wrong we have done in baking." A mob applauded the whole way. Later in Paris (1551) three other bakers who had sold bad quality loaves were stripped, shaved, and beaten with rods before the public. The crowds pelted them with stale bread, vegetables, and so forth. Occasionally the government would use bakers as a convenient scapegoat... and an alternative to unrest targeting them.
As towns developed and organized, bakers did too. Bakers' guilds flourished because they benefited both parties: towns ensured a more reliable source of bread for the public, and bakers could try to limit the competition. Bread is simple enough that guilds did not last once people had easy access to flour and ovens. For their time, however, bakers' guilds were a more efficient way to produce one of the most important parts of the medieval diet.
(2) A son of a current guild member only needed to serve a half term. Probably this was on the theory that the son had absorbed much of the knowledge while helping his father. This also gave him a jump ahead of outsiders.
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