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The Folklore of Bread

Bread: Stuff of life and folklore

Ben Gazur

[First Published in Fortean Time 395 - Subscribe to Fortean Times here.]

No one at the start of 2020 could have predicted that the stars of social media this year would all be loaves of bread. With the world in lock-down people have been returning to traditional foods for their comfort, and to fill their Instagram timelines. Who knew a global pandemic would be a better spur to get the nation baking than The Great British Bake-Off?

When many people imagine magic they picture hard to obtain and macabre ingredients being used in arcane rites. Yet magic has always been a practical art and most magic uses things that are to hand. For most of history bread has been the staple food of the population. A large part of each day would have been involved in preparing, baking, and consuming bread. Given its central role in life bread naturally became the focus of a great deal of folklore worldwide – but here I will focus on bread in British folklore.

We start imparting our traditions to the young very early. Every child is taught that they should eat their crusts to grow up strong. Or is it to have curly hair? Or a hairy chest? Perhaps all three. Folklore can be as springy and malleable as a well-proved dough, and it does tend to grow over time. There is deeper magic in bread though than just the stories we tell children.

The very countryside of Britain is marked by bread. Dartmoor is home to Branscombe’s Loaf, a large and roughly loaf-shaped rock. The tale goes that a 13th century bishop of Exeter called Walter Branscombe was travelling home over Dartmoor one day when his stomach began to grumble. From nowhere the Devil, in disguise, appeared with a most appetising platter of bread and cheese. The holy but hungry man was on the point of accepting the Devil’s cursed food when his servant spotted the cloven hooves of the Devil poking out of the bottom of his clothes. He knocked the bread from the Bishop’s hand and when it hit the ground it immediately transformed into the large stone known as Branscombe’s Loaf to this day. The Bishop should perhaps have learned from Jesus’ own temptation with bread in the wilderness.

[Image via Wikimedia: Guy Wareham]

There are other associations with bread and stones in British folklore. Fossil echinoids, ancient creatures resembling sea urchins, are among the most common fossils found in Britain. To our ancestors who lacked an understanding of deep time these were not animal remains but Fairy or Pixie Loaves. To place one of these loaves by the oven was to ensure that all your bread would turn out well.

There are other old tales that might help today’s trendy bakers. In Warwickshire whenever it rained on Holy Thursday housewives could be seen running out into the showers with pans and bottles to collect as much water as possible. This water was thought to be good for a year and a spoonful added to the leavening dough would guarantee a light bake.

Some secular bakers will tell you that scoring a loaf before placing it in the oven will stop the crust from exploding unevenly during baking but this is not how people in the past thought of it. To cut a deep cross in dough was to protect your bread with Christian symbolism. The cross could do everything from stopping the Devil sitting on your dough to prevent it rising to letting out the witches who may have cast an evil and envious eye on your delicious bread.

No matter how happy you are with your baking prowess however there is one thing you must never do – singing is sure to sour your bread. In Scotland the tradition was that as long as a woman sings while baking is how long she will spend ‘greeting’ – crying – later.

The internet is one of the most powerful forces in making love connections today but it used to be that bread had a similar role in matchmaking. In households where a maiden daughter was still unwed she might be encouraged to sit on the oven while bread was baking. By some sympathetic magic with the dough her attractiveness would increase as the bread baked. At the very least she would smell of fresh bread and that’s always appealing. In Lincolnshire a lady looking to marry could take communion but conceal the consecrated bread in her mouth. If she spat this at a toad in the churchyard and it ate it then the man she wished to marry would be overwhelmed with desire.

Perhaps the most direct method of attracting a partner was to make Cockle-Bread. The antiquarian John Aubrey described how to make it – and it’s unlikely you will see this as one of the Bake-Off’s technical challenges.

“Young wenches have a wanton sport which they call moulding of Cocklebread; viz. They gett upon a Table-board, and then gather up their knees and their coates with their hands as high as they can and then they wabble to and fro with their Buttocks as if they were kneading Dowgh with their Arses, and they say these words, viz.:

‘My Dame is sick & gonne to bed,

And I’le go mowld my cocklebread.’”

This seems to be a game or enchantment left over from a time when young ladies really did make their bread in this way and then serve it to the objects of their fancy as a way of making them ingest desire. They do say the best food is made with love...

Bread has not always been an amatory meal however. Bread being central to life it could also be central to death rituals. In several places in Britain a loaf of bread was placed on or passed over a corpse and delivered to a sin-eater. This person in consuming the bread also took onto themselves the sins of the deceased. Aubrey described this being done for the departed as it “freed him (or her) from walking after they were dead.”

As well as delivering the soul from perdition bread could also be used to reveal the location of a corpse. If a person drowned but their body was never recovered two infallible tricks could be used to find them. The first involved filling a loaf with quicksilver, the liquid metallic element mercury, and then setting it on the water. The bread would drift over to the corpse’s resting place and remain motionless. This method was employed in England as late as 1945 to attempt to locate a lost boy. The other method, and one less likely to poison your water supply, was to place a lit candle on a loaf and set it adrift. In both cases the liveliness of the flame and mercury were thought to call out to the unsettled soul of the dead person.

Even dreaming of bread could be an omen. An 1884 inquest in Walsall heard how a little girl had drowned in a canal. The mother had refused to let her daughter go to school that day on account of a dream she had of baking bread. Having lost other children, always preceded by a dream of bread, she thought it safest to keep the girl at home. Instead the girl wandered out of the house and drowned.

Bread and death do not always go hand in hand. In the absence of modern medicine bread was probably the most easy to access cure. Keeping an ill person well fed and nourished was half the battle to effecting a return to health. Some treatments like the application of bread poultices to infection may have inadvertently made use of antibiotics like penicillin if the bread used was mouldy.

In the Christian era bread has always been imbued with a powerful symbolism. Jesus may have told his followers that “Man shall not live on bread alone,” but that has not stopped a great deal of Christian folklore developing around our daily bread. Disagreements over the symbolic nature of bread can have real world consequences. The question of whether the bread used in the Eucharist literally became Christ’s flesh (transubstantiation) or was a representation of it (consubstantiation) consigned hundreds of heretics on both sides of the debate to being burned at the stake. Even whether the bread had to be leavened or not contributed to the still open schism between Eastern and Western Christianity.

Of all the breads which could heal however the most powerful in folk tradition was not that used in Holy Communion but that made on Good Friday. A bucket of yeast set out on Good Friday was thought to spontaneously generate a cross on its surface. Bread baked on that day had the power of never going mouldy – even if it did tend to go stubbornly hard over several month. One loaf baked on Good Friday in 1919 was held for many years in the Cambridge Folk Museum and, although a little stale, remained untouched by mould. New Forest belief had it that a Good Friday loaf was good for seven years of protection against curses and ill luck. Hanging such a loaf by the chimney ensured good bread for the rest of the year but was also a ready source of medicine.

Norfolk folk also put great store in the powers of Good Friday bread. One old maid of a village had given up her neighbour as already dead when she continued to suffer from diarrhoea – “for she had already given her two doses of Good Friday bread without any benefit.” Happily there must have been some other form of divine intervention for the neighbour afterwards recovered and lived a long life.

The stale bread could be grated up and put in a drink or brought out of the tin where it was stored, sprinkled with a little water and baked again to bring it back to some semblance of freshness. A slice of this bread was enough to bring luck for the following year. The cures ascribed to Good Friday bread were even thought to work on animals.

Not all animals came out well from bread magic however. Cases of jaundice were treated by placing nine lice on bread and butter and feeding them to the patient. A Scottish New Year’s tradition saw dogs being given a bit of charity by feeding them a crust of bread at the door. Unfortunately this act of largesse was followed by driving the dog away with kicks and curses. “Get away, you dog. Whatever death of men or loss of cattle happens in this house to the end of the year be on your head.”

Bread may be the most basic of foodstuffs but its history is intertwined with that of humanity. The seeming alchemy of dough rising through the unseen action of yeast must have made it miraculous in the eyes of our ancestors – and still fills us with wonder today. If this lock-down is teaching us anything it is that the things we take so much for granted are far more magical than we tend to remember. But please don’t be tempted to add mercury to your bakes at home – butter spreads far better.

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