I learned history as a succession of kings and wars, of tyrants and revolutions. They taught me a past that is propped up in the name of men who put their asses on very soft seats: Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Charles II …
But I am interested in another story: that of those billions of nameless people who have put the strength of their arms, hands and fingers for the most basic: eating and feeding. The story of all those bakers and those braceros who got up early every morning so that the world would work, so that it could move forward, without humanity getting stuck on the road.
That is why I have changed the angle. I’m already fried with statesmen and men’s names. I have proposed to read the past from a new prop: bread. Because the names they were given reflect the ideologies and ways of life of each moment. I have changed the perspective of my gaze. Or said in the language of TikTok: “#POV: the history seen from the names of the bread” (the tag #POV means point of view or camera point of view).
I have taken the book Our daily bread, by the philologist and essayist Predrag Matvejević, and I have been taking the names they gave to the loaves in each era to build my new vision of history. And so, by the way, it no longer smells of gunpowder and horse dough, but of baked bread and brioche milk.
In the New Kingdom of Egypt (1570 BC-1070 BC) they did not have to live badly because they ate many types of bread. They had common bread, ta, and varieties of colors: ta hegd (White bread), ta uagd (green bread, which seems to have been called that because it contained herbs)… But not everyone was the same or deserved the same sustenance. Ordinary people and slaves fed on keresht (a simple bread). Instead, for the soldiers they made a more nutritious and durable bread called something like weigh or shenes.
In Ancient Greece there were people who lived with very little. I know because they ate mace (a thing caked between porridge and cake) while most of the population ate artos (common bread). And I think that the spirituality of the Greeks was little like that of today because, in the festival of Thesmoforias, in honor of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, they ate mylloi: a sweet bread, with sesame and honey, that had a certain shape of vulva.
I have also had an idea of how they were organized in the Roman Empire by the names of their loaves. The panis palatius only ate in the emperor’s palace. The soldiers took panis castrensis (ammo bread) and the legionnaires panis militaris (a more nutritious bread that lasted longer). The navigators, the nauticus; the peasants, the rusticus; the slaves, the sordidus; and some citizens received as a subsidy a simple bread called panis civilis.
The commoners had to settle for the plebeius. But the patricians, at their banquets, ate ostearius (fine flour breads that were served with oysters), panis siligineus (a bread that Pliny the Elder described as “soft, snow-white bread, made with the best wheat”) and panis picenum (with dried fruits to dip in milk with honey).
Among the common daily breads was the panis candidus (with a slightly more refined flour), the panis secondarius (with coarser flour) and the panis fulferus (the “dog’s bread”, made from very coarse flours).
And I discovered something very curious. On the steps of the Colosseum they distributed, free, a bread called panis gradilis. That is the bread for which the saying “bread and circus” arose, which in its Spanish version (comb through) would become “bread and bulls”.
To understand Christianity I have replaced the saints and apostles by the name of the loaves that appear in the Old and New Testaments. Look at him everlasting bread, the blessed bread or the angels bread it is another way of reading the Holy Scriptures.
And all those pains and pains of the Catholic religion are also named in the bread. To those who did not enjoy the mercy of God they attributed the tear bread, the bread of sadness and the ash bread. Liars were awarded the bread of lies and the bums, the sloth bread.
On All Souls’ Day they made a sour and hard bread called el dead bread. For All Saints’ Day they cooked a ceremonial bread, a bit rough and spicy, called holy bread.
The abrupt hierarchies of the Middle Ages are imprinted on French bread. Kings and aristocrats, at court, reveled in the pain de cour. The priests used to wear it pain de pape and in the sacristy they took the pain de sacristie. The nobles tasted the pain de chevalier (gentleman’s bread) and the stable boys were satisfied with the pain d’écuyer (squire’s bread).
In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs decided to drive out the Jews. And the Jews started looking for another home, but they kept cooking a recipe that they made here, a kind of sponge cake that they called, and still call, bread from Spain.
Then came the Renaissance. Secularism arrived. The eighteenth century arrived and Queen Marie Antoinette did not give her the day for such an expensive whim, while the French bakers had to put sawdust in the bread so that the people would deceive hunger. In 1788 people took to the streets to demand pain d’égalité (bread of equality). In the streets they shouted “Bread! We don’t want promises, we want bread and we want it now!” And the apocryphal story tells that Maria Antonieta did not explain why, in the absence of bread, they did not eat brioches.
But bread gives much more of itself. If the history of the world is documented in the names of the buns and loaves, in its sayings there is a sociology treatise: “Earn your bread with the sweat of your brow”, “A good hunger, there is no stale bread”, ” In the absence of bread, cakes are good “,” Bread for today and hunger for tomorrow “…
And also in the sayings of the Roma that Predrag Matvejević collects in Our daily bread: “If they beat a poor man with bread, he would kiss their hands”, “If there were bread and there were no tricksters, there would be plenty of prayers.” Or this one too: “If there were bread for everyone on earth, the churches and courthouses would be empty.”