History of bread in brief, from its origins in antiquity to a traditional dish

No food has the same importance as bread, an essential element of our diet and our culture. The origins of bread making are very ancientperhaps dating back even to 30,000 years ago, and since the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic, bread has assumed a leading role in human nutrition. In ancient times, the leavening and the varieties of bread available on the market increased considerably.

Until the Middle Ages, leavened bread was consumed in Europe, the Mediterranean and in various regions of Africa and Asia, but it was not widespread in the civilizations ofPre-Columbian America and in those ofFar East. In recent times, production techniques have changed thanks toindustrializationwithout the centrality of bread in nutrition having ceased.

History of bread
  • 1The historical-cultural importance of bread
  • 2The origins of bread: when it was invented
  • 3Bread in the ancient world: where it spread
  • 4The religious value of bread
  • 5Bread in the Middle Ages and in the modern age
  • 6The contemporary age and industrialization
  • 7Civilizations without bread

The historical-cultural importance of bread

Bread is not only a food product, but also a constitutive element of Western civilization. The term “bread” generically indicates a product based on water and flour (i.e. grains or other vegetables ground to a powder), cooked in an oven. In the vast majority of cases, the preparation involves leavening, that is, the growth of the size of the dough before cooking. The bread is made with various cerealsamong which today the most widespread is wheat, and in countless types, different in ingredients and shape.

Leavened breads (credits 3268zauber)
Leavened breads. Credits: 3268zauber.

The origins of bread: when it was invented

The origins of bread are lost in the mists of time. The first certain attestation dates back to a period between 14,000 and 11,000 years ago in the area that is now occupied by Jordan, but it is probable that the production of bread was even older: the discovery of some millstones dating back to 30,000 years ago suggests that some type of dough with ground cereals was already being produced at that time . Originally, bread was a secondary food in the diet and was prepared with cereals that grew spontaneously. When man learned to cultivate the fields (around 11,000 years ago in the Middle East), bread began the rise that would soon lead it to become the food par excellence. The first breads were probably unleavened flatbreads made with stone-ground flours and baked on hot stones.

Bread in the ancient world: where it spread

In the'ancient age the consumption of bread was widespread in all Mediterranean civilizations. Around 3500 years before Christ, a fundamental innovation was introduced in Egypt, the leaveningdiscovered by chance and soon spread on a large scale.

Figurine with Ancient Egyptian bread-making scene (credits: Egyptian Museum)

In ancient civilizations they were produced many types of bread, which involved the addition of new ingredients and were molded into different shapes. The grains used for baking also varied. In many cases the bread was prepared at home, but they already existed mills for grinding cereals e ovens where ready-made bread was purchased. Bread thus became thebasic food of the diet and was used to “accompany” most other foods.

The religious value of bread

The bread took on a huge cultural value and was included in the liturgy of the great Mediterranean religions. In the'Judaismthe most important bread from a religious point of view is the unleavened one, known as bread unleavened. According to the Bible, when they fled Egypt the Jews could not wait for the leavening of the dough to finish and therefore during the crossing of the desert they were forced to eat unleavened bread. For this reason, even today on the occasion of Passover (Passover, commemorating the escape from Egypt), Jews consume unleavened bread.

Unleavened Bread (credits: Claude Truong-Ngoc)
Unleavened Bread (credits: Claude Truong–Ngoc)

Bread also took on an important ritual value in Christianity. During last dinner, Jesus “broke the bread” as a symbol of his sacrifice for mankind. Since the bread on the table was not leavened, today the rite of the Eucharist involves the use of unleavened bread in the form of a wafer (some churches, however, use leavened bread). Bread also plays a central role inIslam: it is mentioned several times in the Quran and is considered a gift offered by God to men.

Bread in the Middle Ages and in the modern age

In the centuries of the Middle Ages, bread did not lose its role as a central food in the diet. It was also sometimes used as “serving dish”: vegetables, meat and fish were placed in a hollowed out loaf, from which the guests could take their morsels. In many states, the production and prices of bread were regulated by specific laws.

The quality of the bread changed depending on the Social classes. The rich population consumed White breadproduced with wheat, while poor citizens had to make do with dark colored breadsprepared with cereals such as millet and sorghum.

Consumption of bread in a 14th century miniature

The contemporary age and industrialization

In the nineteenth century the diet of citizens became more varied, but bread remained a food of great importance, to the point that, when the price rose, they often took place protests and riots. Over the course of the century, production techniques began to change thanks to the innovations of the industrial revolution, in particular millstones and mechanical mixers, which made more preparation is easy.

Mechanized production definitively established itself in Twentieth century. Thanks to the increase in well-being, gradually the entire population gained the possibility of consuming white wheat bread.

An industrial bakery in Germany
An industrial bakery in Germany

Civilizations without bread

Leavened and baked bread has not been the basis of the diet of all civilizations in the world. In the American continentbefore the arrival of the Europeans the most widespread cereal was corn, with which they were produced unleavened productsincluding the tortillasstill very popular in Mexico today.

In many regions ofFar Easthowever, the role that bread had in the West was assumed by rice, which in the first millennium BC replaced millet as the staple of the diet. In Northern China, however, a steamed wheat bun, the mantou, sometimes called Chinese bread. In recent centuries the consumption of bread has increased spread throughout the worldalbeit at different levels depending on the country.