By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today we explore the word loaf, and its connections to Anglo-Saxon warriors, volcanoes, and Shakespeare’s father.
Bread is famously referred to as “the staff of life” because of its importance to many civilizations around the world. It literally supports the lives of people just as it figuratively supports the civilizations they form. In fact, it’s so important that it’s formed the basis of social structures, transformed taxation systems, and even overthrown governments. But the earliest use of the word bread in English is not to refer to the baked good we know today, but instead more generally to a morsel or piece of food, any food really. What we think of now as bread was originally referred in Old English (and in other Germanic languages) with a word related to our modern English word loaf (hlaf in its Old English form). We now use the word loaf to refer to bread of a particular shape, but originally it was the general term for bread. As we’ll see, a look at the word loaf, as well as other bread words and expressions, will reveal a lot about the importance of bread to history and culture.
Both loaf and bread are particularly Germanic words, coming to us from Proto-Germanic roots. Though we can’t trace loaf back any further, there are two possible origins for the word bread. One is that it comes from a Proto-Indo-European word which meant ‘to boil’ or ‘to bubble’, a root which also gives us such words as brew, broth, brood, breed, ferment, and fervent. This obviously refers to the leavening of bread, like when you add yeast to make it fluffy and full of bubbles. Hence also the connection to the word brew, like when you add yeast to make beer. The other possible origin is to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘break, cut, or pierce’. This would make sense with the earlier use of bread to mean ‘piece of food’. It’s possible that our word bread comes from a conflation of both these sources.
These Germanic-derived words suggest the importance of bread to ancient and medieval Germanic culture in particular. As the Roman empire came into more and more contact with the various Germanic tribes along their northern borders, the Roman writer Tacitus composed an ethnographic description of these foreign peoples and their strange customs, strange to Roman minds anyway. He used the Latin word ‘comitatus’ to describe the way they organised their heroic warrior culture, a term still used by scholars today. The comitatus was the band of warriors who followed a particular lord or king. They would live in the lord’s hall, and he would provide them with all the necessities: food, a lot of alcohol, weapons, and other treasure. For their part, the warriors owed absolute loyalty to their lord, and would follow him into battle to win loot, all of which they then handed over to their lord, who then redistributed it among the warriors. Thus a lord’s generosity, not only his bravery and strength, was crucial for maintaining the social order. And the key to this is in the word lord or hlaford in Old English, which etymologically speaking is a contraction of loaf-ward, meaning in other words keeper of the bread – the ward part of loaf-ward is related to the words guard and guardian. The lord’s wife, the lady or hlæfdige in Old English, is important too, meaning literally loaf-maker. The second part of the word is related to an Indo-European root that means ‘to form or build’ and also gives us the words dough and dairy. The first part of the word dairy originally meant female dough-maker, then eventually any kind of female worker or servant such as a dairy-maid and more specifically the production of milk and cheese, then with the addition of the -ry part on the end it referred to the building where she worked, and finally the stuff produced there, as in our modern word dairy. But in early Germanic society the terms lord and lady reflected metaphorically the crucial role they played providing the staff of life for the comitatus. Bread was a symbol of the whole socio-political structure. A similar idea can be found in the word companion, which comes from Latin com- ‘with’ and panis ‘bread’, so someone you eat bread with, thus a close and important relationship.
Oh, and while we’re on the topic of early Germanic terms for kings, in Old English poetry the king or lord is often referred to as a beag-gifa, literally ring-giver, again because of the importance of generosity to the comitatus – the lord gives gold arm-rings (and other treasure) to his followers. The first part of that word beag meaning ‘ring’ is related to the word bagel, a ring shaped bread, so you might say that in the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the hero Beowulf is rewarded with bagels for going to Denmark to stop the man-eating monster Grendel from eating all the Danishes!
Bread of course also commonly features in religion as well, such as the unleavened bread matzo which Jewish people eat during Passover, commemorating the story of the flight from slavery in Egypt when the Israelites didn’t have time to allow the bread to rise and so ate it unleavened. And of course in Christian tradition, the story of the Last Supper of Christ leads to the sacrament of eating bread representing the body of Christ as part of the Eucharist, which is also reflected in the expression to break bread, a communal activity. Kind of gives new meaning to the idea of the Lord’s Prayer, or as we now know the Loaf-guardian’s prayer, when it asks “give us this day our daily bread”.
Naturally, bread has been a major force in political history as well, and we refer to an important grain producing region metaphorically as a breadbasket. For instance, Egypt was crucially important to the grain supply for ancient Rome. In fact it was unusual in that no member of the highest (senatorial) class was allowed to be governor of Egypt, because cutting off the grain supply to Rome would be a perfect way to try to overthrow an emperor and become one yourself–riots over grain shortages in the city were a constant factor in determining who became, or stayed, Emperor. After all, the grain supply to Rome was so important that it was personified as the goddess Annona. The Roman satirist Juvenal criticises the easily distracted Roman populace by saying that they can bought off by politicians with bread and circuses (panem et circenses). In later medieval England, well after the Anglo-Saxon period, during the reign of Henry III in the 13th century, the Assize of Bread and Ale was enacted to regulate the price, weight and quality of bread and ale produced and sold, the first law in England to control food production and sale. (Remember the connection between bread and ale?) This led to the practice of the baker’s dozen, given 13 loaves for the price of 12, so that bakers, who had the reputation of being frequently dishonest, could be sure to avoid the harsh penalties if some of their loaves were slightly underweight, penalties which could include being dragged around town with the bad loaves around your neck, or even having a hand amputated. This law also led to the job of ale-conner, a tester of the quality of ale. Now this might seem like a pretty sweet job, but given that the ale often went off and that imposing fines might make one unpopular, people often had to be drafted into the role. One, unfortunately apocryphal, story is that ale-conners would test the ale not by tasting it, but rather by sitting in a trough of it while wearing leather trousers, whose stickiness afterwards indicated the alcohol content. I think I’d rather taste it. As a sidenote, William Shakespeare’s father John once held the post of ale-conner. And then, in 19th century Britain, the Corn Laws, protectionist tariffs benefiting domestic grain producers were brought in and drove the price of bread up, leading to political turmoil and rioting; a demonstration against the Corn Laws was violently broken up by government forces in the famous Peterloo Massacre. These laws, combined with grain shortages due to the Year Without a Summer, caused by a number of coincidental volcanic eruptions around the globe, most notably Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, led to widespread hunger and even starvation. The Corn Law controversy came down to conflicting interests between the traditional grain producing landowners and the new industrialists. Enacted by a Tory government led by Lord Liverpool, the Corn Laws’ repeal by a later Prime Minister, Robert Peel, effectively ended that man’s tenure as prime minister because he was breaking with traditional conservative policy supporting the landowners by instead favouring free trade.
So, bread is a basic necessity of life in many cultures, and its symbolic importance has been extended in modern usage to many bread-related metaphors for money. For instance, since the 18th century bread can refer to one’s livelihood and since the 1950s to money itself, while since the 19th century dough can mean money (and don’t forget the connection between dough and the second element of lady). Similarly, the breadwinner earns the money (first attested in the 19th c.), and thus likely knows which side his bread is buttered on (16th c.), that is, where his best interests lie. If he’s unlucky someone might take the bread out of his mouth (18th c.), but if he’s very lucky his bread might be buttered on both sides (19th c.). And since Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented a machine that automatically slices and wraps bread in 1928, we refer to a great innovation as the greatest thing since sliced bread. When you think about it, this is the final dramatic step in a remarkable process which took bread from the central unifying element of society, as evidenced by the loaf-lord connection, through industrialization, to convenience food, since we don’t even need to slice our own bread anymore – but it shows us that bread is still important to us, since we compare all other progress to how happy we are to have our bread pre-sliced for us!
So, in this video, I’ve asked you to use your loaf to follow a trail of breadcrumbs from the Anglo-Saxon loaf-guardian to the Wonderbread of modern times, sandwiching the juicy filling of history inside the dry crusts of etymology, to find that bread has had a roll much bigger than a breadbox in the world as we know it. And on that note, I think this video is toast.
I’ll be back soon with more etymological explorations and cultural connections, so please subscribe to this channel. If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section below; you can also read more of my thoughts at my blog, The Endless Knot.