Trenchers a brief History



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"Trenchers - A Brief History" by HL Baric Firehand (Bear).
NOTE: See also the files: trenchers-msg, wafers-msg, bread-msg, p-tableware-msg, utensils-msg, forks-msg, ovens-msg, flour-msg, grains-msg, breadmaking-msg, brd-mk-flat-msg, sops-msg.
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First published as: Decker, Terry D., Trenchers--A Brief History; Proceedings of the 2nd Conference on European Cooking From Rome to the Renaissance; Serve It Forth!, 2002.
Trenchers - A Brief History

By HL Baric Firehand (Bear)
The social history of the bread trencher, a plate usually cut from a small loaf of stale bread, is sketchy at best. Despite numerous references in medieval studies, the opinions expressed are varied and not necessarily based on the historical evidence. This paper will attempt to examine what is known about trenchers and present a view of the trencher and its place in medieval society consis-tent with the facts.
What Is a Trencher?
"Trencher bread, three dozen of half a foot in width and four fingers tall, baked four days before and browned, or what is called in the market Corbeil bread." is Menagier's description of a trencher loaf. Such a loaf would weigh between 8 and 12 ounces. The Wroclaw bread laws provide for a similar loaf in Poland made of a maslin of wheat and rye. It weighed about 11 ounces. The size of trencher loaves probably varied between six and eight inches diameter and 3 to 4 inches in height. The weight was dependent upon the mix of flours used.
Trencher loaves were aged two to four days. Earlier in Menagier, the Goodman of Paris speaks of "two day old bread for breadcrumbs and trenchers." While The Boke of Kervyng calls for "Trenchout brede foure dayes old."
The quality of the bread also varied. Where some used a whole wheat or maslin loaf, The Northum-berland Household Book (1512) specifies that trencher-bread should be made from the bran left over from making white flour (1).
A trencher loaf is split into two slices. Originally these were round (Figure 1), but by the 15th Century trenchers for the high table were made from squared loaves (Figures 2 & 3) and in 16th Century England, the books of etiquette imply that all trenchers were squared. The grand feast shown in Der Schatzbehalter (Figure 2) shows squared trenchers being served to the royal personage at the high table, while the other diners have round trenchers before them.
While most trenchers were probably prepared in the pantry and placed on the table (2), the instructions in the Boke of Kervyng suggest that the trenchers served to the high table may have been pared and shaped at the table.
When and Where Were Trenchers Used?
The duration of the trencher is an open question. Some authorities place bread trenchers in the Early Middle Ages, but the earliest written references appear in the 14th Century (3). Gregory's Moralia, an illustrated 12th Century manuscript, shows trenchers with the "upper crust" sliced away (Figure 1). Trenchers seem to be well established by then, but the lack of earlier artistic and written references, tends to support a common usage beginning in the 12th or late 11th Century. Refer-ences to trenchers continue to appear into the 17th Century, but general use seems to have ended in the 16th Century. An exception may be Poland where trenchers continued to be used on fast days. (4,5)
Linguistically, trenchers are of French origin. The English trencher derives from the Old French trancheor which may originate in the Vulgar Latin trincâre, to cut. The Polish word for trencher is tallari, which derives from the German Teller derived in turn from the Old French tailloir. These ap-pear to originate in the Vulgar Latin taliare, to cut or split (6). In Polish and German, a circle or disk is implied.
The spread of trenchers between France and England, Germany and Poland can be explained, if not proven. England had French provinces until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453. The German States were tied politically to various French provinces as part of the Holy Roman Empire, making the easy spread of trenchers from France to Germany and England feasible. A 13th Century settlement policy designed to open Polish wilderness area could have brought trenchers with the new landowners as could the Polish Court's interactions with the Prussian and Silesian. While we cannot trace the spread of the trencher with any certainty, trencher use was firmly established in these countries by the late 14th Century.
While researching this paper, I found no references to trenchers or trencher bread from Scandinavia, Spain, Italy, Russia or Eastern Europe, outside of Poland. While this may demonstrate that the scope of the bread trencher was limited to an area of Western and Central Europe, it may also be attributable to an incomplete search of the available literature and the linguistic inabilities of the author.
Cultural differences can explain the lack trenchers in Scandinavia, Russia and Eastern Europe. The lack of evidence from the Mediterranean countries is more problematic and suggests that further re-search is required.
Trenchers in Medieval Society
The use of bread trenchers in medieval society was limited primarily to the aristocracy and individuals of wealth and position who wished to be viewed as part of the aristocracy. This view is supported by the cost of trenchers. Based on the lowest value (12 d.) for a quarter of wheat (240 pounds) in the As-sisa Panis, approximately 480 whole-wheat trencher loaves would cost at least 33 1/4 d. Considering two meals a day was common and limiting use to one trencher per meal, one person would expend just less than 2 1/2 s. (and 1/2 ton of flour) a year on trenchers if using two a day.
Menagier, which represents the wealthy townsman class below the aristocracy, seems to limit bread trenchers to special occasions and to one trencher per person per meal, when it directs the purchase of 3 dozen trencher loaves for a wedding dinner consisting of 20 bowl (plus six servants) and a supper of ten bowls. In the great houses, a better estimate of the amount of trencher bread used is one loaf (providing two trenchers) per person per course per meal (7). This would very likely average 4 to 6 trencher loaves per person per day.
Trenchers represented a large part of the expenditure in bread, as much as 20 percent of a household's expenditure on food and drink. It is a rather amazing cost for food not eaten by the household, but gathered from the table under the eye of the almoner and distributed to the poor waiting outside the kitchen door. It is a custom that makes little sense except in a social context.
Communal dining in the great households of Europe was a ritual where the members of the household received the largesse of the lord's table as partial reward for their diligent labors. It was also a presentation of the wealth and power of the head of the household. In this setting, trenchers were an obvious, but understated display of wealth. Their secondary purpose was as a display of the piety of the head of the household and by reflection, the household as a whole, when in charity, the trenchers were given as alms to the poor.
Use of bread trenchers probably peaked between the 13th and 14th Centuries. Household accounts between the 13th and 16th Centuries show a significant decline in the percentage of the budget spent on bread. Rising grain prices, the importation of Chinese porcelain, and a movement to more private dining in the 16th Century may have finally eliminated bread trenchers in the 17th Century.
Conclusions
Rather than being ubiquitous across Europe over the full span of the Middle Ages, bread trenchers appear common in those parts of Europe where the nobility supported itself on large estates, particularly between the 12th and 16th Centuries, when the great households that owned those estates reached the pinnacle of their power and declined as royal courts and nation-states assumed many of the govern-mental functions once performed by the households.
By the 14th Century, use of the bread trencher was in decline, being replaced by plates of metal and wood, while the ritual surrounding the trencher was becoming more complex. At the same time, the output of the household estates were being directed toward the market rather than being used to sup-port the household with the result that households became smaller and more private.
Inflated grain prices, fueled by gold from the New World, re-enforced the societal changes and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The trencher, which was tied strongly to the old social con-tract, became an expensive anachronism. As acceptance of the new social contract grew and the symbols of wealth and power changed, the trencher passed from the scene.
Notes:
1. Taken from an e-mail message by Robin Carroll-Mann on the SCA-Cooks mailing list January 9, 1998.
2. Rhodes, The Boke of Nurture.
3. Reference dates are based on the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and e-mail con-versation with Johnna Holloway at the University of Michigan, who provided an excerpt from a Middle English Dictionary webbed at the university, which is presented here in abbreviated form.
trenchur (n.) Also trenchoure, trencheour, trenchor(e, trenchur(e, trencheure, trencher(e, trens(c)houre & (error) trechor; pl. trenchour(e)s, etc. & trenchirres, (error) tryschurs.
[OF trencheor, AF trench(e)our, vars of OF trancheor.]
(a) A knife, blade; a cutting tool; (b) a platter or serving dish; a slice of bread serving as a platter; also, a slice of bread; (c) in cpds.: ~ bord; ~ bred (lof), stale or otherwise inferior bread used for platters; ~ knif; ~ molde, a mold for a platter.
(b) (?c1300) Sub.R.Lynn in Nrf.Archaeol.1 353: In ij trenchurs, j alvaz, ij s. ?a1325 Whose enchi vp (Hrl 913) p.138: What wol men for e sowle del? Corne no mel..Bot wel seld at e mele A row3 bare trenchur o er a crust. (1354) Doc.Finchale in Sur.Soc.6 p.xxxvii: Item, ij cultelli pro trenchores faciendis....
4. Dembinska, pg. 61.
5. Dupaigne, pg 36. "The custom of eating meat on these tranchoirs persisted in Europe until the sev-enteenth century, notably in Poland."
6. Dembinska, pg. 180.
7. Dembinska, pg. 59.
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Copyright 2002 by Terry D. Decker, P.O. Box 720338, Norman, OK 73072. . Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.




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