The Assize of Bread instituted by Henry III in the 13th century regulated the size, price, and quality of bread produced in England. Duplicitous bakers could be punished by fines and/or public humiliation. To ensure that loaves of bread could be traced back to their correct bakeries of origin, bakers stamped their goods with uniquely identifying marks or symbols. Lord Wulfric of Creigull of the West Kingdom has created a website for his bakery, which includes a page on bakers’ marks.1 I was sufficiently inspired to give it a shot myself.
There is fairly little information out there to go by on this subject. Most published works on the subject discuss liturgical bread stamps. Lord Wulfric’s site was eminently informative, and Stefan’s Florilegium also served as a resource to a lesser extent.2 Emil Braun’s 1901 work The Baker’s Book: A practical hand book of the baking industry in all countries (Emil Braun: New York, 1901) provided an image of some German bakers’ marks being used in 1612.3
Some of the German marks were fairly complex. As I wanted something simple and distinctive, I followed Lord Wulfric’s lead and used the acorn from my own heraldic badge.
While many bakers’ stamps were made of metal, there are some examples of clay and wood ones being used. I would have preferred to use metal, but I do not have enough surplus silver for casting an item of this size. Instead, I used clay. I planned to make several stamps both for producing multiple loaves and to avoid any problems with failures during production. To that end, I cast a beeswax blank and carved my badge into it. This blank was then used to stamp clay medallions with the positive of this image.
I dried the medallions and fired them in my woodstove. This was a sharp learning curve – the first one was preheated on the stovetop and then simply placed in the coals. It blew up the minute the stove door was closed. The second one was heated and placed in a can full of ashes; then the can was placed in the stove and left overnight. That was mostly successful, as the medallion did fire completely, but the can burned through and the medallion split in half.
Subsequent ceramic medallions successfully fired in the woodstove, using a layer of ash above and below them inside of tuna fish cans. In period, they would have been fired on a shelf inside a charcoal-fueled kiln, but in this case all I had was a wood-fired cookstove.
I did not have time to redact and experiment with period bread recipes, so instead I went with commercially prepared dough. I tested the three stamps by preparing each differently. All three were unglazed. I have heard that unglazed clay stamps stick horribly to dough, so I was trying to see if I could get a decent impression while still being able to remove the stamp from the bread. While the bread rolls were rising, I coated one medallion with lard, one with a heavy dusting of flour, and one with a light dusting of flour. I placed the ceramic stamps on top of my woodstove to preheat, then pressed each roll on top of a stamp. The rolls and stamps were left on a cast-iron skillet to bake. I had originally begun construction of a period clay oven for this project, but with an unexpectedly early hard freeze the clay body froze solid and did not dry in time. By substituting a hot woodstove I hoped to recapture some of the effect of a clay oven, namely the rapid heat transfer from the bottom.
The results were primarily successful, though not what I had expected. I had predicted the lard-coated medallion would work the best, surmising that the lard would serve as a non-stick layer. This was totally false. The heavily floured medallion came off easily, leaving a clear imprint in a golden based roll. The lightly floured medallion made a slightly less clear impression (though this may have been due to the stamp being slightly thicker and thus probably cooler when the rolls started). The lard one not only took part of the bottom crust off with it, but left fragments of clay in the remaining surface of the bread. Not recommended.
The results of this experiment suggest that while wooden or metal stamps may have been more common in the later end of the SCA period, ceramic stamps do work. Perhaps a glaze applied in the firing would allow for finer detail and less burnt dough, though this is not apparently visible in surviving examples. However, the details of my stamp are clear enough to readily identify me as the baker… and get me convicted for these puny undersized loaves!
2 Stefan’s Florilegium, “Bread-stamps-msg.” [http://www.florilegium.org/?http%3A//www.florilegium.org/files/FOOD-BREADS/bread-stamps-msg.html ] Accessed Nov 28, 2010.
3 Braun 247.