In my part of the world, corn is ripening and it’s very much the time of grain harvest – a big part of rural life, pre-industrialisation. We’ve just passed Lammas (loaf Mass) the festival marking the start of the harvest. So, time to think about bread.
The theory goes that the first people were hunter gatherers, and that following the herds evolved into herding, after which came agriculture. Settling to grow grains led to both bread and beer – the two mainstays of culture and civilisation. It’s worth noting that ‘culture’ and ‘cultivate’ are words that belong to both agriculture, and society, and this is probably not a coincidence. ‘Companions’ comes from French, meaning ‘people who share bread’. The way of life we have, and the social structures those bring are very much about bread, and beer. Owning land, and storing grain creates power structures, the need for warriors, in a way that wandering about as nomads doesn’t. If the Gimbutas theory of a peaceful, goddess worshipping matriarchal society, replaced by a patriarchal, aggressive society has any truth in it, the transition from nomadic to agricultural would seem a logical occasion for this. (Academically unfounded as a theory, this, but very popular with feminist goddess worshipers and a powerful myth. I have mixed feelings about it.)
Once bread became established, it became the single most essential foodstuff and the core of most people’s diets. From all those Biblical bread references ‘man cannot live by bread alone’ etc through to the ‘let them eat cake’ response to a bread crisis… bread, and the availability of it, has been a key requirement for social stability and human comfort. The Romans kept their poor quiet with bread and circuses, and even now when there are so many food choices available, a threat of shortages will send people scrambling to buy loaves.
I wonder sometimes, how different the history of humanity would have been had we not embraced bread and beer as staples. Much of the countryside has been shaped by agriculture, and so much of our culture is informed by cultivation. Grain meant settled life, which in turn enabled ownership and a greater interest in dwellings. If you have to carry everything with you, then you can’t own much. I suspect that our whole idea that individual people can own segments of land has everything to do with agriculture. What kind of creatures would we have been had we not gone down this settled route of ownership and cultivation? What kind of societies would we have built? How much of our culture, the good and the bad, derives from this specific historical choice to settle.
Whatever choices we make into the future, we cannot undo the past and a long history that has shaped landscapes, communities, creatures and people to a remarkable degree. We can’t go back and choose differently. But it is important to remember that the way we do things now was not inevitable. There were other choices, and there still are other choices. With growing populations and wildly increasing demands, we are going to have to rethink ‘culture’ in every sense.
Next time you grab a loaf off the supermarket shelf, spare a moment to think about the weight of history in your hand. Bread has shaped the world as we know it. The choice of what to have for breakfast was always a momentous one, full of ethical implications. What does your slice of toast mean for the future of humanity? The most ordinary seeming things can be the most important and essential, and should never be taken for granted.