Blessings for Bread

The Benedictiones ad Mensas is the text that I came across recently and have been looking at in my copious spare time since then. They were produced by Ekkehart IV of St Gall, most likely initially written during his tenure as head of the Mainz cathedral school between 1022 and 1031, but expanded and revised until his death in St Gall in 1057. The Benedictiones are a collection of blessings to be spoken over food. Written in short rhyming couplets in Latin, they are unusual in their attention to the diversity of foods and preparations. This is not a serious work of theology or medicine, but an intellectual diversion, playful verse meant to show off a broad vocabulary and facility with Latin. That is what makes them very valuable – they give us a glimpse of the mental horizon of a senior cleric of the 11th century at the table.

The abbey of St Gall today, courtesy of wikimedia commons. The buildings are all Early Modern.

I will be busy figuring out details for quite a while before I put the complete pdf on my blog, but I wanted to post a piece of it already. These are the blessings for bread:

4 May the breads on the table be free from all that causes harm

Appositi panes sint damna parantis inanes

5 May the blessing render this gift of bread healthy

Hoc munus panum faciat benedictio sanum

6 May the word (spoken) with the bread not be bereft of virtue

Verbum cum pane non sit virtutis inane

7 May the blessing of the bread benefit the sick and the healthy

Egris et sanis bona sit benedictio panis

8 May the blessing render this bread loaf strong

Hanc panis tortam faciat benedictio fortem

9 Raise your hand, o Christ, to bless the bread loaves

Erige Christe manum tortis benedicere panum


10 May the blessing render this crescent-shaped bread agreeable

Panem lunatum faciat benedictio gratum

11 May the blessing mark this boiled bread through the Crucified

Hoc notet elixum benedictio per crucifixum

12 May the blessing caress this fried bread mixed with salt

Mulceat hoc frixum benedictio cum sale mixtum

13 May the holy cross render agreeable this bread leavened with egg

Panem fac gratum crux sancta per ova levatum

14 May this yeast-leavened bread be marked by the cross

Sit cruce signatus panis de fece levatus

15 May the blessing render this sourdough bread healthy

Hoc fermentatum faciat benedictio gratum

16 May God render these hosts/wafers agreeable through sweetness

Has deus oblatas faciat dulcedine gratas

17 May the unleavened bread be signed with the cross to remind us of Easter

Azima signetur cruce paschaque commemoretur

18 May much blessing fill the spelt bread

Panem de spelta repleat benedictio multa

19 May the cross free the wheat bread from evil

Triticeum panem faciat crux pestis inanem

20 May divine power place its sign on the rye bread

Numen divinum signet panem sigalinum

21 If they are barley breads, may they be free from evil

Ordea si panes fuerint sint pestis inanes

22 May the oat bread be full of vigour

Robore sit plena fuerit si panis avena

23 May the blessing fill all kinds of bread with its gifts

Omne genus panis repleat benedictio donis

24 May the freshly baked breads be blessed with the cross

Tam noviter cocti cruce panes sint benedicti

25 May this recently baked bread be blessed by the cross

Iste recens coctus cruce panis sit benedictus

26 May these cooled breads be free from fraud and the Enemy

Hi gelidi panes sint fraudis et hostis inanes

27 May this cooled bread be free of evil and the Enemy

Hic gelidus panis sit pestis et hostis inanis

28 May this bread baked in the ashes be far from evil, o Christ

Peste procul Christe sit subcineritius iste

(To speak) over breadcrumbs

Super fragmenta

29 Nothing vacuous or vain shall harm these crumbs of bread

Nil leve nil vanum violet tot fragmina panum

30 May the hand of the Almighty be upon the breadcrumbs of the brothers

Fratrum fragmentis assit manus omnipotentis

I have added the Latin text both because the rhyme and metre works in it and because the exact wording is often important for its interpretation. For example, in #8 and 9 it t is not clear what exactly made a torta different from a regular bread loaf. The likeliest explanation is that tortae were enriched with ingredients like oil, fat, milk, cheese, or egg while panis was plain bread. Thus, this blessing would be for breads served on special occasions.

As with the torta, it is likely the moon-shaped bread in #10 was made with specific ingredients and had a distinctive texture and taste we cannot really reconstruct. The shape most likely was that of the crescent moon, not the full, since the latter would be circular, like any other loaf. The panis elixum, boiled bread, of #11 is something we encounter with some regularity and usually with little or no explanation. I believe it refers to bread that is immersed in boiling water before being baked like modern bagels or Brezeln. That practice is attested in later centuries, and such breads were popular as festive treats. However, it is also possible this literally means bread dough that is boiled until it is fully done. Such leavened dumplings, too, are attested later, though they were not popular in Germany as far as I can tell. Meanbwhile, #12 (Panis) frixum refers to pan-frying. This could be pancakes, though I think it is more likely a kind of flatbread, perhaps salted like a cracker.

The practice of leavening bread with (presumably beaten) egg mentioned in #13 is interesting. It may be specific to feast day breads, as may the yeast leavening mentioned in #14. The faex referred to is most likely beer yeast, a byproduct of brewing that was used to leaven bread from at least the first century CE. Later sources suggest yeast was favoured for finer, lighter breads made with more finely bolted flour while sourdough was used on everyday bread. That may well be what entry #15 refers to. Strictly, fermentatum just means fermented, but in the context of baking, it usually means sourdough cultures perpetuated by bakers. This was usually not done systematically, but through established procedure in which the same implements were used and pieces of ‘old’ dough ‘fed’ to new batches.

The oblata mentioned in #16 etymologically is something that is offered up, I this case to God, and thus would originally have referred to communion bread. However, the word later comes to mean the type of unleavened wafer used in that role rather than the consecrated host specifically, and very likely already does so in this case. It is, after all, a blessing for the table, not the altar, and it would be highly irregular to say Mass in the refectory. Meanwhile, #17’s Azimum or azymum is the word used in the Latin Vulgate Bible for the unleavened bread prepared for Passover. This is very likely a special kind of bread prepared for Easter celebrations, maybe similar to matzohs and not a regular food item.

The text then lists blessings for breads made with different grains: spelt, wheat, rye, barley, and oats. It is not clear whether these are made entirely of one grain, or with an admixture to a base of wheat or rye. Barley and oats are not well suited to making leavened loaves, so if they were made entirely with one grain, these two must have been flatbreads. The list mirrors similar enumerations in other contexts, so it is likely this describes the basic bread options of the time, but we should keep in mind that reghional practices could be very narrow and not every grain available everywhere.

The pestis warded against in # 19 and 21 means evil in the sense of some harmful outside event, but not yet specifically a plague as it will come to do later. Similarly, the fraud referenced in #26 is an attribute of the devil (the enemy), not connected to any concrete dishonest business practice by bakers.

In #28, the bread described is baked sub cineris, literally under the embers. This may well be the kind of simple ashcake that King Alfred is supposed to have burned. However, a well-appointed kitchen would have been able to provide stone or ceramic plates to place in the embers and perhaps even a cloche to cover the loaves. This method was known as sub testudo in Latin, but since it is not referred to elsewhere, that may also be meant here.

The whole list is a fascinating read and runs to over 200 entries for different foods, so I have a lot of work left. If you are interested in reading it in full already, a new edition accompanied by a facsimile of the original manuscript (Cod. Sang. 393) and a German translation (which I occasionally disagree with) can be found in Cornel Dora (ed.) Gesegnete Speisen. Vom Essen und Trinken im Mittelalter. Verlag am Klosterhof St. Gall 2024. The related exhibition is still open until 10 November of this year, in case you are in the area of Lake Constance.

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