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The History of the Biscuit in the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages

The history of the biscuit is not to be underestimated… they helped an empire feed its legions and the sailors survives the harsh seas.

Biscuits. Biscuits, biscuits, biscuits… what can we say about them? Everybody loves biscuits, don’t they? I mean, just look at our website, for crying out loud. We have dedicated an entire magazine to the titular delight. Take a minute to browse through our articles and you’ll see just how much we’re committed to bringing you all the information that might interest or entertain you.

But there was always this one topic that we never payed much attention too. Yes, yes, if you’ve been reading our magazine you know full-well that we always write a section or two about the history of the biscuit’s that we’re covering for the given article. But we’ve never dedicated an entire article solely to the history of the biscuit as a whole, have we?

Well, that’s about to change today, as we’ve decided to present you with a history primer on the biscuits in the Middle Ages! Everything you need to know about the origins of the biscuits written into one, neat article. Call it a “History of the Biscuit 101” if you’d like.

But before we dive into the underrated (but important!) history of the biscuits in the Middle Ages and during the Roman Empire, we’d like to make a short disclaimer; we’ll be focusing on the European side of the story. While we’re aware that the “Exotic East” hides fascinating facts and stories about the development of the biscuits, we’ve opted to exclude it. Way too much information to fit into one article.

Back to the biscuits… “How in the world are biscuits of any significance to human history?” you ask? Well… good question. We don’t blame you for asking it, as the significance of the biscuits is sadly undervalued amongst the general populace and certain historians. Sure, everyone loves to eat biscuits, but do they care enough about them to learn about their development?

Well, we’ll see in a couple of months or so, after this article is published. Contact us then to see if writing about the history of the biscuits pays off… but jokes aside, yes, we believe that the biscuits we love to eat (and bake) do have their place in the history of mankind’s development.

The reason why the history of the biscuits is undervalued is simple. It’s enough to take a look at the school system. Now… we’re not saying that there’s anything bad with the school system. But why would anyone learn about biscuits alongside political or art history? It’s more enticing to learn about Julius Caesar and his conquests of the Gallic tribes, for example.

Greek Middle Age biscuit

Figure 1 - The Greek Pantheon

And not just the different wars and geo-political power struggles; more emphasis is put on such elements of history as Greek and/or Nordic mythology than, well… food. But that’s where we come in! Using Anastasia Edward’s amazing book called Biscuits and Cookies – A Global History, we wrote an interesting article on the centrepiece of human diet – the biscuit!

Who doesn't like learning about Julius Caesar?

Figure 2 - Who doesn't like learning about Julius Caesar?

The early development of the biscuit: from prehistoric times up to the fall of the Roman Empire

Biscuits did have a profound impact on the development of human race. Humans used to live in hunter/gatherer nomadic tribes. Once the local wildlife was depleted, they would move on to new areas, allowing nature to go through its cycle of renewal, and for the wildlife to flourish again.

During these migrations, they would gather provisions for the long journey ahead, hence the term hunter/gatherer tribes. They would gather berries and other fruit and consume it on their trips. While consuming these fruits, they would spit out the seeds at the nearby ground and move on.

But the new area wouldn’t sustain them for long, so they would migrate back to their previous “home” (if you could call moist and humid caves as homes). On the way back, they would notice something… strange. Well, it would be the most logical thing to us, something that we take for granted these days. But this was a new discovery to the people of prehistoric times.

In the modern world, we have set protocols when it comes to new research or development of technology. Someone with a brilliant mind (or less brilliant for that matter) creates a scientific thesis. That thesis is then tested through s series of controlled experiments, and ultimately, it is either proven correct or rebuked.

But our ancestors in the prehistoric times didn’t have access to state-of-the-art laboratories and what-not. Hell, they could barely communicate with each other or clothe themselves for the harsh weather. So, all of their discoveries came through, well… happy little accidents, as the beloved artist Bob Ross would say.

Figure 3 - Can you imagine living in such dense places?

That is how the prehistoric people gained access to fire. We don’t have any written accounts on this, as these are prehistoric times. Written history began in Sumer around 3500 BC. These are all speculations, but it makes sense that the human tribes who were barely able to do anything besides hunting and gathering would discover something new by accident.

But, we mentioned something about berries and how our ancestors moved a lot, didn’t we? Yes, well… if you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve probably figured out that berries and chance discovery are connected in some way. And you’re right!

As we’ve mentioned, these nomads would spit the seeds of the fruit they would consume into the nearby ground. The seeds would grow into new plants, and upon arrival back home, these nomads figured out that they could grow the food they were eating!

This discovery completely changed the course of human history… no longer did humans have to migrate and hunt for food (although they still did), they could now settle in areas with fertile land and grow their own produce. They would no longer have to depend on the local wildlife to survive.

This is how the first civilizations came to be. The land of the Fertile Crescent, the area between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, is considered to be the cradle of civilization. Many cultures and nations arose in that place, including the Sumerian and Babylonian people, all thanks to the rivers that made the soil between them so fertile.

But all of the civilizations pale in comparison to one. The one Empire that connected the west and the East, that stretched from the furthest reaches of Britannia to the lands of the Middle East. The Empire that conquered so much and brought civilization to so many. The Roman Empire.

A civilization of conquerors and law-makers, they forged an empire that lasted a millennia and whose legacy lasts up to this very day. But have you ever stopped to consider that it were the simple biscuits that helped them achieve this?

How could a simple biscuit help the Romans to build their empire in any way possible, you ask? Well, we’d like to offer a counter-question. How do you preserve your food? How do you prevent it from going bad or stale after only a few days?

Germanic tribes

Figure 4 - Legionnaire Biscuitus Maximus is here to show you how he and his comrades survived the campaigns against the Germanic tribes

Chances are, you don’t even think about these things. Long-lasting food and snacks have become so common-place, so normal, that we don’t even pay much attention to how we preserve them. Sure, it’s easy to prepare for a long trip or a long winter when we have access to preservatives, refrigerators and canned food…

But in the Ancient Times, people had to be a little more… creative. They would salt their meat, as salt acts as a natural preservative, and store their crops in granaries. They could then mix the different grains and wheat with water to produce the most basic versions of biscuits.

But more-often-than-not, these biscuits meant the difference between life or death for the legionaries serving in the Imperial legions. They were not meant to be savoury treats. They were bland and tasteless, but they were an efficient way for a soldier to consume his daily caloric needs and carbohydrates which gave him energy.

Roman Legionaries

Figure 5 - Roman Legionaries

These biscuits could last for months, years even… and they were the perfect food for the numerous legions at Rome’s disposal. The soldiers defending the borders of the empire were privy to a larger range of meals. They Roman Empire had numerous, well-established supply lines that supplied the troops with fresh meat and bread.

But for the legions off on conquests outside of the empire’s borders… it was a completely different story. They had no access to roads; their supply lines were often raided and sabotaged, if any could even be established due to alien landscape and weather.

And the legions were on a constant move. They would march for months on end, so they needed food that had a long expiration date. The biscuit helped to shape an empire, and it would continue to find its use a great source of nourishment for centuries to come. The biscuit would even survive the fall of the Roman Empire and go on to play an even larger role in the Middle Ages.

The history and the significance of the biscuits in the Middle Ages

The biscuit has always had… a peculiar place in the mentality of the medieval people.

As we all know, a young Jew by the name of Jesus Christ, a descendant of the royal blood of David, a great prophet and the son of God made manifest, gave his life for the salvation of humanity. At the last supper, Jesus made a new and eternal covenant between God and men by sharing bread and wine with his followers, which are symbols of his body and blood.

This event is celebrated and honoured even today. But bread was an even larger symbol of Christ in the Middle Ages. Bread had a religious status, while cakes were associated with royalty and nobility. Only the richest element of medieval society were able to afford cakes. The simple biscuits were somewhere in-between.

This changed with the introduction of communion wafers. Communion wafers are a type of bland, tasteless biscuit used in the ritual of Eucharist, where it is believed that the communion wafers are turned into the body of Jesus Christ. Christians place these communion wafers inside their mouths during Sunday mass and let saliva disintegrate it.

Figure 7 - Communion Wafers

Figure 6 - Communion Wafers

This is done to commemorate the last supper. Because of this, biscuits also gained a partial religious status, and they were still used as a great “pick-me-up” food. Sailors wouldn’t dare go on long voyages without them, as the biscuits often saved their hides when they were trapped on the sea.

But there were other, tastier developments going on. Have you ever heard of the Lebkuchen biscuits? They are a very special and delicious treat from the city of Nuremberg, and their tradition stretches back to the Middle Ages. They are spicy gingerbread biscuits invented by friars in Nuremberg, which helped them with their digestion. Not only that, but they were also tasty and were safe for consumption during lent!

 Delicious Gingerbread Biscuits!

Figure 7 - Delicious Gingerbread Biscuits!

This was all thanks to their main ingredient – honey! Honey always held a mythical status amongst the different civilizations of ancients and medieval times. It was considered a gift from the gods, and this was true for Christianity as well. In the Old Testament, God promises a “land of milk and honey” to his chosen people, which they would settle after being freed from Egyptian slavery and crossing the Red Sea.

Due to this, and the fact that honey was healthy and nurtured the body, it was very popular amongst the people of the Middle Ages. That is why the friars used it as the main ingredient for their gingerbread biscuits.

The history of the biscuits in the Middle Ages: A concluding word

As you can see, the history of the biscuit is not to be underestimated… they helped an empire feed its legions and the sailors survives the harsh seas. Later on, they became a symbol of holy communion with God and developed into delicious biscuits that aid digestion, which are still made and beloved today!

We hope you found our take on the history of the biscuits interesting. We left out any important dates or years and instead focused on bringing you a narrative recounting of the earliest days of our beloved biscuits. Stay tuned, as we might release a continuation of this article that focuses on the history of the biscuits up to the Age of the Revolutions. Cheers!

Figure 9 - History is full of interesting facts and stories!

Figure 8 - History is full of interesting facts and stories!

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