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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Bread Peel

Object 77 - It is likely that for many households, their loaves were probably more often baked in community ovens, aided by the use of bread peels, such as this one in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collections.

Elizabeth Sharrett

Elizabeth Sharrett is a Doctoral Researcher at the Shakespeare Institute.  Elizabeth is looking at an elm wood bread peel from the Collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Here’s another post for all you Great British Bake Off fans! Today’s object might look quite familiar as its basic structure is still regularly employed in bakeries and homes across the world today. It is a bread peel made of elm wood, now at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. The peel is 146cms in length and contains a flat spatulate square head (47.5 cm x 20.5 cm) and a long handle, essential for sliding loaves in and out of a hot oven of coals. While the dough would have been assembled at home, as discussed in my previous blog on object 73, a grain ark, and sometimes baked on the hearth, it is likely that for many households their loaves were probably more often baked in community ovens. By the middle of the seventeenth century it appears that many women were taking their dough to professional bakehouses.[1]

An elm wood bread peel from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
An elm wood bread peel from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Indeed, while Gervase Markham has much to say about the actual assembly of different kinds of dough in his advice book The English Housewife, he includes little detail about the actual baking of it, which possibly supports this theory. He does advise that ideally, one should have a separate bake-house with, “large ovens to bake in”, and that, “the mouth (or opening to the oven) made narrow, square, and easy to be close covered”. He also recommends that the ovens include, “one or two entire stones than of many bricks”. The stones were probably preferable to bricks, as they may have held heat more effectively without breaking down in the coals.[2] The fact that Lance’s lover lacks teeth in the quote above is no problem for him, as he enjoys the hard burnt bottom of the loaf, which would have occurred during the baking. He quite literally enjoys the lower crust!

At the very end of Markham’s section on brewing and baking, he does mention bread peels and includes them with other general implements used for baking bread, stating, “as for your peels, coal-rakes, malkins (a mop used to clean out a bakers oven), and such like, though they be necessary yet they are of such general use they need no further relation.”[3] Thus, he makes clear that these tools were well known with regards to their function.

As we have seen with a number of the objects featured in our 100 objects so far, many aspects and implements of daily life have altered considerably over the past four hundred years. However, as we see with the bread peel, some things have remained relatively unchanged. Do you enjoy making your own loaves, or do you prefer watching the likes of The Fabulous Baker Brothers work their magic? Feel free to share some of your experiences with bread making and baking, and keep your eyes peeled for my next post on the early modern toaster!

Speed: “Item, she hath no teeth.”
Lance: “I care not for that neither, because I love crusts”.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 3 Scene 1

[1] As suggested by Joan Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 (London: Continuum Books, 2007), 234.

[2] Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, Containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman…, ed. Michael R. Best (London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986), 211.

[3] Markham, Housewife, 211.