THE author of this book remembers the time during the Second World War when for four years he was starving. At the same time, his father in internment lost 90 lbs in weight. He recounts how a pastor welcomed some prisoners returning from work one Christmas Eve and sat each one down in the warm of his home with a slice of bread and a glass of wine. He records Solzhenitsyn sleeping with bread under his pillow for four years when he came out of the Gulag. These experiences gave him a very personal reason for writing this book.
He tells the history of how grain first cultivated in Mesopotamia and turned into bread some 12,000 years ago spread across the Mediterranean and North Africa and became the staple diet of Europe. Those tribes moving into Europe from the steppes did not have bread before this point. He discusses the different kinds of seed from which people have made bread, including some unusual other material, such as the lotus flower. He is not so much concerned with the history, however, as with the central significance of bread in the literature and culture of the times. He also shows or describes how grain or bread has been depicted visually.
The book is impressionistic rather than systematic in its approach, but what emerges first is just how dominant the place of bread was in so many societies. Many of the cultures that he discusses not only had many different kinds of bread but literally scores of different names for them. At one time, Rome had more than 300 bakeries. Roman citizens were allowed subsidised or free distribution of grain, and later bread, the Annona, for which grain arriving by sea from Egypt or North Africa in vast quantities was vital. Rulers recognised that this, together with circuses, was key to controlling the people.
Second, he underlines how central bread was as an image for what holds us together as human beings and what nourishes us spiritually. Christians hardly need reminding of the key place of bread in our own religion, but Predrag Matvejevic considers its place in Judaism and Islam as well, in many different contexts, worship, pilgrimage and the lives of particular saints. He even includes an interesting few pages on bread in the life of the Roma.
One of the great improvements in life for people of my age is in the quality of bread. Once all that seemed available were thin white plasticky slices that were only edible when toasted. Now we have a wide range of excellent bread to choose from and realise that good-quality bread is one of the things in life really worth having. This book deals with cultures when it was even more significant than that, because there was so little in the way of other foods to be eaten. It was really vital that bread was both available and good.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His most recent book is Seeing God in Art: The Christian faith in 30 images (SPCK, 2020).
Our Daily Bread: A meditation on the cultural and symbolic significance of bread throughout history
Istros Books £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90