Mediaeval Horsebread

I have a very active imagination. A significant portion of my day is spent daydreaming of things other than what I am supposed to be doing, a bit like the lead character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (an absolutely fantastic film, by the way). One moment I’m doing something mundane, the next I’m off in a crazy adventure in my head. For example, I could be driving down a single track country lane and I spot a flock of sheep with coloured paint splodges on their rumps. In my head those sheep have been playing paint ball at night, how else can you explain the paint shots? Cue: dramatic slow-motion mind-scene of paint-balling sheep. (I do realise in reality these paint splodges have something to do with medication, but nocturnal paint-balling sheep are much more interesting).

Last autumn I finished an Open University Life Sciences degree after eight years of study. This means I now have time to read books for pleasure, not just for education. It took most of my final year of study to get through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, since most of my reading energy was spent studying stem cells, but now that I am finished I can devote as much time as I want to the wonderful world of fictional books. Such book reading fuels my imagination.

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Upon my husband’s recommendation I started reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (1989), 25 years after it was published, and I was instantly gripped. Not gripped in the way that oh, I’m looking forward to the evening when I can sit down and read my book, but gripped in the way that I would hurriedly pack the children off to school in the morning and spend the whole time they were away curled up on the couch with coffee and a blanket kind of gripped. The housework was neglected, the washing piled up, the phone wasn’t answered. The sort of gripped that means everything, including getting up off the couch to make meals, is an inconvenience (as an aside, you may have noticed the resulting blogging silence of late!).

Pillars of the Earth is the story of a master builder in the Middle Ages with a lifelong dream to build a cathedral church. It describes the hardships he had to endure during those times in the city of Kingsbridge, England, the complex relationships between people, and the violence and consequences of human ambition. The author clearly did his research before writing this novel. It is very convincing – it makes you believe you are in 1135 England.

Last week I was swept away on a spontaneous trip to the south coast of England. The airplane landed in Exeter and we took a taxi to our destination in Plymouth. En route I saw several grand (to me) churches and what I think was an abbey of some sort. I also saw a road sign to Kingsbridge. My heart might have fluttered a little bit – there’s a real Kingsbridge?! (Note to self: check if the Pillars of the Earth setting of Kingsbridge was based on a real place – it’s not, but it’s loosely based on an area not too far from where I physically was).

The whole time I was in Plymouth I was admiring the architecture from a completely different perspective. I could visualise the people behind each and every stone the buildings were constructed of. I could imagine the thought processes and passion that went behind the design of each and every detail. My imagination ran riot. Imagine my delight when I came home and found out a new food blogging challenge had been launched: Read, Cook, Eat jointly hosted by Chris over at Cooking Around the World and Galina from Chez Maxima. For this challenge you’re asked to recreate the recipes you’ve read about in a fiction book.  Novel Food by Simona over at Pulcetta also features recipes inspired by books. Pillars of the Earth frequently mentions horsebread:

READCOOKEAT-badge“When the daylight began to soften into dusk, a kitchen handcame to the guesthouse with a cauldon of pottage and a loaf as long as a man is tall, all just for them. The pottage was made with vegetables and herbs and meat bones, and its surface glistened  with fat. The loaf was horsebread, made with all kinds of grain, rye and barley and oats, plus dried peas and beans; it was the cheapest bread, Alfred said, but to Jack, who had never eaten bread until a few days ago, it was delicious. Jack ate until his belly ached. Alfred ate until there was nothing left.” 

– Pillars of the Earth (1989)

Surprisingly, an internet search for horsebread recipes came up with nothing even remotely authentic. Paul Newman, author of Daily Life in the Middles Ages (2001) explains why. He says virtually no bread recipes remain from the Middle Ages because bread making was so commonplace the recipe didn’t need to be written down. It would have been like writing down the recipe for boiling water. Bread was made by bakers, not chefs, and it was the chefs who recorded recipes. Newman says, “Whatever the recipe, the basic ingredients for bread have remained the same: a powdered starch (usually a flour made from wheat, spelt, rye, barley or other grain), a liquid (water or milk), salt and a rising agent. By far, yeast was the most common leavening for bread but easy to use dry yeasts like we have today did not exist. Instead, old dough (which is still used in traditional “sour dough” bread) or “barm” (a liquid process of fermenting grain mash into beer) were used to start bread dough rising. Besides the basic ingredients, oats, nuts, dried fruits, and even beans and lentils were sometimes added in for flavour and texture or to act as fillers when grain was in short supply. Bean breads were usually served to horses but people would eat them as well if no better bread was available.”

novelfoodMy research found that sometimes the grains were ground with the legumes. Wikipedia says dried yellow split peas were often used and so I set to work to recreate the recipe with what I could source. My first stop was our local wholefoods shop where I remember seeing pea flour for sale. They didn’t have pea flour at this time, but they did have some Dove’s Farm English Wholegrain Heritage Flour and some chickpea (gram) flour. The heritage flour is interesting: it is a blend of grains grown in the 16th/17th centuries. The shop proprietor told me the reason she’d sold pea flour when I saw it ages ago was because she’d been on a historic bread making course and she used it then. Dried yellow split peas were what they ground, she said, and people on coastal communities flavoured their bread with dried seaweed instead of salt. Salt would have been an unaffordable luxury for the poor.

I made my loaf with some lively sourdough starter I was given not too long ago. This is my second sourdough loaf, the first one being a resounding success. To accompany the bread I made a simple stew with Shetland beef and vegetables, based on the following 15th century recipe:

Beef y-Stywyd.—Take fayre beef of þe rybbys of þe fore quarterys, an smyte in fayre pecys, an wasche þe beef in-to a fayre potte; þan take þe water þat þe beef was soþin yn, an strayne it þorw a straynowr, an sethe þe same water and beef in a potte, an let hem boyle to-gederys; þan take canel, clowes, maces, graynys of parise, quibibes, and oynons y-mynced, perceli, an sawge, an caste þer-to, an let hem boyle to-gederys; an þan take a lof of brede, an stepe it with brothe an venegre, an þan draw it þorw a straynoure, and let it be stylle; an whan it is nere y-now, caste þe lycour þer-to, but nowt to moche, an þan let boyle onys, an cast safroun þer-to a quantyte; þan take salt an venegre, and cast þer-to, an loke þat it be poynaunt y-now, & serue forth.”   – (Recipe source: Two Fifteenth Century Cookbooks)

For our meal I donned my most medieval dress – a floor length, embroidered, swishy brown affair and made everyone eat out of clay bowls with wooden spoons. To serve, I found some Noble English craft lager in our local supermarket made with hops dating back to the 800s. That was authentic as I could make it, in 2014 in Shetland.

My husband and I loved every bite of our dinner. I was pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed the horsebread and simple stew, washed down with lager, considering the basic seasoning and ingredients. The bread was very filling, and at first, when everyone was quite hungry it was really flavoursome. Then, as we began to fill up the split pea flavour became a little overpowering. However, if I was a starving peasant in the English Middle Ages I reckon I would have been grateful to have such a filling meal.

So, this is my recipe for horsebread. I have no idea how authentic it is, but from what I’ve read I would think it’s a pretty good attempt. Do let me know what you think of the recipe, or what you thought if you read the book! I’m a quarter of the way through the sequel, World Without End, and I’m enjoying it as much as I did the first book. I really hope there is a third on the way!

Mediaeval Horsebread
Print Recipe
A replica Middle Ages peasant bread recipe made with heritage wheat and legumes. Inspired by Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.
Mediaeval Horsebread
Print Recipe
A replica Middle Ages peasant bread recipe made with heritage wheat and legumes. Inspired by Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.
Servings Prep Time Cook Time Passive Time
1loaf 30minutes 25minutes 19hours
Servings Prep Time
1loaf 30minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
25minutes 19hours
Servings: loaf
Servings: loaf
  1. Wash dried yellow split peas and place them in a medium sized bowl. Cover with water and leave overnight to soak.
  2. Take sourdough starter out of the fridge and leave overnight to get to room temperature.
  3. The next morning, mix together the starter, flours, seaweed (or salt) and water until a thick wet dough forms. Leave, covered, in the bowl for 3 hours or more.
  4. Meanwhile, drain and dry split peas. Coarsely chop them and set aside.
  5. Turn dough out onto a floured board, adding extra heritage flour so that a workable dough forms. Knead in the chopped split peas and form into a loaf.
  6. Using extra heritage flour, make sure the sides of the banneton are well coated to prevent sticking. Place loaf in banneton and leave to rise for at least 4 hours.
  7. Place a large baking tray in the oven and heat oven to its highest setting (around 230 C)
  8. When the oven is hot enough, remove tray, sprinkle with more heritage flour and turn loaf out of the banneton.
  9. Score loaf with a sharp knife and bake in the oven for 25 minutes. Turn out on a wire rack to cool.


Made with Love Mondays, hosted by Javelin Warrior


  1. shajila says

    I just finished reading The Pillars of The Earth a couple weeks ago, and I was intrigued by the sound of horsebread – I’m so glad I found your attempt to recreate it here!
    And I loved the book of course – the descriptions were really graphic in places and the plot was amazing detailed!

  2. Danabhadri Fergusson says

    Love the book and your recipe. I routinely add gram flour to cakes scones and bread as I am cooking for vegans.

  3. says

    Congratulations on finishing your degree. I also love Ken Follet books. The Pillars of the Earth is a fantastic read. I’ve always wanted to write a Medieval Cookbook. It’s been a dream of mine. The Horsebread sounds interesting. I’ll have to give it a go. Great blog post. Many thanks x
    Debbie Skerten recently posted…HoMedics ihealMy Profile

  4. Doris K says

    Finished reading Pillars of the Earth last month. I am reading World Without End right now. What fascinated me through both books mention of this horsebread, even though there is a 200 year difference between the 2 books. The breads of yore were more nutritious and filling than breads of today. Being gluten intolerant can appreciate the use of other ingredients other than wheat flour which was extremely expensive for the peasantry of the period. Only the rich would have been able to afford wheat. But land owning peasants would have been able to grow a portion for themselves and pay their rents with the remaining amount to their lords.
    I am excited to see your attempt at making the horsebread and definitely looks like a recipe that might have been made during that time period.

  5. says

    This is a wonderful recipe! I love that you based it off of a passage from a favorite book. You did a great job recreating it as well. It fits the description perfectly. Now for some authentic Frobscottle.

  6. says

    Very interesting post and beautiful bread. I didn’t know about barm until I read Dan Lepard’s Handmade Loaf. I have yet to try using it. I have however used legumes in bread. It looks like you’ve found some really nice flour.

    • Elizabeth says

      The book is fab, I am insisting everyone should read it! I miss the characters in it still! I can see why making bread with peas fell out of favour over the years, but if I was really hungry I’d be delighted to have a loaf of horsebread!

  7. says

    I definitely admire your adventurous nature. This sounds like an excellent revival. Wearing appropriate dress for the meal is a wonderful notion, but I’m not sure that my knowledge of period dress is quite up to it. On the subject of pea flour, someone recently told me that there are traditional pancakes made in Scotland form pea flour. That was news to me.

    • says

      I’ve never heard of pancakes made from pea flour either. Must investigate further! I had the chance once to attend a Society for Creative Anachronisms event back on the East Coast of Canada. I got to wear a 14th century gown with tippets (?) hanging from the arms and a knight (Sir Percival) jousted in my honour. It was absolutely amazing. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era, but then I remember how much I appreciate modern medication and sanitation!

  8. says

    First of all, I won’t get those paint-balling sheep out of my mind for a while, but that’s fine with me. I enjoyed reading your post every minute of it. I especially liked the effort you put into bringing the bread from fiction to plate. It’s also interesting to read the recipe for the stew, although it’s … a bit different. The themed meal sounds great, too. Thank you for sharing all this with us and also linking up to ReadCookEat.

  9. says

    I always wondered how people from the ancient (or long distant) past managed to survive on “bread and water” – but with nutritious additions like split beans or beans, it makes a LOT more sense! The bread might not be quite what we expect today, but now I can understand how peasants could fill their bellies with something as simple as bread…

    • says

      I think there is a very good reason split peas aren’t used in bread any more! There are much nicer additions which could be added, but in times of desperate hunger I can see how it could be useful.

  10. says

    I’ll have to try that bread, although I suspect my son and husband will prefer my usual whole wheat-flaxmeal-sunflower seed recipe.

    Oh, and the paint marks on the rumps of the sheep show that they’ve been bred; the ram wears a marker on his chest to show who he’s serviced.

    • says

      I suspect I would prefer your whole wheat flaxmeal-sunflower seed recipe too! I think there is a good reason dried split peas stopped being used in bread making, haha! Thanks for the sheep info – I had no idea! I honestly though it had something to do with medication. “Serviced” *Giggles!*

  11. says

    What a beautifully written post. I read Pillars of the Earth many years ago and the story has stayed with me ever since. At the time, I was living in South Africa where there are no great Cathedrals or Abbeys and it was like a different world to me. When I eventually moved to the UK and subsequently visited many beautiful churches I too, imagined the lives that were involved in the many years of building them. I’m not sure why but I never read the sequel – time to pay a visit to Amazon I think.

    • says

      Aw thank you Angelia :) I’m glad to hear I am not the only one who views churches and cathedrals differently after reading that book. The sequel is superb too – I insist you should read it! :)

  12. says

    Thank you so much for your most inspiring story and recipe! The horsebread looks fantastic. I must have seen the name before, as I have read the book ages ago, but it clearly slipped my mind. I would have liked to see your dress as well. I would imagine it was a great meal. I confess I don’t often bake my own bread, but I would love to try your recipe. Years ago I baked a cake with marigold petals for the Tudor-themed party, that is as far historically as I travelled.

    • says

      Thank you for your kind words! It’s funny how undesirable food back in the Middle Ages is considered a health food now. My how diets change! I did consider getting my husband to photograph me in the dress, but I don’t photograph well so I changed my mind! Your marigold petal cake sounds fantastic, by the way!

  13. says

    what a fun meal – I can’t claim to owning any medieval dresses but I do have a medieval recipe book that I have never had time to read and enjoy – the historic breadmaking course sounds fascinating too – and I love the sound of the book – really want to read it now – though I procrastinate enough as it is – I am reading a book I love and can’t wait to get to bed and read each night

    • says

      Your mediaeval cookery book sounds intriguing! How did you come by that? I’d love to go on a historic breadmaking course myself. Will have to keep an eye out for such things. I urge you, when you get the time, to read Follett’s book – it really is something else!

      • says

        congratulations on getting your new website up – looks great

        re your question, the medieval cookbook was purchased at a medieval exhibition at our state library – it was a huge event with a huge gift shop to visit afterwards – loved it and was intrigued by the cookbook but I have never sat down and read it because it just got lost under my piles of books and has never seen the light of day because I think of it occasionally and then forget it again

        • Elizabeth says

          oh wow that sounds like it would have been an amazing event! I can be the same with books, sometimes. I’ve a copy of a novel I waited 13 years for it to be released, and it’s been sitting untouched on my bookshelf for another six or seven so!


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