In the Middle Ages, the diet of the wealthy, while plentiful, was nutritionally bereft compared to that of the common people. Those with the means feasted on meat seasoned with exotic and costly spices and wheat bread. The lighter and fresher the bread, the higher one's station in life. High-protein, low-gluten rye bread made from rye (Secale cereale) was fit only for the lowest. Rye was considered such humble food that Carthusian monks would take as a penance a hard tort made of the poorest-quality rye to symbolize their station in life as "Christ's beggars" (Henisch, 158); it was considered second rate to wheat and barley. Nonetheless, and despite its inauspicious beginnings, rye went from minor cultivation in the early Middle Ages to a staple food of temperate Europe in the ensuing centuries.
Visitors to the Bonnefont Herb Garden this spring encountered a particularly vigorous strand of rye. Planted last fall as a cover crop, it protected the soil from the leaching of valuable nutrients and compaction. The value of managing soils was appreciated by the medieval agriculturist, who followed careful systems of crop rotations. Typically, cover crops are turned into the soil prior to flowering, but we allowed our rye to flower due to its striking presence in the garden. The gardeners then carefully harvested it for use in our seasonal displays.
Interestingly, the cultivation of rye began much more recently than that of other major grains. Its region of origin and subsequent domestication was Central and West Asia (Zohary, 59). Its journey to domestication likely arose through a process called Vavilovian mimicry, named after the great Russian botanist and geneticist Nicolai Vavilov, who postulated the origins of many of the world's major food crops. This process involves the inadvertent selection and replanting of a weedy species that closely resembles the desired species. It is thought that this happened with rye, as it was a common weed in barley and wheat fields. Those flower spikelets that most closely resembled the desired species, in this case wheat or barley, were harvested and planted along with the following year's crop. Thus, the most desirable traits (plumper grain and stronger stems) were selected for and propagated.
Pliny, the Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher, thought rye detestable and worthwhile only to appease extreme hunger (Hedrick, 530). His description of rye growing on marginal lands attests to the reason that rye became such an important food: its tolerance of extreme conditions. Indeed, rye can thrive on poor soils, and it has an extensive and fibrous root system that helps it withstand drought and harsh winters. Birds also appear to be more attracted to wheat, with its plump, germinating grains, and leave rye untouched. These characteristics led to an increased human dependence on rye. Frequently interspersed within crops of wheat or barley, rye might have been the only crop left standing following a particularly dry summer or cold winter. Its survival provided a lifeline to the struggling farmer.
Despite rye's mixed reception as a foodstuff, by the ninth century it was well established throughout Europe. It is included in Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis, which stipulated that the species should be cultivated throughout his empire (Harvey, 32). In the twelfth century, Hildegard von Bingen extolled rye's virtues: "Bread made from it is good for healthy people and makes them strong. And for those who have fat bodies, it is good for them since it makes their bodies diminish while nevertheless making them strong" (Hildegard, 6). And, in The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti, a fourteenth-century Latin manuscript, rye is considered the basis of an excellent bread and, "suited to those with hot temperaments, and people who work, and it is beneficial because it suppresses the sharpness of the humours" (Spencer, 52).
Harvey, John. Medieval Gardens. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981.
Hedrick, U.P. Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.
Henisch, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast Food in Medieval Society. University Park and London. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard's healing plants: From her medieval classic Physica. Translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti. Translated by Judith Spencer. New York: Facts on File, 1984.
Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf, and Ehud Weiss. Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in Southwest Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.