Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I've been thinking about bread a lot lately. I've been making my own bread on a regular basis and I've been obsessed with the painting, Daily Bread, which I showed yesterday. I love the smell of baking bread (who doesn't?), I love to eat bread. Most every culture has some form of bread and it figures prominently in major religions; there's so much more to it than what holds a sandwich together.

Peasants Breaking Bread, manuscript illustration, France, 14th c
Image from Wikimedia

Whenever I'm getting obsessed with an idea, I start in the same two places: the dictionary of etymology and the dictionary of symbolism.

From Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (ISBN 0-550-14230-4)

Old English bread, bit, piece, morsel (about 950 in Lindisfarne Gospels); cognate with Old Frisian brad, Old Saxon brod, Old High Germanic brot, ... Middle Dutch broot, ... and Old Icelandic braudh, all meaning bread, from Proto-Germanic braudan, related to Old English breowan to BREW, apparently by virtue of the fermenting action of the yeast in leavening. In Old English, this word was rare (though it is found to refer to food in the compound beobread, modern beebread); the common word was hlaf, which survives in modern LOAF. But by 1200 bread had displaced loaf as the name for a piece of sustenance. According to the OED, sense development of the word was from "bit, piece" to "piece of bread" to "bread".

Bread from Pompeii
Image from Wikimedia

From the Dictionary of Symbols (ISBN 0-8118-1470-x)
An idiom for essential sustenance in countries where it was a staple food; and, in Christianity, a metaphor for the food of the spirit and for the body of Christ himself. Bread broken and shared is a sign of union. Unleavened bread is a symbol of purification and sacrifice at the Jewish Passover.

You can also read an interesting article with more information on wikipedia.

What I think is so interesting about this is that originally, bread was a word for "a piece of sustenance"- a general thing which would sustain you. Then, over time, it changed into something more specific. It became a special form of sustenance. And not just nourishment for the body, but nourishment for the spirit or the soul. Think of all the ritual that is involved with "breaking bread", all the social interaction that goes along with the physical nourishment.

I also think about how bread=sustenance has spread and changed, even today, into other ideas. Have you ever heard someone refer to their money as "bread"? Money is its own form of sustenance and some could argue, is necessary for life, just as bread is and has been necessary for life.

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