What Adam Smith Ate: An Assize of Bread

what adam smith ate bread

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

"We are familiar with [Adam Smith's] ideas about wheat, the potato and corn. But readers may be less familiar with the idea of  'assizes' or local regulations on those same loaves."
Adam Smith may be considered the father of the pure market economy, but he had a thing or two to say about regulations. While he understood the importance that some things – food especially – benefitted from quality control, he felt it was better for producers to control those regulations – not the government. In his mind fair wages and the value of those wages could be preserved by the value of what those wages could buy. Ultimately, in Smith’s mind the market would correct itself, but in select circumstances in order to ensure value, it could be important to encourage merchants to regulate quality. 

Consider his thoughts on bread. We are familiar with his ideas about wheat, the potato and corn. But readers may be less familiar with the idea of  “assizes” or local regulations on those same loaves. 

Today, assizes refer to courts, most often in the UK. But during the medieval period, assizes were the regulations placed on the most common of sustenance – bread and ale. These laws regulated the price, weight, and quality of bread and ale sold in small towns, villages, and hamlets. Precursors to today’s regulatory practices, assizes of bread specified the size of loaves which rose or fell according to the price of wheat. That is to say, the price of a loaf stayed constant, but the size of a loaf of bread rose and fell according to the price of wheat. Depending on the season or quality of the crop, a loaf of bread might be large – or small. And within certain regions, the pricing or sizes might also vary village to village.

Sound unnecessarily complex? Thank the bakers of the 13th century and the ancient statute – The Assize of Bread and Ale

As Smith describes in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations: “…[they] seem to have begun always with determining what ought to be the price of bread and ale when the price of wheat and barley were at the lowest, and to have proceeded gradually to determine what it ought to be, according as the prices of those two sorts of grain should gradually rise about this lowest price." 

Smith uses bread assizes as a model for his argument for the equitable treatment of workmen and self-regulation of pricing. If wages and profits were adjusted properly, there should be no need for an artificial support or limit of pricing. In other words “Where there is an exclusive corporation, it may perhaps be proper to regulate the price of the first necessary of life. But where there is none, the competition will regulate it much better than any assize,” says Smith.

Initially, Scotland didn’t have the same assize regulations as those throughout England, put in place by George III. There was a minor flaw in the law which was quickly corrected, extending the assize to Scotland and “produced no sensible advantage” according to Smith. 

Oats and barley were common Scottish crops through the late Middle Ages. Wheat became more common by the 17th century although the climate wasn’t exactly right for it. Even so, wheat remained the grain of choice for bread gracing the tables of the wealthy. The rest of the population enjoyed breads made of a mixture of grains including oats. The National Library of Scotland notes that centuries of Scottish soldiers were sent to battle with a sack of oats to make oatcakes each day. 

Oat cakes and oat breads can vary widely in Scotland. Some oat cakes are small and hard as hockey pucks, while others can be more like what we’d call soft skillet cakes. Oats could also be ground into oat flour and mixed with wheat flour for a soft, hearty loaf perfect for the family’s meal. Slightly sweetened with honey, this soft bread was perfect for eating in hand with cheese or on the plate sopping up a meaty gravy.

Oat flour is gluten free and works well with yeast. It gives your bread a chewier, whole grain texture, and can be substituted for regular flour using 1 1/3 cup oat flour for 1 cup of all purpose flour.  Try this loaf, adapted from Theresa Carle-Sanders Outlander Kitchen. It’s not 18th century authentic, but it is delicious. 

Honey-Buttermilk Oat Bread
Makes 1 loaf
·         1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
·         ¼ cup whole milk
·         1 cup rolled oats, plus 2 tbsp for baking
·         3 tbsp honey
·         1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
·         1 1/3 cups oat flour 
·         1 tsp salt
·         1 tsp instant yeast (half a packet)
·         3 tbsp butter, softened
1.       Bring buttermilk or yogurt, milk, and butter to room temperature. 
2.       Mix together buttermilk or yogurt and milk until well combined. Add the oats and 2 tbsp of honey. 
3.       In another bowl, combine all-purpose flour, oat flour, salt, and yeast. Add 2 tbsp of the butter, then the buttermilk/yogurt mixture. Mix with a paddle or dough hook until a ball forms. 
4.       Turn out the dough onto a flour lined counter or parchment paper sheet and knead until the dough is soft but not sticky.
5.       Place the dough in an oil-lined bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Put in a warm place and let rise until doubled in size.
6.       Preheat the oven to 375F.  Punch down the dough and shape into a rectangular loaf. Place in a buttered loaf pan. Cover loosely and let rise again until doubled in size or rising over the top of the pan.  Melt the remaining tablespoon of butter and honey together, then brush the top of the loaf. Garnish with the extra oats scattered on top. 
7.       Bake until top is dark brown and crusty 45-50 minutes.  Remove from the pan while hot and let cool on a wire rack.

More from Renee Wilmeth:
What Adam Smith Ate: In Which we Discuss Oats
What Adam Smith Ate: Cheese
Adam Smith and the Highlanders

More from AdamSmithWorks:
Nathanael Snow's What Would Adam Smith Say About Fasting?
Jacob Sider Jost's Bargaining with the Butcher, Baker, and Brewer: A New Look at Smith’s Most Famous Sentences
Wealth of Nations Reading Guide on Bk 4, Ch 5, "Of Bounties"