Bread was the staple foodstuff for all levels of medieval society apart from the very rich, and even they still ate plenty. It is estimated that the average human in medieval Europe ate about 1 to 1.5 kg of bread per day, and as a result its price and quality were very carefully regulated by governments who knew the dangers of people going hungry. Few people had ovens at home, so most would take their own grain to the miller to be ground, and then having made the dough they would take that to the local baker. Those in towns with no land might buy flour or even ready-made bread direct, but most bread production was done by professional bakers. The well-off would eat white bread made with wheat, while the quality gradually deteriorated as you went down the price range until the very poor ate a very coarse bread, generally brown or black, and made from rye or occasionally oats and other grains with little or none of the bran taken out.
Like most retailers a baker would operate out of his own home, which would have the ovens and other equipment necessary for him to ply his trade. This interesting little set from Valdemar depicts something rather different however – a mobile oven on a cart. Street sellers were perfectly common in medieval towns, although in terms of food it would be more likely to see someone selling pies rather than bread. Quite what the advantage of a mobile oven is we do not know, but there are plenty of medieval illustrations showing such a thing so we cannot doubt the authenticity. One issue is of course the heat source. This oven, which is of a typical shape, is pretty small, so with some form of fire in there the room for bread would be very limited. However sometimes bread was baked by placing the dough in hot coals, thus avoiding the need for separating the food from the fuel, and presumably that is what is happening here.
As we have said, the oven is pretty small but of typical shape. The wooden hand-cart naturally has a cover – presumably metal – on the surface to avoid igniting it, and two handles, which all matches the illustrations from the time. The baker is holding this cart, and his wife is leaning forward with the peel (the long wooden paddle) to move the bread in or out of the oven. A child – perhaps the baker’s son but could also be an unrelated apprentice – is holding aloft a loaf, perhaps trying to drum up some business. All the figures are well posed and the costume looks fine. None have a base, and with the very hard and quite brittle material with which the set is made this is clearly a display piece. We found the ultra-thin peel broke very easily. Detail and general quality of sculpting is superb as always from Valdemar, and there is no flash or other detritus to remove. However the figures are rather too tall for medieval folk, which is an issue if they are to be shown next to figures from other sets, particularly those not from Valdemar.
While we may not understand why such a mobile oven would have been useful we cannot deny the high quality of this fascinating little group, which is a worthy addition to the Valdemar medieval civilian range.