It Takes Longer Than You Think by B. Durbin
I was recently reading a fantasy series—it doesn’t matter much which one—where the world building started out quite well, with a pre-industrial collection of cities and farming towns, but eventually dissolved into poor world building, in that a number of things didn’t make sense.
At the heart of the issue was that the author was evidently unaware of what living on the margin really means. A pre-industrial farming society, especially one such as the one portrayed, where darkness means that everyone and everything has to be safely inside, has almost no room for error, and is going to be on the edge of starvation.
To begin with, how long does it take to bake bread? I know the answers you’re likely to give, but in a society living on the margin, it takes nine months.
Let me explain.
We’re used to our modern society, where you have many things right at hand, but to make bread in a pre-industrial society, we need to be like the Little Red Hen and start at the very beginning. Which means a piece of land.
Land doesn’t come in bags of soil from the garden center. Land starts with what you have. It’s not precisely suited to wheat where I am, so the challenges are a bit different, but a lot of the process is the same. First you have to prepare the ground, which means you have to deal with the plants that are already there. And the rocks and other things that get in your way. Plowing is generally the first step, a deep breaking up of root structures and turning over of the dirt. Where I am, the soil is heavily clay, so things need to be added to break it up. Straw is good for that, as is any dry foliage that is unlikely to sprout. Definitely nothing diseased; you don’t need nasty spores mildewing up your plants. And you’ll want nutrients in there too, all the stuff you’ve been composting over the last year, steer manure or well-aged horse manure, fish heads, night soil, those sorts of things.
This will not smell good.
You may want to harrow the field to break up the clods and even stuff out—yes, “harrowing” started out as an agricultural term—and you haven’t even gotten to planting yet. When you do plant, you have to plant more than you’re going to need, because pests and other problems are going to take out a portion of your crop. While it’s in its early growth, you’ll have to go weeding every day, lest they overtake your crops, but once they’re established, they often out-compete the weeds. But you have to make sure they have plenty of water, the right amount of sun, no disease, no nibbling small mammals (or big mammals; deer are agricultural pests too), and basically you have to maintain the field for as long as the growing season is. 60-90 days is a typical amount of time for many crops after fruit set—which means until you’ve got flowers and pollination, you can’t even start the count. (And mind that you have bees and butterflies, or you’re not getting much of a crop.)
Once you’ve got the crop ready, you have to harvest. Of course, you have to be careful, because cut grain is liable to rot if it gets wet, and in a pre-industrial society, you don’t have the weather report as such. So you set your harvest for a dry day and try to get it under cover as soon as you can to dry out. Once it’s dried, you have to separate out the grain, which means threshing it. (One such threshing tool is a flail, which fantasy writers often imagine makes a good weapon of war. Maybe improvised, but that’s the sort of thing that can literally come back to hurt you almost more easily than it can hurt someone else.) Once it’s threshed, you separate the wheat from the chaff—yes, there’s another agricultural phrase for you—by throwing it up in the air in a bit of a breeze and letting the grain fall while the straw and other bits blow off.
So now you have grain, hopefully without too many straw bits in it. Time to get it ground into flour. You could do it yourself, with a mortar and pestle, that would take darn near forever. Or you could take it to a miller, who has millstones, which are set a tiny fraction apart and have channels to carry ground wheat to the edges. The millstones are turned by gears and wind, water, or animals, and the quality of the stones affects how fine the grain is, and whether you get little bits of stone in your flour to wear away your teeth over the years. You get back your flour—the miller has probably taken a portion of it in payment—and now you’re ready to bake.
Except you need some way to do it! While there are means to cook bread over an open fire, you need at the very least a sturdy pan in which to cook it, and the fuel to cook it with. Be careful of your fuel choices, because the smoke is likely to flavor your food over an open fire. If you have an oven, it’s very likely brick set to the side of the hearth, with its own door, and that will keep smoke and ash out of your food. (Hope it’s after the invention of the chimney, at least.) So if you have a nicely bricked hearth, chimney, and oven, you’re doing great. Plus wood, peat, dried herbivore turds (yes, that’s a thing), charcoal from a forest fire, or whatever you’re going to burn.
What else do you need for bread? Well, yeast is actually pretty easy to come by. Stale beer is the simplest (beer comes before bread in human history), but anything that’s fermented can do. In a pinch, you can get the flour wet and wait for *it* to ferment, that only takes a day or two. Three or four if you want that sourdough taste. Make sure nothing nasty starts growing, though—you want fermentation, not rot. Eggs? Well, if you have chickens, you can have egg in your bread. Milk? Cows, goats, sheep.
Now that you have all of your ingredients, you can bake! Baking itself is the shortest part of this all. What you’re really going to want to spend time on is safe storage techniques, though, because you can’t wait until the next harvest for your next loaf of bread. Pottery is pretty choice, as it’s waterproof and vermin-proof. Hope you have a potter around, and the right kinds of clay, and plenty of fuel for the firing…
*Note from the blog owner – B. Durbin didn’t know if this post would be germane for this blog. There was just a feeling that perhaps fantasy writers should know more about the real world before setting out to build imaginary ones.
I think, on the contrary, it is the same airy-fairy sort of notion that of course our ancestors could just run to the supermarket to buy some flour (i.e. for instance that regency that started with the duchess driving a gig to buy groceries…) that gives us the notion that, oh, a state (the glorious masked, locked, bear flag people’s republic) can postpone evictions for non-payment of rent indefinitely.
There is a generation/generations of people raised in such pampered affluence they literally don’t know that everything they can buy — or, say, loot — is literally pieces of other people’s lives: time spent making the things (and effort, and other materials, etc) so this thing could exist.
So, even supposing that insurance could replace the full value of looted goods (it can’t, for the record) the goods themselves would be gone, and with them the pieces of people’s lives that went into them existing and being available for sale.
Looting, and vandalism, which is all the pseudo revolutionary chic of pampered establishment brats these days is in fact a series of partial murders. You’re destroying parts of people’s lives.
You’re destroying value that can’t be replace by money, because money is just a symbol, not the thing.
Do that enough and civilization collapses. And those so pampered as to think that things just appear and that goods aren’t made or created or invented, just infinitely redistributed, really will not like what comes after.
So, yes, this post is germane. It’s a reminder of the real world. Which is that you can’t change by wishing it different. -SAH*