Flour power: why every revolution begins with a piece of bread

From Sudan to Versailles, Cairo to Tehran, protests have always begun with the price of bread rising. And in 2018, it's still the best barometer we have for class, capitalism and power

January 09, 2018
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It’s 1789 in Versailles; it’s 1863 in Virginia; it’s 1977 all over Egypt; it’s simultaneously 1942 and 2017 in Arak and Tehran and Mashhad. It’s Sudan right now. The price of bread is rising, and the people are rioting in response.

This is what people do. From The Flour War (France, 1775) to the Bread Riots (Southern USA, 1863), when food is scarcer, the price of bread goes up—and the people march. This smallest of things—a cottage loaf, a slice of toast, a pitta—can topple governments and kings. It has before now, and it probably will again.

“Whenever the price of bread spikes, there will be political unrest,” Michael Pollan says in the “Air” episode of his Netflix food documentary, Cooked. “Governments work very hard to keep the price of bread down, because you can lose your head if the price of bread goes up too fast.”

Every politician, it seems, has always known this. The pre-revolutionary king of France was known, apparently, as “the first baker of the kingdom”. True, I can’t find any source for this other than Wikipedia, but whether it’s historically true or not, it’s very telling that it’s part of the story.

We want to associate this king with baking, the way the “breadwinner” of a household is the one who brings home the bacon (to mix metaphors the way one might mix ingredients). It’s about food, and providing it; it’s about the most important kind of food there is.

Learning to make bread—a multistage process of letting it ferment, rise, be kneaded, be baked—is an extraordinary thing for humanity to have done in the first place. Making bread is a question of spinning straw into gold, after all; of making something from nothing. Flour and water alone won’t keep you alive, but fermented and baked, people can survive on it.

A bowl of gruel for one becomes dinner for six out of thin air. That’s why bakers and millers feature so heavily in fairy tales: they are the original wizards.


Bread is also the cornerstone—the bread and butter, if you will—of finance. “Making dough” is “making money”: bread is money, or rather, money is bread. Money is only in the equation at all because it’s a helpful way of quantifying the trade of labour for food.

The Big Mac index, invented by the Economist in 1986 is a good guide to basic economic theory for a reason: How much does a sandwich cost in your country? How much should a sandwich cost in your country? What’s the price of bread there? Can your people afford to eat? Can your people live? If bread (and circuses) keep the people happy, what happens without it? Rebellion follows famine because if the people don’t have bread, what else have they got to lose?

Bread stands in for the capital you need to get by: not luxuries, not frivolities, but the very, very basics. We’ve been eating it for six thousand years; we could pretty much survive on it indefinitely. It’s one of the oldest foodstuffs in the world. It’s the staff and the stuff of life.

In Arabic, the words for “life” and “bread” overlap in meaning. One asks God for “daily bread.” Man, famously, cannot live by bread alone—but so long as he’s got the word of God, too, the bread is everything else he needs. Breaking bread with someone is the oldest kind of promise; putting bread in your children’s mouths the oldest kind of duty, and the fear of some stranger taking that bread from your children’s mouths a very ancient kind of fear.

The 1266 Assize of Bread and Ale is the first law in British history to regulate food standards. And, of course, it starts with bread, dictating the size and price of loaves. These regulations been through various iterations over the last 800 years, but they’re still bafflingly complicated today. A fruit loaf is exempt; a milk loaf is not. A fancy loaf is not exempt; an unwrapped baguette can only be offered for sale if “approximately no more than one in 40 loaves of the baked batch may have a negative error greater than the tolerable negative error (TNE), or in other words, weigh less than Qn minus TNE.”

(This is the reason, incidentally, for the phrase “baker’s dozen”: you have to give people thirteen instead of twelve, to make sure they’re up to the legally-mandated weight.)

Follow the history of bread deeper, and there are lists and lists of historical crimes against the stuff: pinching dough, selling shortweight loaves, something abysmal-sounding about mixing yesterday’s stale crusts with today’s fresh “wheaten dow.” Rumours of crushed chalk and crushed bones have been around for a very long time, and it’s a historical fact that Victorian millers’ habits of adding alum to the flour gave children rickets.

After all, the man who claimed his daughter could spin straw into gold was a miller. We don’t need to know anything else about her, even her name; it’s not important. What matters is that she’s the daughter of a miller, and we know what to expect from their sort: cheating, lying, engaged in an attempt to pass off some base stuff as something vital.


Interfering with the bread, then, always leads to disaster one way or another. We’re not above this kind of worry even now: the word “additives” strikes fear into the heart of artful farmers’ market shoppers everywhere. “Real Food”, “Whole 30” and half a dozen other dietary campaigns have created a kind of moral panic based on a very ancient story: they are messing with your bread. Your bread isn’t what you think it is. You’re not getting what you pay for. You’re losing out.

We even measure all good things by how they hold up against the standards of sliced bread. It’s almost as if we’re incapable of imagining anything more fundamentally good than widely available, widely affordable, easy-to-eat, easy-to-cook, high-calorie nourishment.

Which isn’t to say that people haven’t tried: we live in strange times, where 15 per cent of the UK’s population won’t touch gluten, and “giving up bread” is a reasonable sort of New Year’s resolution. Up to a third of American adults are trying to cut it out.

Michael Pollan, wandering around in the same TV episode, starts out by scoffing that we’ve eaten gluten-based bread for 6000 years but ends by wondering whether the cheap bread available today is really the same stuff at all. Sliced white bread (with 37 ingredients) is cheap bread and therefore bad bread. Artisanal rye peasant bread (with three) sells for £4.50 a loaf in hipster bakeries, and is therefore good bread. We’re all deeply conflicted about bread, which makes sense: we live in deeply conflicted times.

Bread made with machines, refined white wheat and additives sourced from all over the world is cheap. Locally-sourced, milled-by-hand sourdough is not.

This makes no sense, in historical terms, but makes a great deal of sense when we’re thinking about our interconnected, interdependent, global culture. “Every year,” a baker tells Michael Pollan, “[the source of the flour] depends on the political and financial situation of a country. Last year, there was no Ukranian wheat because of their situation there.”

Those laws governing the price of bread have been in place in Britain since the thirteenth century, because what we’re really governing is the worth of a person’s labour. When we say that all revolutions start with bread, what we mean is that all revolutions start when your labour is no longer enough for the food you need to feed it.

A government rising and falling by the price of bread only seems unlikely if you don’t consider that the price of bread is itself dependent on a vast network of political, financial, global decisions. Because your morning slice of toast is so much more than toast: it’s the best barometer we’ve got for class, for capitalism and for power.