Historian Debby Banham, affiliated lecturer in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Newham College (Cambridge, UK), recently published an article that explains the extended use of white bread in England back in the early 7th century is a consequence of the Christianization of the country. In short, early medieval missionaries made white bread the most popular kind of bread in the world.
The article, included in the book Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England, explains how Augustine of Canterbury, “the Apostle to the English” converted kings Æthelberht of Kent, Sæberht of Essex, and Rædwald of East Anglia in the year 604. He and his missionaries brought with them the wheat needed to make Eucharistic white bread.
As explained in the article published in Medievalists, wheat disappeared from England with the end of Roman Britain. By the time of Augustine’s arrival, bread was made from other grains, so white bread was nowhere to be found locally. Banham explains Augustine and the missionaries “made sure that the Eucharist was made of white bread, perhaps even shipping the flour or the bread itself from continental Europe.” The newly Christianized kings of England saw this imported bread as better than their usual bread, mostly made of spelt. Bede’s chronicles, the Ecclesiastical History of English People, even include a passage in which the sons of King Sæberht complain their Eucharist was not white enough.
The demand for white bread grew in southeast England, and eventually the use of wheat and mills to produce white flour expanded to the north of the country. From there, and with the later growth of the British Empire, white bread travelled to its overseas territories, soon becoming one of the most popular (if not the most popular) kind of bread in the world.