Kitchen History: The Communal Oven

By 21st January 2016Advice

Chances are, you take a lot of things about your kitchen for granted. Not only in the sense that they do what they do so easily and efficiently, but likewise you probably never stopped to think about the rich history of the kitchen and cooking as a concept. Most likely because you don’t necessarily need to know it all to make use of one, but nonetheless it can be an interesting topic to peruse. That’s why we have decided to put together the first in what we hope to be an going series of little glances into how we treated cooking and kitchens throughout the ages, beginning today with the communal oven. Specifically, the Four Banal (or Common Oven) institution found in medieval France.

Communal Oven Ownership

Throughout the country at that period of time, the private ownership of Ovens was generally outlawed. Instead, the Seigneur (or Feudal Lord) of a given fief would be obligated to provide and have the right to own several large masonry ovens, called Seigniorial Ovens, each one operated by a designated Fournier (or Ovenmaster) and designed to be used by the commoners in the area. Usage of the ovens was subject to payment, typically to cover the cost for construction, maintenance and operation of the oven, costs that were often justified by the fact that Seigniorial Ovens were very large masonry ovens built to hold an entire community’s bread ration.

The restrictions on private oven ownership at the time were often put in place for reasons of safety, specifically attempting to reduce the risk of fire in areas where thatched cottages were closely huddled together. The communal oven itself was often fortified when constructed to further adhere to certain safety regulations; as the design ethic for the ovens was often carried over to the various French colonies, this proved very useful when skirmishes erupted, as the colonists would typically seek shelter in one.

The system began to die out in France over the course of the 18th century, at least in part due to some dormant seigneurial rights were being insisted upon by an aristocracy that was hard pressed for money. That said, traditions surrounding the Four Banal are said to have lasted in some capacity until at least World War II. In fact, what few Seigniorial Ovens remain in operation throughout the rural regions of France are sometimes used for community celebrations or festivals.