Rules and harsh punishment dominated the medieval bakers’ existence. Whoever broke the rules had to endure wearing a shame mask or even be subjected to a “baker’s baptism”.
Even in the Middle Ages, bakers were caught in a dense network of rules, which regulated every detail, from bread tax to the bakers’ days off. Bakers and their goods were kept under the watchful eye of “bread weighers” or guild “bread inspectors”, whose chief task it was to control the weight of the bread. Because dough loses moisture during the baking process, it was often difficult to estimate the correct weight beforehand. Flour shortages and tight margins prevented bakers from erring on the safe side by using more dough. But, if the calculation did not balance precisely, they were threatened with severe penalties. Monetary fines were at the lower end of the harshness scale, while public humiliation ranked much higher. The hapless baker had to wear a shame mask or be pilloried, to endure the scorn, mockery and insults of their fellow citizens.
The “baker’s baptism” or “plunge”, which spread throughout Central Europe from the 13th to the 18th century, was particularly feared. If a baker’s bread was found to be too light, he was tied to a chair or put into a shame-basket and presented to a jeering, spitting, stone-throwing crowd. By means of a lifting device, the delinquent was repeatedly plunged into water or, even worse, manure.
Until the Age of Enlightenment, there was no mercy shown in either the punishment or the humour. “Baker boy, baker boy, get in the cage!” the people chanted, “We’ll dunk you in cold water, your bread was an outrage!” Evidently, there was also no leniency when it came to people’s tolerance.