In the 15th and 16th centuries, the average French citizen consumed about 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of bread on a daily basis, while the wealthy could afford to consume meat and two liters of wine every day. Bread was the mainstay of the poor’s diet. When wheat became limited, the French faced hunger which led them to make drastic decisions. Have you heard of bone bread?
In the 1590s, starving Parisians would grind human bones and utilize them as flour to make “bone bread.”
What Caused the Scarcity of Supply in France That Resulted in Famine?
France was immersed in the Wars of Religion in the second part of the 16th century, pitting Catholics against Protestants. In 1590, the Catholic League besieged Paris, which the French Royal Army held under Henry of Navarre, the future Henry IV of France.
The besiegers attempted to starve the defenders by preventing food from entering the city. According to de L’Estoile, an assembly was summoned in the middle of June to discuss the issue of food shortages. (Source: Ancient Origins)
How Did Bone Bread Start?
It was recommended during the assembly that the bones from the charnel house, a facility for keeping skeleton remains uncovered while digging new graves at the Cemetery of the Innocents, be crushed into flour and used to make bread. As a result of their desperation, no one objected to the proposition, and the plan was implemented.
However, de L’Estoile recalls that the experiment was quickly abandoned since those who devoured the bread perished nonetheless. Another eyewitness, Enrico Caterino Davila, an Italian historian and diplomat who participated in the French Wars of Religion, confirms this. (Source: Ancient Origins)
Was Bone Bread Unsafe to Consume?
It is unclear why the persons who ate the bone bread perished, and other possibilities have been proposed. Some less credible theories include the presence of arsenic or lethal viruses in the bones or that eating this bread had a negative psychological effect on its eaters, killing them, owing to the near-universal taboo against cannibalism.
One of the most reasonable possibilities is that human bones were deficient in calories and nutrients and did not offer enough resources to support a person. Furthermore, bone is primarily made of inorganic minerals that cannot be digested and are difficult to eliminate if consumed. The buildup of these minerals in the gastrointestinal tracts of people who ate the bone bread might have resulted in deadly intestinal blockages. (Source: Ancient Origins)
Can Ground Up Bones Be Used Elsewhere?
Although human bone is deficient in nutrition, it is high in minerals, particularly calcium. While the besieged Parisians in 1590 may not have been aware of this, Europeans were by the early 19th century. Napoleon’s loss at the Battle of Waterloo ended the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Many soldiers died on the battlefield during this big fight.
A few years later, their bones, together with those of horses, were extracted and typically sent to Hull before being dispatched to bone-grinders. The pulverized bones, on the other hand, were utilized to produce fertilizers rather than bread due to their high mineral content. (Source: Ancient Origins)