Most Shared

These bread revolts changed history. We should know why.

The history of bread wars have a lot to tell us about conflicts today.

True
Gates Foundation: The Story of Food

You might have heard the saying "We're only three square meals away from anarchy."

It turns out that for many people throughout the centuries, that meal was ... bread.

Bread is actually one of the oldest, cheapest prepared foods in the world, with archeological evidence dating it back at least 30,000 years.


Historical accounts of breadmaking often say the Roman Pliny the Elder first detailed how the skim from beer was used to aerate bread. In ancient Egypt, the workers who built the pyramids are believed to have been given a daily allowance of bread loaves.

Grain farmers in ancient Egypt. Image via iStock.

Even today, a word used in Egypt for bread is "aish," which means "life." It's also considered haram, or taboo, to cut bread with a knife in many Middle Eastern countries.  

If you're like many Americans, you might wonder what your love/hate relationship with all of that gluten-y, carbelicious goodness has to do with centuries of civil conflict or even the recent Syrian crisis.

It turns out that there's an actual historical correlation between an increase in grain prices and civil unrest.

A crowd throws bread in Stockport, Lancashire, in 1842. Image via Getty Images.

That's because bread, a magical alchemy of grain, yeast, and water, has managed to sustain poor people for centuries. Historically, when people could no longer afford bread, they knew they would starve. So they revolted.

Entire nations have even toppled because of a lack of access to bread. We might not realize it, but bread uprisings throughout history have a lot to tell us about the global crises of today.

Here are five of the bread revolts that have changed the course of history:  

1. Flour Wars, France, 1775

Original lithograph of the French Revolution, 1789. Image via Getty Images.

Surprisingly, Marie-Antoinette may never have told French peasants to eat cake. According to historians, it might have actually been France's famous Flour Wars that played a major role in the French Revolution. Catalyzed by a poor grain yield and rising grain prices, scholars found more than 652 French food-based riots from 1760 to 1789 that ultimately led to the French Revolution in 1789.

2. Flour Riots, New York, 1837

Representation of depressed economic situation in America before the panic of 1837. Image via Getty Images.

When a depression caused flour to jump from $7 per barrel to $20 in 1837, two New York companies, Eli Hart & Co. and S.H. Herrick & Co., were accused of hoarding it. The public took action, and soon after, rioters destroyed 500 bushels of flour and 1,000 barrels of wheat in Hart's shop. The mob grew so violent that they had to be restrained by the Seventh Regiment.

3. Richmond Bread Riots, 1863

Southern women feel the effects of the rebellion and create bread riots. Image via Library of Congress.  

In 1863, a mob of Confederate housewives took to the streets with axes in Richmond, Virginia, chanting "bread or blood" while ransacking and looting shops for flour. Prompted by flour prices that had risen 10 times in two years as well as dealing with a tone-deaf leader, the women decided to take things into their own hands. They didn't take just the flour — they took a wagon of beef and 500 pounds of bacon, too.

4. Egyptian Bread Riots, Egypt, 1977

A woman protests with bread in Cairo in 2007. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images.

In 1977, Egypt decided to stop subsidizing basic food staples such as wheat and bread. As a result, many poor Egyptians took to the streets. Hundreds were killed, and even more were injured. The riots went on for two days until the government reinstated the wheat subsidies that so many poor Egyptians depended upon.

But that wasn't Egypt's last bread revolt...

5. The Arab Spring, 2008-2011

A protester holds bread in Tunisia in 2010. Photo by Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images.

In 2008, sudden global increases in grain prices compounded with inflation that led to riots in Egypt, reminding a lot of people of the tumultuous events of 31 years prior. Government-subsidized flour, which had once sold for $3.14 per 100 kilograms, suddenly shot to $377 on the black market. Because 40% of Egyptians lived in poverty, many of them couldn't afford to live without the bread that the government helped them afford. Riots swept the nation, and several people were killed in front of government bakeries.

In 2010, as global grain prices continued to rise, Tunisians also began to revolt, bread in hand. The toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 became the climactic beginning of a major destabilizing shift of an entire region, known as the Arab Spring.  

Many people said the Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry.

Egyptian protestors hold bread in 2013. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images.  

The current crisis in Syria is also a prime example of what can happen when people don't have enough to eat.

Though it might be hard to fully understand Syria's current problems, some researchers think that it has to do in part with access to bread. At one point, Syria was the only country in the entire region that was completely self-sufficient in food production, specifically in wheat crops such as barley.

Experts have argued that it was a massive crop failure due to drought and possible climate change from 2006 to 2009 that drove Syrian farmers to finally challenge their ruler. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired back, he also explicitly targeted bread bakeries that fell under rebel control.

For much of the world's poor, bread is a life-sustaining necessity. But numerous factors, such as worldwide droughts, are causing grain to become harder and harder to grow.

Syria and Egypt are part of what was once known as the Fertile Crescent, the area of the world where people first started to grow grain and form civilizations. But now, the grain that once made their lands famous is becoming harder and harder to access. When this delicate balance of access to basic foods is upset, history shows us that whole communities — and entire nations — can topple.

If history is an indication, where bread and grain become scarce, civil unrest follows. Now that's something to chew on.