Post Eagle Newspaper


Apr 20, 2024

45°F, few clouds
New Jersey

Time Now


On Bread and Butter

Why do we butter our bread? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Well, would you believe that our modern custom of buttering bread had its origin in a 16th century situation and that none other than our famous Polish astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik (Copernicus) was responsible. It was also the beginning of the medical concept of preventive medicine.

A Vermont historian and an associated physician researched the buttering bread story and wrote about it in a medical journal in 1970. After that it appeared in a health food journal, author unknown. Now it’s the Post Eagle’s turn.

They tell us that Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, was assigned by his bishop to oversee the defense of a castle besieged by a rival political group of knights with their soldiers. Six months before the siege was over, plague struck the inhabitants of the castle, who were completely cut off from the outside world by the besieging army.

Copernicus, who had studied medicine in Italy, although he did not have a medical degree, prescribed the only remedies available at that time. They didn’t help much. In fact, some victims apparently got the disease again after Copernicus thought they had been cured. So he decided – and this was a comparatively new idea at that time – to see if he could discover the cause of the plague. He wondered how it happened that some people inside the castle walls got it while others did not. Perhaps, he thought, he could then prevent the spread of the disease rather than trying to cure it after it claimed a victim.

So, he began to watch closely everything that went on in the castle. He discovered that all the people who had the plague had been eating lots of bread. Those who had been denied bread were, strangely enough, free from plague. He could, of course, have ordered that no one should eat any more bread, but there just weren’t enough rations available to feed everybody if he did. So he studied the way the bread was made and served.

Food was prepared in the basement of the castle and then was carried on serving trays up many winding steps and across great halls and corridors to the soldiers who were on the battlements and turrets at the very top of the castle. It was a long trip. The men carrying the trays frequently spilled food. Of course, it could not be wasted, so they brushed off the dirt and put the food back on the trays. Bread in those days was dark, tough and coarse. When it dropped in the dirt, the dirt didn’t show. So nobody bothered to brush it off and the soldiers ate their bread without knowing that it was covered in dirt.

The castle contained animals as well as human beings, of course. Hygienic measures must have been very primitive indeed. The mind boggles at the thought of the amount and kind of dirt that was lying around in the courtyards and halls. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the infection existing in this filth could easily have caused plague in people who ate it along with their bread.

One of the inhabitants of the castle suggested to Copernicus that they coat the bread with some light-colored spread which would show the dirt. The soldiers would then be able to see it and could brush it off before they ate their bread.

They coated the bread with butter on all sides of the loaf. The soldiers brushed off the accumulated dirt. The epidemic of plague ended. Copernicus had discovered how to prevent disease by taking a simple precaution involving nothing more than daily eating habits!

His superior, Grand Master Adolph Buttenadt, who had a medical degree as well as considerable standing in the Guild of Apothecaries and Physicians, was told what Copernicus had done. He came to consult with him. He advised Copernicus that he should not tell anybody about the incident. First of all, he said, if doctors went around preventing disease before it really started, everything would be topsy-turvy. They would have to do their  consultations and give their recommendations to people who were well, and who might not want to take any advice from a physician. Doctors should stick to curing sick people!

Then, too, he said, what if Copernicus had inadvertently altered Nature’s balance and thus redirected the will of God by preventing the epidemic of plague!

So, Copernicus was persuaded not to tell the world of his discovery. But later Grand Master Buttenadt, travelling throughout Europe, was so appalled by the sanitary conditions under which people were living that he told everyone the story of how plague had been prevented by Copernicus. And throughout Europe people began to butter their bread in the hope of preventing plague, although there is, sadly enough, no evidence that merely buttering bread had any effect on the incidence of plague, under these circumstances. Somewhere along the line, the matter of avoiding polluted food had been lost sight of.

The two Vermont authors of this fascinating glimpse into history tell us they do not know how it happened that people began to use butter on only one side of a single slice of bread, which is, of course, the way we eat it today.

Perhaps if Copernicus were alive today he might be doing research at one of our giant “think tanks.” He might begin to question the number and assortment of chemicals in our food supply in relation to the incidence of cancer and heart attacks. He might suggest to somebody in authority that we try doing without the chemicals for, say, 10 years or so, to see if we could possibly bring these figures down a bit.

And, no doubt, the person in authority would reply, “What are you saying, dummy? Do you want the giant food industry and the giant chemical industry to go broke? And what will all our highly paid specialists do if we start preventing heart attacks and cancer, rather than trying to find a cure for them?!”